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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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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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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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A Wink and a Smile…For Me!

John Owens

A Wink and a Smile…For Me!

I’m aware that for me, at least, a lot of my internal dialogue has a tendency to run myself down. In the morning, I often find inner “Mom” telling my inner CEO all the things I’d left undone yesterday (and the days before). I start to plan my day out, and another voice (the ‘bad manager’) starts in about how terrible a time manager I am, and I can’t get half of what I planned done even on a good day. There’s chatter inside me about relationships, not being worthy or likeable enough, or diplomatic enough. Bleah!

Over the years, I’ve learned to tone down this negative chatter from my internal gremlins, and I can often tune it out entirely for a few hours. Every morning I practice centering with yogic breathing (pranayama), and radiating out my abundance of love and compassion to the universe in my meditation. When I catch myself rehearsing angry thoughts, I re-center, relax, and re-create myself. This practice works for me, even if it is not a once-and-for-all permanent solution to my ‘stinkin’ thinkin’’.

I was recently talking with my cousin Max on one of our monthly calls, and he mentioned to me how we winks at himself in the mirror as a way of expressing self-love and acceptance. I thought that was a great idea, and for several days, kept reminding myself I want to try that and see what it’s like for me. I had an image in my head about what it would feel like, and what the impact could be, but it must have been my gremlins that held me back from doing more than just a thought experiment. Finally, yesterday, my lucky stars aligned, and I winked at myself in the bathroom mirror. I reflexively smiled back at my image (and image returned the favor…imagine that!). I experienced a sense of self-acceptance that was deeply intimate, tinged with humor and mischief. I felt a sort of loving attraction that had nothing to do with vanity, and everything to do with someone who is up to something in the world, living values fully, and who was not going to be put down today under any circumstances. Life is Good.

I winked again at myself today, enjoying the inside…’joke’ is not the word for it, it’s more like ‘knowingness.’ I find it a way to instantly recall in the present moment the joy of being alive and being me. I feel momentarily released from the tension and heaviness of getting caught up in the culture of doing-ness, and measuring up to arbitrary standards that oppress me, and suck away my connection to my natural happiness, exuberance and sense of anything being possible, my joy.

Now just a second…I’m off to wink once more. I’ll be right back…

Yep, still works like a charm! Thanks Max!

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Accessing the Power of Gratitude

John Owens

Accessing the Power of Gratitude

I have been noticing the fall changes lately, enjoying walks filled with breathtaking colors and warm sunlight, and eking out those last few bike rides in mild weather. Sujata and I are also making our Thanksgiving plans, and I’ve been noticing just how much there is to be thankful for, not just in this season of feasting and friendship, but every day as well.

The practice of gratitude as a tool for happiness has been in the mainstream for years. Long-term studies support gratitude’s effectiveness, suggesting that a positive, appreciative attitude contributes to greater success in work, greater health, peak performance in sports and business, a higher sense of well-being, and a faster rate of recovery from surgery.

While we may acknowledge gratitude’s many benefits, it still can be difficult to sustain. So many of us are trained to notice what is broken, undone or lacking in our lives. And for gratitude to meet its full healing potential in our lives, it needs to become more than just a Thanksgiving word. We have to learn a new way of looking at things, a new habit. And that can take some time.

That’s why practicing gratitude makes so much sense. When we practice giving thanks for all we have, instead of complaining about what we lack, we give ourselves the chance to see all of life as an opportunity and a blessing.

Remember that gratitude isn’t a blindly optimistic approach in which the bad things in life are whitewashed or ignored. It’s more a matter of where we put our focus and attention. Pain and injustice exist in this world, but when we focus on the gifts of life, we gain a feeling of well-being. Gratitude balances us and gives us hope.

There are many things to be grateful for: colorful autumn leaves, legs that work, friends who listen and really hear, dark chocolate, warm jackets, tomatoes from a home garden, the ability to read, roses, our health, butterflies, the stars on a clear night. What’s on your list?

Some Ways to Practice Gratitude

  • Keep a gratitude journal in which you list things for which you are thankful. You can make daily, weekly or monthly lists. Post your gratitude and share with your friends on FaceBook (my friend Tanya does this, and I feel grateful seeing her posts!). Greater frequency may be better for creating a new habit, but just keeping that journal where you can see it will remind you to think in a grateful way.
  • Make a gratitude collage by drawing or pasting pictures.
  • Practice gratitude around the dinner table or make it part of your nighttime routine.
  • Make a game of finding the hidden blessing in a challenging situation.
  • When you feel like complaining, make a gratitude list instead. You may be amazed by how much better you feel.
  • Notice how gratitude is impacting your life. Write about it, sing about it, express thanks for gratitude.

As you practice, an inner shift begins to occur, and you may be delighted to discover how content and hopeful you are feeling. That sense of fulfillment is gratitude at work.

