The opposite of patience is aggression

hourglassMost Sunday evenings I have the sense that I am standing on the edge of the week, about to dive in.  Sometimes excited, sometimes worried, often stirred up in some way.  This past week I found myself hoping for something to change – wanting a particular thing to shift, feeling impatient and restless.  Then I read this in Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart:

“By patience, we do not mean enduring – grin and bear it.  In any situation, instead of reacting suddenly, we could chew it, smell it, look at it, and open ourselves to seeing what’s there.  The opposite of patience is aggression – the desire to jump and move, to push against our lives, to try and fill up space.  The journey of patience involves relaxing, opening to what’s happening, experiencing a sense of wonder.”

This was the perfect thing for me to read this past Sunday evening.  It gave me several insights about myself and how I have been engaging with my life.  The particular thing I want to change – at times I have been opening to see what’s there, but I have also definitely been either trying to endure or pushing against it, willing it to go away.  This was a lovely reminder to stay in it – it won’t change until it is time to change.

I also have struggled with impatience much of my life – something I always have wanted to be different about myself.  This passage helped me understand why – the re-framing of impatience as aggression immediately resonated with me.  That is why I feel so remorseful when I act out of impatience and as a result do harm to someone else with rude speech or action.

I can’t say this morning that I have a sense of wonder about what is going on today.  Today I will practice noticing what is, and maybe the sense of wonder will come.

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Lions in the grass and other threats

lionessI was reading When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron a couple of weeks ago, and in one of the essays she writes about the story of the Buddha transforming arrows shot at him into flowers – neutralizing their threat.  Chodron offers the insight that we can all do this.  That in our lives we have things or people we perceive as threats, but that by changing your perceptions we can melt the threat, because usually it is not actually real.  I have had this experience myself, and when it happens it is freeing and transformational.  But it is much easier said than done.  When we see someone or something as a threat, it triggers our ancient survival instincts.   We see it as real, in part because our brains are wired that way.  Evolutionarily, social threats were just as real as physical threats.  Our chances of survival greatly increased to the extent that we collaborated with others and were secure in our group membership.  Being in community protected us from lions in the grass.  This well-established neural-pathway means that people we perceive to disrespect or dislike us are sometimes viewed as a serious risk to our well-being.  In response, we become more reactive, defensive, and outwardly focused – trying to either dominate to maintain status, or placate in order to avoid conflict, or any number of other behaviors.

These types of reactions to group membership threats served us well when we actually lived on the savanna where there were real lions.  Now, not so much.  I know that when I see someone as a threat, it is difficult to shift my perspective and recognize that my survival is not actually at stake.  One of my preferred methods for changing arrows into flowers is the work of Byron Katie.  Her method of deep inquiry helps me realize that the threats I react to as real may not actually be so.  But to be effective, I can’t have it be a purely intellectual exercise.  It has to be deeper than that, operating down at the level of my body, my physical reality – the same level where things are perceived as threats in the first place.  And it usually is not a once and done experience, but has to be repeated over and over.  Every time I slow down and examine the true nature of something or someone that triggers my threat response, I learn something new about myself, and perhaps am remapping my neural-pathways.  Turning arrows into flowers, one petal, one neuron at a time.

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How data helped make me a @UW_WBB fan

Kelsey Plum and the Huskies cheer their berth into the Final Four.  Washington and Stanford played in the Lexington Regional Final Sunday, March 27, 2016.  (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

Kelsey Plum and the Huskies cheer their berth into the Final Four. Washington and Stanford played in the Lexington Regional Final Sunday, March 27, 2016. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

As with many data geeks, I love baseball.  Other than that, I have not been a huge sports fan – but my love for data and forecasting has drawn me into another sport, and now I must admit to having a bit of a crush on the entire University of Washington Women’s basketball team.

Let’s be clear – I don’t really get the game, so even though I have attended  a few games, since it don’t really understand what is going on – the strategy or the plays – and I find it hard to be that engaged.  But I totally get the game of forecasting, and Nate Silver is one of the best players.  His site  has become a daily go-to for me – I love the combination of data, forecasting and well-written articles with analysis based on data.  It has some of the best coverage of the presidential campaign.  One of the things I love the most about Nate Silver and his team is their use of feedback loops – they assess their own forecasts against actual results and adjust to make the next round of forecasts better.  So when I saw the interactive March Madness bracket with probabilities for each team to make it to the next round and all the way, adjusted live during games, I could not resist.  How cool is that?!?

