Sunday, May 29, 2005

Complaining about Complaining

One of my spiritual disciplines is to try to refrain from complaining. But as soon as I say this out loud, and try to give a rationale for why I adopt this as a spiritual discipline, I realize that I veer dangerously close to complaining myself -- about complaining! Ok, I'll admit, I don't merely "veer dangerously close" -- I fall wholly into actually complaining.

So, I'm just going to let myself do that for a little bit here, but then I'll try to bring it back to something more positive at the end.

The reason this comes up now is that I've been making a serious effort to learn more about blog-world, and to find some blogs to list along the side of this one like I've seen other people do. (First I have to figure out how to do this, because I do have some candidates I'd like to list! But this is getting off topic...) As I've learned strategies for trying to find kindred-spirit blogs, I've been looking at a lot of blogs along the way. And I find that there are many blogs that include a lot of complaining. For example, I like Quaker blogs, and I like blogs about the academic world. (There are others I like too, but these two lend themselves best to my next comment.) But people can spend a lot of time in these blogs complaining about the current state of Quakerism, or Academia, respectively. And, while I'm generally sympathetic with the concerns that are expressed, I end up feeling left with a sense of hopelessness and despair. Sometimes I also feel yelled at, even if I'm not actually guilty of the problems these writers complain about.

For those who write in some sort of public way: don't we have a responsibility, in our writing, to move beyond our "I'm upset about this" reactions? If we need to write into and through our dismay first, in order to get to more positive solutions and suggestions, then shouldn't we go back and edit out most of the dismay before posting or publishing our writing?

Challenging words, perhaps, in our current culture that generally permits, even encourages, complaint and critique! And perhaps I haven't been perfect about this myself.

But I'd like to ask (both as a reminder to myself, and to others who may read this): what writings do you most like to read, and why?

Here are some of my answers (this is the "moving towards the positive" part that I promised above!):

  • I like writings that are deeply rooted in well-reflected-upon personal experience. The personal experience can be positive or negative; the reflection part translates that experience into helpful insight.
  • I like honest statements about people's current burning questions, struggles, problems -- statements that move beyond complaint and contain hints of why these questions, struggles, problems matter, and how it is that addressing them will actually make things better, and even point to what that "better" looks like!
  • I like many forms of humor, especially humor about the ironies of life.
  • I like writing that shows compassion and understanding towards others, and towards oneself.
  • I like writing that helps deepen the reader's understanding about the world and about human nature.
  • I like writing that does not insult the reader. I like writing that seems to regard the reader as a trusted, intimate, and honored friend.
As we become more aware of what we like to read, then I believe that we also have a responsibility to be aware enough about our writing to hold it to the same standards.

One final thought: complaining is easy to do. Working to bring about real and lasting change is very hard. Our culture gives us lots of models for how to keep complaining; furthermore, complaining is habit-forming. (Complaining may also keep us complacent.) It is much harder to find good models for how to bring about change. And working for change requires focus, self-awareness, intentionality, and discipline. It also requires patience. Most of all, it requires deep insight into human nature, and the desire to work compassionately with human nature, not against it. When you are working for change, you will meet resistance. If you fight against that resistance by berating people for resisting your excellent ideas, you will lose. When you begin to learn what resistance really is, and accept that everyone (yourself included) does this, then and only then will you begin to learn how to become an effective agent for change.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Vocation, Calling, and Vows

One of the issues I have been struggling with of late is finding the balance between solitude and sociability. While I find my relationships meaningful and valuable, I also find that I need generous amounts of solitude to restore my soul. One good friend of mine thinks that life is all about relationships, and he cannot relate to my need for solitude. In fact, there are a lot of people who do not understand this. So, I did some searching for information about the monastic life because, ironically, I needed to reassure myself that I am not alone in my valuing of solitude!

I have long been attracted to the monastic contemplative life, and have very much appreciated how the Catholic faith and other faith traditions as well do have a category and a structure for this way of life. My own faith tradition (The Religious Society of Friends, Quakers) also has an appreciation for this way of life, but not such a clear and explicit structure for it like the Catholics have. My question is whether I can still claim that kind of life for myself anyway, and live it openly and unapologetically.

So, I was looking up information about discerning whether one is called to the religious life or not, and came across this web page, and passed the test with flying colors: Catholic Update �2001 - Vocations: How Is God Calling Me? by Fidelis Tracy, C.D.P.

