Saturday, December 18, 2010

Suicide Doesn't Improve the World

It seems that I have a lot to say this weekend.

There has been a lot of great attention drawn to the problems with bullying. Dan Savage started the It Gets Better Project where people from across the world record their own messages to teens telling them that indeed, things can get better. Local and national news stations are beginning to air the normally silent stories of struggles that young people face. The attention is good--it's raising awareness, starting a dialogue, and building a platform for change.

This morning I watched a video on Towle Road. Sean Walsh was, a 13 year old who killed himself after being bullied, left behind a suicide note. His mother made the decision to read his suicide note and tell his story on YouTube. My heart aches for Wendy. I hope her video can make a difference in an adults life by teaching them to speak up about bullying. If you'd like to watch the video, I'm including it in this post. It's sad, raw, and powerful. If you are feeling a little vulnerable you might not want to watch it.

Sean wrote, "I will hopefully be in a better place than this shit hole... Make sure to make the school feel like shit for bring you this sorrow."

There is a problem here. We aren't teaching our children that things can be better now. We aren't showing children other children who have lives of joy, compassion, and excitement. We aren't teaching children how to be resilient, how to resist bullying, and how not be be bullies. We are failing our children.

The narrative of much of what I hear is something like this:  It can't be better now--you have to wait for it to get better. Youth are suffering and miserable and need adults to rescue them. 

I am filled with sadness for the loss of Sean and the grief his mother is experiencing.

Suicide doesn't change the world. Suicide isn't an effective way to punish a school or a bully. In the end, suicide means someone is dead, some people experience profound bone breaking grief, and the rest of the world moves on. 

There are so many more effective ways to resist a bully and change the world. We ought to be teaching our youth these skills. We ought to be teaching our youth about other youth who use these skills. It can save a life--and change the world.

The Decline of Empathy: How You Can Help

A study from the University of Michigan offered a disturbing glimpse into the pro-social behaviors of young adults in America. Sarah Konrath, along with students Edward O'Brian and Courtney Hsing conducted a meta-analysis of 72 different studies conducted between 1979 and 2009. The studies all looked at college students levels of empathy as measured by paper-and-pencil tests.

Here's the shocking part:
We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000," said Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research. "College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait."
What does this mean in the real world? If there is transfer between how people act and what they reported on the measures, it means that young adults are 40% less likely to be able to put themselves in someone else's shoes. 40% less likely to be willing to consider another's perspective. 40% less likely to be impacted by the suffering of another's suffering.
Compared to college students of the late 1970s, the study found, college students today are less likely to agree with statements such as "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me."
Curious how you compare on empathy? the University of Michigan has a survey up online. It will give you a score that you can compare yourself to the 14,000 college students that make up this study. Before heading off to the study on the following link, keep in mind that no information is provided if the university is recording your input. There is no mention of an Institutional Review Board approving of research, nor is there mention if this is for research gathering purposes (do they save your data) or is it for your own information (is data not saved). They don't ask for any identifying information. At any rate, here is the link to the survey.

How did you do? I know I was surprised. Before I started the survey I thought I'd score off the charts on empathy. While I was well above average as compared to the sample, I was surprised to see that college students in the 70s were much more empathetic than me.

Not to be overly nerdy here, but as an adult who has been out of college (and graduate school now) for a long time I can't use a sample of college students to compare myself too. It may be possible that college students are more idealistic. It may also be possible that college students tend to be more prone to black and white thinking (here, it would be "I'm always considering someone else's perspective" vs. a more nuanced perspective that comes with life experience).

And of course, there is likely to be a gap between how people identify themselves on paper and how they actually behave in the real world. There could be all sorts of interesting things that happen there.

Still--commentary on research aside--this is a disturbing trend. Inside special education circles it is often common practice to teach children empathy and perspective taking. I wonder if that happens in mainstream classrooms and within the contexts of families? I sure hope it does.

Here are a few tips for teaching empathy taken from the website Parenting Science. They are evidenced based tools to help teach empathy in children. Try them out with your own kids--or adapt them and try them out with your husbands, wifes, partners, and friends. You could make the world a little more friendly.

  • Teaching empathy tip #1: Address your child’s own needs, and teach him how to “bounce back” from distress
  • Teaching empathy tip #2: Be a “mind-minded” parent. Treat your child as an individual with a mind of her own, and talk to her about the ways that our feelings influence our behavior
  • Teaching empathy tip #3: Seize everyday opportunities to model—and induce—sympathetic feelings for other people
  • Teaching empathy tip #4: Help kids discover what they have in common with other people
  • Teaching empathy tip #5: Teach kids about the hot-cold empathy gap
  • Teaching empathy tip #6: Help kids explore other roles and perspectives
  • Teaching empathy tip #7: Show kids how to “make a face” while they try to imagine how someone else feels. Experiments show that simply “going through the motions” of making a facial expression can make us experience the associated emotion.
  • Teaching empathy tip #8: Help kids develop a sense of morality that depends on internal self-control, not on rewards or punishments
  • Teaching empathy tip #9: Teach (older) kids about mechanisms of moral disengagement
  • Teaching empathy tip #10: Inspire good feelings (and boost oxytocin levels) through pleasant social interactions and physical affection

Ellis Island: Early Notions of a Multi-Cultural Society

This past spring my niece and I took a weekend to ourselves and went to New York City. Despite having lived in New York City, I never managed to take the boat out to Ellis Island to visit that important part of American history. I'm glad we visited. The boat ride out offered fantastic views of Manhattan, the Statute of Liberty, and Ellis Island. The museum was a fantastic experience filled with an unvarnished look at what it was like to be an immigrant entering the country.

