Friday, January 14, 2011


At the beginning of her book of poems, Evidence, Mary Oliver quotes Kierkegaard who wrote, “We create ourselves by our choices.”
I find Oliver’s choice interesting. The quote is clear, inspiring—I get it. It sounds contemporary. It’s catchy. You could put it on a greeting card along with a picture of a great blue heron lifting off the silvery surface of an early morning pond. And the card would sell.
We create ourselves by our choices.  
Who could argue with that? Yes, yes, I know, we don’t create the body we’re born into, or pick our parents, or our neighborhood, though some people think you do pick where, how, when, and to whom you are born.
The quote is powerful. It captures a great deal. It’s succinct. And yet, like all ideas, it misses so much. If it didn’t, why would Mary Oliver have to write the seventy-five pages of poems that make up Evidence?

Kierkegaard also wrote, " the beginning of all deeper understanding".
Can one make the choice to wonder? I wonder.
Wonder, it seems to me, has a sense of being blown away by something, being blown away by the night sky seen from a mountain-top, for instance, or by seeing the face of your child for the first time.
Wonder strikes us. We don’t strike wonder like we might strike gold. We stumble upon it unexpectedly. We can’t really prepare for it. Wonder catches us unawares. But possibly we can make choices that open the door to wonder. But we can only open the door. We can’t step over the threshold. There’s only so far we can go, because we’re too small, too limited, too time-bound. Wonder is our experience of something that’s bigger than we are.
A few lines of poetry may help us get the feel for what I’m trying to say, since good poetry can open the door for us.
Here are the last lines of the last poem in Mary Oliver’s Evidence:

How did it come to be
 that I am no longer young
 and the world
that keeps time

in its own way
has just been born?
I don’t have the answers
 and anyway I have become suspicious

of such questions,
and as for hope,
that tender advisement,
 even that

I’m going to leave behind.
I’m just going to put on
 my jacket, my boots,
 I’m just going to go out

to sleep
all this night
in some unnamed, flowered corner
of the pasture.

Why? Why go out to sleep all night in some unnamed, but flowered, corner of the pasture? Because that’s how she opens the window to which is beyond her. That’s how she let’s the night in, and the light, and the mystery of the world. She makes the choice to open the window, but what happens after that is not up to her. All she can do is make the choice to be receptive to what comes to find her. 
Kierkegaard said, "Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one can not walk away from it…"
He ‘walks’ himself into a state of wellbeing. He walks, not thinks, not works, not argues, but walks. He walks, and like Oliver, he lets the world find him and soothe him.
The poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”
We create ourselves by our choices. But our choices take place in a great mysterious world. Kierkegaard said we are here on sealed orders. There is only so much we can know about who we are, why we are, and where we are. To some degree, we make our choices in the dark. We are limited in what we can know and imagine. We are surrounded by things greater than we’ll ever be.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in The Man Watching   

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!

What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.

            So, go live your life. Make your choices consciously with strength and conviction, but don’t make the world smaller than it is. Make the choice to let in the mystery. Every now and then make the choice to walk away from what you think you know. Go sleep, as Mary Oliver does, in the pasture.
            A few more lines from her, and I bid you adieu.
What, in the earth world,
is there not to be amazed by
and to be steadied by
and to cherish?

Oh, my dear heart,
my own dear heart,
 full of hesitations,
 questions, choice of directions,

Look at the world.
Behold the morning glory,
the meanest flower, the ragweed, the thistle.
 Look at the grass.

Namaste. (The wonder in me bows to the wonder in you.)

