A teacher . . . leads you to the threshold of your own mind

Teaching XVIII

No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of our knowledge.

The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.

If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.

The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.

The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it.

And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.

For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.

And even as each one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.

Khalil Gibran

When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.

Like so many people, I resent the paper of business. I resent the untidiness of returns that go off to government at odd times that bear no relation to what is happening in the business itself.  I hate the way it takes half-and-hour to process a bit of paper.

Other people hate other aspects of their job and probably for the same reason.  The rhythm of what they are doing clashes in some respect with another rhythm.  As I resist settling down to a task that takes far too long to orient – to work out a step-by-step process – and needs to be finished from beginning to end otherwise that settling down time will be wasted again tomorrow, I found another poem from Khalil Gibran.  We work to be in step with “life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.”  We need to find the rhythm of the dull parts of our job and revere them.   Not to do that is “to become a stranger to the seasons”.    That’s a more interesting way to look at the parts of our job that we find deadly.

What do you think?

Work chapter VII

Then a ploughman said, “Speak to us of Work.”

And he answered, saying:

You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.

For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.

When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.

Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?

Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.

But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,

And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,

And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.

But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.

You have been told also life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.

And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,

And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,

And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,

And all work is empty save when there is love;

And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.

And what is it to work with love?

It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.

It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,

And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.

Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, “he who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is a nobler than he who ploughs the soil.

And he who seizes the rainbow to lay it on a cloth in the likeness of man, is more than he who makes the sandals for our feet.”

But I say, not in sleep but in the over-wakefulness of noontide, that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass;

And he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.

Work is love made visible.

And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.

For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.

And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the wine.

And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.

Khalil Gibran

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Do you agree with Khalil Gibran’s ethics of market place?

It’s tax return time again and I began looking around for some poetry about commerce.  Here we go. Do you agree with Khalil Gibram?  Does he put the case for honest business well?

Buying and Selling chapter XI

And a merchant said, “Speak to us of Buying and Selling.”

And he answered and said:

To you the earth yields her fruit, and you shall not want if you but know how to fill your hands.

It is in exchanging the gifts of the earth that you shall find abundance and be satisfied.

Yet unless the exchange be in love and kindly justice, it will but lead some to greed and others to hunger.

When in the market place you toilers of the sea and fields and vineyards meet the weavers and the potters and the gatherers of spices, –

Invoke then the master spirit of the earth, to come into your midst and sanctify the scales and the reckoning that weighs value against value.

And suffer not the barren-handed to take part in your transactions, who would sell their words for your labour.

To such men you should say,

“Come with us to the field, or go with our brothers to the sea and cast your net;

For the land and the sea shall be bountiful to you even as to us.”

And if there come the singers and the dancers and the flute players, – buy of their gifts also.

For they too are gatherers of fruit and frankincense, and that which they bring, though fashioned of dreams, is raiment and food for your soul.

And before you leave the marketplace, see that no one has gone his way with empty hands.

For the master spirit of the earth shall not sleep peacefully upon the wind till the needs of the least of you are satisfied.

Khalil Gibran

Positive psychology and injustice

This is the second post in the 4 puzzles of positive psychology.

Pleasure, engagement & meaning

In the first post in this series, I summarized the difference between pleasure,engagement and meaning and the importance of having all three in our lives. Some people are too pleasure-oriented and would be happy with more ‘flow’ at work and more involvement with projects larger than themselves. Others are too involved in work and big missions and would do well to stop and smell the roses, to take greater care over their food, or to simply ‘chill’.

Drink beer. Drink lots of it.

To put the combination of the three levels in some kind of context, we often say to students, “Drink beer. Drink lots of it!”, (they do anyway). “But don’t just drink it. Understand it. Appreciate it. Know where it comes from. Know one beer from another.” They understand. They get it.

Psychology & Dark Times

In this post I want to write about something that bothered me. How does positive psychology apply to dark times? I am very uneasy with some of the political uses of positive psychology to dismiss injustice in the world. And of course, I am not the only one who has this concern.

If you have this reservation too, you might be interested in my thoughts.