 What I found most interesting were some of the propaganda posters they had at the museum. In this first image, which had the date of 1919 on it, victory bonds were being sold. The advertisement was making a pitch toward making people feel like they were "real" American's if they bought bonds to support the government--and extended the idea of a "real" American to a variety of different ethnic backgrounds by making a mention of a variety of names. Reading through the names now, one might not be particularly moved. Thinking about what people thought about culture, ethnicity, and diversity in 1919 I was very moved. Here is a hodge-podge of names from countries all over Western and Eastern Europe. All seen as Americans. The last name on the list is what finally got me--a name usually associated with Spanish speaking countries. Might it be that I stumbled across early evidence of our society creaking toward a multi-cultural understanding?

Of course, even then we were trying to figure out the language issue. Here is a poster from my hometown advertising "Americanization" classes. From the picture, it appears that Little Red Riding Hood and a man with extremely large hands are learning the alphabet from a small child who dressed like a newspaper reporter. Modern day English only laws--and the merits or problems of a bilingual (or trilingual) society is a topic for another blog post. This poster made me wonder what images are we leaving behind today that someone will look at and wonder about in 90 years?

Part of what I really liked about the Ellis Island museum was that it wasn't all polished. Sure there were the well maintained and immaculate galleries. There were the shining display cases, detailed audio tours, and all the trappings of a modern museum. Other parts were a little more raw and uncensored. A few different places caught my eye. No better time to share them then now.

This first image is graffiti that a nameless immigrant left behind while waiting in line to be processed. As the building aged the plaster cracked away and revealed this drawing. We don't know anything about the artist (though we could have known more if my other image that I took wasn't blurred--the artist had words to go along with this face). A travel tip for all of you: don't leave home with a brand new digital camera that you've never used. You are bound to experience some disappointment. Anyway--I wonder who the face is? A self portrait? A relative left behind in their home country? Someone who died on the journey to America?

The main building on the island has been historically restored. It's in beautiful condition. I'm told that there are plans for some of the other buildings to be restored and turned into a conference center. I hope they leave some of the structures untouched. I like the reminder (both inside in the context of the museum and outside in the casual context of the grounds) that the immigrant experience was difficult, hard, and sometimes a failure. Many came with the hopes that sidewalks were paved with gold. Some found that gold. Others were turned away, treated harshly, or even died on Ellis Island.

This ominous looking sign is clearly going to require a blog post all on it's own. This little innocent looking (yet strangely ominous) sign spurred me to come back from this trip and create a folder on my computer that I've been slowly filling with images of what psychology  has been through the years--specifically images of how we have treated people considered "mad" or "ill". It's clearly going to require a whole blog post of it's own. Consider this sign a little teaser.

I've been told by people that I tend to dwell on small things. I'd be the one taking the picture of an interesting looking floor board on a boat while everyone else was rushing to take a picture of awhile breaching out of the water. This is a useful skill in therapy--often times when we notice the little things we can unravel the big things. This isn't always so useful when showing someone what a place looks like. I made an honest effort with the Statute of Liberty (see, I can improve). I assure you though I have plenty of pictures of her torch, or a fold in her dress, and taken from all sorts of strange angles. It's how I see things--and works for me.

With that in  mind, I leave you with two images that convey in a very personal way how I saw Ellis Island. Perhaps it will inspire you to think about how you see the world around you?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Shadow Self

Unfortunately, there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. --Carl Jung
There has been a lot of press about Michael Vick making a public comment that he'd like a dog someday. For those of you who don't know, Vick was convicted for his rather gruesome activities related to dog fighting. 

I've been stirring up a little bit of controversy about this on Twitter and Facebook over the last couple of days. I knew this was going to happen--in fact it was my point. I like to think, I like when other people think, and I especially like when I get to think while in relationship to other's who are thinking. It makes for a richer experience. Don't you think?

The responses on Facebook and Twitter were complex, interesting, and thought provoking. I think as time permits, I'm going to make more provocative posts. It's a nice way to built a community built on dialogue--and to show that there is a way to talk about difficult things in a public forum in ways that are deep and meaningful.

One tweet, from @JosephLobdell, particularly caught my interest:
@jaypsyd Maybe splitting & fear are involved: if "evil" can be rehab'd, we who r "good" can poss become "evil." They hilight our shadow side.
Now Carl Jung isn't someone I think about every day. Maybe I should. For years I've been disturbed on one level or another when I see people responding to violence with violence. Vick's behavior is reprehensible. There isn't an excuse for it. Yet I become so sad when I hear how many express their anger in ways that make a call for retribution or more anger.
He's a useless piece of humanity who needs the same treatment he doled out
He needs to hang just like he did to his dogs.....and not anything less
Michael Vick should fall off the face of the earth
These are good people who made these comments. They care deeply about animals and their community. They are outraged about Vick's behaviors. I don't blame them. I am outraged too. I think these are also people who are willing to let us all see a little bit of the shadow side that in "polite" society we make every effort to keep hidden.