Author’s content used with permission, © Claire Communications

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On Assumptions, Judgments, Beliefs

John Owens

On Assumptions, Judgments, Beliefs

We all love a good story, especially the ones we make up. Other stories we buy retail from a respected authority, like our parents, teachers, or church. Stories become our assumptions, judgments about ourselves and others, and our beliefs. There are the some strong similarities among assumptions, judgments and beliefs. All of these entail some interpretation and summation of Reality in our minds. They can be ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ in perception, like the glass half empty or half full. We appear to need them to help us negotiate our world. If I assume some neighborhood is not safe for me to be in, I’ll look for an alternative route, for instance. In fact, (it is my belief) that the human, and many animal minds create mental maps based on assumptions, judgments and beliefs that we use consistently not just to get around physically, but to guide or regulate our relations with others (“I better not talk to her now, she’s crabby in the morning”) and our own behaviors (“I don’t think I can do that”). I have often watched my cats very cautiously slink up to some new object that they have not ‘mapped’ into their territory, like a plastic garbage bag that blew into our yard. I assume that they sense possible threat or danger in anything out of the ordinary. After investigating by smelling, vision, and whacking at it a few times with her paw, my can maps the new object “not harmful or threatening, and this is where it lays”, and the bag can be ignored.

The old reptilian part of our brains is much the same as an animal’s. The unknown evokes in us a fear response. With practice, we can learn to pay less attention to the “flight-fight-freeze” response, and use higher-functioning regions of our brain to create greater possibility and choice. It is as if we can use belief to overpass our original, subconscious assumption that something new is a threat to our survival.

So what makes assumptions, judgments and beliefs different from one another? It seems to me that there is a sort of hierarchy here among these. When I make assumptions, I don’t have a lot of specific information to interpret to create a thought. I assume things based on my past experiences, and extrapolate out to the present moment. I also don’t have a lot invested in my assumptions. For instance, I assume that a stranger I meet socially in a safe place, like a hotel lobby or grocery store, is willing to help me with directions if I ask them politely. If I get a scowling response from him, and hear, “Don’t bother me, I’m busy”, I can easily abandon my assumption of willingness. Assumptions are often our default starting place, and any new information that we receive that contradicts our assumptions can help us let go of them, because assumptions are held lightly. So, when we clear our assumptions about our relationships, it can help greatly to get on firmer footing with the person we hold the assumption with. One way to do this is to clear it directly with the person by asking if you can share an assumption you hold with them. If they answer ‘yes’, then you can respond with something like, “A story I make up about you is that…(you are smarter than I am) “. Notice how this wording makes me the owner of the assumption, and there need be no response from the other person. What often happens when we state our assumptions aloud is that we can let them go. At the least, being conscious of the assumptions that we hold makes the relationship much easier by not being subconsciously guided along the rails of the assumption, and thus opening up more possibilities in the relationship.

Not so with judgment: judgments are held at a deeper level than assumptions. They are more persistent. When I hold a judgment about someone, I have interpreted data I have received by witnessing, hearing from others, or reading about the other. I have more of my ego involved, and it is harder to let go of the judgment thought. I make choices in my behavior both consciously and unconsciously to minimize the ill effects to me and maximize my own position. An example: I hold a judgment that my boss doesn’t like me and has it in for me. I might thus avoid her, and keep conversations with her to a minimum. I might also say things to my coworkers to put her down in others’ esteem. Interestingly, such behavior, based on judgment, will often bring about events that give further evidence that the judgment is held ‘correctly’, like when I get passed over for a promotion because (from my boss’s perspective) I am aloof and a rabble rouser. To me, being passed over will reinforce my original judgment that I am being victimized. How much things might change if I were to ask my boss, “Can I check something out with you? Do you have any performance issues with me?” Or, “Is there something I can do to help your program succeed?” Even if I get a negative answer to my questions, I have communicated a desire for a better relationship. That is a step toward loosening my ego’s hold on that judgment.

When we hold judgments that don’t serve us well, like the example above, it takes some work to let it go. Contradicting the judgment with an investment in relationship is the best way, but not always possible. Another approach is to say or write your judgment, along with words that release it, like “I have held a judgment that I can’t trust Carl. I let go of that judgment now”. Say or write it every day, and put it into practice in your behavior until it no longer has power over you. Note that you will want to do this if it serves you and the relationship. If Carl is, for instance, a compulsive gambler, you won’t want to be loaning him money until he gets help to change his behavior. It still makes sense to visualize the whole person, the trustworthy Carl, who stands behind the compulsive behavior.

Beliefs are thoughts that we don’t just hold, we identify with them. Typically, beliefs relate to how we see ourselves and the world; they are the foundation of our concept of reality. We invest heavily in them. Like monetary investments, we receive dividends from them, and occasionally we feel the acute pain of loss when they lose their value for us. You might recall your childhood when you learned there was no Tooth Fairy. For most of us, giving up that belief was not easy. When my children got the knowledge, they continued for several years to put their teeth under the pillow and write earnest notes to the Tooth Fairy. They required a transition period, where the new knowledge was received that better fit with observed Reality, but there was not yet enough evidence that the new or updated map of reality could be trusted.