Positive psychology & naysayers

Positive psychology and injustice are two different issues. Some people may try to use positive psychology to condone or side-step injustice. They may say to a poor person – “Oh, be happy.”

My advice is to not waste your time challenging their faulty thinking. If they are condoning injustice, then they are condoning injustice. It has nothing to do with positive psychology. Treat the issue of injustice on its own terms.

Apologize and invite. Say sweetly: “Oh I am sorry, I didn’t realize you weren’t interested. I am sorry to have wasted your time on this issue. This is what we are doing and if you ever change your mind, you are welcome to join us.”

Then genuinely and sincerely attend to what interests them. Authentic empathy is hard when we are annoyed and feeling judgemental, but their callousness is not the responsibility of positive psychologists nor mine or yours.

Positive psychology & injustice

Positive psychology and injustice are two different issues. Some people, who live with injustice, will not use positive psychology fully because their minds are fully taken up with injustice. They should not stop dealing with the injustice but they should see it for what it is.

First, injustice messes with our heads. If it didn’t, we probably wouldn’t care! Second, there is little we can do about injustice until we change other conditions. We need to build alliances, form coalitions, take action etc. By definition, injustice is done to people and is out of their immediate control.

We shouldn’t stop living because someone else wants us to. And we shouldn’t wait for the other person to reform before they start living. We need to live now.

Be clear, positive psychology will not solve injustice. But it will help us live ou own lives undeterred by the injustice. Full of energy and full of life, we can then deal with injustice, give it the attention it deserves and no more.

Injustice will still be there, ugly and intrusive. But that is the nature of it. It wasn’t put there by positive psychologists and they have no power to take it away.

Positive psychologists have the power though to bring to your attention little techniques that help you keep your mental life in the 3:1 to 7:1 range of positive to negative thoughts when you are creative, sociable and generally having fun. Use it. There is no reason to compound injustice with misery.

Have fun and sort out injustice as a separate exercise.

Positive psychology & injustice conducted in our name

Positive psychology and injustice are two different issues. As a psychologist, I can help someone suffering from injustice to remain in a positive state of mind.

Certainly a victim of injustice needs to deal with the injustice and I have two further choices: I can help them or I can get out of their way.

What I cannot do is grind them down any further – that is not a legitimate choice – and if I am depressing them, or acting as a general ‘mood hoover’, then they are right to challenge me. As I would them if our positions were reversed.

Help them or get out of the way. That’s the choice. But don’t undermine their self-worth or make their mood worse.

Positive psychology & formerly privileged people throwing a ‘strop’

Now let’s imagine someone who’s life is limited by their own sense of grievance.

Let’s take the most obvious example – a young white male who looks ahead and cannot see opportunities for ‘masculine’ wok with his hands and the role of authoritative head of an adoring family. He resents the changes in society and stops working at school.

Agreeing with him is not what he needs. But arguing with him is also fruitless. He is out to sulk and out to blackmail. Caving in to either is evil. It is pandering to weakness, not strength, and hopelesshess not courage.

He is worth more. Apologise and invite. Acknowledge his bad mood and invite him into the modern world.

The invitation must be genuine. There really must be opportunities, which were he to attempt, he has a ‘normal’ chance of success or failure and a ‘normal’ chance of rewards and consequences.

Apologize and invite. He will come in. He will blossom. He will fall in love with life again.

Positive psychology and morality

Positive psychology does not relieve us of our moral obligation to express solidarity and to be politically engaged.

It just removes from us a obligation to sulk. I’m glad of that. Sulking is so tedious.

I will enjoy myself no matter what. And kick injustices into touch on my own terms.

I hope that helps. I wrote on psychology and dark times several times over the last two years and this sums up my current thinking.

Jo Jordan

UK, January 2010

Do we have the courage to recognise courage in others?

I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naïve or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman.

Anais Nin

That would be the good way to evaluate any one who will have power over us – do they have the courage to treat us as person with our strengths and weaknesses? Do they have the courage to engage on an equal footing?

