Distressed young woman in bed, with her eyes closed, her hand high on her chest, near her throat, and a pillow on her lap.

Beyond “In Through the Nose, Out Through the Mouth”

You’ve seen it a thousand times on television. Just a bit of momentary drama to set the stage. It’s a medical show. Someone is having an anxiety attack. Maybe he’s hyperventilating.

The medical professional or first responder fixes her eyes on this (typically) mouth breather and says emphatically and slowly, “Follow me. Breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth.” 

And then, in an exaggerated fashion, the medical professional demonstrates, raising her shoulders with the inhalation and looking all better and grounded on each exhalation, as she tries to get the person in crisis in her office or at a crash scene, school, or hospital to mirror her.

Somehow, within three of these breaths, the person is miraculously back to normal.

Is that all there is?

Breath can do a lot more for you besides anxiety management. 

Breath control is the secret sauce of changing your emotional state. You can raise your basic energy level, focus your attention, or even feel more attuned with those around you by the breath pattern you adopt. 

Joining in with, or matching, another’s breath rhythm is so powerful that (for better or worse) it’s taught as a sales technique in methods like the controversial Neuro-Linguistic Programming of the 1970s. 

When invited during our Conductor training with coming up with a ritual for introducing THE HUMAN JOURNEY® Experience and drawing it to a distinct close, Pam Lewis suggested something she’s used quite a bit in her organizational consulting work in South Africa. Pam invites participants to breathe themselves “into” the circle of participation and then, to demarcate the return to everyday life, to breathe themselves “out” of the circle again. She demonstrated the circular gesture she used to reinforce the direction of breathing, emphasizing breath as our mode of exchange (as it is!) between ourselves and the world around us.

I have enjoyed teaching workshops to teachers and professionals who work with young people with special needs about how to use breath and yoga sequences that specifically either raise energy, focus attention, calm the spirit, or allow us to join with others more smoothly. In their struggle to do what a less-than-adaptive world asks of them, students with special needs, like all of us, can be out of sync with the demands of them. 

Think focus, energize, unify as well as calm. 

I have enjoyed teaching workshops to teachers and professionals who work with young people with special needs about how to use breath and yoga sequences that specifically either raise energy, focus attention, calm the spirit, or allow us to join with others more smoothly. In their struggle to do what a less-than-adaptive world asks of them, students with special needs, like all of us, can be out of sync with the demands of them.

Experiment, and you'll see.

If you start “playing” your breath, you quickly discover that it works a lot like an instrument! Your breath has:

  • different possibilities for proportions (duration) between inhalations and exhalations
  • sound and silence (how sounded or noiseless it is–you’ll know what I mean if you sleep next to someone who snores!)
  • placement in the body (from high in the throat, to middle of the chest, to low in the belly, and even toward the back of the body)
  • ease and resistance
  • regularity and erraticness
  • continuity and stoppage (moments in which you’re neither inhaling nor exhaling)

and 

  • channel, that old “in through the nose and out through the mouth.”

There are other dimensions to breath, of course, as well!

Though I don’t recommend it necessarily, you can give yourself something that mimics aspects of a panic attack by playing with a few of these variables. But you can also go beyond in through the nose, out through the mouth to relax. 

Simply by experimenting for yourself with just one of these dimensions of breath, you can bring calm to yourself or to someone else by lengthening the exhalations (even if through the nose), regularizing breathing (offering counted inhales and exhales), or focusing on breathing low into the belly.

The breath is a magnificent instrument for altering our state of being and for connecting us with others, as Pam showed by making breath the centerpiece of her ritual for joining a family prior to taking part in THE HUMAN JOURNEY.

The challenge of using breathing to help others is not what to do with it, but helping people feel comfortable enough socially to deal with its intimate power.

Invite gently.

An intimate experience, THE HUMAN JOURNEY is invitational, never pushing people in difficult circumstances to go beyond their comfort levels (including being as vulnerable as others are evidently willing to be). Rather, it is about creating a space to work with a family or group of people who, possibly stressed, guarded, and isolated from each other, can breathe across the space and find each other again–or perhaps for the first time.