It's uncomfortable to come into contact with our shadow side. It's also important to make contact with it and know it's there. I deeply respect the folks who joined with me in a dialogue about Vick. It made me uncomfortable--and I'm sure it made others uncomfortable too.

In the end I am reminded that no one is all "good" or all "evil." We each have the capacity for an expansive compassion or crushing violence. The important challenge is to find windows so we can see both--and learn the tools we need to have so we can all make choices that move our lives toward compassion.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Little Phone Humor

A Long Way From Home: Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Some of you might find this post disturbing. If you are feeling a little vulnerable when you come across this or would rather not think about darker parts of our world, move on to another post. You might check out Maggie's blog to check out the latest in her adventures.

After months of waiting, I finally got to sit down this past Friday and take a training for forensic psychological evaluations for victims of torture. The training was held at Community Legal Services and Counseling Center where I volunteer supervising pre-licensed psychologists-in-training. Now that I've completed this training I'll be picking up a new role as a forensic evaluator for persons seeking asylum in the United States who may have been victims of torture.

A large part of my work as a psychologist involves going to places most people don't know about. On a daily basis I hear about people's deepest fears, darkest fantasies, and most damaging traumas. This training brought me into a few more of those places. What surprises me every time I enter into another experiences is how unsettling it is to realize what has been happening around me all the time without even being aware.

Here is some of what I learned in the training. According to the UNHRC, at the end of 2008 there were 12,599,900 refugees and asylum seekers.  There were 8,177,800 individuals who were warehoused in refugee camps waiting for ten or more years to be resettled into a new home.

In 2008 the United States resettled nearly 60,200 refugees. In the same year, the US granted asylum to 20,500. In 2007 there were more than 93,400 asylum seekers who had claims pending at the end of the year in the United States.
Who is a refugee? A refugee is a person who enters into the United States with legal status. They have already been processed by a UN agency and come to this country with legal status. A refugee doesn't get to pick where they are resettled: that is decided for them. What is an asylum seeker? Asylum seekers are people who somehow entered the United States and seek protection based on a well-founded fear of persecution if they were to return to their country of origin.

What's a refugee camp like? They aren't comfortable and they aren't safe. Here are a few images to give you an idea of what a refugee camp is like. As bleak as these places are, they are in many ways, an improvement from the areas refugees and asylum seekers fled.

Why flee their home countries? Some flee because of war, genocide, human rights abuses, famine, or various environmental catastrophes. The official definition is that a refugee is someone with a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, who is outside of his or her country of nationality and unable or unwilling to return.

Prior to arrival in their resettled countries, children and adults faced physical injury, assault, illness, and malnutrition; were subjected to chaos, instability, and unpredictability; witnessed death, dead bodies, and injury to others; separated from parents and other family members; were are of parents' fears, anxiety, and inability to protect and provide for them; forced prematurely into adult roles; deprived of school, health care, and social services; faced adults silence on what's happening and why; and faced multiple losses.

Many people who are refugees or are seeking asylum are victims of torture. Despite the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights more than sixty years ago, torture is still a frequent or even standard practice in many nations. In 2003, for example, torture was reported in over 150 countries. In over 70 countries it was widespread or persistent.

Torture is designed to destroy the victim psychologically, create an atmosphere of fear and horror, disempower the individual and community; take away control form the individual and community; and damage relationships of victims and communities. Torture might be physical (beating, falanga, hanging, sexual torture, electrocution, being forced into uncomfortable positions for long period of times; burns with acid, burns, or forced ingestion of feces or urine) or psychological (mock execution/threatened execution; threats to self and family members; forced to witness family members or others tortured or killed; being forced to participate in torture of others; food, water, sleep and bathroom facilities deprivation; solitary confinement; and constant interrogation).

So why go here? Why enter into these dark places with people seeking asylum? On reason is that I'm awfully curious. I like learning about people and their experiences: this is one way to learn about some powerful experiences that people have had that is about as far away from my own experience as possible. The other reason is something that I touched upon awhile back in a blog post about the bookmark that was given to me in my welcome packet in my doctoral program at Antioch. The quote was:

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity--Horace Mann

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Weir Hill: Autumn's Last Stand

The weather was unusually warm for November. With temperatures in the 60s, it was an ideal time to head out and enjoy some of the last sunbeams of Autumn. These views are from Weir Hill Reservation in North Andover Massachusetts. Check out Maggie's Facebook page if you want to see what she was up to during the trip.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Pale Blue Dot

During a brief interlude between patients this afternoon, I took Maggie on a walk along the river in Cambridge. I stumbled across a podcast that made mention of Carl Sagan's book "A Pale Blue Dot." Memories that had long since been crowded deep into the storage spaces of my mind came rushing back.

When I was just a little dot I fashioned myself as a future astronomer. I remember how excited I was to watch PBS and catch each and every hour of the 13 part series Cosmos. My tiny little world got so much bigger with Dr. Sagan's deep voice delivering information about the vastness and wonder of the universe around us. I was hooked. Sadly I was not a child that was particularly gifted in math. Addition and subtraction was a stretch for me--the math I would need to be able to do this sort of work seemed out of reach. I moved on to study other things. Still, my imagination was captured by that initial curiosity about "countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time." 

