When I first started practicing mindfulness, I saw internal words — aka verbal thoughts — as my opponents. Like most people, I thought the point was to not think. When verbal thoughts were present, I was obviously not. Start over. Try harder.

There's just one problem with this approach. It is normal for the mind to think in words.

A Kind of Antenna for Other People

A Kind of Antenna for Other People

"I think one of my gifts is also one of my weaknesses. Which is, I have a kind of antenna for other people. My friends and my producers might disagree with me about this, but I think an antenna that picks up on what other people are feeling. But there's something good and bad about that."

~ Terry Gross

The Spaces between Words

Migratory Words by Su Blackwell

"This is the art and alchemy of poetry: through the spaces between the words, borne along on a wave of rhythm and sound, the life breath of the reader joins that of the poet. In this union of forces, an awakening can happen that is not only new from reader to reader, but in a great poem, from reading to reading."

~ Roger Housden, from Ten Poems to Open Your Heart

It's Not Language that Governs the Connection Between People

Bérénice Bejo and Tahar Rahim in The Past (Photo by Carole Bethuel, Sony Pictures Classics)

Excerpts from "Oscar-Winning Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi on Making Movies in Iran," KCRW's The Business, Dec. 23, 2013:

Kim Masters: The film is almost entirely in French. How did you manage that [since you don't speak French]?  

Asghar Farhadi: I moved with my family and we lived in France for two years. I set aside a great deal of time to become acquainted with the melodies of the French language. I tried to become familiar with the daily details of life there, with the way people behave. I had numerous French friends and they were invaluable. But what helped me the most was the fact that the story I had was one that was structured on the basis of the similarities of our cultures, not the differences...

I had several people who acted as my voice. There was one of them who accompanied me constantly, who not only interpreted the words I spoke, but who shadowed me in gesture. When I would move my hands, he would also do the same thing. When I raised my voice, he too would raise his voice. Gradually I began to feel that he was my voice. He was closer to who I was. I remember the day when I said something and then I walked over to the table to pick up a cigarette, and he started interpreting and walked over to the table and picked up a cigarette...

But after a while, I discovered that it's not language that governs the connection between people to the extent that we imagine it does. When people grow close to each otherthrough their eyes, through a kind of an exchange of energythey can grasp a great deal about each other.

With Bérénice, with those children, I discussed matters of great delicacy and intricacy that even in Persian would be difficult to convey.   

Different from the Real Experience

Germaine Koh, Knitwork, 1992, Unravelled used garments reknit into growing object. View of process at Galerie B-312, February 2012. Photo: Gordon Hicks

"Observe other people as they’re acting out their interpretation of an experience or telling you about something that happened in their life. You can tell the difference between what actually happened to them and how they’re interpreting it. Their interpretation isn’t wrong, necessarily—it’s just different from the real experience."

~ Phillip Moffitt, from Emotional Chaos to Clarity

The Way Our Lives Speak

Mary & Joseph Retreat Center, January 13, 2010

"Verbalizing is not the only way our lives speak, of course. They speak through our actions and reactions, our intuitions and instincts, our feelings and bodily states of being, perhaps more profoundly than through our words. We are like plants, full of tropisms that draw us toward certain experiences and repel us from others. If we can learn to read our own responses to our own experiences — a text we are writing unconsciously every day we spend on earth — we will receive the guidance we need to live more authentic lives." 

~ Parker J. Palmer, from Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

The Art of Letting Pass

El Parque del Retiro, Madrid, August 3, 2012

All That We Have
by Stephen Dunn, from Local Time 

            to John Jay Osborn, Jr.

It's on ordinary days, isn't it,
     when they happen,
those silent slippages,

a man mowing the lawn, a woman
     reading a magazine,
each thinking it can't go on like this,

then the raking, the turning
     of a page.
The art of letting pass

what must not be spoken, the art
     of tirade, explosion,
are the marital arts, and we

their poor practitioners, are never
     more than apprentices.
At night in bed the day visits us,

happily or otherwise.  In the morning
     the words good morning
have a history of tones; pray to say them

evenly.  It's so easy, those moments
     when affection is what
the hand and voice naturally coordinate.

But it's that little invisible cloud
     in the livingroom,
floating like boredom, it's the odor

of disappointment mixing with
     kitchen smells,
which ask of us all that we have.

The man coming in now
     to the woman.
The woman going out to the man.


[Thanks, Whiskey River!]

Cultivating Well-Adjusted Humans

I wrote this letter of appreciation a couple of years ago when Lanning's Learning Tree Child Care Center closed in Wichita, Kansas. I am very lucky to have worked there while I was in college. It was a job that fit me better than any other I've had since then and I learned so many important lessons.

Thank You Lanning's Learning Tree
by Daron Larson 

I had personal motives for wanting to work at Lanning’s Learning Tree. I’ve been aware of a strong parenting impulse since I was a child myself, but I knew that I had many things to learn before taking on this significant responsibility. I remember taking a developmental psychology class at Wichita State and discovering that the complex task was full of paradoxes and counter-intuitive insights.