Certification training to conduct THE HUMAN JOURNEY Experience will enable you to bring families and groups facing grief, serious illness, addiction, and other life transitions together. This tool sets them up to carry what they gained from the experience forward, into listening consistently to each other for values, supporting each other through loss and change from whatever each person’s spiritual perspectives may be, and finding meaning through hard times.

We are doing a limited number of public Conductor Trainings during the year.

In just over a month, training will begin.

The 
time to register is actually now, as we limit spaces to allow for personal attention and mentoring. 

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Pop the Question!

Losing someone you love brings with it a kind of wistful mystery: who was my loved one … really? What do I wish I knew about them that I didn’t even think to ask them while I could? What would I give up chocolate for the rest of my life to know? (Granted, that would have to be a really, really important question.)

I now know things about people who have been important to me that I didn’t know while they were alive — about a mental illness, for example, or a key relationship they had had. Had I sat with them and asked meaningful questions, I would have opened up a really important part of their lives and we would have had that intimacy between us.

Your knowing the pang of that eternal wondering can be a spur to your thinking ahead about the mystery inhabiting the people you love who are still here. It’s probably a good thing that that mystery is never going to be entirely penetrable — would you really want it to be? — but there are things you know you wonder now, and now is the time for you to find your moment, and the right way, to pop your question. 

 

What keeps us from asking real questions of those we love?

If you haven’t already popped your question, you may have a “good” reason.

Maybe …

You’re afraid of the answer you might get. (It can’t be worse than the answer that’s lurking around in your head.) 

You feel as though you don’t know how or when, or whether it’s even okay, to pose the question. (You can warm up to it; you don’t have to ask in one perfectly worded way.) 

You’re afraid of saying the wrong thing as you ask. (If it’s that awkward to ask, your family member will see you floundering and will become unusually patient. 😉 )

The intimacy of the question feels a bit much. (So take it in stages.)

You feel as though you’re in too much pain yourself. (Focusing outside yourself is actually going to help.) 

 

The question is a gift to the person you love.

Your mother-in-law longs to be known. Your irascible cousin is actually just as tender inside as you are. Your buddy has no one else to tell. 

The question you form in your heart, the one that will help you understand how they experience or have experienced the world, is the one they long to hear. And it’s the one you’ll be glad you asked while you’re both still around.

Truly, just about everyone loves to talk about themselves. And once you let them know it’s okay for them to take up space, you’ll learn a lot more than you thought you would. 

I’ll tell you a story.

When my mother’s breast cancer returned, already advanced by the time it was detected, she, my father, and I went shoe-shopping (yes, that’s what we did — let me tell you about a good pair of shoes). At one moment, my father strayed up ahead, perhaps seeing something in another shop window. 

As my mother and I walked more slowly behind, I thought of something I knew I’d wonder about her, a woman about whom people first would remember how well she was always “put together.”

Early in feminism’s second wave, my mother invented a job for herself, one that had started on a volunteer basis but eventually led her to earn more than my father did as a faculty member. She wore snazzy tailored outfits to work. 

I wanted to know how she related to her own appearance – not from a position of vanity, but for the advantages it may have given her in life or how it had shaped her worldview. She had banked so much on that. 

So I popped the question, “Mom, how do you think your life might have been different if you hadn’t been born pretty?”

She stopped in her tracks, turned her gaze on me, and spoke uncharacteristically sharply. “Who says I’m pretty?” We had never discussed this directly before, I’d just assumed it. 

After she died a few months later, thinking of her as having overcome a sense of not being pretty, rather than simply banking directly on her confidence in it, has given me an entirely different way of understanding my mother’s drive.

I’m so glad I asked. 

 

A good question can make a complex answer easy. 

It can be asked at such a time, and in such a way, that there’s room for the person to think through their answer. (You’re leaving about 10 times more space for them to answer than you’re ordinarily comfortable with.)

The answer is something that, with just a little bit of stretch, they would want to tell you.

