First, Do No Harm….

This is a vital part of the Hippocratic Oath as I understand it. How does that apply to an IT trainer/consultant? It seems to be a lesson I’ve only just recently taken to heart.

One of my shortcomings, has been for a very long time, this angrily, impatient guy who has the ability to lash out at the most inappropriate times. For instance, I might be working with a client. Someone who’s actually paying me. One of two things might unleash this Mr. Hyde. The first might be the project is not going well. I’m having difficulty completing the task I’ve been hired to do. The client, or someone else present, asks a simple question, such as “How’s it going?” Rather than simply say, “Not so well,” or “I’m facing a bit of a challenge here,” that person is likely to get a snippy answer or, in many cases, even worse, a look saying, “Get away from me now! Leave me alone!” The second scenario might be the client asking me a few questions about other things they need done, and I haven’t completed the first one yet. Same likely response. The end result is not good. I can immediately tell I’ve insulted someone or at the very least hurt their feelings. Neither of which is how I really want to be seen. I’ve been working on this for at least 10 years. Getting better, but still don’t have it whipped.

How does the title of this blog come into play? Well, a couple of days ago it was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I don’t usually go to the synagogue on this day. I choose to do something else which I believe will be valuable to both me and the persons around me. For the last couple of years, I’ve met with my friend Bruce. He’s a very wise man; I think it’s important to have wise women and men in my life.

We were talking about ways in which my Mr. Hyde has a tendency to show up. Bruce, is also a Warrior, that is he’s done the New Warrior Training, and we’ve spent quite a bit of time together in that forum. Bruce asked me where in that part of my life I’m best. I knew he meant times when I’ve facilitated another person through a process to help them heal an event from their life which may be kicking them in the head after many years. We often refer to this as Carpet Work, because it’s usually done on a carpet. The carpet is just a symbol of a safe place to do the work. I really believe one of my heavenly gifts is to act as a facilitator of this work.

Bruce went on to say, when I’m ‘on the carpet’, no matter what’s happening, I maintain the ability to guide the person I’m working with through their work. I don’t get flustered if it’s not going the way I ‘think’ it should. I don’t get flustered if someone else in the area starts asking me a bunch of questions or is making a bunch of suggestions. My goal, in this moment, is to help this person get resolution on whatever they happen to be working on. Most importantly, I work very hard to do no harm.

The next question Bruce asked me, a feather could have knocked me down. “What’s keeping you from bringing that guy, the one on the carpet, to the rest of your life, especially your work?” I almost started to cry.

“I’m afraid in my work, when I’m getting paid, someone will see me as incompetent if it’s not going well. I’m afraid I’ll be ridiculed.” For the other scenario I’ve mentioned, someone asking me a lot of questions, that’s about my challenges around multi-tasking. I’m usually not very good at it. Solving one problem at a time works best for me. So, when someone is asking me a lot of other questions, my concentration on the current problem becomes diminished. Again, I think I’ll appear incompetent if I don’t get each problem solved in the order begun.

My wise friend continued. “When Mr. Hyde wants to come out, become the guy on the carpet. Step back. Ask yourself, “What would he do?” Would he get angry or belittling?” I knew the answer was no. It was an ah-ha moment. Now, if only I could put it into practice. And, I did, the very next day.

I was working with a client. A fellow I’ve worked with many times before. He asks a lot of questions while I’m working. And, this particular job was one I hadn’t really done before. I’d also done something I don’t usually do: I’d quoted him a flat rate for the project.

While I was working, he started asking questions. First, do no harm; that’s all I wanted to remember. Sometimes, I would stop what I was doing and ask him if he wanted me to stop the first problem to deal with the newer problem his question propagated. He  always said, “No, let’s solve this other one first.” Sometimes I would stop after he stopped and I’d tell him I hadn’t really heard what he said because I had been concentrating on the first problem. Would he mind repeating what he’d said. He did. Do no harm. It was working.

Finally, we got to a place in the project where I was about to do some physical work with his laptop. I was going to replace his hard drive. For a lot of folks who do what I do, that’s no big deal. For me, I hadn’t really done it before on this computer model. I was nervous.

I’d watched a good video on the subject. I’d made notes. I started. Much of what the video showed was spot on. Some of it had some minor detail differences. But, when I got down to taking the old hard drive out, there was, for me, a big difference. The video had said there might be some tape on the hard drive cable. Just peel it away the video said.  It turned out, the cable, what they call a ribbon cable (very, very thin and easy to break) was  actually attached to the top of the hard drive with an adhesive. Whatever happens, do no harm. At worst, I’d have to buy the guy a new cable. It all worked out beautifully. I stayed calm. Replaced the drive. Put everything back together. Started the computer up. At first, it choked. I thought from the clues the computer was giving I might have not seated the memory chips correctly. Re-seated them. Perfect! And, even when the guy came in and said, “How’s it going?” I said to myself, do no harm. And, I didn’t.

At the end of that day. I felt great. Mr. Hyde stayed at home. The client had asked me how much he owed. I told him I’d quoted him a flat rate but it had taken twice as long. I was good with whatever amount he felt was fair. He paid the full amount! (He’s really one of the nicest clients I have.)

How Am I Changing?: When I don’t allow the fear to ‘control’ me, life is good. I’m blessed and so is everyone around me.

Apathy isn’t always about not caring…

It seems like I’ve always had the ability to piss persons off just by looking at them. I’ve talked about this before in the post called Putting it in Context.

Mostly, I believe, this is because I learned to be incredibly apathetic about my environment. I believe this began around age five when my maternal grandfather died. He was the human I was closest to at the time; even more than my mother or father. It’s been 55 years, yet I can remember the event as if it were yesterday (don’t ask me what I had for lunch yesterday, though.)