Fast forward a decade. I had graduated from college when I was 19. Knowing everything there was to know any about anything, I promptly picked a sensible course of action: I moved to New York City for graduate school. After a year of study I learned two things: I wasn't ready for graduate school and I was definitely not interested in studying Industrial/Organizational psychology. My grad school and I had an amicable separation. I moved upstate to Ithaca New York. 

I spent a year living in a basement apartment figuring myself out. Spring finally arrived after a long and brutal winter that involved two snow storms that were so intensely cold I froze in my own apartment. I was walking around the campus of Cornell and nearly fainted when I heard Dr. Sagan's very distinctive voice. I searched him out and introduced myself. He was kind enough to interrupt the conversation he was having to exchange a few words with me. I told him he helped to inspire my curiosity as a young child and taught me a few things about honoring the very unique and rare life we each share. He said something kind to me. I wish I could remember but those memories are now lost. You have to remember I was practically swooning with excitement. Dr. Sagan was my own personal rock star. If every I had to pick someone who is my hero, it would be Dr. Sagan.

Though we had only met in person for a few short moments, through his work and presence in this world, he helped to inspire what I consider to be my best quality: curiosity about the world around me. From an early age, he showed me that while in the larger scheme of things I am a relatively unimportant little speck in a vast universe, the choices I make are important and the rarity of uniqueness of human life requires me to be kind and thoughtful with those choices. 

So what's with this pale blue dot? That's us. When the Voyager spacecraft turned it's camera back toward the Earth right past Saturn for one last image of Earth.

"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." -- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The View From Here: Eastern Standard Time Edition

I was busy (thinking about) cleaning the kitchen this afternoon when I noticed the evening light practically burning through the windows. Today marks the return to Eastern Standard Time. It was well worth a trip outside with Maggie to capture a few views of Autumn'swarm light ebbing toward the Winter's grey.

Quote of the Day

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. -- Victor Frankl

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Quote of the Day

The young, free to act on their initiative, can lead their elders in the direction of the unknown... The children, the young, must ask the questions that we would never think to ask, but enough trust must be re-established so that the elders will be permitted to work with them on the answers. — Margaret Mead

Love, Belonging, and Connection

This is a somewhat long clip, but worth watching.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Scientific Claptrap

Every now and then my attention gets captured by disaster porn. Admit it--you also get sucked in by the occasional disaster porn too. The general narrative is that the world is going to end and people expose their true humanity (or true inhumanity). Awhile back my attention was grabbed by some tweets talking about a "methane bubble" that was going to destroy the world. 

Trying to live up to my doctoral degree, I made some attempts to be a good consumer of science. I did some research to see if there was any actual scientific evidence suggesting that the world indeed was going to blow up. I came across this lovely article by Deborah Blum about the need for their to be Warriors Against Claptrap. I loved the article then and I love it now. It's a nice antidote to the growing anti-scientific mood in our political discourse. 

Deborah writes that the term scientific claptrap
...derives from the work of a U.K. charitable trust, Sense About Science,which has the mission of promoting "good science and evidence for the public." Scientists affiliated with this program have publicly entered controversial discussions about everything from vaccines to climate change. The claptrap session was organized by the trust's wonderfully activist program Voice of Young Science, which bands together smart, articulate and dedicated researchers early in their careers - often a time when scientists tend to be extremely cautious - who wish to make a difference in public perception of science.
This brings me to my annoyance d'jour: Should Apes Have Rights?

I first read the article, my mouth fell open, I was annoyed, I tweeted about it, I moved on. The problem is that I kept on coming back to this article and I kept on getting annoyed by it. I sent off a comment to the article. I figured that would help me move on to whatever is going to annoy me next. No such luck. I'm still annoyed, my mouth is still hanging open, and clearly I'm going to have to do something more here. We wouldn't want me to catch any flies with  my mouth open (did your mother's used to say that to you, too?).

So what is it that has gotten under my skin about Helene Guldberg's article? Helene presents an argument that is radically different than my own. I believe that animals have complex methods of communication. I believe that animals develop their own version of society. I believe that every animal has a place in our shared global community and every species lost is a loss to all the rest.

As a little sidebar, have you ever thought of what would happen if the common honeybee went extinct? First off, none of us would need to worry about getting stung by one. That's nice for me, especially since I swell up when I am stung. Einstein is quoted as saying that if honey bees become extinct humankind would only likely live for another four years. That's problematic. I've heard a few programs about the plight of the honeybee. It's kind of scary. They have become fragile and their populations are declining. Without them, there are going to be be some serious problems.

See, we all live within an interdependent ecosystem. That's science. There is evidence based information out there that can show how we are interconnected and dependent on each other.

Back to apes.  Plain and simple, Guldberg's article is scientific claptrap. There isn't any evidence cited. She does not draw upon the rich scientific literature in comparative psychology, animal behavior, primatology, or any other similar field. Guldberg instead relies about an age old trick used to persuade people: she presents her opinion that is hidden under the guise of science. That's shameful--that's wrong--and that's scientific claptrap.

I learned as a dissertation student (thanks, Susan Hawes!) to peer deeply in the background of the texts I was reading. I clicked around a little and learned a good deal about Guldberg. She writes an awful lot about apes. I'm not sure what that means but I'm left with the interpretation that she has some sort of personal investment in this argument that apes aren't human. I wish that she might share what that personal investment is: it would make it easier to understand where she is coming from and what context she is building her opinion out of. 