You’re framing the question that you’ve already done some a bit of the thinking for them but are leaving room for their own self-definition and self-discovery. 

It all comes, I believe, down to a single über-question

 

What is it like to be you? 

Make your question about their experience

About how they have perceived a hard decision or moment in their lives —not just what happened, but how and why it happened. 

And remember, above all, to ask your question in such a way that “yes” or “no” cannot be the answer to it. 

 

What does it take to be a good popper of questions? 

Imagination, Empathy, and Humility — not necessarily in that order. 

The best journalists and interviewers know how to pose questions that reveal the soul, the story underneath the story that is first told. 

They start with imagination. They believe there’s something there to be discovered and they believe that because they’ve imagined the possibilities. 

Interviewers on long-form programs or for feature stories in print pose their questions in a fundamental spirit of appreciating the other’s humanness. They ask their questions in such a way that, whatever the answer might be, it will be understood. They ask questions in ways that avoid objectifying. Rather than “How could you have made such a decision?” they ask, “What was going on inside you as you made your decision to …?” That’s empathy

And they appreciate that they do not know the answer, that that answer is the other person’s own to share (or not to), and that, indeed, if they can only pay quiet attention, the other person may teach them the very question they should have asked. That’s humility.

 

The most important part of daring to pop: your self-preparation

Formulating your question.

Trying to see and hear your question from the other person’s perspective.

And, above all, quieting yourself. Emptying yourself of your preference for one answer or another, or for putting too quickly their answer into a box of your own crafting. 

And then seizing the moment. 

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Searching for the Right Words: You, Too, Can Write a Sympathy Card

The number of those jumping a plane for a far-off continent, rather than just write the sympathy card, is anyone’s guess. Tasks that come readily to those who enjoy tooling around with the written word may be terrifying and paralyzing to those who … don’t.

Lots of people suffer quietly from “sympathy anxiety.” They freeze in place as they think, “I might say something that, God forbid, worsens their pain! I’d best say nothing.”

And, likely, even more people suffer from writing anxiety — about writing just about anything. They tell themselves, “Maybe she’ll understand I’m just not a writer, or not the kind of person who knows what to say, even on happy occasions. Maybe it’ll be okay if I just re-emerge once she doesn’t need me to say something wise or comforting.”

By the time you multiple your sympathy and writing anxieties against each other, you’re up a tree, crouched in a nook with your pant hems higher than the tops of your socks.

Me, I like to write. I don’t do it quickly, perhaps because I get hamstrung by some weird concept of perfectionism. Maybe it’s that same perfectionism that, for you, keeps you from writing at all.

So, I’ll tell you what I tell myself.

Get over it.

The person in mourning really isn’t looking at you. And they’re not depending on your note to get them over the entire hump of their grief, just to acknowledge the weight of this loss with some sacrifice of time and heart of your own.

So I thought I’d offer, for anyone who struggles for any reason with this, some ideas that might help when you need and want to bring comfort on paper to those you care about at an impossibly hard time in their lives.

Because the momentousness of their loss is worth your sitting with it, too.

Why the actual note

When people are in the early phase of grief, the big thing they’re missing is so obvious we can overlook it.  It is the physical presence of the one they love. Grievers are suddenly landed in a new reality, one in which they can’t:

  • hear in real time the voice that somehow always implied a smile;
  • hold the arthritic hand whose miraculous smoothness they always marveled at underneath their caress; or
  • rest their head in the doughy lap of a grandparent munching microwave popcorn over them without regard for what gets into their hair.

They miss the physicality, the embodiedness of the one they love.

How about I start with a text? ...

A text or email are way better than nothing, and are useful to get word quickly to someone once you hear of a death.

But please don’t leave it at that! Again, you’ll miss an important opportunity to “re-presence” the person who died in a way that only something put to paper seems to do. If you want to bring as much comfort as you can to others who are ripped open by grief, write by hand.

Like the loved one herself had been, a card or personal letter is physical. It has heft, sound, tactility.

