Listening To People Without Voices

communicate with dementia patients, reading another person,

Image courtesy of polveredigrafite.deviantart.com

I got my first summer job when I was 13 years old.  My official title was “feeder.” This was my first exposure to time clocks and posted schedules. Also my first exposure to quite a bit more.

My grandparents had died a few years earlier after protracted illnesses, and like many others, I associated the sounds and smells of the unhealthy elderly with my own grief.

Before I started all I knew was that was supposed to wear a white uniform to work. On my first day I was informed my only task was to spoon-feed patients unable to feed themselves. The head nurse handed me a list of names with room numbers and told me I had to be done in two hours. “It doesn’t matter if you clock out late,” she said, “We aren’t paying you more than your allotted two hours.” Her swiftly delivered instructions were entirely lacking in useful information.

As I walked down the hall I discovered every resident there thought I was a nurse. Me, a girl who fell over her own feet. Me, a girl who could barely endure the sorrow of driving past a puppy chained to a tree, an unknown puppy whose imagined plight kept me upset for hours. Now I was surrounded by real plight.

Perilously frail people lined the hallway. Nearly every one of them sought my attention. They asked me to get them something urgent like a bedpan or a pill. They asked why they couldn’t go home or lie down or find something missing. They asked to simply to engage in a little conversation. I was overwhelmed.

One woman cried as she begged me to hold her hand. I smiled and nodded. As I listened to her cry I couldn’t help but steal glances at her hand’s bumpy joints and raised purple veins. I realized it had once been as strong and soft as mine. Time’s appetite made me feel as if the walls, floors, and ceiling were already collapsing.  But I had a job to perform. Surely hungry people were waiting for me. She wouldn’t let go. Not knowing what else to do, I crouched by her wheelchair there in the hallway and smiled weakly as I carefully uncurled her fingers from mine.

heart-based communication, transcending speech, speaking with people who can't speak,

Image courtesy of colinharbut.deviantart.com

The patients I was expected to feed lay hostage on narrow beds in identical rooms. Each person’s eyes stared, some directly at me and some at a place well beyond me. Trays of pureed food waited at each bedside. I had to figure out how to lower the metal bed rails in order to reach patients. I held out wavering spoonfuls of meat, potatoes, and vegetables pureed into of a nauseating mush of pale browns and olive greens. After the first patient gagged, I realized it was possible to raise a person’s head and shoulders using a crank at the foot of the bed. Like every other surface, those crank handles seemed to bristle with germs.

I was repulsed by almost everything there except for the people. I found their faces especially compelling. One of the few men on my list was hunched and fierce like a hawk, giving the impression he was ready to fly at any moment. One woman’s deep-set brown eyes were beseeching although she could say only a few garbled words. She looked at me as if she could see much more than those who walk and talk so casually could do. Another woman, whose powdery thin skin and soft clouds of white hair made her look angelic, rarely opened her eyes. When she did I felt strangely blessed. Her awake moments, although silent, felt like moments of expansive awareness.

Maybe it was a 13-year-old’s sense of drama, but I loved these people in a way I couldn’t explain. I wanted them to feel comfort and peace in the minutes we had together. I didn’t know how to accomplish that. But I started, from my first day, to ask them a question. I told them my name each time, that I was there with dinner, and then I asked them what they’d like me to know or asked what it was like to be them. And then I was quiet while I listened to whatever their silence could tell me. I knew most couldn’t hear me or answer me. But I was sure there was a reason I felt something different in the presence of each person. I felt it strongly.

Sometimes an aide would hustle into the room and sharply tell me to hurry. “No use talking to someone stone deaf” or “Ain’t nobody home in there.” But somehow these people, not fully in the stream of life and yet not departed, seemed imbued with more instead of less. They were my elders, far ahead of me in every way, and I hoped for a hint of what they knew. I wished to make my attention into an antennae to pick up whatever they might be sending.

mystical communication with the elderly, speaking to those near death, communicating with the dying,

Image courtesy of carts.deviantart.com

This is a way of communication I have continued to explore. We humans are connected by much more than language and social norms. We understand each other in far less overt ways. We entrain to one another’s heartbeats, synchronize our moods, react to the light each living cell emits, and pick up energy that some call intuition and others call morphic resonance.

It wasn’t anything I talked about then and even now it’s hard to explain. This is hardly a process unique to me, just something I am still trying learn. If I had to put it in steps, here they are.

1. Pay close attention to the other person. You may choose to look at them for as long as is comfortable, or simply to sit quietly nearby.

2. Be aware of your bodily sensations. Recognize them without making a mental effort to interpret them, at least right away. They are significant.