When we hold self-limiting beliefs, such as, “I don’t have the self-discipline to be able to run a successful business on my own,” all I can see is the evidence that this belief is true. The belief filters my reality. When I see clearly how this belief is limiting my choices and fulfillment in life, I still need to get enough contradictory messages that I am capable, before I am truly willing to let go of the chains that bind me with my belief. The only way I know to get these new supporting messages is to begin acting from the new belief or paradigm, and to be open and curious about what happens when I do so. That means stepping into unknown territory, parts of the map that are yet unmapped. It’s scary, and always worth it. And so much easier to do when we have a reliable guide as we traverse virgin territory on our life’s path.

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On Resistance

John Owens

On Resistance

A few months ago, I had decided that it would be in my best interests as a professional life coach to facilitate a tele-class on the subject of committing our hearts to be open and at peace. The topic is near and dear to me as an area that I have been exploring and growing in for a long time. Doing an hour-long class was neither a technical nor intellectual challenge for me. I frequently use internet phone bridges to make conference calls. I had plenty of resource material at hand to write a script for what I wanted to say and how I would involve my audience. But I hadn’t done a tele-class before, and I had not stepped out of my comfort zone to expose myself as a coach into a larger circle of people.

I stalled. I set a date for the call, and then cancelled it. Not just once, but several times. Every time I vowed to spend time to write my script, I found other things that I “had” to do first. I was resisting, and I knew it. I also felt powerless to will myself into doing what I had committed to accomplishing.

We all commonly have feelings that we resist. It could come in the form of a nagging resistance to fear of an unwanted situation. Or you might resist feeling sad about a loss. You may even feel resistance toward anger, trying to avoid that uncomfortable and unpredictable emotional state.

When it comes to the realm of human behavior, I find the question of “Why is that?” much less useful than the question, “What do you get out of behaving that way?” ‘Why’ is about looking for causes and justification. Often that inquiry does not point us in a useful direction. ‘What do you get?’ points to the benefit we receive from a behavior like resistance to feelings. Understanding the benefits and the impacts of resistance on ourselves and others is a useful way toward arriving at a commitment to change an equation that is not working well for us and those we care about.

So what was it that I got out of my procrastination? I was so badly stalled that I found someone to coach me on just this one topic. Through my coaching sessions it soon became apparent that staying stuck did two things for me: 1. If I didn’t do the tele-class, I could stay small and maintain my status quo. Even though I “knew” on another level that I wanted to do this tele-class, my inertia was winning out. 2. If I facilitated the class in this more public sphere, I would need to face an old and deeply held belief that I’d be judged harshly leading a group. I was resisting feeling the fear and the threatening sensation of a potentially hostile crowd.

What were the impacts of my resistance? I was stuck, and not moving ahead in a direction that would surely benefit me professionally. I was not giving my gifts of communication, open-heartedness, truth-telling and community building. I was cheating myself and others. Still, this was not enough to get me in gear and moving. I needed to do one more thing: stop resisting, and see what was really there behind the wall of my resistance. I dropped the resistance I was exerting, and let in the fear and discomfort. It felt hard for a moment, like a plunge into a pool of cold water. And then came the shift. I didn’t so much feel the cold fear. I felt some invigoration and aliveness. After a few minutes of experiencing the fear it was no longer overwhelming; it had transformed into something more open and freeing: Possibility.

From that moment on, I was able to move forward on my plans, and facilitated the class. I am ready to do another one, eager to go forward. All because I faced my resistance and let in what was on the other side of it.

When you are feeling resistant to something, the following are tips for moving through it. Consider hiring a certified professional coach who has experience with helping people with moving through resistance to facilitate and assist you in this process:

  • Notice first that you are feeling the resistance. Feel where the energy of resistance resides in your body. Notice if it has a shape or color or texture, like tightness or spikey or abrasive.
  • Breathe in whatever way your body wants to, and notice your breath. Let your body assume the posture that expresses your sensation. It’s okay to slump down or crawl under a desk for a while, if that’s where your body wants to go. The idea is to fully experience what is going on, not just rehearse it in your head.
  • After feeling the resistance in this way, invite it in. Open the door to it and actually welcome this part of you. Know that you can go back to resisting if you need to, that this is your choice to welcome whatever is there into your conscious space. Keep breathing!
  • Sit or stand with the feeling. Usually in a short while it will transform to another sensation. Notice what that is, and be curious about that.
  • You may need to repeat the above steps several times to get the shift. Don’t give up on yourself or the process. You can come back to it later if you find your resistance comes back strongly.
  • When the shift in sensation happens, there is often a new thought or belief that comes with it. Notice that, and write it down. Take time to breathe in the new message and anchor it in your body. Touch that part where the new energy lives. Notice its characteristics. Remind yourself that this is part of you, and you can access it at any time.
  • When the shift in sensation happens, there is often a new thought or belief that comes with it. Notice that, and write it down. Take time to breathe in the new message and anchor it in your body. Touch that part where the new energy lives. Notice its characteristics. Remind yourself that this is part of you, and you can access it at any time.
  • From this new state of being, a new commitment to action can be made. Choose some resonant action that comes to mind.
  • Follow through on you actions, and celebrate your success!
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