When you recall how their mother’s heel always hit the step up as she came in from the garage, and you listened for it, even as you were rehearsing in the makeshift band studio their house had back in high school, your letter rustles.

When, grinning, you bring to mind their stories of how their best work friend’s shirt always popped the same button without his knowing, your letter has weight in the hand, fragility, texture.

Like the hundreds or thousands of times they saw the one they cared about, they can return to your card over and over again during the early days, weeks, and months of loss for fresh portions of comfort. Your note has presence.

Many people don’t like sharing their handwriting, just like they don’t like taking their socks off in a workshop. It’s just a little personal. But the person who grieves is in that raw state — where the mythical perfection of your vanity just doesn’t matter. And when you share your cryptic or embarrassingly childlike handwriting, you’re entering into the intimate experience of grief.

Finally, some tips

One of the things that, I would guess, make writers good sympathy card authors is something that’s available to everyone. They notice things and they’re not afraid to write about what they notice. All of this takes place before ever putting ink to paper.

How did the man’s wife always slip away from the table when the conversation turned to something that interested her less?

What adjectives did the young girl seem so often to use when she described her grandfather to you?

How did the man and his dad spend their time together, even if you know about it solely from stories over drinks?

Just by noting the habitual, you’re re-summoning the life of the person who died, bringing to mind memories that re-conjure and comfort.

  • The person who died had qualities that appeared over and over again, that were part of their character.
  • They did certain things over and over again, that became habits or gestures.
  • They enjoyed certain things repeatedly, becoming part of the trail of love with which they honored the world.

Giving words to the habitual is a deep way of re-presencing the one who left.

Consider including:

  • Words that give a feeling for the legacy of the person – a memory that will stay with you, or, if you didn’t know the person, a sense of their legacy as it lives on in the person grieving.
  • A sense of the enduring or eternal qualities the person represents for you (e.g., thinking of others first, doing the honorable thing, making the most of any situation, ensuring that everyone felt welcome).
  • Your wishes for comfort, peace, the resolution of difficult feelings in time (if you were close to the person experiencing the loss), while recognizing that all of these things will take real time.
  • Subsequent cards or notes, sent awhile after the initial one. Grief carries on. It will be something very special for the griever if you observe the anniversary of their loved one’s death. But you don’t have to wait that long either. Most of the attention mourners get is in the first month after a loss. Grief resolves way after that. Stay with the person as grief continues to be the big thing in their lives. Let them know they continue to be in your thoughts.

And remember, you don’t have to wait until their person dies! When you know the person is seriously ill, you can send notes of strength and reminders to take care. Anticipatory grief is a “thing.”

The best sympathy cards reflect:

  • Your having sprung into action: not waiting to write once you hear the news.
  • Your having, at the same time, slowed down once you began to write so that you have sat with the person who died, the griever, and yourself. Bring all of them into your heart. DWELL with them. See what comes up. Keep the writing, though, off yourself, and your own experiences with grief.
  • Sensory descriptions of the qualities you associate with the person who died that truly distinguish them from others. Sometimes a subset of the quality works better than the big category. Kindness? (Readiness to take others under their wing without lording it over them.) Sense of humor? (Punning.) Love for animals? (That time he gently squeezed the bunny to the other side of the chain-link fence when an enthusiastic Labrador Retriever frightened him into it.)
  • Your sticking with it.

I didn’t make it easy for you, did I? It’s not supposed to be easy. Just know your note will always be remembered as a true gift of your heart at a time of real need in someone else’s.

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Which part of the groove you want them in

If you haven’t seen this video making the rounds already, I think you’d be glad you did. It’s of ballerina Marta C. González, who suffered from Alzheimer’s.

(Rather than stay suspended in blissful reverie afterward, though, please come on back.)

 

 

 

(Ok, thanks.) Shot in 2019, this video has been getting wide airplay this week, and Alistair Macaulay, renowned former dance critic of the New York Times, has been digging into it. 

So I’m going to de-romanticize, but I promise a payoff. The video is actually a bit different from what it appears to be.

The young ballerina in it turns out to be a different dancer, Yuliana Lopatkina. 

