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Emotional Intelligence Relationship

On Apology

John Owens

On Apology

Let’s be real: relationships can be messy at times, and our good intentions can end up having unintended and hurtful consequences. Besides, sometimes in a pique of emotion or unaware moment, we say or do something that upsets the receiver (and possibly others) in ways that cause tears (pun?) in the fabric of our relationships. It’s not pretty, yet these messes need to be cleaned up, or risk more permanent damage to our connection to others.

There are a number of ways that we can get back into good graces with someone who we’ve hurt, preferably way before they take us to court to get satisfaction. Some methods work better than others. The most common, even automatic, way is to apologize. An apology is a repair attempt, a sincere verbal offering of owning one’s words or actions along with a statement of remorse. If the apology is not sincere, the receiver will likely detect that, and the attempt is wasted—or worse, it makes the rift even deeper. If the apologizer does not own their behavior or convey remorse for their part in things, it’s not even an apology, but feels more like salt being rubbed into the wound, more or less vigorously.

I’ll explain: in most basic terms, psychology models human events as a sequence beginning with a stimulus that triggers an emotion, followed by a thought, then by a behavior, and resulting in consequences of some sort. What does an apology or other sort of repair attempt need to address? Stimuli are circumstances, and we have a small degree of control over them. To say, “I’m sorry I saw you try to open a jar with a hammer” comes nowhere near to apologizing to anything meaningful. Alternately, to apologize for our emotions or even our thoughts misses the mark because these are internal to us, and have no relevance to the relationship until externalized. For instance, I often can feel anger toward someone for something said or done that steps on a deeply held value of mine. I might secretly and silently imagine some act of vengeance on them. This allows me to inwardly feel satisfaction in my daydream, but with doing no harm to anyone. Then I can easily and safely put the incident out of mind for good.

What about apologizing for consequences? I hear this frequently: “I’m sorry you felt hurt by what I said”. Or, “I apologize for making you angry when I called you an idiot”. These false apologies fail to express any remorse for the perpetrator’s behavior that resulted in the mental state (or physical, financial, health, etc.) of the receiver. In essence, such statements frequently suggest that the consequences felt by the receiver are their own fault, and backhandedly attempt to justify the behavior of the one supposedly apologizing. Apologizing for consequences consistently falls short of repairing anything, and even if such apology is ‘accepted’ by the other, they will feel something is missing, and it is: there is no remorse for the behavior that led into the sticky situation.

Contrast that with this statement: “I am sorry for calling you an idiot. I had no business doing so, and my behavior was disrespectful to you, and to my own values of dignity and love.” No need even to mention the consequences, though that can be helpful in showing awareness of the whole situation, not just one’s bad behavior. “I can see that my words have caused you pain, and I will do my best to never call you such names in future.” This takes things one step further, offering a makeup or promise of changed behavior in future. If it is trust that has been broken, it is critical to not only apologize for the behavior, but to offer some small (need NOT be commensurate with the original ‘crime’) act of service that will demonstrate your good will and your ability to be trustworthy. Think of things like “I’ll give you a 10-minute foot massage today at a time you choose,” or “I’ll clean up the kitchen next time it’s your turn to do so”.

When done right, apologizing with sincerity, awareness of the impacts that have occurred to others, and even oneself (lost trust, integrity, withheld love, for examples) can be transformative in building back the fabric of relationship that got torn, perhaps even stronger than before the rift.

Can you think of a time in your life where an apology went sideways? What do you own about that situation that contributed to it not concluding well? What will you do differently in future? Now go out there and use your new awareness for repairing a relationship in your family, workplace or other community.

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10 Natural Laws #10: Give More and You Will Have More

John Owens

10 Natural Laws #10: Give More and You Will Have More

Nice guys finish last. The early bird gets the worm. It’s a dog eat dog world.

We’ve all heard these quotes, and there is a measure of truth in them. They reflect a perspective or belief that life is a zero-sum game, that your gain is my loss. When we take on an identity of me versus them, or us/them (us being a team, religion nationality or other identity), we create a duality where there are winners and losers. It is a reality that is based on measurements and limitations. I measure how much I do or have against another. We measure how well our American economy is doing against the Germans or Chinese, or how well Americans are doing in educating our children against the South Koreans or Japanese. When we put on the lenses of this perspective our hearts are not generous and open toward the “other.” There is that sense that those “dogs” out there are eating us alive, or the other way around. From this perspective, giving more means having less. Giving, from this state of being, is an act of calculation that you’ll get something valuable in return for your investment. This world of limitation and measurement is not where giving more and having more applies. When you are in this state of being, it will seem that the phrase is stupid and meaningless.

Of course there is another belief perspective from which ‘Give more and you will have more’ makes perfect sense. I call this perspective the one of Possibility. This is the belief in an abundant universe, where what is real and truly important is not limited. Love, energy, creativity, and resources exist in abundance, and the greater we give these away, the greater they are present in our lives. Just as the world of Newtonian Physics and its Laws of Motion is contained in the Einsteinian Physics of General Relativity, so is the world of Measurement contained within the world of Possibility. I liken it when our family plays Monopoly. From the belief that I must win to show my worth, and thus everyone else must lose for me to succeed, I take certain actions to maximize my ‘wealth’ and resources at others’ expense. Now if I hold the belief of Possibility, the paper money is no longer of any value, nor are the ‘properties’ on the board. What is important is the sharing of the experience, the lightly-held role of land baron I may choose to act out for the purpose of the game, the interaction of all the family members with each other. I’ve already won, not the money in the game of measurement, but the wealth of love and connection that happens in play.

I belong to a local chapter of Business Network International, a network and referral group. Their motto is “Givers Gain.” The idea is that we create the conditions where others want to give us business referrals when we give them referrals. It’s not a numbers game (though all sorts of statistics are measured and reported), but it is essentially a place to build relationships of mutual respect, trust and support. Those that give referrals to others are well-thought of, and tend to get referrals from the rest of the group. Those that don’t give referrals to others tend to drop out of the group because it is not “working” for them.