It is not that the website actually has a test, but everywhere it says, "If you feel ________, you may be experiencing a call to religious life," I found myself nodding my head vigorously.

What really surprised me was how unobjectionable I found the three vows! The three vows are chastity, poverty, and obedience. At first glance, I thought I would find reasons to reject these particular vows. Not chastity, because throughout my life, I have almost always been in love with someone; not poverty, because I'm trying to "embrace complexity" after all! Not obedience to any human community, because what I care most about is discerning God's call for me.

But the way the author of this web page describes the three vows helped me to see them in new ways. Chastity is not about not loving people, but is about keeping your life centered around God, and from that centeredness, reaching out in love to all. You set behavioral limits in ways that help you to keep the human love focused on the spiritual, and help keep your relationships developing in healthy, mutually respectful ways. All of this makes sense to me -- it is exactly how I want to live. To accept this "vow" would free me to engage in relationships in exactly the way that feels right for me.

Poverty is about simplicity, and is about keeping your work focused on what matters, without being distracted by having to pour too much attention into caring for material things, and without being distracted by tasks and diversions that are not really necessary. This has been important to me. The kind of "complexity" I wish to learn to embrace is not an extravagant, expensive, material complexity, but a different kind, and a kind that demands that I keep the rest of my life as simple as possible. So I have already been striving for this: a simplicity that is just enough to support my work; the rest gets "given away" in the various ways a person can truly and meaningfully give.

And obedience! Obedience is about obedience to God's call, which, translated, can also be described as living true to your integrity, ideals, values. It's about trying to bring goodness more fully into being in the world. To do that does mean to subvert your own pleasure, sometimes, for a greater good. It is rooted in a radical respect for all people -- which also includes respect for the institutions and organizations you believe in and choose to be connected to, which entails a kind of obedience then to the rules and principles that govern these institutions. This does not have to be a blind and thoughtless obedience -- you are still allowed to question and even try to modify some of the rules. But the notion of obedience is a notion of respect for the value of the ways that rules and principles do structure and guide our behavior towards each other and our working with each other, and it is good to honor that as much as possible. Only if conscience itself brings you to question particular rules does obedience then intervene at a higher level. In these cases, I believe that the obedience we are really called to respond to is the higher call of our conscience. But even here, there is a fundamental difference between an angry rebellion and a strategic attempt to change the rule. The latter approach remains respectful towards the organization or institution and tries to make it better. In my life, I am embedded in a community I very much like. This notion of vows is very meaningful for me, helping provide guidelines for how to orient my life within this community: how to engage in relationships, and how to structure my work and my life.

Many people initially think of vows as restrictive; but the right vows for a person help them to accept and live true to what they know about themselves, in ways that enable them to bring their best into the world.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Kinds of Busyness

True to the theme of "embracing complexity": busyness, I have noticed, can sometimes actually be uplifting and energizing. Many people take "being too busy" always to be problematic. In fact, "being too busy" and "being stressed" can be regarded as synonymous. Early last week, I was definitely feeling that way, (uncharacteristically) telling almost anyone who asked me how I was that I was exhausted, and that even too much of a good thing is still too much. There are certainly times when that is indeed true.

But then something strange happened that very much surprised me -- over the course of my busy week, I felt the exhaustion gradually lift, and I genuinely felt energized by the end. Even experiencing this happen, it was hard to imagine that it could be possible! I thought I needed Pure Rest -- for an extended length of time! Sometimes that is what a person needs -- time in which you simply do what you feel like doing from moment to moment rather than pressuring yourself to follow a plan or do specific things.

So, why was it that last week's busyness turned out to relieve my exhaustion and energize me? I think because it was a different kind of busyness. It was a change of pace from the kind of busyness in which I was being asked to give in various ways, to a kind of busyness in which I was listening to good ideas and could simply absorb, and think, and process. I took copious notes, and many of my notes were a kind of brainstorming about how I might apply and use these ideas. There, in the midst of lots of people and lots of ideas, I found a kind of contemplative space, and gave myself permission in that space to accept and take in the nurturing that I needed.

Being aware of what feeds our souls is so very important -- and giving ourselves the permission to accept such nurturance where we can find it is important too.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Misunderstanding Each Other

It is hard for human beings to understand each other.

Some friends and I have been talking a lot about the great polarizing forces in our culture. Issues get presented in highly polarized ways, as if, for every issue, there are two possible positions ("for" or "against") and those positions are totally incompatible! If we really believe this, then it is very tempting to surround ourselves with others who think like us, and from the comfort of this mutually-reinforcing social network, cast horrified looks at those "others" who somehow believe the opposite (= wrong!) point of view!