Beyond the claptrap, there is another more important point here. I might even get to that point.

It's obvious, of course, that humans are not apes. We are different creatures. That's not rocket science and neither Guldberg or myself needs to write a lot to demonstrate that. Under the guise of science, Goldberg is making a moral argument that humans are more important than animals. Her opinion, while not one I share, is not wrong. It's her opinion. What is wrong is that she obfuscates that opinion under the guise of science. She uses the imagery of science to lead her readers to believe that her opinion is somehow more important, valid, or worth than the opinion of another.

Did I mention that's wrong?

I wish Guldberg would have written about why she has this opinion. How has she come to the belief that humans are more important? Why is that important to her? What kind of reasoning does she use? It would be a rich dialogue to engage in with her. 

What's my opinion? Guldberg presents a human centered morality where humans presumably put themselves first. She talks about humans as a whole but I really see it as a hyper-individual approach. I see this as a failed system of morality. An individual self-centered approach (using our world for our own personal benefit) has unleashed destruction about our species, our environment, and all those plants and creatures that inhabit this planet. 

In many ways, I've been grappling with this question for a long time. During the oral defense of my dissertation my chair had asked me whether all morals are contextual or if there were something things that were just absolutely right or absolutely wrong. This was the most difficult question my chair had ever asked me. She essentially was asking me if I believed in moral relativism or not--and if not, how do I make decisions about what is moral and what is not. I still have nightmares about that question (thanks, Susan). I'm still trying to formulate my answer.

All of this is to say, please don't bother asking me what my opinion is. I'm stalling. I'm stalling because I don't know.  I know that what Guldberg presents doesn't work for me. It doesn't seem to work for anyone. We cannot have a system in which we put ourselves first and use up everyone around us without regard.

Do I don't know. I might never know. However, I do know that you should check back in to see if I ever do have an opinion. I know that these are the sorts of things that have captured my attention for years and will continue to do so for a long time to come. The answer however isn't all that important--it's the process that I'm going through thinking about it that really matters.

What about you? Do you have answers? Do you need them? Care to join me in the process of discovery? How do you decide what is moral and what is not? Why?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Monday Mindfulness with Craig Polsfuss

Please tell me about yourself: who are you, what do you do for a living, where is your home base?
Craig Polsfuss, MA, LP, LICSW
(Psychologist and clinical social worker in Minneapolis, Minnesota)
- Among the original group of psychology and business professionals nationally pioneering the innovative Three Principles.
- Clinical practice in Three Principles-based psychotherapy, marriage counseling and addictions aftercare.
- Train and coach business and  helping professionals in the Three Principles.
- Three Principles-based corporate training and development service providing executive and leadership development, team building and services for creating healthy company culture. 
- Co-authored two peer reviewed articles on applying the Three Principles to leadership development and high performance recently published in professional journals. (Complementary copies available by request.)
- Working on two books and a major project to be launched next year to bring the Three Principles to the world.
If you only had a few words to describe mindfulness, what would you say?
Mindfulness is more than a practice. It is who we are and into what we are evolving/awakening.

I’m fascinated at hearing about how people became involved in meditation and other mindfulness practices. How did this become part of your life?
In my expanding interest in the world, humanity and spirituality, I became interested in college, researched and practiced various forms of meditation and enjoyed and benefitted from most. I eventually found one that is absolutely unique (see below) and have enjoyed it immensely for the past 32 years.

Why has meditation/mindfulness become important to you? How has your experience of life changed?
What I practice is unique in this respect: From all my research (and by no means to I claim to have done an exhaustive investigation), most meditation practices involve techniques to quiet the mind and produce more mindfulness. In time and with a quiet enough mind, a person can attain an inner experience of enlightenment and fulfillment (or whatever terms one would use to describe "higher" or "the ultimate" experience).
The teacher of what I practice caught my attention when he stated, "What I teach you do not have to practice for four years or forty years or four lifetimes and then you will have the experience you seek. I will put you directly in touch with that experience, and then your practice is to just stay with it."
I had never heard this and have not heard it since from anyone else. So I now have the means to directly connect to that ultimate inner experience at will at any moment -- whether in formal practice or not -- and in doing so I have become one with that experience more and more.
How has this changed my life? It has revealed who I really am, how life really works, and made contentment, gratitude and bliss my daily mode. I went from living "outside in" to "inside out". Although there have been many challenging moments since that transformation, my life has been predominantly magical and fulfilling -- an internal love affair.
In addition, it changed how I understood the human experience and human functioning and dramatically changed how I worked with people. As a result I became one of the first professionals to embrace the Three Principles when they were discovered, and am subsequently a national pioneer. 

Please tell me a little bit about your practice. What makes it unique or different? What makes it helpful?
All of my professional work is based on the Three Principles of Human Experience (Mind, Consciousness and Thought). These explain in a profoundly simple and precise way the source and substance of human experience, why human experience becomes what it does, and how it can be naturally transformed into more health, fulfillment and success. Thankfully, I am able to use psychological language to convey profound spiritual truths to those who may be uncomfortable with spiritual language.
Three Principles practitioners do not teach nor promote meditation practices (nor do they discourage them). The Three Principles teaches/facilitates a state of meditation/mindfulness in which the client can operate more and more deeply and consistently. We equate a waking state of meditation/mindfulness with healthy psychological functioning.
So much of what I do is unique. One of the most important is that via simply raising a person's understanding of these principles, the results spontaneously start to manifest. No techniques or mental practices are necessary. A person's innate health, wisdom and capability is awakened and expresses itself in new and wonderful ways. This is so fundamental that it can be "applied" in any human endeavor. I have chosen to work primarily in the areas described above, but I am always open to exploring new ways to share this powerful understanding and create positive outcomes.  