As I visited the site daily during the tournament to check out who had made it and how the probabilities of continued success had changed, I noticed the underdog UW Huskies hanging in there against the odds.  Eventually, the rest of Seattle did too.  These women have made it to the final four for the first time in program history.  There are many reasons we become sports fans – the sense of identity in being part of something bigger than yourself, admiration for the skill and hard work it takes to play at a high level, and of course the drama of upsets and the underdog winning.  I particularly love this aspect of sports – that even when the probability is low, as long as it is not 100% against you, you still have a chance.

The UW Huskies are the team in the Final Four with the lowest chance of winning the entire tournament, and I will be watching Sunday evening as they take Syracuse.  Go Dawgs!

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Play and work: it’s just ride

coasterOne of my intentions this year is Playful.  I chose it because it emerged during a day-long workshop in which I reflected on what I want more of in my life – so maybe it chose me.  I can be pretty intense, especially about my work, but I also love to laugh, be silly and have fun.  I want more playfulness, even as I seek other qualities that might grow the intensity in my life.  I have noticed that since I identified Playful as one of my intentions, I have become very aware of the shortage of play – I am working with a very high intensity of focus and effort these days.  So there is some sadness for me as I noticed this, and it made me wonder about the nature of work and play.  What I seek is play at work, not as a separate thing but as a quality that I bring to my work.

This reflection led me to pick up David Whyte’s recent book Consolations, in which he explores the meaning of the word “work.” It is a beautifully written piece, and the first sentence stayed with me: “Work among all its abstracts, is actually intimacy, the place where the self meets the world.”  The concept of the workplace as intimate really resonates with me – I think because I seek to be whole-hearted in my work, and sometimes that is really difficult and feels really tender and vulnerable. Whyte does not include “play” in his book, but he does include “joy” which is closely related to what I am seeking in play, so I turned to that next.  Here is the first sentence: “Joy is a meeting place, of deep intentionality and of self forgetting, the bodily alchemy of what lies inside us in communion with what formerly seemed outside, but is now neither, but become a living frontier, a voice speaking between us and the world: dance, laughter, affection …”

Both work and joy are framed by Whyte as places of connection between inside and outside, between us as individuals and the world around us.  A key difference in his descriptions is how the self shows up – in work the self is present and in joy the self is forgotten.  So maybe the way to have more joy at work is to forget self, even as you bring it into the work place.  This seems deeply true to me, and play may be one of the best ways to lose yourself.  This does not help me figure out how to integrate work and play more in my life, but I am hoping that just increasing my own awareness of play (or not play, as the case may be) will help me make choices that will increase playfulness.

All this reflection on the nature of work and play and how the self is connected to both led me to contemplate the nature of the self.  I recently studied the Yoga Sutras as part of an eight week online class with Sarah Trelease, during which I was also reading Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart so I was diving deep into Buddhist teachings, which can make you really question the nature of things and what you thought you knew!  I experienced the difference between my ego-identity self, something we create to be able to move through the world, and my essence, the Self that watches.  I had a deep recognition of how my attachment to an aspect of my ego identity was creating suffering for me – my craving to be seen, to exist, to have a past and a future.  Just noticing this was following by a relaxing of that attachment, at least for a while (no doubt it will return, that’s how it works!).

For me, the workplace is where my ego self tends to show up the most, wanting recognition or to be seen.  So it is also the place for me to practice letting go of ego.  Mindful awareness is one way to practice; I think another way is through play, leading to joyful self-forgetting.  Maybe play is a way to bring forth your Self, your essence. The antidote to the craving, according to Buddhism, is to contemplate the impermanent nature of all things.  Easier said than done!  For some light playfulness on this rather philosophical topic, I leave you with this video of Bill Hicks, a comedian, talking about the nature of reality, and our ability to change it with a simple choice between love and fear (thanks, Vince O’Neill).

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Power dynamics hurt collaboration

power dynamicsPower dynamics get in the way of collaboration.  We probably all knew this was true.  But I just heard a story on NPR about a study that proves it – and what is really interesting is some of the specific dynamics the research uncovered.  The study, conducted by Angus Hildreth and Cameron Anderson at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, found that when teams made of people with equal amounts of power as measured by organizational rank were given an assignment, the teams with higher rank members had a harder time reaching consensus.  They spent less time talking about the task at hand, and more time talking about other things, time vying for position and in conflict over who should be leading.  In addition, they withheld information from each other and are less creative when they have to coordinate with other powerful people than they are when working on problems on their own.