Is it possible to facilitate understanding across such entrenched divides? It is, but it requires attention not only to techniques of good, engaged dialogue, but also to the emotional dimensions of engaging in such dialogues. People can find it really scary to fully face points of view different from their own. Misunderstanding is rooted in fear.

Fortunately, fear has an amazing and seldom-appreciated quality: it tends to weaken (and often even dissolve) when irradiated with the power of full, conscious, critical attention. That is, when you turn to it and look at it directly and ask it firmly, "why are you here?!" fear shrivels to half its size and intensity, or less, and is only able to blurt out its half-hearted response, "I'm trying to protect you!" "From what?" you ask back. It fades even more. "Terrible things!" it says vaguely. "Like what?" you ask, gaining confidence. From here, the answers may vary, but they become increasingly unconvincing. Humiliation? Pain? (Are these actually fatal?) Death itself? Most of the things that frighten us or make us anxious do not, after all, really threaten death, when questioned seriously enough.

The more we identify the sources of our own insecurities and question them, the more we come to realize that fear is shadow to the light of consciousness. The best way to deal with fear is not to keep running, leaving a growing wake of shadow behind us, but to turn around and face the fear and try to increase our conscious understanding of both ourselves and the wider world of others who are different from us. And so, not only does fear block understanding, but the quest for greater understanding turns out to be the most effective antidote to the terrorizing power of fear.

After all, it is not fun to live caged in by fear, surrounded only by what is familiar and safe. Such a world is very small and ultimately unsatisfying. We do need the enrichment that others can give us. We need to come out of ourselves and into a world that is bigger than us. We need to keep growing.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

I Take That Back

Ok, never mind. Things are not at all calming down yet. We've been having faculty development workshops all week -- which have been great, but I'm really ready for a bit of a break! And while I'm out doing those workshops, other kinds of work pile up, and deadlines march closer and closer. Did I mention I'm really ready for a break?!?

But, again, our workshops have been very good. We are talking a lot about intentionality, motivation, meaningfulness, mindfulness. We are talking about engaged dialogue, and cultivating students' appreciation of the importance of really listening to each other, and trying to understand points of view different from their own.

And so I keep thinking about awareness, perceptiveness. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written about the moral value of being perceptive. I like people who are alert through life, awake, aware -- people who notice things, even what is subtle or fleeting.

If in education we try to cultivate students' intentionality, we are encouraging them to become more aware, of themselves and others. This is really important. I agree with Martha Nussbaum, that this kind of perceptiveness has moral value.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Free Fall

One of the strange things about the academic life is that everything can get impossibly busy during the semester, and then, suddenly, one day, it is all over.

I feel hurled over a cliff. Free fall.

It's not that I no longer have anything to do (my "to do" list remains embarrassingly long). It's that suddenly there is no longer a schedule running my life for me. Now I have to make decisions about which of the many items on my list I should attend to next!

There still are some things on my schedule, but they are now spaced far enough apart that I have time to look around and take stock and, well, get anxious about certain things, actually.

Still, I am very very happy to have reached this moment. Because the final grading is so stressful to me, I follow it up by sending notes to some of my students (those I think will be disappointed with their grades -- to help explain and put it into perspective for them). It's when I finish this most stressful task that I finally regard the hard work to be done. And I reached that moment today. So, I am at that wonderful moment when I have the whole of the summer break ahead of me! I like to savor this beginning, because I know that before I know it, the summer will have fled!

But not now. Now it just begins!

This is a creative moment, full of possibility!

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Judging Each Other

These past few days, I've been in the process of determining final grades/marks for all of my students since the semester has just ended. I find this absolutely agonizing. There are dimensions of it that can be rewarding, such as noticing the progress, growth, and development that the students have gone through. Some of them put great care in their final papers and final projects. I especially love it when they use nice fonts or add illustrated cover pages to their papers. I treasure how different each student is, and the various ways those differences show through.

But I absolutely cannot stand having to make final evaluative judgments of their work through the course.

Some might think that I find it difficult because I teach philosophy, and it must be hard to evaluate philosophy papers. But actually, that's not the hardest part. What's hardest is that it just feels wrong to have to do this at all. The truth is that everyone is in the process of developing, and I would rather just meet the students where they are and help them move farther along a path that makes sense to them than worry about establishing some single "objective" standard and measuring how close or far away they are from this standard at the end of the semester.