3. Be aware of seemingly irrelevant things that occur to you—song lyrics, flickering memories, a rush of emotion. Recognize these without making an effort to interpret them. These too are significant.

4. Slow down, staying with your awareness of the present moment. You are allowing your heart’s wisdom to enter your consciousness. Opening to understanding with your most vulnerable self, unguarded by the analytical mind, can be a way to receive such wisdom.

5. Send kindness to the other person in whatever way you can. perhaps as a quiet blanket of compassion or as waves of love. Your heart’s electrical impulse emanates several feet from your body, affecting the electrical impulse of another person’s heart within that distance. A loving heart actually transmits that sensation to people nearby. The kindness you send is received. Trust that.

6. After following this procedure through several visits you may choose to send a request from the deepest part of yourself to the other person. Then pay attention to the sensations in your own body, to whatever images and emotions arise, and to the quiet sense of knowing that seems to come from nowhere. These are a response. You may have to work hard to refrain from inserting what you think into the situation. Stay centered.

7. Honor the other person. Choose to close with a prayer, a kiss, a few minutes to rub lotion on his or her hands, or some other direct contact.

 

mystical communication, silent understanding, heart-to-heart communion, speak to the dying,

Image courtesy of kdustyk.deviantart.com

My summer as a Feeder seemed endless. I wasn’t good at my job. I realize now how badly informed I was in my position. Not only was I not instructed to raise the head of the bed, I also wasn’t told how much to feed each person or how important it was to get them to drink. I remember feeding very little to the people who looked away, closing their mouths against nourishment. I didn’t know what else to do for people who were trapped in small sweltering rooms inside barely functioning bodies. I could hardly eat that summer either. The smell of the nursing home—old urine and cooked cabbage—seemed to reappear in my nostrils at odd moments, leaving me with no appetite.

After my work was finished each afternoon I spent time listening to the patients parked in wheelchairs and those walking along the hallway handrails. They told me of tragedies. Not the wars and poverty they’d experienced but more recent sorrows— children who didn’t visit, pets gone, choices taken away. They begged me to help them in dozens of ways, every one beyond my ability. They cried. Several women there were healthy in body and mind, but had lost their homes and possessions when they recovered from supposedly terminal conditions, leaving them in institutionalized for years. One man, Joe, told me every day that he was afraid of burning in hell. He insisted he was doomed for eternity unless he could confess to a priest. With the hubris of a non-Catholic, I thought I could easily fix the problem. I told him I’d get someone to come from the Catholic church a half mile away. When I called I was told no priest would come, as a layperson conducted all required nursing home ministry tasks. The next day I asked Joe if he would confess to a layperson. He shook his head with sorrow so profound I could barely breathe.

My job was over when school started. I promised myself I would go back to visit. The faces of the people I fed rose up in my idle moments and in my dreams, but I didn’t go back. The silences I held for them became my own silence.

alzheimer's sufferers still communicate, communicate with the dying, listening to silent people,

Image courtesy of jangmai.deviantart.com

What if a man cannot be made to say anything?

How do you learn his hidden nature?

…I sit in front of him in silence,

and set up a ladder made of patience,

and if in his presence a language from beyond joy

and beyond grief begins to pour from my chest,

I know that his soul is as deep and bright

as the start Canopus rising over Yemen.

…there’s a window open between us,

mixing the night air of our beings.

Rumi 

Just Pluck the Day

Horatius Reading His Satires To Maecenas by Fedor Andreevich BronnikovWay back in 23 BCE, the Roman poet Horace exhorted people to carpe diem. Those two words have been translated by schoolchildren and repeated in pop culture for so long that we all know carpe diem means “seize the day.” Except, it doesn’t. Not exactly.

Seizing is much more sudden and forceful than my days appreciate. I don’t feel called upon to fling myself from bed and stomp through the day taking giant bites of ever more amazing experiences.  Yet we live in a culture that admires people who grab what they can, chew it up, and reach for more.  As Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society tells his students, “Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Many of us aren’t quite that driven.

Thankfully, what Horace more likely meant by the word carpe is “pick or pluck.” Those words come across quite differently to me. To pick the day, I’d reach for it as I would a peach on a tree, knowing the ripest fruit nearly falls off at the touch. To pluck the day I’d grasp it gently as I would a daisy, nipping it off low on the stem to keep the flower fresh. This approach has to do with paying attention and carefully harvesting what’s ready. It has to do with cherishing the fullness of the day itself.

This makes more sense in the context of Horace’s poem as well. He was writing, in this passage, about each of us facing an unforeseen future. We may plan for tomorrow but cannot count on tomorrow.  As he writes, “In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away.

Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. ut melius, quidquid erit, pati.
seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Tyrrhenum. Sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Ask not (’tis forbidden knowledge), what our destined term of years,
Mine and yours; nor scan the tables of your Babylonish seers.
Better far to bear the future, my Leuconoe, like the past,
Whether Jove has many winters yet to give, or this our last;
This, that makes the Tyrrhene billows spend their strength against the shore.
Strain your wine and prove your wisdom; life is short; should hope be more?
In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away.
Pick the present; trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may. 

Time is a mystery contemplated in every era. It’s also a simple wealth we can enjoy right now. Don’t pressure yourself. Just pluck the day, my friend.

Peaches by Elizabeth Jaynes Borglum

(Translation from Odes 1.11 by John Conington, 1882)

The Cage of Habituation

not seeing life's wonders

The first time you saw a butterfly you were probably only a year old—still rather new to the planet. You were undoubtedly astonished. This fluttering petal of color didn’t conform to categories you were beginning to understand like “bird” or “bug.”  Your brain and body were surely enchanted.

Science tells us awe expands our perception of time.  Perhaps our early years take up so much more space in our memories because of all those firsts — jumping in a puddle, leaping from a diving board, riding a bike, driving a car, falling in love.

This has to do with habituation. The term simply means we respond very little or not at all to what we become accustomed to. For example, if you move to an apartment near an airport you’ll notice the loud, intrusive sound as each plane passes over. Eventually you’ll habituate and barely notice, if at all. We habituate to minor annoyances like noise pollution (although it can still affect our health). We also habituate to far more serious problems  — unhappy relationships, difficult working conditions, fractious politics.

Our minds habituate in order to make things easy for us. Heck, we can read right through misspellings because we’ve gotten accustomed to letter groupings that form words.

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.

Our eyes march through such sentences and our brains make sense of them, even if they’re nonsense.

Habituation is also what drains clichés of meaning. When phrases like “out of the box”  or”caught red-handed” were first uttered they were ingenious, but repetition means we’re so inured that don’t pause for a moment to consider boxes or red hands.

Our brains gloss over what’s commonplace to such an extent that we’re not really looking as we walk through our homes or offices, not thinking as we open a drawer to take out a spoon, barely aware of the route as we drive the same streets to the same stores.

Patterned behaviors ease our progress through the day. But they make our lives so automatic that they don’t feel lived, either. Sipping coffee after 4,000 cups isn’t the same as sipping it the first few times. Tucking your child into bed becomes routine as putting on your shoes. The more familiar an experience is, the less fully we experience it. That’s true of ice cream, friendships, changing seasons, and marriages. The marvel of a single leaf that feeds on sunlight, breathing out what we need to breathe in, rarely registers as more than an object making up the word “tree.”

We have to allow our minds to habituate, at least much of the time. If we didn’t, if we truly perceived the wonders around us, we’d fall to our knees in astonishment every moment.

But let’s enjoy as much awe-drenched living as we can.  To that end, here are two quick suggestions to get past habituation, when we choose.

The first is developing a gratitude practice. Pause several times a day, breathe in deeply and exhale fully, then let yourself appreciate something right there in the moment. The chewy texture of the bagel you’re eating, the excited chatter of children tussling over a toy, the bliss of a headache gone, the relief of enough money to pay your utility bills, the lovely relaxed feeling of a yawn.  As John Milton wrote,  “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world. ”

The second is noticing moments of wonder. Many of us happen upon moments of wonderment in nature. (Nature isn’t somewhere else, it’s everywhere around us.) But the experience of awe isn’t limited to the natural world. It’s wherever you find it —the riff of a hilarious conversation, skiing on unbroken snow, opening to a spiritual insight, collaborating closely with a team, listening to music that transports you, reading an extraordinary writer’s work, coming across unexpected beauty. Part of this has to do with simply paying attention, but also to leaving more room in our lives for awe-inspiring experiences.

Let’s be as alive to our moments as we can. That way every butterfly still seems new.

 

 

Take a Picture

We’re walking the dogs near dusk. The sky is darkening, the sun slanting in a way that casts everything around us in a luminous glow. “Let’s take a picture,” I say. I don’t mean capturing an image on a device. Instead we pause, breathe deeply, let ourselves appreciate this particular moment as fully as possible.

I used to do this more often when our children were small. They’d tumble in happy and tired from play, bringing outdoor freshness with them, clamoring at the sink to wash their hands for dinner. The house was filled by their voices and the scent of food in the oven, and I’d ask them to pause so we could cherish it. A thousand such pictures are stored somewhere in our minds’ eyes from moments when we stopped, breathed in, and nourished ourselves on the beauty happening right then.