I was playing on the sidewalk in front of our house on Blue Hills Ave. in Hartford, CT. My grandfather, or Zayde as I called him (it’s the Yiddish word for grandfather) was sitting on the front steps of our house. My brother was playing just down the sidewalk from me with one of our neighbors. Zayde, got up from the steps, took two steps in my direction and fell down, dead from a heart attack. He was 72.

I didn’t cry. In reality I didn’t really understand what was happening. What I do know is from that moment on, both my parents agreed there was the Donny before Zayde died and the Donny after.

While I didn’t comprehend death, I seemingly did comprehend Zayde wouldn’t be coming into our house any more. There would be no more trips to the drug-a-store as he called it in his broken English. There would be no more protecting me from my father’s temper. No more foraging for wild blackberries so he could make his “women’s whiskey.” No more anything. With my one real ‘friend’ gone, I retreated more and more into my own world and there weren’t many allowed in that space.

One way, I believe I learned to keep others from getting too close, allowing me to have a place in my heart for them was to be indifferent if not just outright hostile toward them. And, it was fairly effective. There were a few persons who were given permission to see me as the loving being I am. The operative word is few. Letting too much of the world get close meant if I trusted larger numbers of persons I would ultimately get abandoned or hurt and my ‘risk manager’ just wasn’t about to let that happen. We’ll talk more about the  risk manager in another blog.

The outcome of all this ‘protection’ I was affording myself was not only lonely at times, but in order to effect the outcome of no one getting close, I also pissed off quite a few persons. Up to this point, I’ve been describing my history. Who I am/was and how I got there. Once I became more aware of my inner landscape, of who I really am, I began letting the walls down a bit. There was still a lot of protection from my risk manager, but he got the message not everyone was dangerous and had to be kept out. Working on this behavior, excepting it as a part of me but not letting it run my life was one of the changes which allowed me to become the trainer I am today. You can substitute the word teacher, I just don’t want to create the image of someone in the traditional educational system, K-12. I teach IT professionals how to support Apple technology.

And that’s what lead me to this post. In June of 2011, I taught a class in Music City. This was a five day class (as opposed to many of my classes which are only three days.) In this class I had a young fellow from Georgia. Honestly, I cannot recall having done anything which might be considered untoward behavior to the guy, but something must have occurred for him because before lunch on the third day he had sent several emails to the training center with complaints “as to your (my) demeanor, attitude and professionalism in the classroom.” I was blown away! Not only had this not happened to me as a trainer before, it hadn’t happened in other areas of my business life for many years. I took it pretty hard. I talked to the training center officials, assured them I had no idea what might have happened but I would apologize to the entire class. I did just that.

Just a little later, the students must have received an email from the training center asking them about how the training was going. My guess is the center was looking to see if the incident was isolated or if the whole class felt the same way. Another young fellow in the class, reading the email, looked up at me and said, “That does it. I want the number of the training center right now!” I provided the number to him and he called the project manager. “I don’t know what you’ve heard, but I want you to have another perspective. I think Donny is doing a wonderful job in the classroom. I think, and several others think he’s a great teacher who is clearly passionate about his work. I appreciate everything Donny is doing for us and I don’t think there’s anything the matter. The individual you heard from is not representative of our class. He shows up late every morning and only seems interested in meeting his wife for lunch.” He hung up. I was so moved I almost started to cry. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had stood up for me like this.

On the fourth day, the ne’er-do-well called me out of class in the morning. He told me he thought it was extremely inappropriate I had apologized to the class. He said he was going to request a re-do of the class with another instructor. I said that was his prerogative. Nothing more transpired between us the rest of the day. He sat through the class playing with his iPod Touch. My thought was, “He’s paying for this class. He can do whatever he wants.” I left him alone.

In the classes I teach, each student at the end of class gets to evaluate the class from the perspective of the classroom, the materials used, the training center in general and of course, the trainer. That’s me. In the rating system used, 1 is bad; 5 is best. The students can also leave comments in any of the sections being rated.

Day five. Last day of class. Most of the students have been great. Then, there’s the guy who’s been a challenge. No iPod today. Well, at least not in the same manner as Day four. We get through the day without incident. End of the day. Evaluation time. I’m resigned I’ll get pretty good marks from most of the class and probably 1s from the guy from Georgia. Oh, well, it’s only one guy in one class, I’ll survive.

As Mr. iPod is finishing is evaluation, he looks over to me and says, wait for it, “I gave you all 5s.” I’m thinking, “He’s lying.” But, he calls me over, wants me to see he’s on the up-and-up. Once again in this class, I’m floored. I ask him if he still intends to take the class over with another instructor? He says, “Nope. I’m good. The first three days were very different than the last two. You (me) changed and I got what I came for.”

Human nature. Go figure. Maybe the first three days he was having trouble with his girl friend. Maybe he wasn’t getting enough sleep. Who knows. What I tell myself about this, is once again, I managed, without trying, to piss someone off (I made it about me; kinda crazy, but sometimes that’s what I do.) Whatever it was that changed for him, I’m grateful. I don’t like those 1s.

I continue, each day, to watch how I show up. I really don’t want to piss anyone off. And, the lesson here is sometimes, it just happens. Can’t be helped. If it happens because the old me shows up, and he does, I take a lesson from my friend, Willie. I ask for a do over. I explain I don’t like showing up like an asshole and if the person I know I’ve offended is willing, I attempt to make amends. Just a simple, oops. Each day is a trial. Most days, I win.

How am I Changing? The part of me who is apathetic and indifferent to others and doesn’t care if I piss someone off was/is valuable. It probably helped me survive a lot of stuff I might not have otherwise. Perhaps there’s still a place for that ‘me’. But the me I want to show up most days, is more open of heart, empathetic and understanding. Changing for the better; not just for others, but especially for me.

 

Not the kind of box you’d want to gift wrap….