On top of that, the ballet Lopatkina dances is not Swan Lake, but rather The Dying Swan. 

Even so, so much is clear to see from from watching Sra. González respond to Tchaikovsky as she does in the video.

If you are a therapist or a specialist in aging, you might see the known power of music to draw people with Alzheimer’s into expressiveness, to reduce agitation, to strengthen memories and language abilities, and to improve physiology. 

If you are an artist, you see an affirmation of the ennobling might of music and dance. You see the curvature of Sra. González’s refined hands, the exaltation in her chest, her clear sense of the proper way this movement had to be executed to be done right. The woman’s high standards are evident. 

As human beings, we see someone (whom otherwise we might have thought of as having lost what made her most essentially her) as a woman who has a thing to accomplish and a very specific way of doing it. It is that way, rather than the what, that captivates me. 

The music suggests to her something that must be done with a particular turn of the shoulder, inflection of the torso, and direction of attention — each of those things and no other. Her way is what we learn from her.

Indian teaching has a concept of something called samskaras, mental habits or “grooves” that we are more likely to fall into because we have been there before. We keep taking the wrong way home from a place we don’t go to often because we took that wrong left the last time, too. We reach for the chocolate at 3:00 p.m. because that’s what’s given us a jolt out of the funk (even if momentarily) before. 

And we see ourselves and our stories in fixed ways because we learn the genres, the choreography, early on.

Yet the happenings of our lives can be framed in infinite ways. 

Our job in life, if you’re interested in samskaras, is to soften our tendency to become slavish to these tendencies, to give ourselves choice rather than automaticity.

One of the things I always say now when training new Conductors of THE HUMAN JOURNEY® in helping families through life challenges is that this game-based process is designed to help people “hold their own stories a little more lightly, and others’ stories a little more tenderly.” In other words, to soften the grooves that may prevent one humanity’s touching another. 

How are people, in the midst of grief or sorrow or alienation, supposed to do that? By keeping the grooves that matter and softening the ones that don’t.

Much as we desperately want to romanticize the historical footage actually being of her, dancing the same choreography she’s showing us now, and of that choreography actually being Swan Lake, she’s not actually dancing the “real” Swan Lake. Indeed, despite the beautiful score, either one of them is doing actual Swan Lake choreography in this case. 

Yet, as an older woman, with the soundtrack in her ears, she is transcendently beautiful in what she’s doing.

Sra. González dances from her heart and with the exquisite technique she’s learned from years of training and love invested in her art form. She’s able applied what she knows in her bones to create a new dance, a new construction of the pieces of her experience, keeping the grooves that matter and softening the ones that don’t.

Join us to learn to conduct THE HUMAN JOURNEY®. 

How to be hospitable without guests

That’s what’s been on my mind since we’ve been quarantining.

The front door isn’t exactly open. But recently I’ve noticed something different in the public sphere, and it’s made me think about a broader form of hospitality.
 
Many more public figures I follow on social media are offering well wishes as the sacred holidays of others come up – in the terms that those groups would use for themselves, rather than as awkward outsiders.
 
A state governor, with almost 200,000 Twitter followers, wished “Eid Mubarak!” in late July in honor of the Muslims he serves. He is Jewish.
 
Another public official, who is Christian, included his millions of followers in offering “blessings of light, goodness, and prosperity” on the dawn of the Hindu holiday Diwali, which celebrates the triumph of light over darkness. (You may note the similarity in the celebration of light with holidays in other traditions.)
 
A former public official, now a popular pundit, made light play of Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday, in a way that expressed affection for its traditions. His parents are Sikh and Hindu.

Even as more and more of us claim multiple cultures as our own, many of us too were raised in families that celebrated specific holidays, not some sort of generic or multiple “happy holidays.” And all it takes to call members of a culture by the names they would give themselves, and the general shape their religious or cultural lives take, is a few minutes on Google.
 
Indeed, even though we may sometimes get it wrong, we stand to learn some of the most important things about the other person we possibly could. 
 