Of course, this was an experiment so you might question the extent to which it applies to real life.  But the research was done in a real organization, and as I listened while I drove I thought to myself about how much the results replicate what I have experienced in the organizations in which I have worked.  Sometimes I have thought that I would rather not move up the ranks, because the higher you go the more the conversations seem to be about rank itself than about actually getting work done.   When I left my last organization, I did so in part because I had come to the conclusion that at as I moved up in that organization I actually had less ability to get things done since everyone around me at that level had the same amount of power, and everything worth doing involved working across organizational boundaries.  I stepped out of a formal position of authority because I wanted to practice leading with influence as opposed to positional power.

Since then I have moved back up in rank.  But now I am keenly aware of the limits of my power and the importance of influence in getting things done.  The truth is, leadership through influence is much more valuable for the changes that most interest me, which are more focused on system change both inside and outside of my current organization.  And the good news is that influence requires two things: investing in building relationships, and being willing to be influenced, not just trying to influence others.  This kind of reciprocity is key, and helps in deepening relationships as well.  Fortunately, I truly enjoy both the relationships I have with my colleagues as well as the process of building them. I learn more about myself and grow much more in relationship than alone.  I hope that is a core part of me, and would not change if I moved even higher up in rank – but who knows?  The study cannot answer the question about whether the relationship between rank and ability to collaborate is the result of a treatment effect or a selection effect. Probably it is a bit of both.


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The inner critic: trying to help, but actually destructive

Tara Mohr, whose book Playing Big has made a big impact in my life, writes about the inner critic, and how you need to understand this voice in you, and recognize that it different from you – that you and your inner critic are not one and the same.  I have been exploring this concept with some of my colleagues.  We have engaged in direct dialogue with the inner critic – literally embodying it as a way to have a discussion with it, hear what it has to say, and speak to it directly.  The insights that came out of this experience were profound for each person who participated.  And one of the biggest benefits was the growth in intimacy among co-workers – something that is not always present in the work setting and when it is, is a real gift because it enriches my daily existence.

One of my colleagues sent me this video of a master class with opera singer Joyce DiDonato.  In it she talks about the inner critic and the inner mentor, and specifically how the inner critic voice never makes us better (watch from 7:30 to 15:50).    I really appreciated how courageously she shared her own experience, because the idea that the inner critic serves us is one that I and my colleagues believed when we first started exploring these parts of ourselves.  But in reality, this inner negative voice only undermines our confidence and gets in our way by preventing us from being fully present.  It actually prevents you from true discernment about what you are doing well and what you could improve. Believing that the inner critic voice is helpful, that listening to it will help make you better or more successful, gets in your way and prevents you from growing. When I reflect on my own experience, it is true that no joy, no growth, and no real success has come from listening to my inner critic.  Only doubt and suffering.

I can’t make my inner critic disappear, and in fact don’t want to.  She is a part of who I am.  I want to honor her, because she is trying to protect me.  But rather than act on her voice, I want to simply acknowledge it and recognize that it comes from a dark place. My inner mentor has been much quieter over the years, drowned out by the critic, but her voice is growing in strength.

Thank you to Cristina Roark, Emily Thorpe, Sara Strueby, and Marina Barnes for sharing themselves and to Marina for sharing the Joyce DiDonato video with me.

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More influence, less control

InfluenciaI have been in a new role for about 6 weeks now, since the beginning of the year, and it is challenging my self-identity, as so often happens when you step in to a new role.  This has been difficult at times, but also feels really healthy and good – I am being shaken awake, and brought face to face with my own stories about myself that may not be true.  One of the stories I did not even realize I had was that I was in control of my work life.  Had you asked me if I believed that about myself, I would probably have said no, of course not, because that is the obvious “right” answer.  But I did have a fair amount of control, or at least I thought I did.  At the beginning of the day I knew what meetings I had, what my top priorities were, and most days I could count on those remaining fairly stable over the course of the day, or even the week.  On the rare days when some big unexpected thing came my way, I was very unsettled by that experience and needing to adjust in response.

My new role requires me to be more attuned to changes in the environment and situation, more responsive to others’ needs, and able to let go of what I thought my plan was for the day in order to address the more important thing that just came my way.  If I stay attached to what I thought I would get done, I end up unhappy and closed off to whatever is emerging in front of me.  I won’t lie, it is really hard some days.  Sometimes I crave more predictability.

The interesting thing is that I probably have a broader sphere of influence now.  In part that is due to my positional authority.  But deeper than that, it might be precisely because I am practicing letting go of my attachment to what I thought should be, allowing me to be more present to what is.  I don’t know.  I just know that every day at work I get to practice not knowing what is going to happen next, and when I fall back into thinking that I do know, I usually get reminded that I am not in charge.  Over and over again. Just like life.