As a psychologist I work with many people who face down experiences of evil, death, pain, and other “dark nights of the soul.” Do you have thoughts about how your meditation/mindfulness practice might speak to those experiences?
Mind, Consciousness and Thought explain these completely and in doing so completely extract their apparent power (potentially determined by the depth of the client's listening). They are all manifestation of thought produced by the mind and coming alive in consciousness. As a person recognizes this their "mindful" system automatically adjusts itself in a more healthy direction (not unlike instinctually pulling ones hand away from the fire that is getting too hot). 

Does your meditation practice lead you to think about anything in particular about psychotherapy, mental illness, or the change process?
Yes -- see above -- and there is too much to state than possible here.

Has your practice increased your capacity to experience compassion? How has that happened? What have you noticed?
Absolutely! Seeing that all human being operate the same way (despite the completely unique expressions of each person's functioning) and that I and the other are one, uncovers both great compassion and great confidence in the potential of their discovering their own innate health, wisdom and capability. One become more soft-hearted and sensitive, in a healthy way.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to meditate/be more mindful?
Follow your heart, and don't settle for anything that does not truly satisfy it.
Are there other thoughts you’d like to share?
I hope this was useful. It sounds like you're doing good and interesting work. I'd love to chat more if you're interested. Best wishes.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Inaugural Monday Mindfulness with Erica Walch

I'm starting a new project this week about mindfulness. I'll be joined here every Monday by a guest blogger who has been kind enough to answer some questions about meditation and mindfulness. I'm hoping it will be an interesting way to show the diversity of what mindfulness can be. Hope you all read along and share your thoughts.
The inaugural Monday Mindfulness is with Erica Walch. She is an accent modification training in Springfield Massachusetts. If you want to learn more about her be sure to check out her website and blog.

Please tell me about yourself: who are you, what do you do for a living, where is your home base?

I am an accent modification trainer in Springfield, Massachusetts.

If you only had a few words to describe mindfulness, what would you say?

Being mindful is being tuned-in to all your senses in the present moment. 

I’m fascinated at hearing about how people became involved in meditation and other mindfulness practices. How did this become part of your life?

I've practiced yoga for almost 20 years (!), and first came to meditation through yoga. I don’t remember how or where I first heard of mindfulness, but as soon as I started reading about mindfulness, I knew that it could be helpful for my accent modification clients.

Why has meditation/mindfulness become important to you? How has your experience of life changed?

Meditation -- like yoga, prayer, and exercise -- makes me feel good. I like to feel good, so that’s why it’s important to me! Meditation and prayer give me a profound feeling of peace and serenity. Practicing mindfulness gives me a richer experience of the material world and of time. In being mindful and doing one thing at a time, but doing that one thing fully, I am able to get so much out of each moment.

Please tell me a little bit about your practice. What makes it unique or different? What makes it helpful?

I work with proficient non-native speakers of English who want to change the way they communicate orally. During our lessons, all of my clients can learn to accurately mimic the sounds and intonation patterns of standard American English, but when it comes to speaking naturally, they don’t employ those new sounds and patterns. I believe this is because their focus is not on the surface level of communication – they are quite mindful of what they say but not how they say it or of how other people receive (or don’t) what they say. I help my clients become more mindful about their speech, and this helps them have more success in changing their accents.

Does your meditation practice lead you to think about anything in particular about psychotherapy, mental illness, or the change process?

Change is often quite slow and incremental. I work with clients for a fixed fifteen-week course. My goal during that time is to equip them with all the knowledge and habits of mindfulness that will enable them to continue to practice on their own. I check in with clients every six months or so and those who have continued to practice and to be mindful about their speech continue to make progress. Change is slow, but possible with mindful attention.

Advice for someone wanting to be more mindful:

If you notice that you are not fully engaged in the present moment, try to check in to your five senses. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you taste? What do you touch?

You can also say the mini-mantra: “Here is where I am, and this is what I’m doing” and then replace here and this with your location and action. “I am in the park. I am walking.”

Other thoughts:

I’m not a psychologist or psychotherapist. I believe that psychotherapy encourages patients to look inward to find answers, while in my practice, I encourage clients to look outwards. My clients are unaware of how different they are from others when it comes to oral communication. I urge them to listen to other people as much as possible, listen to themselves, and make a comparison. I don’t want them to be unique! I want them to blend in, to find what is common in other people’s speech expressions and to try to imitate that.

Two of Ellen Langer’s aspects of mindfulness come to mind here – alertness to distinction and awareness of multiple perspectives. My clients must be alert to the differences in the sounds of the words they are producing and how standard English speakers produce those same words. They also need to be aware of multiple perspectives in order to appreciate the effect their oral production has on listeners.