Why do we do this?

What is it exactly that we are trying to communicate, by doing this -- and to whom?

Is this the best way to do so? Is it clear and unambiguous?

Do we judge each other too much? When is it ever justified to judge each other? Why can't we just appreciate each other instead?

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Intense Week

Whew! What a week it has been! I won't go into all the details, but it was one of those weeks in which suddenly too many things are happening at once. And to make it worse, I was struggling with a bad cold the entire time -- it started the night before my concert! So, I had to keep bearing up under a lot of pressure but I was exhausted the whole time. This intense week began with the concert, and ended with my giving a sermon at a church! Somehow, miraculously, I made it through everything relatively intact.

What was hardest of all was refusing to lapse into an attitude of merely "making it through." In my exhaustion, it was seriously tempting to shift into that mentality. But everything I was doing was really important -- mattered to other people -- and so I stubbornly refused to let my high standards flag.

Now that the worst of the pressure is off, I look back astonished and surprised. Not only did I "make it through," but I think in fact things have gone quite well.

But I feel spent. Several times today, the slightest things nearly dissolved me into hopeless tears. One was a moving story I heard on public radio. Another was a thought that popped into my head at Quaker Meeting. When I wasn't suddenly teary like that, I was giddy with an almost hysterical joy -- I think it was sheer relief at having made it through this time of intense pressure.

Oh, and yesterday, when I was giving a final exam for one of my classes, I sat there proofreading it while the students took it (yes, I realize I should have proofread it before the students started taking it, but, like I said, it's been quite a week), and I suddenly almost collapsed into hysterical laughter at some of my own attempts at levity that I had put into the exam to cheer the students up a bit (for having to take an exam on a Saturday). It was all I could do to contain myself. I looked at the students, all grim and serious, and forced myself to think some somber thoughts to calm down again. About an hour later, a student finally laughed out loud when he came to the funny part, and said when the other students looked at him, "some of this is really funny!" I felt gratified. The mood of the whole class finally relaxed and brightened a bit.

There can be something kind of thrilling about intensity like this week. The pressure gives your life sharp focus and meaning. You are forced to dig in and find deeper sources of strength. You can have these moments of being so exhausted you don't know how you can go on, but when you pause to seriously consider giving up, you then realize how important these things are to you, and realize that you don't want to let go of any of them, you don't even see the point of feeling better except to help you get through these tasks, and so even if you do finally just go to bed at that point, it is not so much for the pleasure of rest (since when you are that exhausted, rest is not immediately pleasurable anyway) but for the hope that when you wake up you will be revived enough to continue.

It's really wonderful to believe in what you are doing like that.

In a meeting yesterday with people for one of the projects I've been working on, someone actually almost criticized me for what he called my "uncanny ability" to keep seeing the positive in things.

But this is a spiritual discipline I intentionally cultivate.

I'm starting to see more of what this Blog means to me. Even though I don't think anyone is actually reading it, the thought that someone someday might read it makes me feel responsible to this "audience" and this actually helps keep me motivated to keep positive. In this world that keeps pressing us to anxiety and negativity, I find myself more and more wanting to demonstrate by my own life that staying centered in the positive really is possible. It can be hard at times, and it takes discipline and intentionality -- but it is very well worth the effort. I do feel a distinct sense that I am starting to move into a new kind of strength, and this is amazing to me. So -- thank you!

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Way Too Busy!

Ok, my optimistic attempt to cast my overly busy life in positive terms ("embracing complexity") has been severely challenged this week! I'm feeling quite run into the ground. I did just finish one major project and now have a brief moment to breathe -- very brief.

But, in the midst of my despair about this ("why am I not getting better at handling all of this -- why is it getting harder instead of easier?!"), I had an insight. Over time, there has been a slow but steady increase of requests for my time and energy. So, the problem is this: the rate of this increase has outpaced the rate of increase in my own efficiency.

In other words, I have been getting more efficient -- but just not at a rate that keeps up with the growth in requests on my time!

Obviously, I need a better strategy for how to deal with this. Any suggestions?

Monday, May 02, 2005


We had our concert. I think it went pretty well -- a number of people said that they thought it was one of our best yet. That was nice to hear.

I used to have major problems with performance anxiety. There were a lot of reasons for this, most of which I won't go into. But I really really wanted to get over this anxiety. Performance anxiety is such an awful state that when you are in it, you think to yourself, "why did I ever think this was a good idea?" You can no longer even imagine what it could possibly be like to enjoy performing. So, why did I really really want to get over it? Why didn't I just give up then and there?