What would our relationships look like if we were to make enormous demands on others, if we did not doubt their courage or toughness, if we did not believe they were naïve or innocent?

What would our courage look and feel like?

I think we would enjoy it.

(And when powerful people do not have the courage to treat us as people, do we have the courage to recognize their fear?)

Are you out of touch with the blooming of your life?

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom

Anais Nin

I wonder when that time comes?

We fret when we are not blooming

I think we always know when the blooming is about to happen just as surely as some days we wake up and know we will tear through the to do list. But we can’t bloom all the time and when we aren’t blooming, we fret.

  • Some times we are anxious to flower before our time. We are not really ready to bloom. We are just anxious that we will miss the summer. We want reassurance like a child needs to know how many nights to Christmas.

Our sense of timing has gone missing. I am sure we could get it back with a few moments quiet contemplation or a five minutes of genuine listening to a friend’s distress.

  • Other times we are reluctant to bloom and we miss the summer. Sometimes we are not paying attention or we are trying to blackmail the world.

Maybe we need to “go out” and get in touch with the world to see if we notice the seasons changing. Maybe our friend needs a brief of fresh air or a change of scenery.

  • Other times we need to blossom but the weather is foul and we don’t want our fine petals to be cast into the wind.  We fret because we also know that there is no time other than now. “Conduct you blooming in the noise and crack of the whirlwind.” says Gwendolyn Brooks.

Maybe we stopping through vanity. Yes, we will be ragged and have no idea where our petals will fly. Maybe they will just lie unnoticed.

But it is time to bloom. And we can’t remain in a tight bud out of vanity.  It is time to burst into flower.

We always know when we are about to bloom

We will know when we are going to bloom anyway. Though we may have no applause.

No need to be vain. Bloom.

Autumn will come soon and we will be in another season of our lives.

Pleasure, engagement and meaning for a good life

Is happiness = pleasure?

Gaye Prior kindly commented on my post about poetry and positive psychology.

“Pleasure does not give life meaning and purpose and love. These are more important to me than passing enjoyment and survive even in the face of tragedy, horror, awfulness and loss.”

Do positive psychologists equate happiness with pleasure?

I’ve promised to reply in four parts describing the 4 puzzles of positive psychology.  This is the first part.

Principles of positive psychology

Let’s make the 1st principle of positive psychology the study of the positive (rather than the study of the negative or gaps or deficits.)

The 2nd principle is that well-being or happiness has three parts. As Gaye says “Pleasure does not give life meaning and purpose and love.”

Martin Seligman points out that well-being is made up of

The pleasurable life

The engaged life

The meaningful life

There is a questionnaire on the Penn Uni site that anyone can do. The items on the questionnaire flesh out the concepts.  Scroll down to the bottom of the page and pick “measures 3 routes to happiness” under “life satisfaction questionnaires” (2nd last on the page as I write).

Using the ideas of pleasure, engagement and meaning to enrich your life

Here is the description of the three levels of life provided by the psychologists at Penn Uni.

Higher scores on the Engaging Life (knowing what your signature strengths are, and then recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure and parenting to use those strengths to have more flow in life) and the Meaningful Life (using your signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are) have been shown to lead to greater satisfaction with life. Higher scores on the Pleasant Life (having as many pleasures as possible and having the savoring and mindfulness skills to amplify the pleasures) don’t add to satisfaction. To measure your satisfaction, use the Satisfaction with Life Scale.

Keeping pleasure, engagement and meaning in balance

Few of us have our lives in balance. That is the message for people who live in abundant circumstances.  Seek balance (and stop complaining!).

Seeking pleasure, engagement and meaning in difficult circumstances

For those of who do not live in abundant circumstances, we have serious shortfalls in one area or another and these shortfalls are not under our control.

I am always uneasy about casual interpretations of positive psychology that dismiss reality. Life can be awful.

The point though is what can be done about it?  If something is not under our control, there is little point in railing about it. It it is not under our control then it is not under our control.  Focusing on what is out-of-control just makes us feel helpless.  That was Seligman’s original speciality btw ~ learned helplessness.  Continually focusing on what cannot be done destroys our ability to do anything.

