Tips for Using Nature as a TeacherMarch 1, 2016
Be with the Good and Be with the BadApril 1, 2016
Recently, I spoke to a woman who shared this story with me. I know it will resonate with many of you.
She’s a great cook and enjoys entertaining friends and family. She prepared a home cooked, several-course dinner for twenty people (not unusual for her) and took pleasure in arranging the centerpiece flowers in each table. She proudly said that everyone had a wonderful time. That is, everyone except her. Although she was able to enjoy PARTS of the evening, she totally focused on the fact that after work, shopping, helping her kids with homework, and then preparing the meal, she did not have the time to iron the tablecloths and spent the evening focusing on the creases. I felt for her. This “imperfection” loomed large and obscured much of what she was, then, unable to see and appreciate. Her ability to enjoy the evening, her friends and family, was clearly diminished. How sorry I was that the “creases in the cloth” were the catalyst for a self-deprecating internal dialogue.
She is not alone (although I am confident that she was probably the only one at the dinner who focused on the creases.) Many of us zoom in on the negative aspects of an event, attending to, in great detail, what does not meet our expectations. Meanwhile, the positive aspects recede into the background. They are overlooked. We are left with feelings of inadequacy, uneasiness, or shame.
We human beings are “wired” to focus on the negative things to safeguard our survival. As a species we have evolved to have what neuropsychologist Richard Hanson refers to as “negativity bias.” Dr. Hanson describes it as “like Velcro for the bad, Teflon for the good.” This makes perfect sense when we smell something that’s rancid and our brain tells us not to eat it, or we quicken our pace or avoid walking in a dark alley if we sense someone behind us. Honestly, though, we don’t want to feel that our survival, our value, or our sense of self depends on whether the tablecloth is creased. It doesn’t.
Despite this bias, we still have the ability to make choices about what will be our focus. We don’t need to dwell on negative experiences. With practice we can train our brains to appreciate (and keep at hand) positive experiences. We can allow ourselves to enjoy the night, the company, the food, families and friends coming together. We notice the tablecloth, of course, but that’s all. We allow our self to experience whatever feeling comes with that awareness. But we are careful not to allow that emotional response to be the fertile ground for a critical voice to plant and spin a story about how awful, how poorly prepared, how messy we are. We release ourselves from the critical harangue about it that obscures all that is good and positive.
How do we do this? Throughout our day, we intentionally make the time to focus on positive experiences and install them in our mind. This means we create a few moments and reflect upon an experience. Once we have that experience in our mind we consider the positive elements that brings us contentment, meaning or calm. These experiences can be both the “little details” of our daily comings and goings or the extraordinary events that occur in our lives from time to time.
With practice, we actually help to build our inner strength. We make this “a practice.” We notice. We become more aware. We do it repeatedly, several times a day, every day. And in doing so, we become more resilient which helps us build our ability to effectively deal with the more challenging aspects of our lives. And over time, to quiet the critical voice so we can hear the voice of compassion and support.