I’d like to touch on another aspect of giving, its shadow side. All of us, in our wounded parts, have some unfilled needs, be it for attention, acceptance, respect or approval, etc. What is different about these wounded needs is that they can’t be satisfied for any length of time or with a sense of fulfillment or accomplishment. These are our social addictions (read my blog on Natural Law #9). You may have recognized people in your life who are like vampires, needing something from others and sucking energy and resources from you or from a group. Such people will never be satisfied because giving to them feeds their addiction, not the person. Giving more in this sense will not create abundance because your giving is only helping their wound, their dependency to survive. There is not fulfillment in that. One must give to the part of others that is wholly human for there to be creative abundance and Possibility. Wound worship and feeding addiction is like playing a scratched CD that endlessly repeats itself and slowly degrades to extinction.

If instead of trying to fill up the endless pit of our wounded neediness we recognize that wound in the world and try to heal it, we are transformed. If I stop running the internal tape of my wound of being abandoned, for example, and instead give my loving connection, loyalty and commitment to others in need, the universe of Limits and measurement gives way to Limitless Possibility. And in the process, my wound begins to heal, and my capacity to love is manifested greater.

Giving for gain, you see, does not work, for it co-creates a universe of limitation. Giving from abundance acknowledges the universe of Possibility, and from here we get to have it all: a rich and fulfilling life lived with others whose lives we enrich and support, in virtuous upward spiral.

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What I Have Learned from Pain

John Owens

What I Have Learned from Pain

Last month I wrote about what I have learned from fear. Now I’d like to share some things I’ve learned from pain. Though pain is a sensation and not an emotion, we will almost always have an accompanying emotion with pain, like anger, sadness, hopelessness, or fear. There are also many, many types of pain that we experience, not just physically, but emotionally as well. In this writing, I plan to dip into a facet or two of physical and emotional pain, the accompanying array of emotions that surround that sensation, and share with you some of what I’ve learned from my experiences.

We are neurologically wired to avoid pain. And for good reason: mostly pain is our body’s signal that it is being injured, and continuance of what is hurting will cause further injury, and threatens our well-being or survival. Pain is also unavoidable: it is a part of life, and one of the first lessons we all learn is to avoid what causes us pain. But we also learn that not all pain is bad or to be avoided. While we may temporarily avoid feeling the worst of pain by numbing, such as in the dentist’s office or with some medical procedures, such things can enhance our health and our lives, even if we feel some pain afterward. It hurts to pull out the sliver in our finger, or put the antiseptic on a wound, but the short-term pain is worth it for the longer-term benefit.

Okay, all this you know. So, here’s something else: often ‘leaning’ or ‘dipping’ into pain can be healing. I became acutely aware of this in my process of healing for shoulder pain beginning in July a year ago. At the time I was in India for several months, and one day woke up from severe pain in my shoulder radiating down to my elbow. I bore with this for several weeks thinking it would go away, yet often waking up at night from pain. I could not remember doing anything to injure my shoulder, yet I could not tuck in my shirt or reach behind my back or lift my arm overhead. So, first I saw a student of physical therapy, practiced her regimen, but to no avail. I then visited the foremost physiologist in Pune, who specialized in treating shoulders. I got X-rays and ultrasound imaging done. These showed some inflammation, but no tear or rupture. Again, I practiced his new regimen of therapy to strengthen and mobilize my shoulder. I improved 15% or so and plateaued. During this plateau period of 3 or 4 months, I felt plenty of pain doing some of the exercises, especially the stretches. I would breathe through them, and try to relax into the sensation of pain. Over time, I finally developed a sense of just how much pain and stretch was right for me, and learned to listen closely to my body’s response in the moment. For me, that meant stretching for maybe 10 seconds, release, and then gradually repeat, building increasing amounts of time on the stretch. Finally, I made real progress, and today I can say I am better than 95% of the way to full recovery of mobility, and much stronger than I was before this incident.

Despite the severe pain I felt, I never sensed that there was something wrong or injured. I went through a cycle of emotions around this: fear, frustration and anger and impatience, determination and commitment, sadness and hopelessness. Each feeling I acknowledged for its bit of truth, and then returned to my commitment and determination to practice my faith that the exercises would eventually lead to my recovery. Along the way, I read an article about some teenagers that suddenly develop debilitating pain with movement. The pain is caused not by injury, but from the nervous system over-reacting to stimulus. These people were treated through a course of doing activities in a pool, the same motions that cause them pain, in order to retrain the nerves not to be ‘trigger happy’. In six months or more, they can recover and reclaim their lives as before. I believe this is similar or the same as what happened to me, and that I have had to endure daily sessions of pain—in a very measured way—in order to retrain my pain-sending nerves to stand down. I have a few more nerves to retrain, but I’m almost there!

I have long believed that our physical body and our emotions are closely linked, if not inseparable. We know now that there exists a chemical basis for our emotions: serotonin, cortisol, dopamine, endorphins, noradrenaline, acetylcholine, etc. whose presence or absence are directly associated with certain emotions. Not only do we experience a chemical association with emotion in our brain, but we also feel sensations in our body: a warming and expansiveness in our chest when experiencing love, or heat in our body when feeling anger; chills and sweats with fear, and, of course, tears with grief, and also with loving joy as well. When I hear or think about myself or others being injured, I experience an electric shock up and down my spine (very unpleasant). What physical sensations do you feel with strong emotional responses to stimuli?

It’s not too far a stretch, I think, to parallel our own emotional healing of wounds and pains to how we heal physically. Just as physical wounds are not healed completely by avoiding all pain: think of scar tissue that builds up and limits our mobility, so, too, it is with emotional wounds. By avoiding leaning into and feeling the pain we miss the healing and recovery process that restores our ability to fully experience life. A personal story comes to mind around this for me about when my father died. He and I had been somewhat estranged in my early adult years, and we were finding a solid footing for a close relationship when his diminishments, and then his strokes and finally death, cut short our growing closeness. His death hit me expecially hard, and I spent the better part of a year grieving the loss. Emotionally, at first, I dipped into the feelings of loss and grief. And, I suppose that realizing I survived experiencing the discomfort of that emotion over time I was able to grieve fully, tearfully, feeling the rending sensations in my heart without trying to protect myself from the pain in my heart. I had no idea how long this would go on, if not forever, but eventually I spent every bit of my grief and loss, and a clarity came to me that I continue to hold. I won’t avoid relationship intimacy because it may end in painful loss. I feel ready to experience the joy of sharing, as well as the sadness of letting go, when that time arrives. I can survive and even thrive emotionally because I have been through it all.

