In My Reflection

A Dances with Bookspost featuring Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen’s book, Thanks for the Feedback

“Who can see your face? Everyone.  Who can’t see your face? You.”  Thanks for the Feedback (p81)

A good book changes the way you see a particular subject, a great book changes the way you see the world, but a really excellent book changes the way you see yourself.  Douglas Stone & Sheila’s Heen’s book, Thanks for the Feedback[1] is a really excellent book.

It is a wonderful irony of my life that some of the most impactful books on my spiritual path seem to have nothing to do with the Spiritual path at all.  This book is no exception.

Early last year, I received some feedback (although I didn’t think of it as “feedback” at the time) from renowned intuitive Sonia Choquette about my receiving skills[2] Basically, they stink.

I sat with that, observing it for about a year and realized that the signs of this were everywhere in my life, I just hadn’t recognized the underlying theme.

Early THIS year, I finally decided to do something about it. I started with a search on Amazon for books about receiving.  Most of what I found focused on re-balancing the lives of over-givers.  I’m not particularly selfish, but I can’t think of anyone who would classify me as an “over-giver.”  A little dabbling in those books demonstrated that they weren’t for me.

Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be a lot of books out there for someone in my position.  I wanted to explore my receiving skills independent of my giving skills.  It’s not that I was only giving and never receiving; I was receiving all the time, I just wasn’t doing it well.

Then I found this gem, a hermaion indeed.[3]  Granted, at the time, I didn’t think my feedback receiving skills were so bad (boy was I wrong about that, by the way, lol), but I downloaded the sample and decided to give it a try.  As so often happens, when we’re willing to own our issues – the world opens.

While I didn’t necessarily find any ’magic answers’ to resolving my challenges with receiving, I did find a path that seems to lead in that direction.  This book provided some tools to work towards becoming an expert watcher of mySelf.  After all, I can’t change my behavior if i’m not even aware of it.

Trigger-fishing

“why is it that when we give feedback we so often feel right, yet when we receive feedback it so often feels wrong?” (28)

Feedback can be difficult to receive because it tends to do what the authors call ’trigger’ us. Basically, feedback causes an emotional response. One that is often, but not always, disproportionate to the objective content of the feedback.

“Our triggered reactions are not obstacles because they are unreasonable.  Our triggers are obstacles because they keep us from engaging skillfully in the conversation.” (17) They block our ability to listen and when we stop listening, we stop learning. The authors break down triggers into three categories; truth triggers, relationship triggers, and identity triggers.

Because of a particular kindle feature, I can see the aggregate highlighting of readers of a kindle book.  Intriguingly, 353 kindle readers highlighted the sentence that introduced “Truth” Triggers.  Slightly less, 329, highlighted the sentence that introduced “Relationship” triggers.  But there was not one highlighting recorded[4] of the sentence that introduced “Identity” triggers – not one.

As the authors put it “…Identity triggers focus neither on the feedback nor on the person offering it.  Identity triggers are all about us.”(16)  In the war for our attention – between truth, relationships, and our own identity, the clear loser is “us”.  This is lamentable because the way we engage with our own identity is the factor we have the most control over.

Mirror, Mirror on the wall….

When I read the section on identity, it strongly connected with a piece on attachment that i’ve had in draft for over a year now.  Our identity triggers seem to be directly representative of the ideas of ourselves that we are attached to.

Most of us have many layers of attachments.  It’s easy to spot the major attachments that loom large in our lives; loved ones, career aspirations, even a favorite sofa can be something we are emotionally attached to.  More surreptitious and challenging to identify are the subtle attachments; often attachments to ideas.

Not necessarily big ideas like “world peace” or our political identity (although that can definitely be one), but really small ideas about ourselves and our world both positive and negative that have crept into our hearts and minds, sticking there like chewing gum to a sidewalk.

Frequently these sorts of attachment  are coiled around our identity like a snake so that the slightest disturbance to them threatens an unraveling of our very idea of who we are, causing us to clutch them ever tighter.