Part of the reason was that I remembered a time in my past, when I was much younger, when I learned that "all I had to do" was "center myself in how much I loved the music," and I'd be fine. After a very long break from performing, I looked back on that early me and simply marveled. How could I have been so wise then? Of course, that is exactly the right attitude! How could it have worked then? Because it did! That one time! A long time ago.

Now, years later, trying to bring music back into my life, trying anew to reclaim and establish a musical identity for myself, I found myself starting all over again. In so many ways in life, I had gained confidence and learned to conquer so many of my fears, but in this dimension, my musical life, I was back at the very beginning. Why? I even knew that that earlier self had it exactly right -- but even knowing that, it wasn't working for me any more. I could not just will that state of centered calm I had experienced way back then.

Again, the reasons are complex. I could refer to moments of my past to explain. I could say more generally that musical performance on wind instruments in a formal concert setting just is a high-intensity kind of performance experience. Both of these kinds of explanations would get at what was going on, and my coming to terms with these issues has been an important part of my journey.

But what is most remarkable to me now is realizing that this has been a journey of slow but steady progress. Unlike my earlier experience, where I had a "revelation" that helped me to switch from high anxiety in one peformance to complete centeredness in the next, this time the journey has been a more gradual one over many performances over a number of years.

And I realized this because I found myself adopting an odd practice I never would have predicted would actually be useful to me: a practice of rating my own performances. At first I didn't realize that this practice would help me with performance anxiety. I'm not even sure why I adopted it. In many ways it ran counter to my entire philosophy of education and philosophy of self-improvement! (In general, I think we are much too obsessed with numbers, in all the wrong ways, in our culture.)

But, oddly, this practice worked very well for me. Here's how it worked. Since even rehearsals could be stressful for me, I first applied it to how well I thought I did in rehearsals. After each rehearsal, I'd say something like, "that was 70%," meaning I felt I played at about 70% of what I'm actually capable of. Over time through our weekly rehearsals, this number slowly went up, and then plateaued for a long time at around 80-85%. Once I started this, it was natural to apply this to actual performances as well. In the days when my rehearsal performance was around 80-85%, my performance performance tended to be now about 80% of my rehearsal performance, which isn't great, but wasn't hopeless either. (Others generally thought I was doing pretty well.)

Well, life in other respects became quite stressful and distracting and I stopped doing this as much, but this semester as the concert approached, I realized that my rehearsal performance had slowly climbed over time to very nearly 100%. And concert performances had moved up into the 90s. One concert performance even hit 100%. In that moment, I knew I really could do this -- get to a place in my performing where I felt I really was doing my best with the music, rather than being thrown off by performance anxiety itself. I finally caught a glimpse of how I could really enjoy this!

So, I think the power of this method was not so much the numbers themselves as the kind of awareness this practice cultivated in me. Through this exercise, I was able to detach from all of my emotionally-laden personal issues and see this simple fact: that despite all of that, some times I do better than other times. And so doing better is possible despite the complexities of my personal history and the intensity of my emotional states.

Because I could go from 70% to 80% to 75% to 82% in successive different weeks in rehearsal, I realized (a) I was not stuck forever in hopelessness, and (b) a downward turn doesn't last forever. This meant that the same might be true for performances. If one was pretty good, and the next a little disappointing, that didn't mean that all future ones would get worse and worse -- it meant that I could at least get back to "pretty good" and possibly even get better with experience, over time. And, as time passed, I began to see that indeed the overall trend was one of gradual but steady improvement. All of this helped me to tolerate temporary set-backs a lot better, and to keep striving.

But most important of all was the kind of humility that this cultivated in me. We often think that the opposite of humility is pride, but there is another kind of opposite of humility, and that is insecurity and self-consciousness. For a long time, I wanted other people to assure me that I was at least a passable, reasonably competent musician, fit for modest local performances in front of understanding and compassionate audiences. But in the preparation for this latest performance, I noticed a very new attitude solidifying. I no longer cared what people thought of me as a musician. What I cared about was sharing the beauty of the music to the audience. "See how great this music is?" I wanted to exclaim, through the music. I was now finally reaching 90-100% of my capacity to let go of myself and just be there to let the music through.

So, the "solution" to the problem of performance anxiety is really very simple. All you have to do is center yourself in your love for the music.