Sometimes life calls us to do this. A baby’s first steps, a lost cat found, a brother returning safely from military service,  a scholarship awarded, a friend’s biopsy coming back clear.  Studies show our lives feel more packed with meaning when we stop to savor such turning points. (Other milestones happen as well, except we don’t see them until they’re past. The last time you’ll hold a child’s hand to cross a street, last time you’ll talk to a neighbor, last time you’ll visit an elderly relative….)

Savoring doesn’t have to be limited to our best moments.  Stop to really take it all in when you’re grieving, furious, exhausted, lonely,  bewildered. Pausing to let yourself feel what you feel throughout your whole body, anchored in a painful moment, is also a way of honoring your life.

Our lives are stitched together by what we notice and remember. Look back at any particular phase of your life. What you recall is constructed from what you fully noticed. Each moment there are sights, sounds, tastes, thoughts, and feelings unique to your experience. The way you pay attention to those elements forms your memories. The shocking part? Looking back and realizing how few rich and full memories we really form.

Let’s form them intentionally.  Whenever possible, pause to take a mental picture. Let everything flood your being until the moment you’re in fills your very marrow. It’s a way of wakening.

 

Smartphone Use: Out Beyond Judgement

balancing real life with smartphones

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

~Rumi

I said I didn’t want a microwave. It was against my whole foods ethos. Now it’s in regular use in my house. I said I didn’t want email. It was against my communicate-directly-with-people principles. I now can’t imagine living without it. I said I wasn’t a social media sort of person. Yup, I’m addicted.

A few years ago I was still holding out against smartphones. They were and still are expensive to use. I explained to my kids that back when their dad and I got married our phone bill was $18 a month. That did nothing but provide more evidence of my dinosaur-ness.  Eventually I capitulated and got a smart phone. (I was assured my phone cost nothing  with our teen/young adult kids pitching in for the cost of their phones.) Of course once I got sucked into the smartphone world I was unable to go back. And I don’t want to go back.

It’s heartening to see how pivotal mobile phones are in the developing world. Globally, almost 95 percent of households have access to a cell phone and it’s projected that 15 percent of families in Africa and the Middle East will soon have smartphones. They’re used for banking, business, texting, taking pictures, social networking, accessing information, and much more  —- connecting and improving lives.

Smartphones are also advancing social justice because we’re able to document abuses of power. The Exxon/Mobil pipeline rupture in Mayflower, Arkansas spilling over 200, 000 gallons of tar sands crude oil (while media access was limited) would have been largely unknown if not shared by residents. Circumstances around the tragic deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Philandro Castile, and too many others at the hands of police would have been largely unknown other than by their official reports.  Because we can share what we’re seeing,  people the media usually ignores are able to more fully tell their own truths

But I haven’t adjusted to how smartphones affect person-to-person interactions. I belong to several groups which meet regularly. There’s always one person, sometimes more than one,  who spends a large part of our meeting time looking at his/her phone.

I understand, really, In the years since I’ve had a smart phone I’ve been entangled in all sorts of this-message-could-be-important moments. A family member in the hospital, a publication going to press, a kid with car trouble. So I check. Of course I check. Sometimes I put the phone on my lap for a quick glimpse at messages as if I’m not staring at my crotch, Sometimes I just fess up that I have to look, at least when I’m with friends. But here’s the thing. My sense of urgency rarely, if ever, matches the number of times I’ve prioritized my phone.

One study shows the mere presence of a smartphone impairs our sense of connection to the people right next to us. There’s something about the phone itself, ready to shudder with a text or update, that diverts our attention.

I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten more and more distracted simply because there are so many more options for distraction. In an essay titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,”    Nicholas Carr writes that being online has retrained his mind to  “…take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

For kids raised in the digital age, this may happen early on. A preliminary study suggests that when parents of one-year-olds get distracted (typically by their phones) while playing with their babies, their babies have shorter attention spans. Babies with the shortest attention span were those whose parents were disengaged or distracted. (There’s a happy medium though, because babies with parents who were overly intrusive and directive in play also had a lower attention span. Sort of like the porridge that’s not too hot or cold, it’s the parents letting the baby take the lead who foster greater attentiveness.)

This is a problem because most of us, parents included, spend a lot of time looking at screens. One study watched parents interacting with young children at fast food restaurants. Researchers observed a total of 55 caregivers who were eating with one or more children. Forty used a mobile device at some point. Most got out their phones right away. Some used it intermittently, some stayed on for most of the meal. The study also found that parents on their smartphones are more likely to react harshly to children. (How preoccupied were the parents?  None of them even noticed they were being watched by the study’s observers.)