We are attached to the idea of ourselves as attractive or compassionate or spiritual, as good writers, or dutiful mothers, or even just young.  Perhaps someone you respect once commented that you were intelligent and now you find yourself engaging in all sorts of activities to reinforce and validate this idea of yourself.  You may take Mensa quizzes or sign up for challenging intellectual classes.  You may give your opinion more freely than if you thought your intelligence suspect.

Conversely, as the underside of attachments is often fear of ‘losing’ whatever it is you are attached to, you may do the opposite; shying away from intellectual pursuits completely, afraid they may topple your tenuous confidence in your own abilities.  Or, that you will be revealed to others as ‘not intelligent after all.’

Usually these ideas about ourselves, while many and diverse as a collection, are quite simple on an individual level. Stone & Heen write, “…simple labels.. present a problem. They are simple because they are ’all or nothing.’ That works fine when we’re ’all.’ But when we get feedback that we are NOT all, we hear it as feedback that we are NOTHING.  There’s no ’partly all’ or ’sometimes all’…if we’re not good, we’re bad; if we’re not smart, we’re stupid; if not a saint, then a sinner.”(185)

We define ourselves by a myriad of singular, one-dimensional ideas, often without even realizing we are doing it, and then our inner Hulk (or sulk) breaks out whenever those ideas are challenged. Sometimes the rising tide of emotion when we’re triggered is the only ’tell’ that we even have a particular identity attachment.

Shortly after I finished Thanks for the Feedback, my husband sent me an article, written by Michael Pollan called The Trip Treatment, that appeared in The New Yorker (February 9th edition).  The article featured psilocybin (magic mushroom) treatment as a potential way to ease mortality fears in terminally ill patients.  Partway through the article I started working on a post[5] called “processed transcendence” that challenged the validity of a mushroom-induced mystical experience.

As I wrote, passion swelled in my chest and I felt righteously indignant.  Remembering this book’s recommendation to notice when we have strong emotional reactions to feedback, I checked. Wait. Why was I having such an intense response to this article?  I hadn’t even fully READ it and I was already firing up a response. My internal dialogue went something like this;

Rational Beth: (gently) What’s up? Do you really have a problem with cancer patients trying to ease their fear and suffering using a psilocybin facilitated mystical experience?

Emotional Beth: What? No! Of course not! That would be ridiculously cruel, of course I don’t have a problem with that! (Writes some language into the post to that effect)

RB: Okay…wait, stop writing…if it’s not that, then why are you so agitated?

EB: Well… (Reflecting) I think it’s the very idea that a magic mushroom trip is somehow a REAL mystical experience.  I mean just because the same things happen in the brain with a meditation induced mystical experience and a mushroom induced one doesn’t make it REAL!

RB: Hmmm….ok…so why was your experience so much more real than a “mushroom” one?

EB: Well…. (thinking) a lot of things had to come together to induce my mystical experience.  It took a lot of time and dedicated meditation practice.

RB: You mean you were actively TRYING to have a mystical experience?

EB: No…i didn’t even know what a mystical experience was at the time… it just sort-of happened…I don’t know exactly how…

RB:  Isn’t it true that at the time you were meditating for long periods of time in direct sunlight?

EB: Yes…I wasn’t eating a lot either. It was sort of like an unintentional, hybrid Native American vision quest.

RB: So…. sunlight gives us Vitamin D right?  And there are studies that show a lack of Vitamin D for an extended period of time can cause depression.  What if, in a few years, studies show that an excessive amount of Vitamin D can trigger a euphoric mystical experience… Does that invalidate your experience?

EB: (quiet for a long time)…No…I don’t know…I don’t think so…

RB: Okay then, does it really matter if the mystical experience is induced by sunlight or mushrooms?

EB: But….if all it takes to have a mystical experience is a mushroom trip anyone can do it.

RB: (sagely) Ahhhhhhhhhh….

EB: (somewhat dejectedly, but also cathartically)…hmmm… I guess my mystical experience makes me feel special.  I guess I’ve been secretly defining myself by that for a long time.  (After a spacious, contemplative pause) In retrospect, I guess it doesn’t really matter how a person achieves a mystical experience…well, I mean maybe there are some things that matter (like meditation and study may help prepare a person to better ’manage’ the after-effects), but it doesn’t have to matter so much to ME.