So, summary points to consider, and something to try:

  • The experience of pain can be a calling forth, to meet a challenge to recover our abilities.
  • Physical and emotional pain have similar modalities for healing.
  • Avoiding pain limits our ability to experience the highs and lows of life to our fullest.
  • Healing pain can be managed by easing into it, and going as far as our body tells us it is safe to do so.
  • What sensation of pain have you been protecting and avoiding? What is possible for you from leaning into that sensation and pushing back on it gently and with persistence?

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What I Have Learned from Fear

John Owens

What I Have Learned from Fear

Fear is an uncomfortable and unwanted feeling that I have spent most of my life trying hard to avoid. As I became so successful at suppressing my fear that I became virtually blind to it, and the effects it had on me. But once I became awake to my emotions, I was amazed at just how much fear I was constantly suppressing. Lots and lots of little fears, about stuff I made up regarding the future, or what people were thinking (about me). And big fears, too, about how I must be broken, wrong, and deserving of abandonment. All of it, of course, was made up stuff, with little to no basis in fact, but I convinced myself that it was all either The Truth, or pretty likely so. I don’t think that I, as an adult male in this culture (perhaps most cultures), am unique in living by swimming in an ocean of fear, and often avoiding facing that fear. But that has its consequences, on ourselves, in particular, and on the rest of society in general. And over the years, my perspective on fear has changed dramatically.

Modern neuroscience has shown that fear has a specific location in the brain: the amygdala, or the old reptilian brain, that is involved with our survival. That’s – as you probably know already- our flight-fight-freeze response. Above that part of the brain is our limbic system, which is involved in our emotions, and particularly with our sense of (or lack of) belonging in a group. This is tuned to our sense of tribe and belonging, and it is a strong driver for finding the people that look like us, think like us, or smell like us, etc. What is “foreign” or different, is often a source of fear and distrust. This is all instinctual survival stuff, and we developed our brains around it for reasons of pure survival, and the ability to successfully pass our genes on to another generation. We don’t think about this stuff: it is pre-verbal. And you can see clearly that certain demagogues are adept at appealing to these innate fears and using them for their own purposes.

We also have the gift of a neocortex, the part of our brain capable of planning, logic, and anticipating the future. This part of us, this voice, is fairly dispassionate. It can give ‘reason’ to take defensive action; it can also give sense to go completely counter to the reactivity of fear for survival and safety in ‘tribe’. The neocortex, when resonant with our circumstances, has a completely different feel to it. [Okay, I’m ad-libbing here, as I have not studied this subject to this depth, but I am speaking to my own experience]. When it makes sense to our logical notion of the universe, things resonate with a heady “Yeah!”. And when things resonate with our heart sense, there is a different, deeper surety, a “Of Course!” sort of knowing. And if not in resonance, there is a fear response of trying to survive a threat.

I have distinguished between this enlivening fear and fear for survival. I should make one other distinction, between enlivening fear and habitual thrills, the sort of fear and excitement that comes from risky behaviors like gambling or illicit drugs. That is something completely different, ego-centered, often hidden in shadow behavior, satisfying a greed or lust rather than opening hearts. Pursuit of such fears/thrills does not co-create more possibility in the world, quite the opposite!

So, when confronted with a new possibility for action or commitment, oftentimes the first reaction we experience is one of fear and rejection of that possibility. Our survival instinct (amygdala) knows that certain historic behaviors got us safely to our pillow yesterday and days previous. Anything new might challenge that ability to survive. So, we find a ‘reason’ to reject that possibility! It is the same thing with crossing the street and seeing a vehicle hurtling in our direction: flight, fright or freeze. This is how we survive…but as humans, it is also how we ultimately feel trapped and miserable, caged by our fear.

So, what I have learned to do with my fear is to notice it, and ask myself: “Is this truly about my survival or is this about a new possibility to which I’m reacting fearfully?” Let me share with you an example from my experience:

I already knew that I wanted to make more commitment to working in the field of human transformation. I had staffed many trainings where I witnessed people having tremendous breakthroughs, with miracles like shedding 20 years off their bodies in the span of a few minutes. I just could not see a path to doing this work and earning a living at it. A friend referred me to “thecoaches.com”. I asked what that was, and he just repeated the web address. So, I knew that I was not getting any more out of him until I visited the site, which I did that day, and began to learn about coaching (this is the website for Coaches Training Institute). As I studied their material, I realized this might just be exactly what I’m looking for as a means of earning a living by doing transformational work with people. I enrolled a few people in my company to support me in this as an educational development. The day came when I picked up the phone to register for the coach training course, and suddenly my hand was shaking so badly I could not hold the phone. I put it down, pushed myself back from my desk, and took stock of myself. I self-inquired: “John, what is going on here? Why am I shaking? What is so scary?” A moment later it dawned on me that I was meeting my Destiny. The stakes were personally very high. I took a deep breath or two, and completed the call, sharing my experience with the person on the other end of the line.

There is no doubt in my heart or mind that moment was a meeting with Destiny. My fear served to waken me to the importance and significance of the moment in my life. Now, when I feel that sense of unease and fear, and I see that it is not about my safety and survival, I’m very likely to step forward toward the source of the fear, knowing that this is where a new realm of possibility lies for me. Fear, for me, has become a source of enlivenment, a call to open my heart and risk being fully alive and in the moment. Life for me has become less predictable, but also more fulfilling, more adventuresome, and so much more satisfying. I find it a small price to pay for living with the discomfort of having fear perched on my shoulder and frequently poking me wide awake. I have learned that fear is a gift that must be fully accepted for me to be fully alive.