Too much of this can disrupt connection, shut down conversation, and diminish attunement between parent and child. That’s not to say parents should spend every moment gazing in adoration at their kids, but it’s through engaged face-to-face connection with the primary people in their lives that kids learn to pick up on social cues, develop self-regulation, read other people’s emotions, build vocabulary, share ideas, and much more. And let’s not forget, children with a close sense of connection grow up feeling they are worthy.

Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect, was so troubled by what she saw in her clinical practice that she decided to  interview 1,000 kids between the ages of four and 18 to gauge their reactions to parents’ mobile phone use. Again and again she heard kids talk about their feelings with the same words: “sad, mad, angry, and lonely.”  Kids know full well that people looking at their phones are not really with us.

It helps to remember that the choices we make over and over actually rewire our brains to prefer that choice. It’s the neurological equivalent of driving along the exact same tracks in a dirt road, making ruts deeper and deeper until it’s nearly impossible to steer a different course. It’s easy to create these mental ruts thanks to dopamine, our brain’s feel-good chemical. We’re wired to get a rush of dopamine from all sorts of everyday delights. A problem solved, a smile across the room, a kiss, a hug—zing goes the dopamine reward.  That’s also true of a tweet—zing. A text—zing. Zing zing zing thanks to Instagram, channel flipping, online games. The previous hit of dopamine increases the need for another one. Pretty soon we’re addicted to the dopamine rush, driving our brains into an ever deeper rut. I try to remind myself of this when tempted to pull out my phone to use up a few minutes while waiting in line, instead rewiring my mind to look around me and live in the moment exactly where I am.

Our phones are here to stay.  They put us in touch with people important to us and to ideas that capture us. They’re so new to the human experience that we’re just beginning to learn how to balance them with the lives we want to live. It doesn’t help to label our use as good or bad. It helps to step out into the field beyond, sharing what works for us.

How do you find that balance?

 

Bits of Joy List

Bits of Joy list, five minutes to happiness,

I was spawned by list makers. My mother made grocery lists, task lists, correspondence lists, and gratitude lists. My father, an elementary school teacher, made lists of students who needed individualized attention. He made lists of household chores. He kept lists of conversational topics he wanted to bring up with his kids and, later, lists of things to do with his grandchildren . When he got older he used to write “Hello Earl” at the top of his lists. As he pointed out, lists were a way of talking to his future self so he might as well say “hi.”

I’m convinced we can use out-of-the-ordinary lists to enhance our lives. I have all sorts of suggestions to create Life Lists unique to us and I’m following through on a few goals on my Delights To Cultivate list.

Recently I heard about Bit of Joy lists. These are lists to post somewhere in view. Maybe on the fridge door. Maybe as a screen saver. That way whenever a bit of time opens up we’re prompted to devote it to something we find wonderful rather than whatever has become our default activities (ahem, like checking our phones).

How to consciously savor life’s random free moments? Hmmm. As I scribble down ideas I wonder why oh why don’t I let myself do these things more often? That’s exactly how a Bits of Joy list can be so useful. What would you put on your list?

When I Have Five Minutes

Go outside. Take some deep breaths, look at the sky, notice sounds. Unpleasant weather? Do it anyway.

Balance on one foot, then the other, in an impromptu tree pose.

Hug someone I adore.

Indulge in the reverie kids know as “pretending.”

Donate to a good cause.

Smile at someone for all of the following reasons.

Read just one poem (perhaps “I Confess” by Alison Luterman). This is a very good reason to keep poetry books nearby and to bookmark poetry sites.

Contemplate my blessings.

Make plans to do something with someone dear to me.

Hug a tree.

Sing. Made up lyrics a plus.

Dance, especially to the music stuck in my head.

Click over to Light Weaver for interactive mandalas plus music.

Meditate or (as I practice it, sit quietly and hope this has some meditative effect).

 

When I Have A Half Hour

Take a walk, which may be the best problem-solving method around.

Read a book on the porch.

Garden.

Clean out a drawer or clean out a computer file. Very small increments of de-cluttering are allegedly fun.

Play the piano (which I never do, but tell myself I will).

Write an actual written-on-paper letter to a friend. Or mail something weirder.

 

 

 

When I Have An Afternoon

Go outside with a notebook and good pen, sit somewhere lovely, and write.

Play a game new to me from Bernie DeKoven’s master list of games.

Do one of the hundreds of projects I’ve saved on Pinterest.

Wander through shops that entice me. I’m not a shopper. I run to the market, grab what we need, and get out. I haven’t been to a mall in over a decade. But there are places that entice me. I know of a dollhouse shop about 40 minutes from here where I’d love to linger. (I’ve nearly convinced my husband to cut a hole in the wall and install a dollhouse-sized door and window, into which I can arrange a miniature scene. This WILL happen.) I love art galleries, import shops, odd niche stores, and of course bookstores.