A trait which disturbs me almost more than other bad traits I have is putting persons in boxes. You might ask, what exactly do you mean by that. Let me explain.

I read an article this morning in USA Today. The story focused on Sue Wallis, a Wyoming state lawmaker who is a proponent of slaughtering horses for meat. Now, to me, this idea is just appalling. I would no more support an idea such as this than I would support using dogs and cats which were going to be euthanized for the same purposes. It simply sickens me.

Having read the article, I looked at the photo of Ms. Wallis and immediately put her in a box. She appears to be a heavy set woman with short cropped hair wearing fairly masculine clothes. I’ll leave it to you to figure out the box I put her in. And, this is what disturbs me about me.

Why is it I felt the need to put her in a box at all. Why couldn’t my brain just say, “Here’s a human supporting something I find totally abhorrent,” and leave it at that? Why was I compelled to label her with something else? And, I do this for lots of other persons. They might be African American, Jewish, overweight, Christian, it doesn’t really seem to matter. If someone does something disagreeable to me, I put them in a box.

I don’t think I grew up in a particularly racist or sexist family, yet I am aware there were references, often in Yiddish, to persons in less than polite ways. Perhaps they were referred to as schvartze or goy or faygelah. OK, so perhaps I was brought up in a fairly racist, deprecating home. Maybe it didn’t seem so because the derogatory terms being used were all in a language that wasn’t English.

I find myself doing this quite frequently. And, I don’t like it! Not a bit. Yet, for all my discomfort with it, it seems to keep happening over and over again. I know one thing. I have a very clear memory of a time I was put in a box. I was in my late 2os. Living in Cedar Rapids, IA. I was in the Czech part of the town and there was a man sitting on a bench. He had a great, weathered kind of face. I was, at the time, a photographer for the local newspaper and I wanted to get what is called a feature picture. Just something of interest. This fellow on the bench looked like he might fill the bill. I went over to talk to him and ask his permission to photograph him. He was OK with that. I made some pictures of him and sat down to chat with him. Everything seemed to be going well until my Star of David came out of my shirt. I had learned in our conversation this man was originally from Norway. When he saw the Star of David, he asked, “Are you a Jew?” I answered I was. His whole demeanor changed. He began telling me how he had helped the Nazis kill Jews in the war. He said he wished he had killed more himself. I was shocked. And, these were the days I really didn’t suffer fools lightly. My first thought was to beat the guy senseless. But, something else inside me actually felt sorry for this man. I told him I thought he was a sick, pathetic human being and left him there, sitting on the bench. I remember calling my friend Rick and telling him the story. He was shocked, too, but I don’t remember if Rick had any advise on the subject.

Here’s the rub: I was put into a box by this man, and really, I just felt sorry for the guy. He likely went to his grave as an ignorant, prejudiced human being. I realize writing about the incident now, that’s not what I want. I’m tired of being prejudiced. I’m tired of being ignorant. I’ve called myself a recovering racist for several years now. And yet, my brain continues to want to place others in a box when I get angry about something they’ve done.  And, really, it’s not just anger. It’s sad. It’s afraid. It’s all these base emotions rapped up in the guise of a box because I don’t want to know in that moment how to better deal with the situation or the person.

I believe in this moment, as I write, the answer is pretty clear. Several years ago, I learned when I get angry, to stop and ask myself a question. “What is it I’m afraid or sad about but not willing to see the fear or the sadness?” When I look at an incident from this perspective, I almost always can let go of the anger in order to deal with the baser emotion – the fear or the sadness. And, from that, I learn. The same question can be asked as I move toward putting the next person in a box. What is it, really, I’m afraid of from this person, or what is it about what’s happening causing me to be sad? In taking a moment, that’s all that’s really necessary, a moment, I can get a much better perspective of how I’m feeling and why. Taking enough of these moments, the lessons will come. I hope, the boxes will disappear. I’ll simply see others as persons who are helping me to uncover another part of myself I’ve been hiding from.

What was it then about the article in USA Today which caused me to put Ms. Wallis in a box, to label her something other than,  in my opinion, a misguided person? She advocates the slaughter of animals I consider noble. It makes me sad, mad and afraid all at the same time. I’m sad someone wants to slaughter horses. I’m angry about that, too. And, I’m terrified there will be enough other Ms. Wallis’ that something really horrible could happen to the horses in the part of the country she’s from. Here’s my turn-around for me: Ms. Wallis, I don’t like what you advocate and I truly hope and pray it doesn’t come to pass. But, if it does, I’ll still see you as just someone, another human, I don’t particularly care for.

How Am I Changing? By remaining awake, not sleeping, in my life, I get to see the myriad shades of humanity around me. By seeing humanity as just that, other humans interacting with and around me, I get to be the person I really want to be.

Interrupting (Or, How I work harder to keep the attention focused on Me)

I’m really not sure how or when I started interrupting, but I do know it’s been a part of me for a very long time. I also know how it has not served me well for a very long time, as well.

Interrupting, among other things, is a sign of not listening to the person I’m talking with. It’s also another, of many signs, of my impatience. It seems as if there’s a part of me crying out, “Oh, look, I’m smarter than you are. I can add more to this conversation than you can.” It’s about that part of me saying, “Look at me! I’m special! More special than you! I know more than you! I’m more deserving of attention than you!” It comes from that part of me still not wanting to believe I’m enough just as I am.

Here’s an example: I remember during my short marriage always wanting to chime in. Never really wanting to listen to my wife. Even though I’d waited until I was in my 50s to get married, I couldn’t wait for Robbie to finish whatever thought she had. Particularly when we had a disagreement. All of the voices I’ve delineated above had to have their say, and they had to have it right away. It was as if, knowing this was one of the smartest persons I’d met, I didn’t want to take the time to learn from her during a time (the disagreements) when I might have learned the most. If I’d just kept my mouth shut, and my ears open I might truly have gained some insight which would have proven useful. Alas, it was not to be in that case.