Children need consistent limits in order to feel safe in the world. They need to be stimulated to develop their capacity to appreciate the world around them and to see things from the perspective of others. When freedom is so great that boundaries can’t be identified, a child can grow to feel like he’s floating in a universe that is completely random and unpredictable. When boundaries are too strict and confining, a child can become too afraid to venture outside her own limited point of view.

College is a great place to learn about theories, but where could I possibly go to find out how to put these insights to work and to develop the practical skills required for nurturing a young human being into a thriving adult? Lanning’s Learning Tree.

I learned that reading and singing to young children are like soil and water and sunshine to flowers. It literally passes on to them the gift of language which we so easily take for granted.

I learned that our expectations of children need to be based on developmental stages which are constantly changing yet generally predictable. Demanding apologies and sharing before these social skills begin to appear just frustrates all parties involved and serve no real benefit.

I learned that when a child is ready to play on a particular playground structure, she will seek it out and climb on it herself and then be able to make her way back down without assistance.

I learned that it is the responsibility of the caregiver to set up an environment where children can succeed. We find ways to gently redirect attention and increase the opportunities for responding with praise rather than raining down a steady stream of correction. It’s so much more satisfying to do your strategic work up front instead of having to constantly cook up consequences for avoidable problems.

I learned that self-esteem can’t be forced on children because we love them, but that it flows naturally in response to their individual willingness to engage in tasks that challenge them.

I learned that children tend to repeat behaviors that evoke intense reactions in adults. If the reaction is strongly negative, they will test out the behavior again to see if they get the same response. If the reaction is positive, the will test out the behavior again to see if they get the same response. Some kids go through their entire childhood getting in trouble just so they can hear their name repeated over and over again with emotion, even if the emotion is unpleasant.

I learned that children influence caregivers as much as caregivers influence children.

And I learned to review the guidelines and strategies on a regular basis to remember and clarify and reinforce what I assumed I already understood.

I cherish my memories of showing up to work while it was still dark, helping serve breakfast, walking the school-age children to elementary school, attending my college classes, waiting for the end of school bell to ring, walking the kids back to Lanning’s, and then hanging out reading and playing games until their parents came to pick them up.

I observed directly the developmental stages in constant bloom all around the various buildings and playgrounds. It felt like a laboratory for cultivating well-adjusted humans where the teachers, like scientists, were consistently challenged to actively introduce creative independent variables with the greatest likelihood of helping children thrive and blossom. All of this helped shape me into the parent that I became.

No possession or job title or award or amount of money can even approach the value of this to me. No one ever manages to do this perfectly, but I have been the best parent I could possibly have been because of my time at Lanning’s Learning Tree.

For this I am deeply, deeply grateful.

See also:

A Handful of Words

Excerpt from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer:

"Want" was a word I lost early on, which is not to say I stopped wanting things—I wanted things more—I just stopped being able to express the want, so I said "desire," "I desire two rolls," I would tell the baker, but that wasn't quite right, the meaning of my thoughts started to float away from me, like leaves that fall from a tree into a river, I was the tree, the world was the river. I lost "come" one afternoon with the dogs in the park, I lost "fine" as the barber turned me toward the mirror, I lost "shame"—the verb and the noun at the same moment; it was a shame. I lost "carry," I lost the things I carried—"daybook," "pencil," "pocket change," "wallet"—I even lost "loss."

After a time, I had only a handful of words left, if someone did something nice for me, I would tell him, "The thing that comes before 'you're welcome,'" if I was hungry, I'd point at my stomach and say, "I am the opposite of full," I'd lost "yes," but I still had "no," so if someone asked me, "Are you Thomas?" I would answer, "Not no," but then I lost "no," I went to a tattoo parlor and had YES written onto the palm of my left hand, and NO onto my right palm, what can I say, it hasn’t made my life wonderful, it's made life possible, when I rub my hands against each other in the middle of winter I am warming myself with the friction of YES and NO, when I clap my hands I am showing my appreciation through the uniting and parting of YES and NO, I signify “book” by peeling open my hands, every book, for me, is the balance of YES and NO, even this one, my last one, especially this one. Does it break my heart, of course, every moment of every day, into more pieces than my heart was made of, I never thought of myself as qui et, much less silent, I never thought about things at all, everything changed, the distance that wedged itself between me and my happiness wasn’t the world, it wasn’t the bombs and burning buildings, it was me, my thinking, the cancer of never letting go, is ignorance bliss, I don’t know, but it’s so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me? I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.

Not Only Struggle but Joy in the Struggle


Pear Tree, December 6, 2011

Excerpt from "The Gates of Hope" by Victoria Safford, The Nation, Sep. 20, 2004:

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of "Everything Is Gonna Be All Right." But a different, sometimes lonely place, of truth-telling about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we're seeing, asking them what they see.

With our lives we make our answers all the time, to this ravenous, beautiful, mutilated, gorgeous world. However prophetic our words, it is not enough simply to speak.

[Thanks, Kit!]