The aspect of mindfulness that is probably most crucial when it comes to making a change is openness to novelty. Some of my clients decide that they don’t want to change the way they speak after all. It’s too new and strange for them, and it impacts their sense of self. Others go through a bit of an identity crisis and then decide that they do, indeed, want to change the way they speak. Those who embrace the habits and practice of mindfulness are able to make the most lasting changes.

Erica Walsh's web site:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

365 Days of Mindfulness

Since July 12th, I've dutifully taken a moment to stand in the same spot (nearly) every day for a moment of mindfulness. For more about why check out my earlier blog post. The first 39 days got their very own video treatment. Here's the next installment. What do you see?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Importance of Looking Deeply

One of the things I have valued most about my graduate education is that my mentors insisted that I look at things deeply. Don't be satisfied with how things appear at first glance or even after just a little investigation. Dig deep and look at all the sources. Confront my own bias and interpretation. This morning I'm thinking a lot about the encouragement my mentors gave me.

At various times over the last several months I've come across a controversy between the Humane Society of the United States and HumaneWatch. I got sucked right into the kerfuffle on Twitter when the HSUS retweeted one of my postings and suddenly my screen became filled with Humane Watch proxies warning me about the "evils" of the Humane Society of the United States. They were generally two different types of messages. The first generally communicated that the Humane Society wasn't very humane because they allegedly euthanize animals and the other is that the Humane society is allegedly an ominous force because they advocate a vegan diet.

Oh no. Not a vegan diet! That's just plain evil.

This morning I got a few invitations to join a  Facebook page for the Humane Watch. My curiosity was finally piqued about this group and their propaganda. My first question was who is behind the organization.   Was it a group of concerned animal activists? Disgruntled former employees from HSUS? I figured if I knew the structure under the organization I could understand more of where they were coming from. I figured it would be difficult to find out. In the end, this was the easiest research I've ever done.

Scroll to the bottom of the Humane Watch webpage. There is a copyright noticed saying all content is copyrighted by the Center for Consumer Freedom. This center is an organization run by restaurant, tobacco, alcohol, and other similar organizations. They run a variety of media campaigns supporting the interests of the various industries they represent. Want to do some of your own deep research about the Center for Consumer Freedom? Check out Sourcewatch. That's one place to start.

What things are the Center for Consumer Freedom supporting? They provide financial surveillance on organizations and individuals that support "anti-consumer" organizations. They campaign against animal rights groups. They go after watchdogs such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Suggest that we ought not to worry about the levels of mercury in seafood (they must be really concerned, because they have another website too). Then of course there is the kerfuffle that started all of this with the Humane Watch that is, among other things, warning that the HSUS wants us all to be vegan.

Yes, there is more. To round up the sites that the Center for Consumer Freedom sponsors we have one about Obesity Myths in which we learn it is lifestyle, not diet, that makes us fat. PETA kills animals, according to another website they sponsor.  Another goes after the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine because it has the gall to suggest that high fat fast food is bad for us and eating more vegan foods might be better. The Center for Consumer Freedom calls this one Physician Scam. Lastly, we apparently don't have to worry about too much sugar in our foods because it is all just a Sweet Scam.

What makes me sad here is that science--real meaningful science--gets obscured by propaganda that is trying to sell more fast food, support more factory farms, and manage our environment in thoughtless and destructive ways. Good people end up getting manipulated by the science that is intended to educate and improve the lives of society.

Carefully read what you encounter out their in the world. Look deeply before you click "like" on facebook. Give some thought to who is trying to get you to believe what--and why they want you to believe it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Day After

As was the case at Wellesley college, the academic year had just begun and my schedule was already full. I had been on campus for about a week as a doctoral level practicum student at the Stone Center Counseling Service. I had an 8:30, 9:30, and 10:30 client scheduled.

I had gotten my first appointment of the day, sat down with her, and went about the business of doing therapy. I walked her to the office, scheduled her next appointment, and heard from the secretary that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I remember thinking that was sad, got my next client, and went back to the business of doing therapy. The thought of the plane crash was pushed far out of my mind. I repeated the previous process and walked my second patient to the office. I scheduled her appointment and said goodbye. Only then did I notice the ashen faces of those gathered in the office. "They are gone," she said. I asked "what is gone?". She said the buildings, the buildings are gone. I walked and got my 10:30 client and again put everything out of my mind.

It wasn't until 11:30, when I finally had a break, that my attention went back to the conversations held in the office and what meaning was held in those words.

That was nine years and one day ago. In some respects, and enormous amount of time has passed. Yet in other ways, the world has stayed exactly the same.

I was struck yesterday by a quote in the Boston Globe. A person protesting the Islamic Center that is to be built in a former Burlington Coat Factory Store carried a sign that said "It stops here" and "Never forgive, never forget, no WTC mosque."

Never forgive. Simple words really--simple words that are brimming over with unexpressed anger. Simple words that will forever prevent one protester, a country, and a world from moving forward. Without forgiveness, hate continues to reside in the heart. The day after never comes and one is forever trapped in a moment of pain and anguish.
The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget--Thomas Szaz

Why is this? The forgiving isn't for the other--it's for us. Once we find a way to release ourselves through forgiveness, we can continue move forward with our life rather than being trapped in the past. The past becomes a memory--in it's proper place. Without forgiveness, the past remains trapped in our present and it is never the day after.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Mindfulness in Action

Well all I have to say is oops. As regular readers know, I made it my goal to have 365 moments of mindfulness this year in the same spot. I've been following through with this and made a short video of the first 39 days. This weekend I encountered my first snafu. The technological demons attacked me and my phone. I put up a valiant fight: I couldn't get the images to upload directly to the drop box where I'm storing the files so I thought I might first transfer them from the phone to my computer. That didn't go as anticipated and I lost about four days worth of images.