Sew.

Go to an art museum. My favorite see-it-in-an-afternoon museum is Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum.

Attend a noontime concert. Many of these are free and hosted in beautiful old churches.

Learn something. This is another list but there’s so much I want to learn. No time like the present.

 

 

 

Making Space for Stillness

 

Let the waters settle and you will see the moon and the stars mirrored in your own being.–Rumi

Parents naturally recognize that a long bath settles a restless toddler, that snuggle time is a necessary oasis in a child’s day. We notice when children have solitary moments they tend to daydream, a natural form of meditation. We see even the most active kids settle into stillness, quietly swaying on a backyard swing or humming while looking out the window, entirely at peace until a new idea grabs them or (more frequently) someone interrupts them to do something.

Everyone needs time to simply “be.” In stillness we’re fully present all way to the the quiet center of our being. (The vital counterpoint to this, being energized to the center of ourselves, is the blissful state of flow.) Constant activity can easily crowd our awareness into a jumble of surface impressions. Even when we are mindful of the need to downshift, obligations and diversions intrude. Yet we know contemplation flourishes best in stillness.

For some of us, a specific place helps us to gather what is fragmented in ourselves. We might be drawn to sit on the porch step each evening and watch dusk turn to darkness, we may make a ritual of drinking tea in a certain comfortable chair each morning, we may notice that time alone in nature strengthens our spirits. Many children like making their own hidden realms under blankets, behind furniture, in an outdoor hideout, wherever they can listen to silence by choice. And many families incorporate daily rituals of prayer or meditation that, in addition to a spiritual purpose, also teach children to connect with an essential wisdom within.

That inner wisdom provides important information none of us should ignore. Often the information is coded into physical impressions or sensitivities. Children may have difficulty coping with overstimulation, they may object to certain foods, or they may refuse to play at a new friend’s house. These sensitivities or inclinations aren’t wrong. They are among the many indicators of a wordless knowing. In a world that unrelentingly pushes us to fit in by denying our feelings, a measure of stillness and acceptance at home leaves the child space to know him- or herself. By reacting mindfully we draw the child’s conscious awareness to these differences.

Many of us were taught as children to ignore our inner promptings. We may have felt instinctive revulsion when served particular foods, but were told we had to clean our plates. We may have known that we weren’t ready to practice math facts over and over, but found if we didn’t comply we’d be shamed by bad grades. We may have heard a small voice inside warning us to stay away from a particular person, but were told to do what grown-ups said.

Instead we want our children to recognize that they have an internal system of communication known as intuition. They can tune in to their own impressions, perhaps learning that they get grouchy when they are thirsty or feel a stomachache coming on when they aren’t being true to themselves. They can use these signs when making decisions. The child whose gut feelings are taken seriously will learn to respond to the form his intuition takes.

Paying attention to inner promptings can be crucial. As security expert Gavin de Becker explains in Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safethis is imperative for safety because intuition is a hardwired trait warning us of danger. If the child is aware of his inner warning system he will trust himself well enough to recognize the indicators that something is wrong. As de Becker says, this can save a child’s life.

Incorporating tranquil interludes into our daily lives is an important way to nurture a connection to inner wisdom. In good times as well as difficult times, that connection gives us a sense of self and the inner reserves found in stillness.

This post is an excerpt from Free Range Learning.

Who Are You When The Power Goes Out?

contemplation time, power outage, technology dependence,

Over a decade ago a power outage started in Ohio, rapidly spreading to four other states and parts of Canada. In some places power wasn’t restored for days. For a time, systems with backup generators continued working but only as long as those generators had fuel. ATM machines couldn’t be accessed, gas stations couldn’t pump gas, phone service was disrupted, and water systems lost pressure.

When it started, my parents checked in with a neighbor who was home alone next door. My mother told the 14-year-old girl if she needed something she only had to ask. “I’m fine,” the girl assured her.

About an hour later the (now distraught) girl rang my parent’s doorbell. “I don’t know what to do!” she said.

“What’s wrong?” my alarmed mother asked her, “Are you okay?”

It turned out no particular thing was wrong, exactly. But this girl was close to panic. She couldn’t get online. She couldn’t recharge her phone. She couldn’t turn on the TV.  Tired of her iPod and without other familiar diversions she was left to her own devices.

She. Didn’t. Know. What. To. Do.