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On India’s Republic Day, 2019

John Owens

On India’s Republic Day, 2019

Namaste. Distinguished guests, dear students, friends and relations, It is a pleasure and honor to address you again this year with a few remarks on this wonderful 70th Republic Day for our beloved India. I say our India, because though I was not born here, a part of my heart and soul live here. I consider United States as my fatherland. And India as my Motherland.

My personal story is not exactly typical. At the age of six, India called me to her, and at the age of 20, in 1972, I answered that call by buying a one-way ticket to Mumbai, and coming alone to Pune. I did not know anyone here, but ended up staying in India for an entire year through the great-heartedness, generosity and kindness of none other than our Dr. S. B. Mujumdar, who has truly been both elder brother and father to me for over 45 years. Through his, and my Indian family’s, help and blessings, I was married just a few steps from here 32 years ago in Symbiosis Hall to the love of my life, Sujata, in a Hindu ceremony.

Like India itself, Symbiosis has grown tremendously since I first arrived here in 1972. Back then, Symbiosis was a cultural organization devoted to helping foreign students, mostly from Afro-Asian and Middle Eastern countries, to adjust to this culture, find housing, medical care, and learn the English language. Now, as you know, Symbiosis is comprised of some 45 institutions, serving tens of thousands of students from all over India, as well as half the countries of the world. Symbiosis is a brand known and respected far and wide, and is an exemplar for what this great, country truly stands for: the values of diversity, inclusiveness, advancement by merit and fair play on a level field. Look around any of Symbiosis’ many campuses and you will see this summed up in two words, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, the World is one Family.

From my experiences here, and particularly with my Indian family, the Mujumdars, the perspective and value of one world as one family is a part of me. I have pledged Vasudhaiva kutumbakam as my life mission, and in my own way I have worked to help realize that wherever I happen to be, and whatever I happen to be engaged in. One important way I do this is through my work as a life and executive coach, that respectfully calls people forth to embody their God-given greatness, and make a difference in their own and others’ lives.

Something I have become acutely aware of over the last two years of my time in India is a shared sense of National Purpose. I think this may be true of many other countries as well, this sense of Shared Purpose is calling forth all citizens to contribute to the growth, prosperity, and greatness of this nation. This may be expressed individually in relentless pursuit of getting ahead and excelling, or as a devotion to public service, volunteerism, entrepreneurism, or in the expectations that you have for your government and leaders. I don’t see this sort of shared National Purpose in the United States, not since the Space Program of the 1960’s that succeeded in putting human beings on the surface of the moon, and taking the first ever photo of Earthrise over the horizon of the moon, the first visual proof that we truly are One Family living together on One World. Today, those great aspirations and the belief in the enormous possibility of what a prosperous nation is able to achieve are largely absent in American society as a whole. I think America has much to learn and to be inspired by countries like India that believe in something greater than themselves and find their fulfillment in material goods and personal pleasures. I think you could say that in some important ways, America has lost its way and lost its purpose. It is certainly not the United States’ destiny to impose its brand of democracy on places like Iraq or Afghanistan, nor to be a beacon to the world by having 1% of the population owning 85% of the nation’s wealth. It is time for the US to lead by collaboration and partnering with equals in the world, and respecting the aspirations of each and every nation.

I’d like to share with you a dream I had just two nights ago. We were all at a great stage at a Symbiosis function. A famous and highly admired person dropped tools and supplies all around the campus: hammers, wrenches, construction components, fasteners and such. All this was done without a word being spoken. It was obvious that we in the audience were being called upon to build something. There were no instructions. So what was it to be? And why? For what purpose? I recall the scene was all very confusing, but everyone got up, picked up tools and supplies and were trying to put it all together. The scene was pretty chaotic.

I wanted the leader to tell us what to do with all these parts and pieces. I felt frustrated, a bit angry. And then suddenly I realized that we had to each understand not only our personal purpose, but had to find what was in common among all our individual purposes to build what was needed. We needed to understand first that together we were working as one family, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, and that our prosperity, even our survival, could only be realized when we understood our interdependence that comes from aligning our individual goals and purposes as one world family. Then a magnificent structure was built, one that held us all in a beautiful and sacred space, safe and nurturing.

I believe that this is the challenge we face today: to share our aspirations and blend them into a whole purpose, greater than any one person or family or community, but one that includes us all, like that picture of Earthrise. Our home today is in peril: from human-created global warming, from wasted resources, from enormous disparity of wealth and social justice and from the sort of nationalism that erects walls across borders or ignores the needs of the downtrodden.

Each of us is given some tools and materials, just as I imagined in that dream. What will you do with them? Do you sit and wait to be told? Do you build a wall or dig a hole to hide in? Or do you join hands with your brothers and sisters and build a home to hold all of us safely as one people, one tribe, one family, in peace, prosperity and in brotherhood and sisterhood? The choice is yours.

Happy Republic Day 2019. Jai Hind!

Namaste.

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On Chin Bobbing

John Owens

On Chin Bobbing

There is something interesting about human behavior that I have noticed since I’ve been a child, but have never heard it discussed, much less explained. I’d love to figure it out. I remember riding my bike as an eight-year-old, and on seeing another guy, both of us–though not necessarily simultaneously– would raise our chins slightly, a peaceful acknowledgment of the other’s existence. This is apparently a cross cultural phenomenon: the same thing happens here in India. A variant is a lowering of the chin slightly, a dip. It’s, in part, a silent hello, though I’ve never seen it in groups, just between (usually) two males, and usually at a distance of 3 to 10 meters apart.

I don’t frequently see this gesture with girls or women. It could be occurring more often, but I may not have noticed it, or unconsciously ignored it when it does happen. I don’t personally recall ever chin bobbing at a woman; it just doesn’t feel right for me to do so. But that’s just me. So correct me, please, if I’m mistaken on that. Still, what exactly is the use and the message of this gesture? When did it evolve? Do other primates exhibit this behavior for similar reasons?