RB: Nice. 🙂 Let me share something else with you. (shared quite lovingly)  Because you’ve been so busy secretly looking back at that time and feeling disappointed and confused that you’re not really “there” anymore, you’ve been missing out on fully being where you ARE. And the truth is…where you are is pretty great too.

EB: (feeling a little bit cleansed after letting that go) yeah…that’s true…it’s okay to just be here.  In fact, you’re right, here is a really great place to be.

As Heen & Stone put it, “There are things about ourselves that are hard to accept, but when we do, we’re more grounded.”(188). Reading the feedback book[6] gave me the tools to notice my emotional reaction to the article and explore it with a gentle curiosity.[7]

As you can see from the above example, the advice to notice our emotional reactions has a broader application.  Although the article wasn’t technically “feedback,” it was an input, information I was taking in and comparing to my existing worldview.  As such, it provided an opportunity to explore a carefully hidden piece of me.

I was holding onto a simple, yet defining, idea of myself in relationship to the spiritual path.  “While simple labels help orient us in the world, they don’t hold up well against the complexity of the world.” (187)  This is especially true, i think, for an area of work as subtle and elusive as spiritual development.

When I was able unclench my attachment to my own mystical experience, the universe extended a hand to help me up.  The resulting fracture in my self-image (if i’m not this, then who am i?) allowed me to come to a whole new place and perspective on life in general and my own life specifically.

The authors encourage us to embrace nuance and complexity in our identities.  To recognize that we are not simply good or bad or smart or dumb or even “spiritually enlightened.” Our intentions and resulting behaviors are built on a composite foundation.

AND Then Some…

In a seemingly unrelated section of the book, the authors introduce the concept of the “And Stance” as a way of acknowledging and expressing conflicting emotions related to a particular situation. “When you share the complexity or confusion, you are adopting what we call the ’And Stance’… you can use it in any situation where you’ve listened to someone’s input and have decided to go in a different direction” (222).

But after finishing this book and re-reading Lewis Hyde’s Trickster book, I’ve noticed that the “And stance” has a much more universal application. For example, the “And” stance can also be useful when approaching our identity.  We can be “spiritually enlightened” AND still have a ton of stuff to work on.  We can be smart AND do some very dumb things.  We can be a caring, compassionate person AND still sometimes say things that are unkind.

We can take this idea even further and see it as a way to understand and embrace paradox.  Tying it to the Trickster idea of “some third thing” we can see how the “And Stance” offers us an opportunity to escape the confining mentality of the either/or and consider a more mature, nuanced acceptance of duality.

For example, as humans we have a unified understanding of our “selves” (in general) and yet we are also a collection of living cells, bacteria (in our guts and probably elsewhere), and atoms.  Therefore, individually, we are both one AND many.

It’s impossible to build without destroying; a habitat, an old building, or maybe just an idea.  Thus, a nuanced understanding of building accepts that it is a process of both creation AND destruction.

And most fittingly, to reuse the hallmark Spiritual Path example from the Trickster post; the signs I’m seeing are both “meant” for me AND have nothing to do with me.  Speaking of signs, all of this “and” work helped me find a new one – or rather a new symbol.  I’ll be writing about it in one of my next posts.  In the meantime, I recommend checking out a copy of Thanks for the Feedback. 🙂

 Footnotes

[1] The full title of the book is:Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well – from here on out all quotes from the book will be noted by the page number in parentheses after the quote.  All quotes in this post are from this book.

[2] Full disclosure – this was a paid consultation, I am a great admirer of Sonia Choquette’s work – however, I do not want to mislead anyone that we are on a ‘first-name’ basis or anything like that. 🙂

[3] The term hermaion refers to a ‘gift of Hermes’ and is a reference to the Trickster as the ‘god’ of opportunity.  Here I am crediting that influence for ‘gifting’ me this book.  Read more about the Trickster influence in my post Trickster makes this Road.