What we can do is work with what we’ve got, and work with whomever will work with us, to leverage whatever we can. We may not be able to change reality but we can do what we can.

Taking control of what little is under our control increases our chances of surviving difficult circumstances

Doing what we can with people who are important to us also seems to increase our chances of survival. Those chances might be minimal, as they were for later psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who survived an extermination camp. But they improve.

The overriding rule

We must remember that we have to work with what is under our control. That is you, me, the people around us and what works. Those are our tools.

The importance of pleasure

We should also not neglect the pleasurable life. We should respect fine food, the sunset and the rose growing in the garden. Oddly, savoring and mindfulness, though nowhere near the whole story of positive psychology, start a positive spiral.

Gratitude diaries provoke a spiral of well being.  On a really bad day, feel the earth under your feet. Look at that unexciting doorway of brick and mortar as the most magnificent invitation.

The unfairness of engagement

The engaged life is easy for professional people. We work and like to. Engagement is much more problematic for young people who generally only find ‘flow’ in sports and hobbies. One of the reasons that computer games are popular is that they provide the autonomy, social interaction, opportunity to learn, and opportunity to belong to something meaningful that is often not possible in our educational system.

People in low level jobs also have trouble finding flow in jobs which are poorly designed, micro-managed, and in which they are treated with rudeness and contempt. It is common for people in low level jobs to “recraft”. Why is it that security guards in Zimbabwe are more knowledgeable than shop assistants? Why are domestic help loyal? There is an element of Stockholm syndrome, but there is also a natural tendency to create a job that is satisfying to do.

The fragility of meaning

The meaningful level is provided by being part of something larger than ourselves.

I imagine more wars are created by violating this level than by anything more complicated. We are sensitive to exclusion and exclusion ‘crashes’ our psychological structures very quickly indeed (5 to 10 minutes does it.)

When we are victims of exclusion, we can create a temporary protective buffer with savoring, mindfulness and gratitude diaries. Some people use the pleasure principle badly, of course, and take to overeating and drink, both of which have their place in celebration but are ill-advised compensation for lack of  belonging. A walk or smelling a rose allow us to avoid adding a punished body to a battered soul.

Exclusion is devastating.

I hasten to add, that we shouldn’t be too judgemental about people who ‘get it wrong’ because exclusion is devastating.

There is a saying

“when someone in authority like a teacher describes the world and you are not in it, it is like looking in a mirror and not being able to see your face.”

I imagine this is why migrant who “walk both sides of the street” settle better than those who try to assimilate.

Buffering oneself from the impact of exclusion

The antidotes to institutional exclusion (that go beyond a painful social slight) are to develop empathy with others, to show solidarity, and to work on healthy political structures.

We all know the do-gooder who ‘helps’ others. I mean travel the same road as others. Suffer the same risks and share the same glory.

Solidarity is a long road but it is the best road. Mindfulness matters again but not the mindfulness of concrete pleasures. This time we want mindfulness towards the dynamism of the universe.

Simple techniques like closing one’s eyes and listening for the furthest sound can break the cycle of intense stress. Paolo Coelho’s post of today tells us to look expectantly for the magic moments that arrive unannounced and are gone in a twinkle. When we think there is only one microsecond of possibility a day, we pay attention.  Even David Whyte’s line of “everybody is waiting for you” suggests to us that we need to reach out.

In teaching, we often use Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese to show that we are part of any situation in which we find ourselves and by showing compassion to ourselves (as opposed to self-pity and indulgence), we help to feel in touch with the movement of the universe. I’ll add the poem at the bottom.

Three levels of a good life

In summary, Gaye identified the three levels of a good life:

  • pleasure ~ respect for beauty and comfort
  • engagement ~ enjoyment of work
  • meaning ~ belonging to something bigger than ourselves

With this layout, pleasure seems as if it is the lower level. It is a level that is easily abused but so to is over-identification with achievement or subordinating ourselves to readily to others.