However, in the end that is what this is all about for me. Sure I'm disappointed and might annoyed. There isn't much I can do about it other than complain for a bit (despite what other people say, I think a good ten minutes of complaining can make anything better). I'll just give myself ten minutes however. Then it's time to move on and continue.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Photo of the Day: Nature's Classroom Edition

Almost as if on cue, the weather changed to give a hint of the autumn to come right as the moving trucks descended upon Cambridge filled with first year students. Class is in session: study hard and be mindful of nature's classroom. She'll teach you well.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Community Politics

It seems that wherever dogs and people come together there is controversy. The politics have gotten a bit tense in my neck of the woods.

I'm not sure when this whole situation started. I've been aware of it since last March. From my vantage point, the current recipe for disaster involves the following ingredients: there is a group of people with well mannered dogs who like to walk their dog without a leash in an open field along our neighborhood reservoir. There are people who are not from the neighborhood who do not have well mannered (or well trained!) dogs who like to walk their dogs without a leash. Still others have well mannered dogs who walk on leashes. There is a local community action committee president that appears not to like people who walk their dogs without leashes very much (regardless of leash status). 

Combine these three ingredients, stir, and you get a whole lot of trouble.

As I talk with neighbors I hear stories of other neighbors taking pictures of people and their dogs and sending it to the police. I hear that those pictures are presented along with a citation to dog owners on their front porch by the police. I've received letters (which all neighbors have received) warning of the leash law and stating that if there are repeated violations dogs may be confiscated. Yours truly, the irreverent psychologist, nearly went off the deep end today when he noticed he was getting his picture taken while playing with his dog on a leash.

What's most sad about this whole situation is that in general, the people arguing about the people walking dogs without a leash and the people who are walking dogs without a leash are the people who spend the most time caring for the reservoir. Both groups of people spend time at the reservoir walking, clearing away litter, and building a community garden. With this controversy neighbors start to distrust neighbors. Many have started walking their dogs elsewhere. 

The results of this? At first nothing. The change was imperceptible. Many still walk their dogs. A few dedicated gardeners still work the soil and coax magnificent plants to blossom. However right under the surface, the steady march of urban decay started back up. The trash, as you can see on the right, is really starting to pile up. The images is what Maggie and I gathered on two sequential mornings while walking. 
With groups of neighbors (often with dogs) no longer gathering at the top of the reservoir to watch the sunset I started noticing larger and larger groups of teens gathering. This isn't a problem in-and-of-itself. However, without the presence of adults, the teens started feeling that the reservoir was a good place to be unsupervised. They bring blankets, beer, and condoms. I find the remains of their adventures in the morning when I'm walking Maggie. Every week I find just a little bit more garbage. 

Of course teens partied at the reservoir when there were more neighbors enjoying the park. Teens (and adults) still left behind litter. It is just that it was more controlled when the younger folks though that they might be noticed. They knew this was a community that was cared for and were likely to care for it themselves. 

With the arrival of more young people and the litter they left behind, I started noticing a steady increase of dog poop underfoot. It took me awhile to understand this. Less dog walkers should mean less dog poop. I finally figured it out a few days ago. There are less responsible dog walkers (with leashes, or without) who are picking up after their dog. Some of those people were also picking up after other dogs, but there is something even more powerful at play. With less responsible dog owners, there is less role modeling. Those that remain walking their dogs (ironically, with leashes) are the ones most likely to leave dog poop behind. 

As urban decay has marched on the problems have increased. Every day there is more litter, more dog poop, more graffiti (I've been noticing more swastikas and such), more remainders of drug deals, and more reports of crime.

I shouldn't be all that surprised. Since 1982 social scientists have spoken about the notion of the broken windows theory. The main idea, taken from the original article, is this:
  • Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
  • Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.

The theory explains itself by three main points. The urban environment (well cared for, or in disrepair) applies influence with three major factors: social norms and conformity; the presence or lack of monitoring; and social signaling and signal crime. What does this mean? The norms of the community greatly influence the behaviors of those who enter it (picking up dog poop vs. not; leaving litter behind versus collecting it and disposing it; stopping to have conversations with neighbors versus ignoring them). Having neighbors who mention "do you need a bag to pick up that poop" applies powerful influence to other neighbors demonstrating that they are being monitored--when monitored people are more likely to conform to social normals. Signal crimes are those that make people generally feel that there is a possibility they are unsafe (graffiti, vandalism, etc.). 

The irony here is that this neighborhood was once the site of an experiment conducted by researchers at Harvard and Suffolk Universities. They looked at the concept of the broken window theory and recorded if there were differences in neighborhoods that received extra attention versus those that did not. The theory was supported by the research and calls to the police dropped nearly 20 percent. 

So what is my point here? My point is this: communities are living breathing creatures that need to be cared for and nurtured. It's so sad to watch neighbors close down, turn inward, and stop relating to each other. The community suffers and the neighborhood starts marching a little closer toward urban decay.