It is said, those things I dislike about myself are the very things I dislike in others. Knowing how much I interrupt, I’ve started paying attention to how it shows up in my life in my interactions with others.

Not interrupting is really about not paying attention. And, that has been something of a challenge for me. I have a tendency toward living my life at the speed of sound – the sound of my own voice. Listening, means staying focused on what the other person has to contribute to the conversation. It also means letting go of the insecurities and voices which, for whatever reason, say, “You’re not enough.” The truth is, I am enough and when I slow down, and listen to what others have to express, I can actually do some amazing things.

The other day, for instance, I was having a conversation with one of my students. He’d come to me with a  question. I couldn’t help but smile as I would begin to answer his question  I never had the opportunity to finish a sentence! He would always interrupt with his own bit of information! I think I had a smile on my face from the instant the conversation moved in the direction of his interruptions. It occurred to me how much work it really must have been for him to not only ask his questions, but to interrupt with the answers I began as well. And, moments after that, in a conversation with another student, where the second student was, in my opinion, frustrated and lashing out, I was keenly aware of wanting to not allow him to finish his sentences, but to interject my own thoughts during his dressing me down. Still, having been interrupted so many times just a few minutes earlier, I was keenly aware of how important it was to allow this man to express what was bothering him. I believe it served me well, to not interrupt my second student, as uncomfortable as it was to hear him criticize me.  In fact, I attempted to use what I’d learned in Imago teaching to repeat back to him what I’d heard in order for him to feel heard. It seemed to have worked well, because later when this student had a conversation with the training center administrator, he never mentioned the blow-up he’d had with me. I like to think he considered his point made and deemed I had indeed paid attention to what was bothering him. If only all of life worked that easily when someone feels frustrated.

A bigger part of listening, not interrupting, has made me aware of a great gift the Universe has provided me. I am by no means a psychologist, a therapist or any other kind of ‘ist’. I have learned, though, when another person is willing to trust I am paying attention to what they want to express, especially when what they are saying has to do with a painful event in their life, I have the means of walking through a healing with them, hand-in-hand. There have been many times in fact, during the course of the men’s work I began doing in December of 2000, where I’ve been able to guide another, either gently or more vigorously, to a place where the pain can be put aside and something beneficial can begin. I always feel incredibly humble the Universe has decided to use me as a conduit to allow such events to happen. To see another person on the other side of suffering is a gift the likes of which exists no where else in my life. It was never easy, but learning to listen is truly a reward to be grateful for.

Listening, without interrupting, additionally allows me to stay present in the moment. John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” When I’m listening to another person fully, it’s about living life in just that moment. The interruptions are really saying, “Hey, I’ve got something else to do. Let’s get on with this, can we?” Staying focused on what’s right in front of me, and giving the other person or persons my attention without interrupting keeps me focused on living life right where I am. An exercise I did in a training once, asked the question, “I am right here, right now. Any doubts?” I’m working to always be able to say, “No doubt.”

How Am I Changing?: By listening, without interruption I not only become a better me, I allow you to become a better you.

 

 

Change is good, slowing down, even better…

My friend, Ed used to refer to me as the most changed man in the community. I always took that as a compliment. It also made me think quite a bit about how I had changed and if  those changes were for the better. In most cases, I believe the answer is yes, the changes were improvements of me or as my friend Robert once called me, Donny v. 2.1. This new, improved Donny is calmer and not quite as explosive all the time as I was only a decade or so ago. Also, I’d say more empathetic and more balanced.

What were other changes my friends were seeing in me and what did it take for those changes to come about? One change I’m keenly aware of is slowing down.

When I was 49, I had been working for IBM as a consultant. I was in Denver with my friend, Neill and I became aware of how short walks were causing me great discomfort. The way this was showing up, I felt as if I was taking in a breath laced with fire when I was walking. It was really making me crazy. I had lived in Colorado Springs when I was younger, and the altitude there is higher than Denver, so I was pretty sure this wasn’t an altitude related problem. Nonetheless, I was puzzled. I was also scared because I’d never experienced anything like this and had no clue what was causing this. A factor which ruled out altitude as the cause was a weekend workshop I did outside of Houston, TX where I was at sea level. The same symptoms of “breathing fire” on short walks happened there as well.

One morning, I turned to Neill in the elevator of the hotel we were staying at and I said, “Neill, this breathing thing is making me nuts. I have no idea what’s going on.” His answer was one I’ll never forget. He said, “We’re going to be off this project pretty soon. Go home, see your doctor and have him take a picture.” It was just a simple, direct way of answering my question and my fear. Additionally, what Neill said made sense because I had smoked a pipe since I was 17. And, I don’t care what you’ve heard or what pipe smokers you’ve known have told you, I inhaled my pipe every bit as much as a cigarette smoker inhales. I thought, even though my father had been a smoker since he was 12 and seemed to be doing alright (that was true at the time, it would later be the cause of his death) perhaps 32 years of inhaling a pipe was catching up to me.

When ultimately we did finish the project in Denver, I took Neill’s advise. I went to see my doctor and described what had been going on for me. He told me I was going to undergo several tests in order to determine what the problem might be. He set me up for  an EKG, a blood test, a stress test on a treadmill and, yes, having a picture taken, a chest X-ray.

Most of the tests went well until I got to the treadmill stress test. I’d never done one before. The practitioner in charge described for me how the treadmill would start out slowly and get faster and more inclined as we went along. I thought, “OK, I’m in reasonably good shape.” But, that “breathing fire” thing had me a bit worried. As the test began, the practitioner began asking me how I was feeling. It was starting to hurt pretty quickly. She asked me on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being mild and 10 being severe what my discomfort level was. And, she asked, would I be willing to tell her if the test needed to stop. Pride goeth before the fall, it is said. And, for me on that treadmill, this was no exception. I answered her I would likely die before I’d stop the test. She was wise enough to stop the test for me at 90 seconds when I answered my discomfort level was at about a 7.