[4] refers to highlighting on my kindle at the time of reading, obviously it may have changed since then (it hasn’t as of writing this post, but there is at least one highlighting out there now 🙂

[5]  By the way, this reference closes the circle that started the Trickster post. THIS is the post that sent me to the Trickster book.  Ironically, I’ll never end up actually writing that post now, because I’ve rooted out the underlying emotional reaction that drove me to do it 🙂

[6] plus my meditation on emotions work as discussed in ’Out of My Mind’

[7] This is not the same as berating yourself for thinking a particular way,  Approaching your deep emotional fears and insecurities with a stick is only going to make them more elusive.  You have to gently coax these things out… think of them as the wild animals living in your internal forest 🙂

Make Space, Not Time

“In my dream the angel smiled and said, if we fail this time it will be a failure of imagination and then she gently placed the world in the palm of my hand.” – Brian Andreas, Imaginary World

Out of Time

Almost a year ago I wrote a post called Everything is Now which has been, by far, my most popular piece to date.  In one of those examples of why the blogosphere can be such a great forum for idea exchange, a comment made by T.K. from Breakfast with Words made me revisit the ideas of that post in a deep new way;

“Suddenly having the entire day disappear in front of me is scary.  But what if time is only a matter of perspective… of relativity”

On the one hand, I had argued in “Everything is Now” (based on genuine belief) against the existence of time as separate from motion.  Simultaneously and ironically I had kept the same old ideas about time present in my own life.  For example, I used to think “I can never find time to write.”

T.K.’s comment flipped that on it’s head for me – suddenly I realized that the question I needed to ask myself was not “Why can’t I find time to write?” but “What needs to MOVE in my life to make space for writing?”

Re:new, Re:use, Re:cycle

As you might imagine, once this internal shift happened my world blew up; I could view my situation with a lens that encompassed more than linear time.  Although I led a busy life with a toddler at home, and a full time, demanding job there were many, many occasions where I found myself searching the internet for random things, or reading “fluff” books, or just sitting while my mind wandered my life away.[1]

I would even think to myself, I should be writing right now.  Why am I not writing? And still I wouldn’t write. There are myriad variations on this theme. I realized that time was not my problem, or at least not my main one. Using the ideas behind the “Everything is Now” post as inspiration, I started thinking about all the elements that needed to come together[2] for me to be able to write.

With this internal shift in perspective from time to motion, it was clear that some of the things that needed to “move” were internal, not external.  Instead of focusing on finding more “time,” I started to explore why I wasn’t writing with the time I did have.

I certainly had enough ideas – I had a topic list of dozens of items, growing all the time.  Was I disappointed that the blog didn’t seem to be attracting many readers?  This seemed to be part of the issue, but when “Everything is Now” was re-blogged by Christian Mihai, the blog saw many hits, likes, and a few more re-blogs of the post and still I couldn’t write.

In fact, I seemed more stuck than ever.  I found myself awash in new doubts – what if I couldn’t follow up with something as good or better than Everything is Now?  Was I a one-hit wonder? I had to take a step back and really look at my expectations for myself and the blog.

I had to face the fact that part of me thought that this would be easy.  I would start a blog and people would come.  When this didn’t happen I began to really doubt myself and what I had to offer. In a way I was hiding from myself. I pretended it didn’t matter that I wasn’t as successful blogger as I’d hoped to be, But it did.

Check Your Emotional Baggage

Although this may seem obvious, it’s not always nice to really face the pieces of ourselves we wish weren’t there.  This was a big one for me to face…. and not the only one.  If realizing this had removed all the obstacles from my path I would have been writing like gangbusters late last year, but some other things still needed to move.

It took the birth of my second child, reading Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s wonderful book Thanks for the Feedback, re-reading Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, and the convergence of many ideas that had been slowly germinating for years to bring about a series of revelations that cleared my path for the blog.  Unsurprisingly, many of these ideas are showing up in my recent posts (like this one).

