Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"It Is What It Is." Or Is It?

Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune. – William James

It’s official; the phrase, “It is what it is,” has become our nations’ go-to mantra for living in the modern age.  I’m sure of this because, not only do I hear it repeatedly from my psychotherapy clients from all walks of life; I heard a report on NPR where the U.S. Solicitor General, Donald Verrilli, used it in an argument in front of the Supreme Court. (Click here for the transcript of the report).   Talk about putting an official stamp on something.  The only thing left is a constitutional amendment to use the phrase in place the words E pluribus unum on our currency.  

My initial impression on hearing the use of this phrase was one of wonderment.  Had the nation suddenly adopted a Zen-like acceptance of the here-and-now?  Was this a sign of a new age of enlightenment where people no longer resisted the natural flow of life?  And, most importantly, is my job as a stress therapist in jeopardy now that people are no longer worrying about things they can’t control?
These questions were quickly answered as I began to listen to the context in which most people were using this modern proverb.  Rather than it being used as the open door to a more proactive life lived in accord with the Now, it was the closed and barred door of resignation that, “Life hurts and there’s nothing you can do about it.” 
Feeling, once again, secure in my chosen field, it still bothers me to think that so many people are using this pseudo-acceptance as a primary stress coping skill rather than  true acceptance.  True acceptance reflects an inner state of “yes,” while resignation is the contracted “no.”  Acceptance says, “It is what it is. Now what will I do?”  While its opposite says, “It is what it is.  I think I’ll go crawl under the covers.”
At a deeper level, this phrase has all the clarity of a muddy lake.  Absent an understanding of, (to quote former president Bill Clinton) “what your definition of is is,” there’s no way of knowing what we’re accepting.  Is your is the same as my is?  Is there a universal Is that reflects the ultimate truth? And don’t even get me started on just what “It” refers to. 
If you want to verify that the people uttering this phrase have no conceptual basis for its use try this quick test.  The next time you hear someone use this phrase respond with one of the following:
  1. Is it really?
  2. No, it is what it isn’t.
  3. No, it isn’t what it is.
  4. No, it is what you is.
Stand back and watch the sparks fly as the person’s brain grinds its gears trying to wrap their head around that.
Before throwing the baby out with the bathwater (a time-tested, proverb) perhaps we can salvage this phrase before it ends up on the idiomatic garbage heap along with “Hang in there baby.” If we want to put the stamp of an authentic, perspective-shifting, helpful maxim on “It is what it is”, we need only follow a few simple rules:
  1. No using the phrase simply because we lose interest in a topic, situation or person i.e. “Oh look at the time, well, you know, it is what it is.
  2. No using the phrase in place of a necessary, open and honest, discussion i.e. “Johnny what’s up with these failing grades?”  “It is what it is, Mom.”
  3. No using the phrase to defend an indefensible position, i.e. “So, Chuck, it seems that you’ve been embezzling from the company again.” “It is what it is, boss.”
  4. No using the phrase to side-step personal responsibility i.e. “I can’t believe you decided to invest our retirement savings in the return of the 8-track player.” “It is what it is, hon.”
  5.  No using the phrase as a pseudo-spiritual ladder to prove that you are more enlightened than everyone else i.e.  “You really think you’re better than us don’t you?”  “It is what it is.”
We would be wise to heed the words of the great American psychologist William James when he pointed out the acceptance is only the “first step to overcoming the consequence of any misfortune.”  Perhaps, then, there will come a day when, rather than reciting mantras, we will begin to live their meaning.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Santa Pause

Stress is as much a part of holiday tradition as greeting cards, presents, and awkward moments at family gatherings. The conventional wisdom is that while this should be the time of peace on earth and good will towards men, it’s equally the time for discord and ill-will.

How is it that a festive time turns into a carnival of tension and worry? Why are high blood pressure and tension headaches served up as much as eggnog and fruitcakes? Does this have something to say about the holiday season, or is it a commentary on our refusal to see stress for what it is?

I suggest that the holidays do not bring us stress; we bring stress to the holidays. If you look closely at the gift that is inner tension, you will find that it was neatly packed, wrapped, and hand-delivered by none other than our self. I also want to suggest that this is very good news. It opens up the possibility that we can ask for, and if we have not been too naughty, receive the present of inner peace this season.