When I went in to see my doctor, after the stress test, the first question he asked me was if he’d knew I had a history of heart disease in my family. I told him my father had his first heart attack at 54. That’s telltale, by the way. Heart disease in a direct family member under 55 poses a high risk factor for children in that family. He told me my condition was known as angina,  a condition marked by severe pain in the chest or in my case, “breathing fire.” I asked, “What’s next, an angioplasty?” He nodded his head. I’d need to be referred to a cardiologist who would likely recommend that procedure for relief of the symptoms I was experiencing.

A few days later, I was seeing the cardiologist and a few days after that, I was admitted to the hospital for an angioplasty. It would be the first of three. On this first procedure, in the “cath lab” I was told I had two arteries which were blocked. One was 99% and the other was 90%. No wonder I’d had trouble breathing. I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to my lungs! An interesting aspect of all this came from a friend I did that training with in Houston. When I asked for support from the persons I’d done the training with, she wrote back, “Isn’t it interesting that while you are healing your heart (through meditation and learning about what made me so angrily impatient earlier in my life) your heart is also healing you?”

After that first angioplasty, I thought it also would be a good idea to go through a post cardio rehab training. This training was really about learning how diet & exercise could help me have a better lifestyle. And, as you might imagine, one of the first things on the agenda was giving up the pipe! Perhaps not as difficult as quitting cigarettes, but a habit and pleasure I’d had for 32 years was now off limits. I was told I needed to drop 35 pounds and start eating a more healthy diet. I have a tendency toward being OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and this was no exception. I dropped 35 pounds pretty quickly and began eating a much more nutritious diet.

When I was first diagnosed with coronary artery disease, I contacted an old friend who is also a doctor. He asked me to send him any and all paperwork my doctors were producing. I did. A few weeks after the initial angioplasty, he called me one day and told me he’d studied it pretty thoroughly. “What did you find out, ” I asked. He said clearly it could be deduced I had a history of coronary disease in my family but that isn’t what would kill me. He said the single biggest risk factor for me was stress and if I didn’t get it under control it would. I began looking for ways to become less stressed. I believe I found it in the form of studying Tai Chi. I’d always wanted to learn this Chinese martial art/exercise and this seemed like a good time to do so. This is where the slowing down portion of the title comes from.

I began studying Tai Chi with Mike Proctor in October of 2001. Mike not only teaches Tai Chi, but has been a martial artist for more than 50 years. He holds some fairly impressive credentials in Karate and is also a master of Tai Chi. When we first started training together, Mike could tell I’d had some previous exposure to martial arts and indeed in my early 20s I’d done TaeKwon Do for a while. I remember clearly talking to him when I first began working with him, about my martial arts background. He told me I could join his Karate class, too, if I wanted but, “It isn’t what you need.” I believe he saw that angrily, impatient side of me pretty clearly and had concluded what I really needed was to slow down in many aspects of my life. He saw what I didn’t back then, that slowing down would likely keep me alive for however long I’m going to be on this Earth.

I liked Tai Chi right away and I was still impatient. There’s a beauty and elegance to the form, in this case the Yang short form which fascinated me, especially watching Mike do it. It was fairly difficult for me to learn the form, and after the first two years, frustrated I hadn’t mastered the form yet, I called Mike one Monday to tell him I was quitting. “You can quit,” I remember him saying. “I just want to ask you one question first.” I said he could and he asked, “What do you think about when you’re in my class?” I said I thought about where my feet and hands were while trying to learn the form. He said, “So let me ask you this. Where else do you have an hour in your life, where all you think about is your hands and your feet?” He might as well have hit me with a Karate punch. I said nowhere. And I clearly understood his meaning. Rarely, can I tell this story out loud without coming to a real sense of sadness around how this simple idea was to change my life. It’s now almost 11 years later, and I’m still doing Tai Chi, though hardly a master. More like an experienced novice.

Change and slowing down both have helped me to become a more centered being. I’m amazed when I catch myself knee jerking like in the ‘old days.’ And, it still happens. What’s new is my ability to see it. Either coming or right after it emerges. When the former, I shift gears, just like in Tai Chi and re-distribute my balance. When the latter, I acknowledge that it happened again, and if I don’t like how it presented, I again change the energy flow to be not only more harmonic for me, but for those around me as well.

How Am I Changing?: Just like other lessons I’ve learned, I’m realizing I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to take my time in much of what I do to think about where my hands and feet are and appreciate where I am in the moment.

 

Agreements Are Meant to be Honored

Integrity. The dictionary defines it as (an) adherence to a code of values : utter sincerity, honesty, and candor. It might also be defined as taking responsibility for your life, owning all of who I am. It can be a tough lesson to learn, even when I think I’ve already learned it.

I began learning about integrity in a bigger way about 12 years ago on a Friday evening. It was a very cold night in December of 2000 and a little man with a stick, was talking about integrity  to a group of 29 of us. On that particular night, the lesson centered around an agreement we had all signed with particular interest in the time we had agreed to arrive at this gathering. There was a 30 minute window when we could arrive and “be on time.” If we arrived earlier, there was a lesson taught around that. Same for arriving late. But, as I was to learn with time, it really wasn’t about being early or being late, it was about doing what I said I was going to do. It can be an easy lesson to learn, but for many, including me, it was a lesson which could be learned and forgotten and learned again. This was exactly the case this past Tuesday.

I was meeting with some friends; friends who I know hold me accountable to do what I say I will do. And, while ultimately this is the lesson, doing what I say I will do on this particular Tuesday, my brain was latched on how often this lesson of integrity is tied to time.