As I take a moment now to indulge in practicing this gesture in the privacy of my apartment, I have a sense that the chin bob, as I’ll call it, is something that goes way back to prehistoric times, a signal to other hunters to awareness of the tribe moving together in connection. Maybe the slight and fleeting exposure of the neck is an implicit signal of one’s vulnerability and absence of threat to the other. Certainly, our reptilian brain is forever on the lookout for threats, and signals that assure the absence of such are required for us to get past the fight/flight/freeze response and use more highly evolved parts of our brains, like the neocortex.

But that’s all just my speculation, stuff I’m making up and should hold pretty lightly until I have some real evidence. What are your thoughts and experiences around this phenomenon? How about you try it out on a stranger you are passing by, just a brief chin bob while gazing at the person, and note what their response is? Do they return the gesture? Do both men and women do it?

Will this change the world, or promote peace? I doubt it, but if such a gesture lowers others’ threat response, it may be useful to signal—in this age of fear and hypersensitivity to the ‘alien other’—that we mean no harm and are approachable. It’s almost as good as that most intimate gesture of inclusion…the wink.

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Pune Journal 2018: What brought me here

John Owens

Pune Journal 2018: What brought me here

Today I had my first full day of formally working in an organization since 2011. What is notable is that this was a manifest beginning of my Quest, and it took place in Lavale, outside Pune, India. The journey here has been long in the making, and, I think, an interesting story.

The seeds of my arrival here in India in 2018 began back in 1958 when I was in Mrs. Judd’s first grade class. I clearly remember a woman came in for Show and Tell, a part of the day that I often lagged in attention for. This day, the lady shared dolls she had made of famous figures, and told their stories: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and others I have no memory of. I didn’t pay much attention (I distinctly did not care for dolls…girly stuff) until she lifted one doll, clothed in white with brown cloth for skin. She said, “And this doll is Mahatma Gandhi, and he is from India.” In that instant something clicked for me, and I knew with total certainty that India was a place I was going to.

A few years later, Americans and the British were having a romance with all things Indian. I remember “Genuine bleeding madras shirts,” the Nehru jackets, yoga classes and Ravi Shankar sitar concerts. In high school I would go with my friend to the Lower East Side in NYC to Arunachal Ashram to chant (and I still do) and study the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi. I did a lot of yoga, a little meditation, and experimented with fasting and vegetarianism, eventually, at age 18, having a spiritual revelation that I was no longer meant to eat animal flesh. I have kept my vow ever since.

In college in my Junior year, in 1972, I was accepted in a program to go to Pune, India for six months of study. I was excited at the prospect of finally, 14 years after I had my inspirational moment that I would go there, spending time and fulfilling what felt like my destiny. After a quarter of orientation classes at another school in a small, conservative Wisconsin town that I did not care for at all, we students were assembled on the last day of classes and informed that the program was cancelled. The program was unable to get student visas for us, due to politics between India and the USA. The Bangladesh war was raging, and Nixon had tilted American support toward (West) Pakistan and against India in the conflict. Also, American scholars were writing very negative things about India at the time (The Sleeping Giant, pointing out failure to modernize due to traditional family systems, taking measurements to prove that India would run out of food permanently and its population starve to death, etc.). So Indira Gandhi put the kibosh on American student visas. That was just a speed bump for me.

I was devastated…for a day or two. Then I decided in my youthful impetuousness that I was going to India, no matter what. I applied for, and got, a tourist visa. I bought a one-way student-fare airline ticket to Bombay with help from my parents. In August I boarded a plane at JFK airport and left for India. I knew no one, had no plan other than to eventually get to Pune and set up something there. I thought I was prepared by the 3 months of orientation. I knew a few dozen words of Marathi. What could go wrong?

Forty six years after the fact, I can still picture the descent into Bombay Sahar Airport on the Boeing 747 jet. Miles of hutments, colorful laundry strewn across tin rooftops, squalor everywhere. Concrete pipes lay above ground housing thousands of people. And the intense green of rice paddies, egrets wading, cattle grazing, and people everywhere. Before we landed, the sewage smell of Bombay hit me, tightening my stomach. The slum reached up to the very edge of the runway. This was not what I was prepared for.

The big jet landed, and did its long taxi to the airport. Finally coming to a stop, I descended the portable stairway rolled up to the plane and felt the hot, sticky stinky monsoon air cling to me like a soggy blanket. People were scurrying everywhere, chattering in a tongue that I could not recognize at all. I made it through immigration and customs and stepped out into the sunlight again and was immediately overwhelmed by a sea of people, some grabbing at my luggage, some insisting I get in their cab, beggars seeking alms, vendors pushing all manner of cheap goods in my face and shouting at me. I dashed for a taxi and got in, shutting the door to isolate myself from the intensity of the situation and the noise, smells, the desperate needs that appeared aimed at parting me from my money or my luggage, or both. I told the taxi driver the name of a cheap hotel my friend had once stayed at, and the cab roared away into the chaos that is the urban Indian roads. Jetlagged, exhausted, overwhelmed by this chaotic scene, overloaded with sensory input, I had only one desire: to get away, hide, sleep, and hopefully sort out what the hell I had just gotten myself into.

If I write my memoirs someday, perhaps I’ll detail all the things that happened in the next two weeks of my life, which is a whole chapter in itself. Instead, I’m skipping forward to moving from Bombay to Pune, and seeking out the Foreign Student Advisor for Poona (old British name for the city) University. This man, Dr. (Professor) S. B. Mujumdar was a faculty member at Ferguson College (FC). I found him at his home in a small bungalow on the FC campus, along with his joint family: his mother, brother, and his wife and three children, his own wife and two daughters, Vidya and Swati. Again, I’m cutting out a chapter of a remarkable story to get to the bottom line: I ended up living with this extended family for 9 of the 12 months I lived in India. There I experienced the unconditional love that my soul was searching for my entire life. I hold no doubts that this experience was what called me to India 14 years before my arrival. And a permanent bond was formed with this family, which has endured the years, the separations, and all other challenges of long-distance relationships. I am considered as one of the family.