One of my favorite quotes from Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption[3] refers to the main character who, “crawl[ed] through a river of sh!t and came out clean on the other side.”  I do not consider it a coincidence that working with excrement, dirt, and other “matter out of place”[4] falls under the Trickster’s purview. I, too, had to crawl through my own dirt for renewal. Now that I’ve come out on the other side, I’m no longer afraid to give this my all and let it be just what it is.[5]

I’ve realized that if I never started this blog I would never have written Everything is Now”, and if I had never written that I wouldn’t have received T.K.’s provocative comment, and if that hadn’t happened this dramatic transformation would never have happened. And, and, and…. and it’s all part of the journey.[6]

For the first time I recognize the value of my writing to me and I have blistering confidence that I’m right where I should be. I don’t have the pressure of fame and I have the freedom to be and figure out just who I am. I can be disappointed that I’m not more successful and I can be proud of and enjoying exactly where I am now.

Now it seems like all I can do is write.

Room With a View

When we focus on “not enough time” as the reason why we are unable to do something, it does not always give us a launching point to discover what is really holding us back.  Conversely, when we ask ourselves “what needs to move?” it allows us to be open to a variety of things – both internal and external – that may need to come together and / or get out of the way for us to reach our goals.  When we’re “done” examining what’s getting in our way, we may, in fact, find that our goals themselves have transformed.

There may be a temptation to turn this into an internal dialogue about priorities, but evaluating priorities is about comparing and ranking thing “x” that we want to do against things “y” and “z” that we also want to (or have to) do.  The activity I am talking about here is much more focused than that, it is about picking one thing (although, hopefully the most important one) you’re not doing and exploring what would need to move to clear a path forward.

I realize I’ve heavily emphasized internal movement in the post. This is because our internal impediments will almost always be bigger obstacles than the external ones; we won’t find workarounds for our subconscious hang-ups, but with faith and conviction we can almost always create innovative solutions for our external blocks.  However, many times external pieces also need to move.  Referring back to my analogy in Everything is Now; many elements need to come together to enable a flower to grow.

As I was laying in bed this morning, for example, I was lamenting that I had this post finished and couldn’t seem to “find time” at home to get it published. (I did not know at the time that I was going to write this section, lol). Reflecting on the subject of this post, I switched to thinking about what needed to move in order for me to publish this post.

I do most of my writing on the train using a word processing app called IA Writer on a four-year-old iPad that was a hand-me-down from a family member.  When I finish the content of a post, I copy it into Word (on my home laptop), configure all the footnotes, copy it into WordPress, configure the heading sizes, block quotes, images, etc… and finally -hit publish

When I started looking at all the pieces between writing and publishing it was easy to see that (once again) “finding” more time at home wasn’t necessarily my problem, I needed to change the way I was “doing business” so to speak. Suddenly I remembered that the week before my husband had pointed out a new Microsoft tablet.  At the time, I had been dismissive of the idea thinking “what I have right now works just fine.” After having thought through my difficulties, however, I realized that the tablet might be just what I needed. Now that I was approaching my problem more openly, I realized that I could also seek out a better word-processing app that would handle my footnote needs directly.

It may take some effort to clear the way completely.  After all, things move at different speeds so some obstacles (both internal and external) will move out of our way quickly and others less so.  The critical first step is a detailed examination of what needs to move.  Then you can decide whether you’re ready to do what it takes to clear the path to your goal.

Footnotes

[1] it’s not that these things are unhealthy activities or that there is no room for them in our lives, it just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with that time – which is what clued me in that something more was going on

[2] as previously noted, this post and realization are built on the ideas from “Everything is Now” – the part I am specifically referencing here falls under the heading: ‘Some Things are Timeless’

[3] which also happens to be one of my favorite movies – here is the info; Shawshank Redemption (movie), 1994, Castle Rock

[4] From Trickster Makes this World by Lewis Hyde, “The anthropologist Mary Douglas… suggests we go back to an old saying: “Dirt is matter out of place.” Egg on my plate is breakfast, but egg on my face is dirt; shoes in the closet are tidy, but shoes on the table are a mess.” (p 175)

[5] I’m not saying this is all of my dirt – after all, here on Earth, we live in the dirt so we can only ever be temporarily clean

[6] I will talk more about the magical power of AND in two upcoming posts….one on Thanks for the Feedback and another about the new symbol I found that perfectly captures “where I’m at” right now