Before going on, I want to share with you a Stressmas carol that I wrote to sum up how many of us feel as we move headlong into the not-so-silent nights ahead:

(Sung to the tune of Jingle Bells)

Jangled nerves, jangled nerves
Jangled all the day
Oh how sad it is to spend
Our holiday time this way
Dashing through the malls
With a cart that’s gone astray
Back to the bank we go
Crying all the way
Bells on registers ring
Making spirits sigh
Oh, what bills the mailman brings
Why is my interest rate so high?
Jangled nerves, jangled nerves
Jangled all the day
Oh how sad it is to spend
Our holiday time this way
A day or two ago
I felt my chest grow tight
And very soon I found myself
Pacing through the night
I tried to get some sleep
But the fears they would not go
I knew I’d fallen very deep
And never felt so low
Jangled nerves, jangled nerves
Jangled all the day
Oh how sad it is to spend
Our holiday time this way

Traditional stress reduction plans usually have four basic components. We are told that we should eat right, exercise, get plenty of sleep, and enjoy the company of others. If you are like me, you are looking at this list and feeling even more stressed out than before. The reason, of course, is that this list represents things that, for most of the year, feel barely within our control. The likelihood that they are going to become our standard mode of operation during the time frame between November and January is about the same as the likelihood that Santa will finally give us the high definition plasma TV we have been longing for rather than the lawn tool that will occupy our every weekend.

Don’t be dismayed merry gentlemen and women, there is another way to approach this time of the year. Contrary to many stress management techniques, the way out of this trap is not the by struggling to get a hold of the stress Grinch that lurks in the shadows waiting to steal our holiday magic. It is by letting go of our habitual tendency to resist the world as it is. When we hold on desperately to the visions that dance in our head, we become frustrated when the world refuses to dance along. However, when we let go of the need for the holiday season, or any season for that matter, to conform to our preconceived notions, we discover a true miracle; life isn’t so bad when we actually live it rather than think our way around it.

This does not mean that we simply lie down and allow the yuletide sleigh to run us over. Moving into a state of “letgo” does not mean we become victims of the wintry winds of fate. To the contrary, it means we become an active participant in life through no longer struggling to swim upstream. When we drop the notion that holiday stress is “out there” and see it as a routine mind creation, only decked out with bright lights and tinsel, we can actually do something to bring true joy to the season.

The next time you find that your holiday stress mug runneth over, try emptying it by asking yourself “what am I resisting at this very moment?” Look deeply into was is and see if you can hear the voice in the back, or front, of your head saying, “this should not be.” Hit the pause button on this running commentary and you will find that all is calm; all is quiet.

In order to help you through the coming holidaze, I offer another revised Stressmas carol guaranteed to soften the heart of the most hardened Scrooge:

(Sung to the tune of Let It Snow)

Oh, the world outside if frightful
And everyone seems so spiteful
But since it’s no way to grow
I let it go, let it go, let it go
The stress it is not stopping
And my it heart feels like popping
But before I hit an all time low
I let it go, let it go, let it go
And when I finally see the light
Nothing seems quite so bad
When I let go of the fight
I discover the peace that I had
Now the fears are slowly dying
And my hearts no longer crying
All I ever needed to know
Was let it go, let it go, let it go

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Gratitude Attitude: Finding Grace in Everyday Life

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.

John Milton

Even those of us far removed from childhood can remember the subtle, and not so subtle, reminders from the adults in our lives to be grateful.  The often asked, “What do you say?” was followed by the obligatory “Thank you,” before running off with whatever gift, treat, or act of kindness given to us. 