Maybe we’ve unlearned how to be with ourselves, perhaps for the first time in history. Our ancestors, whether hunting or hoeing, had hours each day to think their own thoughts. They had time to notice nuances in the natural world. They had time to know themselves. Those previous eras weren’t all golden by any means, but our ancestors probably couldn’t have imagined a future generation populated by people who would suffer when left without moment-to-moment diversions.

What are we diverting ourselves from, exactly?

My friend Urmila, who lives in India, tells me that we most fully inhabit our lives when we’re not doing but being. She says there’s a big different between her culture and ours. In the West believe a good day is spent getting a lot accomplished. Our spare minutes are filled with distractions, our vacations are way to check items off our bucket lists, and family time needs to be fit into a schedule.

To her a good day is one of daydreams, contemplation, meditation, a quiet walk—simply experiencing the flow of time.

(Urmila has motivated me to stop uttering what I think is the curse word of our time.)

Which brings me to a relevant study. Researchers performed brain scans on rats as they went through a maze and again afterwards. They found rats, given a chance to relax, showed enhanced learning and memory retention compared rats who were not. The scientists noted that human experiences also require periods of quiet wakeful introspection to make sense of them.

What we experience is just raw data until we feel it, think about it, and weave it into our personally tapestry. Relaxing and reflecting lets us find meaning in our experiences. That sounds like a life more fully lived, whether the power is on or not.

technology addiction, introspection, studies of memory,

Grateful For The Dark Stuff Too

A handmade Gratitude Tree has hung in our hallway for years. We keep the tree lively by writing on leaves made of brightly colored paper, then tape them to the tree. It’s usually filled with life affirming reminders like hugs from Daddy, going to the library, bike rides, playing cards with Grammy, and yes, winning arguments.  The year my youngest son Sam was six, he got so inspired that he said he was grateful for a hundred things. A bit dubiously I offered to type the list while he dictated. I was astonished as he kept going until the list numbered 117.

Listing what we’re grateful for is increasingly popular. Studies show that those who practice gratitude are healthier, happier, more helpful to others, and even more likely to reach their goals. People post gratitude lists on Facebook and on their blogs, keep gratitude journals, and pray in gratitude each morning. This is undeniably wonderful. Orienting ourselves toward what works in our lives is perpetually rejuvenating.

But perhaps we’re limiting ourselves to a childlike version of gratitude. Are we grateful only for what we deem good and ungrateful for all the rest?

I’m all about emphasizing the positive—heck, I’m pretty sure we amplify what we pay attention to. But that doesn’t mean that the darker sides of our lives aren’t a source of blessings as well. It’s one thing to be grateful for a disease in remission, a distant friend’s visit, or a new job, but there’s much to be grateful for right in the heart of what we consider the worst of times, the worst in ourselves. Maybe mining these experiences for gratitude can get us past the need to separate our lives into good and bad, putting us right into the seamless whole of a fully lived life. Here are a few to consider:

Mistakes

I’m not talking about the little mistakes we make each day, but those big, honking mistakes all of us who are honest with ourselves can admit we’ve made—errors that damaged relationships or changed the future we anticipated. Some of these mistakes were well-intended, while others were careless or downright stupid. 

It’s quite possible to be grateful for what we call mistakes. If nothing else, our fallibility demonstrates the foolishness of being self-righteous about others. Hopefully we learn even more. Our mistakes give us a depth of experience, a dose of humility, and the beginnings of wisdom.

Beware people who claim they have not made significant mistakes—either they haven’t stepped out the door yet, or what they hide from themselves is too dark to be claimed.  Our mistakes are a wonderful part of who we are. Thank goodness for our mistakes in all their falling down, awkward, forgiveness-hungry glory.

Doubt

While doubt seems ruinous, it can actually be a gift. We may doubt choices we’ve made, relationships we’re in, or the faith we have practiced all our lives. Doubt is a powerful motivator. When we look at doubt, using our heads and our hearts, we may not like what we see. It may take us years to find answers. This forces us to tell the truth to ourselves, and that process makes us stronger. Sure it’s painful, but it also leaves us much to be grateful for.

The harsh light cast by doubt can lead, after a time, to a much brighter path. We may find ourselves in stronger relationships and making more conscious choices. We may end up with deeper faith or accept that we don’t know the answers, but that we love the search all thanks to our friend, doubt.

Crisis

I don’t mean to minimize the impact of crisis. Like almost everyone, I’ve been at the mercy of crime, grief, and pain. But no matter the crisis, we have a choice. We can choose which attitude to take, and that alone is worthy of some gratitude.

Beyond that, many people find blessings of all sorts hidden in experiences that, on the surface, seem starkly horrible. They say that cancer woke them up to truly living, or they say that losing everything in a fire helped them choose more authentic priorities. Some people dedicate their energy to helping those who have suffered as they once suffered, thereby transforming their own crisis into a blessing for others.