The agreed upon time for meeting this Tuesday was 6:30 pm. I had been on the phone with a friend of mine and got caught in traffic after leaving my house later than I knew was probably wise. On my drive to this meeting, I was noticing what was happening within me. I was nervous. My blood pressure was probably a tad high. My heart was certainly beating faster. All of this, because I knew the men waiting for me would hold me accountable (if I wasn’t willing to hold myself accountable) for being late. If even only a few minutes late.

I was thinking to myself, “Why am I still getting worked up about being late to a meeting?” Jimminy, it had been 12 years almost since the lesson about time accountability had first worked its way into my conscious thinking. “There’s nowhere else in my life where I worry about being a few minutes late or early for that matter,” is what I was thinking. Why were we, the men who were coming together, the only one’s I knew who were hung up about time. It was bull crap and I was going to say so.

I did arrive late. The meeting had already begun. The men gathered were discussing business. I actually believed I might not have to deal with being late. I thought the business would take up the whole night. In truth, I was actually hoping this was the case. And, as is usual, the Universe had different plans for me.

We got to a point in the evening where the leader of the meeting asks if anyone present has an awareness of having not kept an agreement made with the others in the group. I promptly raised my hand and said I realized I was out of integrity. I’d agreed to be there at 6:30 and I was late. I went into my story, it was my story, about how 12 years had transpired and I didn’t understand why this group was still dealing with persons showing up late. Blah, blah, blah. I said I thought it was bull crap. I thought I was presenting my case eloquently and the others would all see my logic and say, “Yeah, Donny, you’re right. Dealing with this time thing is a waste of time. Let’s move on.” Right? Guess again!

Frank, the person in the leader seat, acknowledged he’d heard me. Even repeating he’d heard me call it bull crap. He began taking me down a road I’d been down before. This particular set of questions is designed to allow me to discern what consequences might result from the choices I make. I was very familiar with it. Hell, many times during the last 12 years, I’d done the questioning. I went along for the ride.

At one point, a man I know well, John, walked around the circle of chairs we were all sitting in to where Frank was sitting to whisper something to him. This was intended to keep this exercise from turning into a mess where many in attendance would all be offering suggestions to me at the same time. But, I really wanted John to tell me what his thoughts were. I didn’t want any go-between because John typically has great insights and I know him to be an excellent teacher. John consented and he began asking me some other questions. I don’t remember what they were, but I kept talking about time and how 12 years later this group of men, all of whom knew each other quite well, were still hung up about time. John was attempting to help me see the issue was bigger than just time, it was about making an agreement and not keeping it. I kept talking about time. I believe John, normally a very patient, gentle instructor,  got frustrated and after yet another reference to time by me he raised his voice and said, “I don’t know why you’re still talking about time!”

A third man rang in. Ed, reminded me it really wasn’t about time or anything else. It was about agreements. Was there an agreement made? Yes, I said. Had I kept my agreement? No, I said. Had there been a consequence, intended or not to not keeping my agreement. Again, yes. “So, it’s not about right or wrong, shame or blame, it’s about “I made a mistake.””, Ed concluded.  Those last words, “I made a mistake,” were the words I needed to hear to bring this matter to a close. I had made a mistake in my choosing to stay on the phone instead of honoring my agreement to be on time.  My choice had resulted in a consequence and tonight that repercussion was I was late. I had no problem putting this matter to rest but looking at every person at the meeting and saying, “I made a mistake.” It was actually liberating. Several teachers had shown up to instruct me about how integrity works or doesn’t work for me.

There’s also another paradigm here to consider. When the agreements I’m making don’t work well for me, I always have the option to change the agreement. I believe it takes a lot of courage and conviction, to be the odd voice out in a group. Going against the norm can seem like being the contrarian. It can also mean having the convictions of my boundaries to let others know about them.

One of the educators I’ve had the extreme pleasure of knowing in the last decade is a man named Jim Mitchell. Jim is a large man in every sense of the word. And, I can’t recall ever having been with him when I haven’t learned something which was so thought provoking it took me aback. One of those lessons has to do with boundaries. Applying that to this discussion on agreements, it might go something like this:

I get to decide: Who to have my agreements with; What agreements I will make; When I make agreements; Where I make agreements; How I make agreements; Why I make agreements.

And so do you.

It’s a two-way street. It’s about the interactions I have with everyone else in my life. And the bottom line is: The agreements I make are intended to be honored. When I fail at honoring those agreements, it only benefits me to be able to see, “I made a mistake.”

How Am I Changing? Some lessons, while easily learned, may have to be repeated in time.

Getting tripped up by the minutiae

Sometimes, the smaller the issue, the bigger I get tripped up by it.

Some years ago, I found a copy of the book, “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff” at one of the wholesale warehouses. I probably bought it more for its subtitle which is “It’s all Small Stuff” That subtitle really hit home. I knew deep inside, there were many more times I was sweating or getting worked up over the small stuff which I could just as easily have dismissed. I wasn’t doing that, however. I was expending an awful lot of energy getting angry, having sleepless nights or just plain dwelling on some of life’s teeny tiny moments which in the long run wouldn’t count for anything. Here’s an example of one which happened just recently.

My nephew, Seth, is one of the most brilliant persons I know. Seriously. Both he and his wife are PhDs in Astrophysics/Astronomy. I had the hardest time getting through both my high school and college Physics classes. My mind just doesn’t work that way. And, I am incredibly proud of him for what he’s accomplished. He teaches Astronomy at a major  mid-western university. I can only hope before I die to be able to teach something at a university level.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I started seeing some posts from him on Facebook which indicated he was in Sweden. I hadn’t heard anything about this from the family, so I wrote  a comment on his Facebook post asking why he was there. Seth responded with a url to a website about the Crafoord Prize. The website didn’t mention his name, and again not having heard anything about this, I asked him, again on Facebook, if he was receiving this award. At this point, I wasn’t really angry, I wanted to be proud of him for having achieved this honor if it was so. His second response was yet another url, this time pointing to a page at UCLA where he’d received his PhD.