With culturally appropriate wishes that refrain from otherizing those you encounter, and in much less time than it takes to clean the house and prepare a spread for 20 of your closest friends—you’ve laid out the red carpet for others and made the world a safer and more welcoming place to be human – in the so-particular way in which each of us is.

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Who wants to be self-righteous?

One of the (gulp) many books I’ve wished I’d written myself is a little book of thought experiments called Astonish Yourself! by Roger-Pol Droit, whose playful activities expand our perception beyond the habitual.
 
In a period in which many of us are all too familiar with the four walls around us and maybe could use a little jostling of our perceptions, I thought you might enjoy playing, too, with a new thought experiment I sprang on the participants during a half-day PD workshop I just conducted for the National Association of Social Workers in Wisconsin. 

For this activity, you’ll need a pen and an index card or a stiff piece of paper.

First, put into a sentence the single spiritual belief you hold that for you is the most unshakeable.

Take an index card or stiff piece of paper, and fold it in half to make a table tent. write that belief above the fold, and then set up the table tent right in front of you. That belief you wrote should then appear upside down.

Next, you’ll read out loud, one at a time, a few of the beliefs listed below, each of which may be held by someone. You’ll read one, glance at your table tent, close your eyes, and just notice:

  • Does entertaining that belief cause your throat to tighten?
  • Does the ticker tape of your mind flash with, “Well, that’s just absurd!”?
  • Or do you have a moment of curiosity, something like, “I wonder whether you can believe that and also what I believe at the same time”?
  • Or perhaps of dizzying confusion?

Do this process with as many of the beliefs on the list below as you like.

The List

  1. It doesn’t matter whether you talk about one supreme God or multiple personal gods or goddesses; they’re the same thing.
  2. Suffering is there to teach us something.
  3. God has a physical form.
  4. My religion’s practices are preferred over conventional medicine.
  5. Men’s and women’s roles are divinely ordained to be different.
  6. We do good things just because they make us feel good. Nobody’s going to reward us for them.
  7. The chief thing wrong with us, and that leads to the wrong we do to each other, is ignorance.
  8. God takes deep interest in human affairs.
  9. Only natural forces, like evolution, are responsible for life on earth as we know it.
  10. There are no, and never have been any, incarnations of God.
  11. God ordains that women be modest.
  12. There is no true spirituality outside of a religious or spiritual community.
  13. Illness is caused by witchcraft.
  14. We owe a Supreme Power our worship.
  15. War is never spiritually or religiously justifiable.
  16. I revere nature as a central aspect of my belief system.
  17. All people pray to the same God, whether or not they use the same name for that God.
  18. As long as the men in my family are praying, the whole family is good.
  19. There is nothing after life on earth.
  20. Human beings have sinfulness in their nature.
  21. If the government leaves them alone, most businesses will do what is right.
  22. My social class is divinely ordained.
  23. Being sick is a particular opportunity for me to repent.
  24. Humankind will be saved by our own efforts, not by the intercession of a Supreme Being or by religious practices.
  25. The only thing I can improve is myself.
  26. My ancestors give me strength.
  27. If I didn’t read the Bible, it wouldn’t matter.
  28. The purpose of life is to earn as much as possible, so you can make the most of life.
  29. If a belief is proven by science, then it’s true.
  30. The world is purposely flawed, and it’s our job to help repair it.
  31. I pray for miracles.
  32. Mission work is an essential part of being a good member of my faith.
  33. We suffer because the cosmos is out of balance.
  34. You get what you deserve: if you do good, you get good; if you do bad, that’s what you get
  35. My belief system requires that I be engaged in the betterment of others’ conditions.
  36. What is right or wrong depends on what you believe.
  37. When people do evil things, they are punished in the afterlife.
  38. There is no such thing as a personal God, only an impersonal reality that does not care about what happens to us.
  39. You can be a member of your religious or spiritual tradition without doing any practices or rituals whatsoever.
  40. If I suffer, there must be a reason.
  41. I’ll be reincarnated because I clearly haven’t learned everything I need to yet.
  42. God loves us, whether or not we believe in God.