I can be reached at and 805/680-5572

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


The world has never been busier trying to be happy than it is right now. We buy. We work. We create. We diet. We exercise. We set goals. We work two jobs. We work three jobs. We get more education. Read more books. Attend more seminars. We leave our kids at daycare. We don’t eat together as a family because we’re so busy. We sit in our cars or in trains for hours as we go to and from work. We despoil the planet.
On and on it goes. We’re like mice on a spinning exercise wheel racing towards happiness.
That must be where we think we’re going, towards happiness, or else why would we do all this stuff? Why would we spend less time with our family and friends, less time in our homes hanging out, less time playing together, less time in the garden, less time chatting aimlessly, less time eating leisurely, and less time simply doing things for no other reason than that we simply enjoy doing them?
Why, in one form or another, do we work so hard?
Yes, you might say, but I enjoy my work. I enjoy it more than anything else.
If that’s true for you, that’s great. You can count yourself amongst the lucky ones, because for the last fifty years the trend has been for decreasing satisfaction with work.
As a matter of fact, studies show that there seems to be decreasing satisfaction with many things.
Throughout the 1950’s, Gallup Poll data showed that the British were happier than they are now. In 1957, for example, 52% of the respondents said they were ‘very happy’ as compared to 36% who say they are ‘very happy’ today.
Interestingly, during the same period of time, from the 1950’s to the present, the average person in Britain has experienced a 200% increase in wealth, but a decrease in happiness.
This kind of data has been collected for many countries around the world. R.D Putnam reports in Bowling Alone that in 1955 44% of Americans enjoyed their working hours more than anything else they did. In 1999, only 16% of Americans could say the same thing.
During the same period, from 1955 to 1999, the country had enjoyed great economic prosperity but it did not make people happier.
            Japan has experienced a 500% increase in income over the last 40 years, but the level of happiness has remained unchanged, and may even be showing a slight dip, and that was before the current economic crisis.
For fifteen countries in Europe, the decade ending in 2000 showed either no increase in happiness or a slight decline, though Europe experienced great economic expansion during the decade. 
More prosperity, more money, and more success, do not seem to make us happier; in fact, the opposite seems to be true.
Of course, we need enough money to buy food, clothes, shelter, necessities, health care, and the like, but that amount of money is surprisingly low in comparison to our aspirations, which can seemingly be unlimited. And those unlimited aspirations, those attempts to be all you can be, and to have all you can have, is making us less, rather than more happy.
We know this. We’ve heard the saying. Money can’t buy happiness. Or love. And yet we go right on doing just that as we increase our unhappiness and deplete the planet. 
It’s a long, deep, and convoluted story, and not fully understood, but it has something to do with the way we understand things. It has to do with our brains, our wiring, with the fact that we sort of have two brains, the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere, and that though both contribute to our view of the world, the views are different and they often clash.
Right now the left hemisphere, what we can call logic central, is in ascendancy. And the right hemisphere, the be-here-now, the go-with-the-flow hemisphere is getting a good whooping from the left hemisphere.
Put simply, we’re out of our right minds and in our left minds, and we’ve lost sight of the things that make us truly happy.
We’ve had our eyes on the prize, or prizes, but it’s been the wrong prize.

You can’t go at happiness directly. You have to go towards the things that you think will make you happy or allow happiness to arise. And the very act of going towards is part of the problem. Goal-directed activity is a very left-brained activity and it can interfere with happiness, because happiness is only here and now, in the moment, if it’s anywhere. As the pace of activity has heated up around the world happiness has gone down and depression has skyrocketed.
So if money and stuff and goal-directed activity don’t make us happy, what does?
Health? You’d think so, but research doesn’t support that.
There could be a number of things, but in his research Robert Putnam found that in the U.S. and around the world happiness is best predicted by, ‘the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.’
            That’s it. Now we know where the real ‘prize’ is. It’s in the depth and breadth of our friendships and relationships. It’s in our connections with our family, our friends, and our community.
And how might you increase ‘the breadth and depth’ of your social connections, other than the obvious ways of spending more time and energy in these areas of your life?
Fortunately, that question has been studied by researchers, too.
(As you can see, the left hemisphere is a good thing to have because it helps you do this kind of research. The problem occurs when things get too out of balance, as they seem to be doing during this time in history.)
One key to deepening one’s ability to connect with others is a healthy acceptance of ourselves. And how do we achieve a healthy acceptance of ourselves? By being open and vulnerable. By being honest and present and willing to let go of control, predictability and safety. By being okay just as we are, which means standing still and accepting ourselves as we are, unfinished to-do lists and all.
Herein lies one of the keys to the mystery of why we often find ourselves wrongly going after things like money and possessions that leave us less happy. Money and possessions are about security and control. They’re left-brained activities. It’s how the left brain goes after happiness.
They’re the opposite, in many respects, of vulnerability and openness to whatever happens in the moment, the domain of the right hemisphere. Control, invulnerability, and protected-ness interfere with our ability to develop deep connections with others. They interfere with our ability to cultivate the soil of happiness.