Now, over something minuscule, I was pissed, and I mean unbelievably angry. I had asked, in my opinion, two very simple questions. Why are you in Sweden? and, Are you receiving an award? The answers I received made no sense to me. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why Seth hadn’t just said, “(My) Grad school advisor won a mini-Nobel Prize in Sweden. She invited me to come to the ceremony as a guest since I was heavily involved in all the work that was being recognized.” I got this information first from his mother by asking her. Then, later, in a different exchange with Seth, he told me exactly this.

I consider myself a fairly average person, sometimes with better than average abilities. In this situation, I just wanted a plain, direct answer, which I wasn’t getting. Sometimes I forget, I can always ask for what I want, but I may not always get what I ask for. This was precisely the case here. What I wanted was a simple answer. What I wanted, was to be proud of Seth. I didn’t want to play Sherlock Holmes to decipher the answers I was given. And what resulted was the immature part of me taking over.

I privately messaged Seth on Facebook. What I said was, “Would you mind quit f*****g around with urls and give me a straight answer, please  The last post doesn’t really answer my f*****g question any more than the previous one. Thank you.” I know, and I think you know, there was no call for that language or that kind of anger. Both were misplaced. So, what happened? What was causing this behavior I had been working so hard to control to come out? That’s just it. I was working to “control” this part of me. I hadn’t yet really given credence to the idea there was a part of me, no matter how much work I do, will always be there to remind me I had spent a lot of my years being angry about nothing or something small. Sweating the small stuff. It would have taken no more effort to message Seth with “I’m just not understanding the urls. I really just would like a simple answer to my questions. If you are receiving an award, I want to be proud of you, and I don’t want to work at finding that pride. Please, I need your help with a plain yes or no.” I wouldn’t have gone to a place I don’t like about me. I wouldn’t have lost sleep. I would have really asked for what I wanted; clearly, cleanly and without all the drama. I went so far as to make up some other nonsense which, also, within a few days would prove to be false.

One of the things I was making up was I was being disrespected. That wasn’t the case at all. Seth, just being Seth, often times answers questions in a cryptic way. I haven’t had the pleasure of sitting in one his classes, but I can only imagine (I could get in trouble here, again) he does this in his class to get his students to think. It’s certainly what I might do to get my students to think. But that’s me. Two choices to pick from, the positive (getting me to think) or the negative (I’m being disrespected). Too often, far too often, I choose the latter.

Lesson to self: The stuff I make up in my mind is just that. The fiction stories are made from. Stop worrying about the small stuff and concentrate on what’s really important. Things like: How am I going to enjoy the latter part of my life? How am I going to be joyful and bring joy to the ones who are important to me? How am I going to be present in my own life as the caring, loving man I am as opposed to the frightened child I was? That last one is the big one.

How Am I Changing?  One day, one step at a time. One day, and one step at a time.

A blessing from one of the many strong women I know

I’ve been fortunate to have many powerful, loving, intelligent women in my life.

Until I was 27, I had my Mom. I can remember coming home from college and staying up very late just talking to Mom about anything and everything. I made a mistake, maybe, once by getting her to ask me if I was doing drugs. After I said yes (it was the 60s and 70s after all) it took me six hours to convince her I wasn’t going to kill myself. In hindsight, it may have been better to have just let that dog lay. There were so many conversations. Right now, they’re a blur. As some surface, I may post them here if they seem relevant. Mom was taken from me in 1979 by someone who shouldn’t have been driving a car. I think you understand.

Another of the wonderful women in my life is my sister-in-law, Valerie (I prefer to simply call her my sister; she is like the sister I never had.) Funny, when she first got serious with my brother, more than 40 years ago, we didn’t like each other very well. To demonstrate how wise this woman is, after a time, she came to me one day and said, “We both love the same man, we really should learn to get along.” It took some time and work on both our parts, but ultimately we have become the best of friends and I am so grateful for that.

Over the years, Valerie has always been there to see me through both the good times and the not so good times. Through the joys and the sorrows. She’s been one of the steady buoys I’ve always been able to count on. It was a nice turn of events for me back in June of 2009 when I was able to help her through a challenge she was facing.

Valerie’s oldest child, my niece, Karen, was getting married in July. It was, as one might imagine, a huge event for our family. Valerie and I were just sitting out on the deck of her home with my brother, enjoying the weather, having a cool drink and visiting as we usually do when we get together.Val was facing a challenge with the wedding planner. She wanted something done one way, and the wedding planner wanted to do it differently.  The incident was causing quite a bit of discomfort for Val.

As we talked, I began asking her questions which would, I hoped, help her move through the block which was keeping her stuck. I asked how she felt about what was going on: Mad, Sad, Glad, Afraid, Ashamed or Guilty, the six primary emotions I’d learned to work with during the previous nine years. Naturally, she said mad. That was good. She was angry and I knew, for me, anger was an acceptable emotion, but also a disguise for something else. When I get angry, it’s usually covering up sadness or fear, and I explained that to  Val. I asked her to close her eyes and look inward to see if that might be true for her. After a minute or so, she opened her eyes and said, “Yes, fear.”

“What’s the fear about,” I asked. She took a minute, but then she said she was afraid if things didn’t turn out just so, Karen would be disappointed or perhaps even angry. I looked at her and everything about her was saying this was what was true. She didn’t want to disappoint my niece on any aspect of the wedding. My next question came from a therapist I’d done work with in Dallas. (I’d been in a group for several months trying to figure out how to deal with the breakup of my very short lived marriage.) “What is the most loving thing you can do for you?” I asked. Valerie thought for a bit then said she could work with the wedding planner in a way which would result in a win-win scenario. And she did.