All three are part of the good life. When life is in a mess, try doing an audit of what is going well in each area. Sometimes the map that follows is surprising.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

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Don’t spend a day without having noticed a miraculous moment when the universe converges and you were there

Positive psychology in poetry

When it comes to understanding positive psychology, there really is no competition between prose and poetry.

Today, Paulo Coelho quoted a passage from his book By The River Piedra I sat Down and Wept, the first in the triology about a week in the life of someone ordinary to whom something extraordinary happens.  You must read it for yourself.

Positive psychology in prose

In prose, which is no substitute, this is what he said.

Every day there is a moment when a miracle is possible.  It doesn’t announce itself.  It is easily missed.  And it is likely to present itself in the most unlikeliest ways.  In a humdrum guise, or as to lowly that it is not worth earthly notice.

When we look back on our day or our year or our life, we want to look back on those miraculous moments when we were fully attentive and our understanding changed in a flash and our lives changed too.

Because these moments are easy to miss, it is very easy to spend a whole day attending only to what we know.  To make sure we never miss those glancing moments, we have to pay attention, expectantly to everything around us.

So we slow down and live a less cluttered life.  To be sure, the more we pack in, the more we are likely not pay attention to anything.

And even when life is slow, when our company is dull, when we yearn to be elsewhere, we can still pay attention to the moment, and look out for a miracle.  It may not come in that hour.   There are no promises.  But it might.

Be mindful

Don’t miss it.

Don’t spend a day without having noticed a miraculous moment when the universe converges and you were there.

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Positive psychology in poetry

Daffodil flowers.
Image via Wikipedia

Positive Psychology in Poetry

in time of daffodils (who know

the goal of living is to grow)

forgetting why, remember how

in time of lilacs who proclaim

the aim of waking is to dream,

remember so (forgetting seem)

in time of roses (who amaze

our now and here with paradise)

forgetting if, remember yes

in time of all sweet things beyond

whatever mind may comprehend,

remember seek (forgetting find)

and in a mystery to be

(when time from time shall set us free)

forgetting me, remember me

E E Cummings

Positive Psychology in prose

#1    Don’t worry about why you are here.  Do what stirs your heart and expands your life.

Rule-of-thumb: Live your life without regrets.  When you are on your deathbed and you think back on this decision, what will you wish you had done.

#2    Don’t worry about who is letting you down.  Call for the “angels of your better nature”.

Rule-of-thumb:  Think again.  What would happen if you ‘invite and apologize”.

#3     Don’t worry about what may fail.  The future doesn’t exist.  Be mindful.  There is only now.

Rule-of-thumb:  Count ten things that you love and can reach out and touch. Even the coarse texture of the dungeon walls.

#4    Don’t judge your life by what you will “achieve” or “get”.  Become adventurous.

Rule-of-thumb: When your goals worry you, ask which part of the project you will do.

#5    Remember that nothing in life endures except our relationship with others.

Rule-of-thumb: Ask what would happen if you put people first and put other concerns second?

Would you phrase the prose differently?

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Is poetry understanding the needs of the moment, as the moment exists in the river of time?

I discovered this definition of a poem quite accidentily today.  I am quoting it verbatim.

What Makes a Poem a Poem?

Charles Bernstein

Professor of English

My lecture is called “What Makes a Poem a Poem?” I’m going to set my timer.

It’s not rhyming words at the end of a line. It’s not form. It’s not structure. It’s not loneliness. It’s not location. It’s not the sky. It’s not love. It’s not the color. It’s not the feeling. It’s not the meter. It’s not the place. It’s not the intention. It’s not the desire. It’s not the weather. It’s not the hope. It’s not the subject matter. It’s not the death. It’s not the birth. It’s not the trees. It’s not the words. It’s not the things between the words. It’s not the meter-…

(timer beeps)

It’s the timing.

A poem is at the right time and the right place

Have I understood Professor Bernstein.  Is a poem a poem when it is at the right time and in the right place?

Is poetry understanding the needs of the moment, as the moment exists in the river of time?  Is understanding the needs of the moment in the river of time poetic?