Debrief

Finally, notice any patterns in the reactions you had. Did you discover types of beliefs that are particularly threatening or, alternatively, affirming, or even exciting?

In the NASW workshop, we took a fourth, and, for the time being, final, step. We spent a few minutes looking at the beliefs we hold about our beliefs. This is where the real “action” may lie in terms of how we may discriminate against others’ world views (spiritually, politically, or otherwise). We may believe, for example

  • What I believe is the true way.  
  • My way of believing is the best way.  
  • Other people would sure be happier or better off if they believed the way I do.  
  • People who believe other than the way I do are underdeveloped or sadly deluded.  
  • People who have not adopted the vows I have taken are less likely to be happy or successful than I am. 
  • People who are part of my group have “got it” or are chosen.  
  • Religion has been responsible for so many deaths in history that I choose not to believe.

 How many of us had burning cheeks by the end? Possibly only those who in the moment recognized themselves. Thankfully, many of the people in the NASW workshop saw themselves in this reflection.

And two of those burning cheeks were mine.

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We can hold each other’s stories more tightly—and our own, less

We get caught up in the stories of who we think we are, what we’ve achieved (or not), and what qualities we think we possess.
During my grad-school years in New York City, I enjoyed overhearing over lunch what would become familiar patterns of one-on-one lunch conversations all
around me.

“Look, I’m not the kind of person who is quick to
anger, but …” began one woman as she launched, post-pastrami, into a tale of how her daughter’s religious-school director had provoked her beyond recognition.

“Who does that?” eked out another through gritted teeth, throwing her hands up in the air and into the arms of a scurrying waitperson, defining herself by the kind of
behavior she would never, but never, perform herself. Her companion rolled his eyes as the two of them in ready coordination scooted their curry dishes around
each other on the table to help the other sample them.

In both of these cases, the speaker conveyed a sense
that, in order to construct a self, she or he has to position before a friend a fairly rigid version of themselves, like the sculptural costumes of the modern dance company Pilobolus, a kind of personality into which to step and stand,
get sewn in, and only then be recognized.

Our work, in becoming more human and more mature, is to hold our own stories—including such stories of our “selves”—more lightly, allowing for more flexibility in our responsiveness. Our stories and experiences still exist but, paradoxically, we both have and transcend them in
order to become less bound to a single concept of who we are.

Spiritual teachers such as Byron Katie (and many
others) advocate questioning the truth of the stories we tell ourselves. Katie even instructs students of her method to turn a story into its opposite and to gauge its truth, which may be as great as, or even greater than, the original story.

What helps with the process of lightening up is
listening to another’s deep story. Just as helping others can lift our own moods, listening well to others can be an experience of releasing our hold on our senses of self. If we can hold the reality that someone else is living with
and lighten up on the tightness of the grip we place on our own, we stand the chance of developing compassion. Our heart is truly light enough to be able to “go out to” them. And, when we are being truly empathetic, the sense of ourselves and others belonging to each other in quiet equivalence grows.

Maybe try an aspect of this idea out for yourself. You could determine not how you want to “be” next time the occasion calls on you to listen well to help a family member or friend, but what you want to provide or do. Do you want to provide a “safe space” for them to share whatever they need to? Do you want to listen for what they are feeling but haven’t said yet and ask gentle and appropriate questions? Do you want to reflect back to them what you think you’ve heard?

None of these strategies has anything to do with
putting forward “the kind of person you are,” like my pastrami-saturated eavesdroppee. Yet you will likely find that you feel more centered, more solid outside the bounds of personality and story. And your bond with the other will feel that much deeper.

Our work with the two-hour, facilitated experience
called THE HUMAN JOURNEY® situates members of a group or family right within their history and their stories, and then, with a graduated method of listening, interaction, and the cultivation of a sense of the group as being larger than any individual, brings participants to that point of lightness with themselves and substance with each other. It’s proven useful for families deepening their sense of belonging in hard times and is now in practice in the healthcare
setting.

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