We have to stand still long enough to connect. To stand still, we have to accept our selves and our lives just as they are. As we accept, we open, to ourselves and to those around us. As we open, our connection deepens and broadens. And a smile comes across our face, but we don’t know it, not yet, because happiness has found us, and we haven’t found happiness. We’re happy, so happy that we will only know about it later, when happiness has passed a bit and our left hemisphere can take a look at it and enjoy the afterglow.
So, the next time you notice yourself racing towards things you think will make you happy, stop and realize that you will never be happy till you slow down and connect, first with yourself, and then with whatever and whomever is around you. That connection, not more money or things or achievements, is the foundation of the happiness we seek.
            I can be reached at and 805/680-5572

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Sometimes I feel like a sheep in wolf’s clothing. What I mean by that is sometimes I may give the wrong impression to people, people like you who read my work and people who work with me personally, and it may not be totally by accident.
I write this column you’re reading and another like it. I work with individuals who want to improve their lives. Some are doing fine and want coaching to do better. Some are struggling and want to learn skills to help them flourish, and find joy and success in their lives. I lead and co-lead groups. I love the work. I’m good at it.
           It’s easy for me to allow you to see that part because that part is strong. That part is societal accepted, encouraged and rewarded.
           We’re a society of doers, achievers, and winners. We succeed.
           Except of course, when we’re don’t. Which can be often. 
           Often there’s pain, discouragement, loneliness, fear, confusion, disappointment, and what we judge to be failure, but we want to come off as strong and unafraid, courageous, clear, and effective.
It’s often not easy to reveal oneself, to be honest and vulnerable, to show that side of us we want to hide. For some of us we may want to come as off as wolves, or lions (I’m a guy, remember.) and often we feel like sheep.
Others may come off as sheep, gentle and quiet, and hide a shadow of anger and upset.
Many of us are not good at being genuinely who we are. We hide, even from ourselves. Or at least we try. We feel that when we expose ourselves we open ourselves to pain, suffering and attack. We feel weak, vulnerable, and we don’t like it.
Maybe, at times, I’ve done that in these columns, hidden a bit, come off as knowing more than I do, as feeling more self-directed, contented, and successful than I often feel. The truth is I can struggle with uncertainty, fear, confusion, and moodiness with the best of them.
That’s what I meant by saying I sometimes feel like a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It’s easy for me to show the competent exterior, but it’s hard to allow others, even those close to me, to see my struggles. 
I am sharing this because part of the secret to happiness and joy is a sense of belonging, a sense of being worthy of love and connection. And almost paradoxically, what weaves us into a living fabric of connection, worthiness, and belonging is a willingness to being open, to being vulnerable, to being able to stick one’s neck out emotionally, and share the truth about ourselves.
Putting up a front of invulnerability, our attempt to protect ourselves, leaves us feeling isolated, fearful, and vulnerable, the exact opposite of the sense of security and wellbeing we were looking for in the first place.
One of the foundations of a happy, well-lived life is an underlying sense that “I am enough”, but for many of us that’s not so easy to come by. Many of us suffer daily from bouts of “I am not enough” and the pain is enormous. And it’s vulnerability, a willingness to be seen, even by ourselves, just as we are, that opens the door to accepting ourselves as we are and feeling that we are enough.
That’s why I wanted to come clean a bit in this article. I wanted and needed to take some of the medicine I have just described. I was starting to feel like I had to come off in a certain way, that in some respects I had to hide. I was feeling like I needed to know more than I did. I was feeling a bit like I was not enough. And I realized that feeling was coming from not saying certain things, things that were true for me but made me feel vulnerable by saying them, things like struggling, at times, with uncertainty, fear and moodiness.
And you know what? I feel a lot better. And I hope you realize that I would not have taken up your time with an article that I thought was simply about me. I shared about my own experience because how else could I reasonably ask you to share about your’s?
So, take a look at where you are hiding, at where you are coming off as knowing the answers you don’t really know. Take the time to begin to feel the feelings you may be denying.
Don’t think you are the only one who may be hiding, who is putting up a front and paying a heavy price for it.
Dr. Brene` Brown states we are the most obese, most in debt, most medicated cohort in US history.
Why do you think that might be?
And in the political arena, why do you think we’re slinging around so much blame and so much vitriol?
The more we attempt to make uncertain things certain, the more we try to have dead answers to living questions, the more invulnerable we try to feel, the more uncomfortable and disconnected and strident we get.
I hope I’m not coming off as judgmental, or that I’m falling into the very trap I’m describing, talking as if I know more than I do. Check it out for yourself. Notice how you feel, notice how your relationships go as you attempt to hide the truth about yourself, as you refuse to admit that you are afraid, or uncertain, or angry, or sad. See how well it works and whether you feel better afterwards.
To live life fully, you have to take risks and the biggest risk we take is with ourselves, the risk of offering who we are, freckles, warts, and all to the world. 
The poet e.e. cummings wrote:

To be nobody but yourself
 in a world
 which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else
 means to fight the hardest battle
which any human being can fight
 and never stop fighting.
So, go out and live your life, missteps, wrong turns and all. Be who you are.
And notice that often the well-intentioned person who is trying the hardest in some way to make you like everyone else is you.
I can be reached at 805-680-5572 or