Needless to say, the wedding was a smash (but one of the coldest, I’ve ever been to.) The bride was beautiful, the groom handsome. All the parents, friends and relatives had a grand time. And, what might have taken a lot of positive energy away from the joy Val was experiencing around this important time was averted. It was wonderful to be able to see this important lady in my life move through this block. And…I had helped. I was blessed to have been a catalyst in this instance.

In my younger years, I didn’t have the tools to empathize with someone else’s feelings. In my later years I’ve learned if I leave myself open to the Divine, the Universe will use me as a conductor to do its magic. I’m grateful for the transformation.

How Am I Changing? Being open to listening, hearing and feeling someone else’s discomfort allows me to become a conduit for healing.

 

Managing the Anger

After I began looking at the man in the mirror, and seeing him, I wondered what I could do to still be me and honor the anger I knew was a big part of who I am. But, I would do this in a healthy way as opposed to just letting it leak out whenever and wherever.

I learned one way on a weekend in June of 2002.

It was the first time I chose to staff a New Warrior training. I had been working on how to be a better me for about 18 months. I felt it was the right time to share what I was learning with other men who might  benefit from  the lessons I was learning. I wasn’t really clear, going into this weekend, how to really be angry in clean, healthy way, though. Not until I saw a man named Turpin do some of his own work in a group of 35 other men.

I had learned a method, sometimes called a process, of dealing with issues where my emotions were running high about something someone else around me was doing. It might appear as something someone said and I had an emotional reaction to it. This method is referred to as a clearing. It’s also been labeled as using “clean talk.” Let me attempt to break the process down.

It begins with recognizing my emotions are churning about something. Once I’m clear about that, I would ask the person I think (pay attention here, this is gonna change later) is the core of my churning to step out to “clear” with me. If that person agrees, both of us go to the center of the group we’re meeting with. A third person is picked to facilitate the clearing. The facilitator acts as both a guide and a judge for the clearing being done.

The clearing is very specific about addressing four areas: data, feelings, judgments or opinions and wants or desires. The first part, the data, is almost always an area persons get tripped up on. In this context, data is indisputable fact. Neither party in the clearing should be able to argue about the data. For instance, if someone says something to which I have a reaction, the data would be to replay the exact language which was used. “Roy said I’m a contrarian.” If in fact Roy did say to me “You’re a contrarian” neither of us can argue that. What’s not data might look like me saying, “Roy said I’m a contrarian and that makes me a bad person.” Adding the additional phrase, is my judgment or opinion about what he said. It’s not fact. The feelings are also well defined in a clearing. Do I feel mad, sad, glad, guilty or ashamed concerning the situation. For me, the last two guilt and shame are areas I have to be very careful about. As I see it, guilt is about something I did or didn’t do; I made a mistake. Shame on the other hand, goes much more to my core. It’s about who I am. Not, I made a mistake, but I am a mistake. Something about me isn’t right. Very distinct and different feelings, in my opinion. Judgments or opinions is where things are fairly relaxed. When I give my opinion on something, I offer a conclusion or a judgment that, although it may be open to question, seems true or probable to me at the time. Lastly, there’s wants or desires. What outcome do I want or desire from this clearing?

Remember I said earlier something would change in the clearing? Here’s how. What I’ve come to believe is a clearing or engaging in clean talk with someone is never really about that other person. It’s about me. The other person is merely a catalyst for something really internal. During the course of the clearing, a good facilitator (this is my opinion here, not data) will help me see how this is really about me. Going back to the example of Roy calling me a contrarian, it’s very likely I don’t like others I consider contrary therefore, someone calling me contrary brings up emotions about other things I don’t like about me. I’m probably not fully aware I don’t like the contrary side of myself, so someone saying it out loud….well, you get the point.

I hope at this point, I’ve managed to help you understand a clearing. So, how did watching Turpin help me? Well, something happened during the course of the weekend he and I were on which caused emotions to stir in Turpin. He asked the other person to do a clearing with him and the other person agreed. It was during the feelings portion of the clearing where I learned something. Often, someone will say, “I’m angry” in a tone one might use in church. But in this instance, Turpin, who had a flowing mane of blond hair, bent over and whipped that mane as he stood back up. He screamed, “I’m angry!” It was like watching an actor in a play. His anger came from the depths of his soul. It was loud. It was messy. But, it was controlled. Watching Turpin, I had no doubt he was mad and neither did anyone else in the room.

From that day, whenever I did a clearing with someone where I was angry, I let my anger come out full force. No holding back. There was always an imaginary line in front of me I wouldn’t cross. But, whoever stood in front of me had no doubt how I was feeling. Eventually, the way that helped in my everyday life was finding a place I could go away from the person I was angry with, and yell; letting my anger out safely and without negative repercussions. Sometimes, I wouldn’t be able to do that, so I would just play a scene in my head of how it would look if I could go yell somewhere. It wasn’t quite as satisfying, but it did work.

I found an outlet for my anger in the clearing process. I did it a lot for several years. Someone came to a meeting late, I did a clearing with that person and screamed. Someone said something I didn’t like, I did a clearing. Someone behaved in a way I didn’t like, I did a clearing. There were some persons I scared so badly with my anger, they were ready to fight with me if I did lose control and throw a punch. I never did and never will. After several years, I found I didn’t need to scream and yell so much. I did a lot of work around my anger. There are times, though, when that’s what I want to do to release something building emotionally within me.

Oh, I did learn a couple of other things, too. My anger was almost always about sadness or fear I was not expressing. And, whenever I did a clearing, I began realizing it really wasn’t about the other person. It was always about me.

How Am I Changing? For the better!