Throughout history, cultures around the world have told folk tales that not only entertain, but also teach values while offering lessons on growing through difficulty. Too often, we’ve replaced these stories with weaker parables found in popular entertainment. Consider the following:

A man was given a strong horse. Many came to admire it, telling him he was the luckiest man around. He replied, “We’ll see.” A few days later the horse ran away and the neighbors came to console him. “How terrible!” they said. The man replied, “We’ll see.” The next week the horse returned. Following him were six wild horses. The neighbors congratulated him, saying, “You are richer than any of us now.” The man replied, “We’ll see.” When his son tried to train one of the wild horses, it threw him and the young man broke his leg. “Oh, what bad luck,” his neighbors said. The man only replied, “We’ll see.” Then an army swept through the village and conscripted all able-bodied young men, leaving only the man’s son with the broken leg. The neighbors told him how fortunate he was. The man only replied, “We’ll see.”

The next time crisis looms chances are you will stumble, get up, cry, laugh, protest, and argue. But you may also be aware just how grateful you are to be here and living life with all it has to offer. And, as the farmer in the story did, you may step back from your predicament and say to yourself, “We’ll see.”

We don’t bother to give thanks for many aspects of our lives, from the face in the mirror each morning to the minor frustrations of the day. Look again at your mistakes, your doubts, and your crises to see the richness that lies waiting to be discovered. I’ll be doing the same.

It’s not my practice to make gratitude lists, especially one as long as six-year-old Sam’s list of 117 items. If I did, I admit it would include many more of the “easy” ones—birdsong, a bountiful garden, finding a lost book. But I’m inclined to see gratitude as a tree—it not only grows upward with bright leaves, it also grows deep roots in dark soil.

Originally published in Lilipoh.

Truly Inhabiting Time

screen addiction, phone addiction, mindfulness,

CC by 2.0 MK Feeney’s flickr photostream

Last night I sat in a dark theater next to the man I love watching The Imitation Game. It was a compelling story, brilliantly acted. Yet several times during the movie I was tempted to take out my phone. I wanted to verify the story* and find out more about its subject, Alan Turing. I’m not rude enough to actually check my phone during the movie, instead I sat there castigating myself for having the urge in the first place.

Although I write a lot about living in the moment and cultivating awe, I’m apparently on my way to becoming a phone junkie.

We tune out from ourselves because the options are so enticing. There’s an endless wealth of information and entertainment for us to discover. A walk with earbuds, sure. A phone to check while we’re waiting in line, entirely handy. Social media to indulge in, masterful performances to watch, obscure online articles to read.. (Guilty throat-clearing noise from me.)

What we forget is that each repeated choice we make teaches our brains to prefer that choice. It’s the neurological equivalent of driving along the exact same tracks in a dirt road, making ruts deeper and deeper until it’s nearly impossible to steer away. It’s easy to create these mental ruts thanks to dopamine, our brain’s feel-good chemical. We’re wired to get a rush of dopamine from all sorts of everyday delights. A problem solved, a friend’s smile across the room, kiss, a hug—ding goes a dopamine reward.  That’s also true of an answered tweet—ding. A text—ding. Ding ding ding from Instagram, channel flipping, and Candy Crush Saga.

A study found that people who were asked to forgo media contact for 24 hours (no texting,email, Facebook, TV, or cell phone use) actually suffered withdrawal symptoms. They experienced anxiety, cravings, and preoccupations so overwhelming that their ability to function was impaired. College students now say they spend 8 to 10 hours a day on their phones, 60 percent admit they’re addicted.

We’re actually rewiring the way we live minute-to-minute. We’ve tuned ourselves to need distraction. Side effect? This makes us less comfortable with distraction’s opposite—-the powerfully real time spent in contemplation, daydreams, and face-to-face conversation.

I don’t want to be trapped in the cage of my skull. I want to live fully in body and spirit as well as mind, to truly inhabit the mortal time given to me.

So I’ll be watching more closely where I direct my attention, hopefully rewiring the way I engage with the world around me. Next time I want to be in the theater next to my husband entirely drawn into the movie. When I walk out of the theater I want to look up and enjoy the stars. Then I want to drive to the home we’ve made together, staying right there in the moments unique to our lives. That’s it. That’s enough.

I wish that life should not be cheap, but sacred.  I wish the days to be as centuries, loaded, fragrant.   ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

distraction, living fully, mindfulness, screen addiction,

CC by 2.0 epSos .de’s flickr photostream

*Yes, I checked later. The movie took plenty of liberties with the real story.