When not being encouraged to reflexively give thanks, more dramatic methods were employed.  Perhaps you remember the frightening little phrase, “I complained of having no shoes until I saw a man with no feet.” Or, maybe like me, on more than one occasion you found yourself staring at a plate of a disagreeable food offering and being told “There are starving children in China (the location seems to vary based on generational and cultural factors) that would love to eat this."  And, maybe like me, you thought, “If a starving child in China wants this, let’s wrap it up and send it on its way.”
The intention, of course, was to foster a sense of gratitude in us.  The unintended consequence of the guilt-ridden, “Do it or else” approach, is that it takes a spontaneous experience and turns it into something we must do on command.  This seems to follow many of us into adulthood and, despite learning to appreciate the taste of broccoli, (the disagreeable food substance of my youth) many of us have a hard time swallowing the concept that gratitude is anything more than just good manners.
Interestingly, the word gratitude comes from the Latin root gratia, which is also the root for grace.  Both mean "to be pleased," or "thankful."  It’s an irony  that many families say grace before sitting down to a plate of food that, in some cases, children in some far off country would be more grateful to have.  On a much deeper level, however, grace and gratitude are intrinsically woven into the fabric of life; the warp and woof of existence.  Their arrival adds the sweet fragrance of wonder to everyday happenings. They simaltaneously steer us through, and transform, the struggles, challenges, and sufferings of everyday life.
Gratitude seems to be going through a renaissance of late.  The current selling point is that it can turn otherwise painful situations into opportunities for growth.  This has even shown up in my professional field of psychotherapy where clients are encouraged to “practice” gratitude with the understanding that when they focus on what’s good about their day they will feel better.  The trap door, however, lies in that the prescription to practice gratitude may be seen as just another version of something one ought to do.  With the echoes of, “Because it’s good for you,” ringing in their ears, many are still left staring ata plate of limp broccoli that is the world and all of its challenges. (My humble apologies to broccoli, which I have, on my own, come to love and appreciate.)
How does one find the healing power of gratitude when it’s all too obvious that life includes suffering; when our knee-jerk reaction is “Thanks, but no thanks”?  Does a list of “What went right today” really trump the painful hands many feel they have been dealt?  How do we keep gratitude from becoming just a more dressed up version of the optimist’s doctrine of “Don’t worry be happy”? 
As someone who has gone through the cancer experience, fully convinced that if cancer did not take me out of this world then its treatment would, I can tell you that even that experience does not move one permanently into a state of gratitude.   I find this to be the case with many of the client’s I've seen who’ve gone through traumatic experiences, to include life threatening illnesses.  Many emerged with a profound sense of gratitude for still being alive, only to find that it faded like a summer tan; leaving them, once again, pale and tired of life’s minutia.  
Gratitude, it seems, is not something one can will into one’s life.  Like its counterpart grace, it seems to arrive on its own accord.  The good news is that it is a vital element of our true nature. The even better news is that rather than having to be taught to appreciate life, we can unlearn those things that blind us to life’s wonders.
We can begin by refusing to feed gratitude’s opposite.  Let’s be honest, the more we take things for granted the less pleasing life seems. Additionally, when we begin to expect the worst in an attempt to avoid disappointment, we step into a trap of our own making.  We become ensnared in the twisted logic that there's something to gain in having our belief that “Life sucks and then you die” confirmed.   As a result, if the awful thing does not come about, gratitude is replaced by the terrible twins pessimism and cynicism. 

In order to open the door to gratitude, it helps to see that all life moves towards happiness and the universe provides endless gifts just waiting to be opened.  And while a polite, and even heart-felt, “Thank you” is the mannerly thing to do, we should heed the words of the writer Richard Bach who wrote “The best way to pay for a lovely moment is to enjoy it.”  Isn’t this the ultimate expression of gratitude?  Once we break free the bonds of guilt, unworthiness, or whatever other psychological mechanisms stand between ourselves and our enjoyment, we will find the awe in everyday life.  This, in turn, will alter our experience and change our very existence into one great “Thank you.” 
Additional tips for creating an opening for gratitude to flow freely include: 
1. Say “yes” to offers from others for help, assistance or support.  
2. Practice saying “I don’t know” more often.  Rather than a sign of a lack of commitment, it’s a sign that you’re committed to keeping an open mind. 
3. Have you cake and eat it too.  Deprivation leads to desperation and it’s hard to feel pleased when frantically try to get our needs met. 
4. Avoid the expectation trap.  Nothing spoils a feel-good moment like wanting, needing or craving its return.  Live in the now as it's the playground of grace and gratitude.
5. Forget “Give until it hurts” and “Give until it feels good.” If you’re not finding joy in your giving then all of your gifts carry the stain of suffering.