I’ve lost count of the many times I have visited India since. And when I last came to India in 2015, and Dr. Mujumdar, now the Chancellor of his creation, Symbiosis International University (SIU), with 17,000 students, 31 institutions and 10 campuses around India, asked me to come and be a part of this organization and bring my coaching perspective here, I could not refuse and still be true to my heart. Before caution could slow me down or back me off, I said, “Yes, I’ll do it!” And so I have, working with his daughter, now Dr. Vidya (Yeravdekar), the Pro Chancellor for SIU, to make it all happen. With support from my wife, Sujata, who has remained in USA to manage her business, I’m here by myself for the next six months to explore this Quest. Even today, as I sit here in the Lavale campus and contemplate setting up my office tomorrow, and begin whatever it is I’m to do and be here, I’m not clear yet what my role is, other than I will work to bring coaching and coaching skills and perspective to this university, and thereby catalyze a transformation. For now, I stand in this place of not knowing, in a sea of possibility, with something calling me forth to be and do, yet it is my fate to allow it all to unfold and inspire me to action. The challenges ahead are big: unlearning some of the attitudes, beliefs and perspectives that are ingrained in Indian education and culture, and learning to break down some of the barriers between people to enhance the depth and intimacy of conversation and relationships. I think my task is to bring the best of American culture, and integrate it with that of India. And the secret sauce that will make that work is simply that which I found here 46 years ago: Love.

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On Renewal

John Owens

On Renewal

When I think of renewal, I first imagine Mother Earth, who, as part of her yearly circuit around Sun, nods in precession, creating our seasons. From where I stand now, in southeastern Minnesota, that means from November to April or May a sterilization and suspension of life. Insects and annual plants die or hibernate, trees draw their sap far below the frost line, many birds leave, animals hibernate or go into torpor, and we humans retreat to the warmer parts of our homes and virtually stop interacting with our neighbors except when removing snow or taking out the garbage.

In another part of the world, in India, with which I am familiar, from March to the beginning of June there is a different sort of sterilization: by heat. Temperatures rise from the 90’s into the 100’s and even much higher. Trees lose their leaves, the ground cracks open and dries, insects die and desiccate, and animals seek out shelter in burrows, and rely on the few remaining sources of water to survive. People retreat indoors from 11 AM to 4 PM to sleep, seek shade and air conditioning, and only venture out in midday with umbrellas to shield them from the scorching radiation of the Sun. In midday sun, you can seemingly feel the force of the photons of light streaming down on you, like an invisible weight of oppressing intensity.

Finally the clouds come and cover the sky. The winds pick up, and dust storms cover all surfaces with a veneer of red dirt. The sky is alive with lightning storms from horizon to horizon. Still no rain, but the whole world anticipates the relief that must come to assure the promise of survival. Without it, there will surely be starvation and death. Farmers hitch up oxen or tractors to the plows, and turn over soil that is more like concrete than growth medium, and sow their hope and faith and wealth in the hot, dry soil. If the rains are delayed too long, they may be ruined. Too soon, and the land is turned to mud.

At last, in the stifling heat and dusty wind, the ocean of air delivers its renewing gift to a desiccated Earth. Clouds, having been cooled by air returning from the Himalaya, condense their moisture. And down comes the rain in torrential glory. Adults and children alike stand on street corners, arms upstretched and unprotected, to soak in the cooling, delicious joy of life-giving rain. Many dance for joy, a whirl of colorful saris and dresses, umbrellas and shirts and songs of love express the relief of summer’s stress, and the belief that life is good.

Instantly, it seems, grasses magically appear overnight. Dusty, barren hills become covered with vibrant greens. Trees bud forth leaves and flowers bloom on every terrace and garden. Flies and mosquitos and butterflies become abundant. Washed clothes hang for days on sheltered lines, taking forever, seemingly, to dry. Moods lift, with popular songs hummed in the kitchens, and late afternoon happy family gatherings happening while the storms and winds pour forth in the early evening.

This is the time of the Goddess, when all things are nurtured, fed and held in gentleness and love. It is a time when traditionally war was virtually impossible to wage. This is a time to stay home while paths are flooded or washed out and impassible. A time to celebrate, and to receive and give promises and thanks at temples and home shrines to a benign and generous deity, who bestows upon us humans all the means and delights of joyful existence, and the promise of the continuance of our tribe.

Renewal has other forms, too. Some are dark and violent, like the cycle of war and peace. Here the dark elements of destruction, chaos and death, of a whole people grieving loss and deprivation and disease and despair, hopefully will come to an end and give way to peace and a rebuilding of society. Sometimes this process can, relatively speaking, go well, as the renewal of Europe and Japan after the ravages of WWII are examples. All too often in our contemporary times, the process of violent renewal by conflict has become stuck in permanent dysfunction. Think of Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Somalia, to name just a few such nations where conflict has become endemic, and renewal is a frail and distant hope. What ingredients are needed in such places, to catalyze movement out of war and aggression toward the knitting together of the social fabric and the renewal that peace can promise? What can our world’s institutions and leaders do differently that will help to cause what has always been and remains a natural movement from war to peaceful renewal?

I won’t leave you on this somber observation of the dark underbelly of renewal. There is so much more to explore, and I’d like to bring a piece of it home, and make it personal to me and to you. One can imagine renewal as a four-part cycle, starting, if you will, with a slight change or disturbance in a stable system, like that first snowfall. That’s Act I. Act II is the intensification of that disturbance, and the introduction of chaos or profound change, like the freezing of the ground (and water pipes), more snow, dead batteries, white-outs, respiratory diseases, and the rest. Act III is the beginnings of a new or returning order: the lengthening of the days, the arrival of migratory birds, melting snows and runoff and swollen rivers. It’s still in this place of chaos and tension and distress, and without certain knowledge one might imagine that it might go on forever like this. And finally Act IV arrives, replacing all with a new or renewed order, fresh, optimistic, and full of promise and potential.

