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 🙂

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