Seeing More Clearly by Seeking Disconfirmation

Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness, discussing an interesting psychological aspect of the News of the World scandal with Marketplace's Kai Rysdall (July 20, 2011):

Read an excerpt from Marketplace's The Big Book blog"The very size of the organization may be part of the problem. It's virtually impossible to have any kind of clear line of sight across all the operations of a [53,000-person organization]. In addition, you have to take into account what we know about human psychology. People are obedient; they will follow instructions even when they're unethical. This is what the New York psychologist Stanley Milgram proved in the '60s, and the data has been robust ever since. You can add to that other experiments we know about conformity: given the choice between giving a wrong answer that keeps you part of the group, or a right answer that makes you an outsider, most people would rather give a wrong answer. There is enormous psychological pressure on individuals to do what the organization wants and what their boss wants.

I think we all need, as managers and executives, to learn to be very good at negotiating conflict. The people who see most clearly are those who seek disconfirmation. They want people who are prepared to argue with them. They want data that challenges their beliefs. That's how they keep alert, paying attention -- because if you're surrounded by a lot of yes men and women, the chances are, they will all keep you blind to the stuff that collectively you just do not want to see."

Listen to the whole interview here...

Hunting for Attention Skills in Medical Students

Excerpt from "New for Aspiring Doctors, the People Skills Test," by Gardiner Harris, The New York Times, July 10, 2011:

"A pleasant bedside manner and an attentive ear have always been desirable traits in doctors, of course, but two trends have led school administrators to make the hunt for these qualities a priority.

The first is a growing catalog of studies that pin the blame for an appalling share of preventable deaths on poor communication among doctors, patients and nurses that often results because some doctors, while technically competent, are socially inept.

The second and related trend is that medicine is evolving from an individual to a team sport. Solo medical practices are disappearing. In their place, large health systems — encouraged by new government policies — are creating teams to provide care coordinated across disciplines. The strength of such teams often has more to do with communication than the technical competence of any one member."

Finding New Ways to Speak

"It is human nature to look at someone like me and assume I have lost some of my marbles. People talk loudly and slowly to me. Sometimes they assume I am deaf. There are people who don't want to make eye contact. It is human nature to look away from illness. We don't enjoy a reminder of our own fragile mortality.

That's why writing on the Internet has become a life-saver for me. My ability to think and write have not been affected. And on the Web, my real voice finds expression. I have also met many other disabled people who communicate this way. One of my Twitter friends can type only with his toes. One of the funniest blogs on the Web is written by a friend of mine named Smartass Cripple. Google him and he will make you laugh.

All of these people are saying, in one way or another, that what you see is not all you get."

~ Robert Ebert, from “Remaking My Voice,” TED Talks, April 2011

Open and Listening

Excerpt from "Corner Office: Mark Fuller," by Adam Bryant, New York Times, April 16, 2011:

Mark Fuller, C.E.O. of WET Design (Photo: Richard Perry, NYT)Improv, if properly taught, is really about listening to the other person, because there’s no script. It’s about responding. I was noticing that we didn’t have a lot of good communication among our people (WET Design).

If you think about it, if you have an argument with your wife or husband, most of the time people are just waiting for the other person to finish so they can say what they’re waiting to say. So usually they’re these serial machine-gun monologues, and very little listening.

That doesn’t work in improv. If we’re on the stage, I don’t know what goofball thing you’re going to say, so I can’t be planning anything. I have to really be listening to you so I can make an intelligent — humorous or not — response.

So I got this crazy idea of bringing in someone to teach an improv class. At first, everybody had an excuse, because it’s kind of scary to stand up in front of people and do this. But now we’ve got a waiting list because word has spread that it’s really cool.

You’re in an emotionally naked environment. It’s like we’re all the same. We all can look stupid. And it’s an amazing bonding thing, plus it’s building all these communication skills. You’re sort of in this gray space of uncertainty. Most of us don’t like to be uncertain — you know, most of us like to be thinking what we’re going to say next. You get your mind into a space where you say, “I’m really enjoying that I don’t know what he’s going to ask me next, and I’m going to be open and listening and come back.”

We’ve got graphic designers, illustrators, optical engineers, Ph.D. chemists, special effects people, landscape designers, textile designers. You get all these different disciplines that typically you would never find under one roof — even making a movie — and so you have to constantly be finding these ways to have people connect.

So we do things like improv, and I think they really have developed our culture.

* * * * *

See also:

In Between

Sofia Coppola, speaking with Kurt Anderson about Somewhere on Studio 360 (Jan. 7, 2011):

“[The main character] is based on a bunch of different movie star actors that I’ve known or met or heard stories about and mixed them all together. He’s become famous recently and he’s doing a press conference for a movie he’s done called Berlin Agenda so you get the idea he’s done some kind of big action movie that he’s not very proud of. I never want to show him making a movie. It’s not really about the film business, but that’s the backdrop. I try to think of things that the actors would do in between films like get a head plaster cast, or sometimes they learn strange skills. You hear stories about actors having romances with their leading ladies and I thought, what happens when they have to get back together a year later for a reshoot or a press junket. Everything’s heightened when you’re doing a movie and then it’s over.”

“I like in life how so much is conveyed by the way someone gives a look or a glance. I think a lot of times in movies, people explain all their feelings, but in life you’re not always able to articulate a lot of things. And part of the fun of making films is telling the story in a visual way.”