How does the cycle of renewal play out in our individual lives? I’ll share an example from my own life, and perhaps you can recognize or resonate with this idea in your own story.

I became intensely aware in my early 20’s that, in my belief, I was alone in the world. Yes, people populated it, but from my perspective, my life was mine to live, my world was most real internally, and to a great extent, I did not much need people for my existence. I felt connection to a few individuals, and for them I was a good, loyal and reliable friend. I did not see any particular relationship to most of the rest of the world. Now for many of us, and in particular those, like me, whose worldview and self-view are skewed significantly from reality, somewhere near the magic age of 40, a disturbance happens. You can call it midlife crisis if you like. In short, my act, my collection of beliefs and behaviors, just did not work so well for me anymore. That was the curtain call for Act II for me. Stuff started happening that was disturbing. Reorganization at work, a shakeup that left me with the realization that maybe I need to think about the impacts of what I say and do have on others, particularly the managers. I got married, and ended up three years later divorced. My life seemed to be stuck, vaguely unfulfilled, and except for a few close friends, I was alone. Act III unfolded with my joining a group, one that helped me recover my repressed emotions. Until then, I was primarily able to feel anger and hunger. The rest was not even part of my awareness. Doing the hard, scary work of emotional recovery, I felt alive again.

Too much story to go into details here, but I found myself in community, and joined a group of men who likewise shared their emotional and spiritual lives. And one day, and this is my fourth Act in the cycle of renewal, it dawned on me that I contained a paradox: I am alone in the world and I am in community. Like breathing, as I inhale I am alone, and as I exhale I am in relation to all beings. Life made a new sense. I started talking with anyone I met as if they were my brother or sister or other relation, because I now see with renewed eyes my relatedness to everyone and everything.

So from this perspective of relatedness, I know that we are all unique, but we are all not that different, either. What’s your story of renewal? How may your past belief in one thing, rubbed up against what is real, has collapsed to give way to something new that has enlivened you? How do you form and share your story? How might sharing that renew both you, and those who hear you?

As always, I’d love to hear your comments!

Namaste,

John

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Communicating Without Controlling Part II: Speaking Your Wants

John Owens

Communicating Without Controlling Part II: Speaking Your Wants

This is the second in my blog series on Communication. This material comes from Susan Campbell’s book, Saying What’s Real. I find her suggestions have been extremely helpful to me to further develop with my partner our intimacy and trust. I hope you will try out these suggestions and see for yourself.

As I mentioned last time, in order to communicate effectively you have to be in the present. All too often, we speak in reaction to a restimulation of some past unpleasant experience, or to a fear of some made-up (but seemingly real) future event (again, a projection of past fears and experiences into the future). If you can turn your thought structure away from the past and future, and be in the ‘now’, you will find that things are much simpler, and a whole lot less fraught.

Back in December, I blogged about communicating feelings, using the phrase, “Hearing you say that, I feel ___” and filling in the blank with your emotion (sad, angry, happy, etc.), or your sensation (hot, cold, excitement, relaxed, tense, etc.). This month I want to talk about sharing your wants.

For many of us, stating what we want in the moment can be discomfiting. We may have learned early in life that expressing or even feeling our wants leads to disappointment. So rather than take the risk of saying what we want in the moment, we give in to the expectation that our want won’t be met, and that we will feel the pain of disappointment. We protect ourselves by staying silent about our wants, or undercommunicating by using hints, giving up too easily, or being indirect. Alternately, we may overcommunicate our wants by resorting to threat, demands or manipulation. Both are ways we attempt to control the outcome, and ultimately will never lead to right relationship.

Campbell emphasizes that our wants need to be expressed in the NOW. Saying, “I want you to be more affectionate towards me” is more of a directive, and not communicating what is currently present in the relationship. Much better is, “I love it when you hug me tight. Would you do that for me now?” Asking the other to be more affectionate is asking them to hold your request for you and to read your mind as to when you want that affection (not likely to happen). The latter expression actually helps to teach our partner what we like and when we like it. It does not indicate some vague future actions, but something specific and time-based. Hearing that request, I can decide in this moment how I want to respond, and I’m not held to trying to remember what I am expected to do in the future. You take responsibility for expressing what you want in the moment, and the listener has the freedom to say yes or no.

Some other examples of ‘now-based’ vs. control-based requests:

I want you to hold my hand. / I want you to hold my hand whenever we go for a walk.

I want you to come home early Friday and we can go out to a restaurant. / I wish you’d spend more quality time with me.

I want you to tell me you are glad to see me. / I want you to be more reassuring.

Notice that making ‘now-based’ requests involves taking the risk of hearing ‘no’ or ‘not now’. It also involves taking responsibility for asking for what you want when you want it, rather than the once-and-for-all directive that puts the onus of remembering your wants on the listener. Note: it is very unlikely that someone else will be able to feel and respond to our urges!

So, some hints about making requests that will increase your intimacy and effective communication and empower you as a worthy human being:

  • Be specific: don’t ask for something so vague and general that the other person has to make it up. Think in terms of teaching the other person how exactly to please and delight you.
  • Timing is almost everything: don’t ask when you are not likely to get what you want. You are not likely to get a back rub when she’s getting ready for work. And make your ask as close as practical to when you want it to happen, leaving room for necessary planning and preparation.
  • Don’t postpone: holding off on making your wants known can lead to building up of pressure around suppressed needs and desires. That can lead to high-risk stakes where you are unwilling to take “no” or “later” for an answer. When that happens, you are likely to blurt out controlling behaviors: manipulation, threats and demands. What gets communicated then is your urgency and unwillingness to take anything but compliance. It’s better to ask for what you want in the moment, rather than saving up making requests until it’s become a big deal.
  • Ask without expectation: Campbell says “expressing your in-the-moment wants, simply and directly, is a profound act of trust. As such, it helps you learn self-trust.” By asking from a frame of mind that is open to the others’ right to refuse you, you affirm that however it goes, you can and will deal with it. It is critical that you don’t make a conscious or unconscious assumption that you must have your want satisfied. This builds self-trust by relying on yourself to be able to deal with whatever happens.. If you can’t accept a negative response to your request, “then maybe you have a belief that you should always get what you ask for.” And how does that belief serve you?
  • I shouldn’t have to ask: many of us fall into this trap, thinking, “If she really loved me, I wouldn’t have to ask. She’d know what I like.” For you, having to ask is tantamount to admitting that the other doesn’t care much for you. Really, this is just another way of avoiding risk in asking for what you want. You don’t ask for much, so you don’t hear ‘no’ very often. But the chance to develop self-trust and resilience in your relationships is lost. If the other person cares about you, the risk is an intelligent risk. Believe me, hearing no will not injure you!
  • I don’t want to feel indebted: some of us fear that asking for something puts us one down in regard to the other, that our independence will somehow be limited, or that feeling needy is unattractive or uncomfortable. Campbell says this may be due to a caregiver early in live who was undependable, and that it is not safe to feel dependent or needy (I have to include myself here!). But today is not the same as years ago, and the person you face now is not the same person from your childhood (most likely). And now you are far more capable of handling a situation that leads to pain or disappointment than you were as a child. So what do you really risk? Can you bear to live with the disappointment of a NO? Can you bear to live with the joy and fulfillment of a YES? Gamble intelligently, and try taking some risk!

What types of responses to an ask are legitimate? Obviously, a yes is ideal. A ‘Yes, but not now’ should have some specific time attached, like “when I’m done reading this chapter” or “by next Thursday”. “Maybe” begs for some explanation, but at times can be the only response that makes sense (“Maybe, if I can get the day off tomorrow”). Of course there is “No,” and it is really important that this response be respected and understood that it is a ‘no for the present time’, and may change with circumstances. Another response could be “Yes, if you’ll do this for me.” You may consider this bargaining and transactional, rather than given out of love and compassion. Campbell says that there is a place for this sort of agreement in any relationship and this can make things workable when both parties have to stretch a bit for fulfill the other’s request.

What is important to note that asking is more important than getting what you want. By asking, we expose our inner self to others to what we feel in the moment. We learn to speak to what we can control (our wants), and let go of controlling what we can’t (whether we get it or not). We can open ourselves to wanting without being ‘reasonable,’ rather than caretaking others from being exposed to your wants. Wanting is being present to who you are in this moment. It is being vulnerable, and not being controlling.

I’d love to hear your comments. And another tip forthcoming next month!

Namaste, John

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Communicating Without Controlling: Part I

John Owens

Communicating Without Controlling: Part I

One of my favorite books on relationship is Susan Campbell’s Saying What’s Real. She claims that research shows that “nearly 90% of human communication comes from (the usually unconscious) intent to control.” Think about that for a moment. Ninety percent of what I say is really about trying to control someone else’s thoughts, behavior or emotions. I don’t know about you, but that feels pretty scary to me, and a wake-up call that I need to take a closer look at how I say things so that I am giving freedom to others to be their authentic selves, rather than consciously or unconsciously attempting to funnel them into my wants and ways. This is so important to me, that I’m going to devote the next six or eight of my blogs to sharing with you some simple and effective ways that we can adjust our language with others that stops controlling them, and gives more openness and connection to those we are speaking to. I guarantee you that following these examples will make a huge difference in your likeability and relatability to others. In short: use these suggestions sincerely with others, and people will love you for it! Not just that, but by relinquishing our default ways of attempting to control others through our language, you will be helping to create a more peaceful, connecting, loving and trusting world. What could be more important than that?

Key to communicating effectively is to be in the present. All too often, we speak in reaction to a restimulation of some past unpleasant experience, or in fear of some made-up (but seemingly real) future event. If you can turn your thought structure away from the past and future, and be in the ‘now’, you will find that things are much simpler, and a whole lot less scary.

So, let’s start with something that’s in the NOW: communicating our feelings. We are constantly receiving inputs from others: our partners, friends, the news, Face Book posts, etc. Sometimes we give feedback like, “You make me so angry,” or sad, or happy or scared. Often we skip that feedback and just react in retaliation, or isolation, smiles or withdrawal. But ¾ of those reactions actually pull you away from the other. How can we communicate in a way that lets the other understand what is happening for us, and still maintain connection? Susan Campbell suggest that we use the phrase, “Hearing you say that, I feel…” and filling in the blank after that with our emotion (sad, angry, happy, afraid, curious, upset, or other combination feeling), or our sensation (hot, cold, excitement, relaxed, tense, etc.).

Note that judgments are not included here, nor are “you” statements, like “I feel you are being stubborn,” which is not a feeling at all, but a judgment about the other, and in actuality, related to some past experience, and aimed at controlling the other, not at communicating what is happening inside us.

So what happens when we simply state how someone’s words and tone land on us like this? We give up trying to control by threat, shaming, implying, judging or dominating. Instead, we trust the listener to hear us and make their own adjustments in relating based on what they now understand about how we feel. Now turn the situation around, and entertain for a moment that you just heard feedback on how your words landed on someone. There is no effort on their part to control you. Wouldn’t you want to adjust your tone and language with them so that you could maintain a trusting, respectful communication? When immediate feelings or sensations are communicated, aren’t you relating within the realm of the present, about workability, instead of past hurts or future fears or hopes? Campbell says that “When you use this key phrase [hearing you say that, I feel] to help you embrace your pain voluntarily, there is a certain power and grace to that act.”

In fact, using this phrase can enhance intimacy with the other: you are giving them a peek inside you of your inner workings and responses. To do otherwise keeps things on a superficial level, and hides the authentic you from them.

So, from the coach to my peeps: here’s some homework to do over the next couple of weeks, and evaluate how it works for you. Try the phrase (as appropriate) with a coworker, boss, partner, child, “Hearing you say that I feel…” and fill it in with a feeling or sensation. Breathe. Give them room to respond. And then use the phrase again. Be curious. See how the conversation moves: is it less predictable, more open? How do you feel when communicating your feelings and sensations? Is there less sense of stuckness? I’d love to hear your comments. And another tip forthcoming next month!

Namaste,

John

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