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Intentions – more powerful than goals

2016 intentionsI spent a day last weekend with friends reflecting on 2015 and setting intentions for the 2016.  Intentions are so different from goals – and I find them so much more powerful.  Last year I set 5 intentions – words that represented things I wanted to live more fully into.  The emerged from a process of reflection about where I was at the time, and where I wanted to be in the future.  What was so powerful about these intentions is that they showed up in my life in completely unexpected and unpredictable ways.  For example, one of my intentions was “explore the unknown.”  When I selected it, I was thinking about my desire to travel more, to have more adventures, to go someplace with no agenda.  Last year I did that.  I was also presented with the opportunity to explore unknown skills, relationships, and domains of knowledge – and do to so using new (unknown to me) methods.

I have always been someone who sets goals, and found that practice has served me well.  And yet when goals are not met, I feel a little let down.  I tend to focus on what was not done, as opposed to what I accomplished.  But with my intentions last year, I had less specific ideas about what I wanted to do at the beginning of the year.  I was more grounded in the qualities I wanted more of, and why I wanted more of those things in my life.  I did create action plans for how to live more fully into my intentions, but I also noticed opportunities that were unplanned, and could respond in the moment, choosing to say yes to things that would facilitate my growth toward my intention.  My intentions opened my aperture wider, allowing me to see things I would not have otherwise seen.  As a result, I had one of the most amazing years of my life – I ended with more of all 5 of my intentions, feeling very full and also ready for what’s next.

I start this coming year with 5 new intentions.  They both complement each other and are a bit paradoxical.  I look forward to finding out how they unfold in my life.

I want to express my deep gratitude to Larysa Slobodian, friend and colleague (and fantastic coach), who led me and the others through the intention setting process.

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Being as source of doing

just-beingAs I dive in to the New Year, the number of things I could do is infinite.  Even while I grow my capacity to get things done (see previous post on closing and opening loops), I have been reflecting on Being, and how I might loosen my focus on the activity of Doing a bit to increase my attention on being present.  I yearn for more of simply being, of getting in touch with and living from my true essence.  Yet that idea also stirs up some anxiety for me – the thought occurs, “what would happen if I stop Doing so much?  Would my job, my family life, my personal life, my very success be threatened?”  My story about myself is that I have been pretty good at getting things done, so the idea of moving away from activity feels uncomfortable.

Then, while reading Stephen Levine’s book A Gradual Awakening, it came to me that my ego, the story of myself, has taken credit for all the activity after the fact.  Perhaps all action taken comes from my essence and always has.  Perhaps we can only ever Be, and the doing that takes place is always sourced Being.  In which case the more I can be present to my essence, the more my action will be aligned with it.  Karl Hoover recently blogged about the value of reflection time for checking in with how we wish to be, compared to how we are actually being, so that we can show up as transformational leaders. Maybe I don’t need to worry about whether I will just stop doing things if I focus more on being.  Activity will happen.  With mindfulness, I can notice it. And not take credit for it, or its results.

I am curious to hear others’ reflections on the relationship between Being and Doing – please share in comments.

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Closing loops, opening loops

open and closedTwo ideas came together for me in the course of the week that seem quite related:  one of my colleagues mentioned how much more difficult it is to close a loop than to open a loop, and David Allen’s recent blog titled Good Riddance which is about letting go of things to create space for new things.  I will start with the idea that it is more difficult to close a loop than to open one.  My colleague was referring to conversations, pieces of work email threads – anything that starts something.  It does seem true to me that there is relatively little effort in generating new ideas of things to do – I have thoughts all day long about new projects, tasks, books to read, movies to watch, all kinds of things where I could place my energy and attention.  To actually follow through on these thoughts requires just that – energy and attention.  And for me there are clearly more possibilities than I could ever actually make manifest.  However, just having an idea, thought or conversation about something is not the same as starting it.  Starting something takes energy, just as ending something does.  I personally love getting something to “done” – I actually get a lot of energy from closing a loop, whether that be reaching closure with someone in a conversation or finishing a project.

Which brings me to the David Allen blog post.  This showed up in my inbox within a couple of days of hearing my colleague’s comment, and it did two things for me: inspired me to close the loop on more things, and gave me insight about why I love getting to “done” so much.  In the blog David says:  “Your psyche has a certain quota of open loops and incompletions that it can tolerate, and it will unconsciously block the engagement with new material if it has reached its limit.”  His hypothesis is that if you clear the decks you create capacity for the new.  This is absolutely true for me. I find that when I have too many open loops, I have a strong internal drive to get to closure, both because it is inherently satisfying to complete things and because it frees me up to start something new.

Some people have a hard time starting things.  Some people have a hard time finishing things.  It strikes me as valuable to grow your capacity for both and to have that be balanced – or to be part of team that has balance.

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