Vulnerability, Joy, Creativity and Love

When the student is ready,
the teacher will appear.

Dedicated to my friend who had enough faith in me
to work with me until I saw I was on the top of a flag pole
and was ready for a teacher to appear. Thank you!

I am sure you have had the experience of dealing with something in your personal life over and over and then something triggers a process that causes a solution to unfold. Sometimes all at once and sometimes as a series of steps and occasional missteps that lead inexorably forward. Often the steps are unrelated at first glance but your mind finds triggering relationships. This is a story about a recent experience of mine.

I have just finished reading a book about increasing worker productivity. One recent evening I also watched a video about joy, creativity and belonging. Here’s a quotation from one of them. Which was it?

“________ is about opening up the windows, letting in the bright sunlight and fresh air, and discovering what is going on instead of covering it up.  It means aiming high and failing often, but taking responsibility for failure and addressing it. It’s about living a life where actions have consequences. It’s exciting, frightening, challenging, and thrilling. It’s about truly living.”

If you took the question at face value, you probably said the quote was from the video about joy, creativity and belonging. If you assumed that I wouldn’t have asked the question if the answer were obvious and you therefore chose the management book, you would be correct.

The point here is that if you have a question in your life and engage in it creatively or allow a trusted friend to assist you, you can prepare yourself to find the answer. And, it probably won’t look like what you expected, you probably won’t find it were you expected it to be, you may have to put the pieces together yourself, and it will probably take longer than it reasonably should.

I saw some answers in the book but also some questions that neither the author nor I had asked. Questions that helped me frame my issues regarding satisfaction and relationships and be ready for the video. The video poked at some of the issues that were keeping me stuck, some of the things I just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see about myself, and provided some new ways of looking at the advice I was getting from my friend.


The “set-up” for the start of my breakthrough was a relentless, un-ending series of why questions from my friend. Each answer simply led to another why…? Questions as fresh as: Why did I just say what I just said in the tone of voice I said it in (which was rude or impolite or …) and questions as old as why did you do xxx 42 years ago? Why are you smart enough to get a degree from Harvard and too stupid to answer a simple why question? And, why can’t you ever say thank you? Why? why? why? …

I looked everywhere. My parents. My friends as a kid and growing up. All of the places where psychologists take us. There was something of interest in most of the places I looked but no obvious answers. The items of interest usually seemed like partial answers or excuses or just something to avoid saying one more time: I don’t know!  How do you test an answer about why you did something 42 years ago that you can barely remember doing? Frustration mounted for both of us. It was beginning to come down to: Maybe I just have a mean and nasty streak and won’t say thank you.

My options seemed limited. The current way I was living my life was boring and unrewarding at best. No joy, no creativity, and my primary relationship was fast approaching the bottom of a death spiral. I found myself trapped at the top of a very tall flag pole where any step in any direction looked like I would go straight down, not forward.

Something was missing. But I didn’t know what it was. How do you look for something if you don’t even know what it is? Where do you look? You will probably find something, but how do you know it is what you are looking for? What do you do with it when you find it?

As I watched the video bits and pieces from the prodding of my friend, the management book, other personal development work I am doing and multiple other places started showing up as parts of a possible answer. I also began to see some of the things I had tried didn’t work.

I often use Microsoft Word as a form of wrestling mat to bring order out of the chaos of evolving ideas. This story is the result of the wrestling match that was started by the video. Is the wrestling match complete? No. I have a sense this will be a life long process. On the other hand, telling this story now is a major step in owning and sharing the stories in my past.

First Step

The first step wasn’t planned. I was looking for a solution but in a general wandering around sort of way. Frankly, I didn’t know where to look or how else to begin.

I occasionally visit when I have a few minutes at the end of the day and want to stimulate my mind a bit. A presentation titled “The Power of Vulnerability” by Dr. Brene Brown was among the evening’s topics and I clicked it. Oh no! This is about me. I watched it twice that night and once or twice a night for the next three nights. Then I checked out her other TED presentation, blogs, etc. More about me. Got a copy of her book. More me.

Early in the video Dr. Brown says: “Lean into the discomfort.” A perfect way to set the stage when discussing love, belonging, connection, shame and fear-the core of her research.

I had seen several psychologist and we had some pleasant conversations but nothing even approaching a breakthrough. When I told a psychologist friend about the video she responded: “These areas (shame and vulnerability) are very challenging in therapy and need to be approached with some delicacy and insight. If they are approached too quickly, the patient breaks off contact as a defense against emotional pain.” Catch 22: if the patient does not have a strong commitment to change and the psychologist moves too slowly the patient decides nothing is happening and leaves; if the psychologist moves too fast the risk is too high and the patient leaves. I didn’t have the necessary commitment to change so pleasant conversations came across as nothing is happening.

Vulnerability and Numbing

Excruciating vulnerability” was an early topic of the video that I almost managed to side-step. Then I began to see that my fear of vulnerability was central to what was keeping me on the top of the flag pole and hiding my options.

Four incidents and four courses of action to avoid excruciating vulnerability were at the heart of the damage I have done to my partner and relationship: going to sleep, going to a party, and doing nothing when she was in excruciating pain and when she was lost on a bicycle trip in France, and my choice of a career that took me away from her most of the time.

Dr. Brown’s said: “Vulnerability is the birth place of joy, creativity and love.” And, she said the most effective way to deal with vulnerability is to embrace it.

My life had no joy, no creativity and my relationship was nearing the bottom of a death spiral. Clearly I was not embracing vulnerability. When the video started I didn’t even know that vulnerability as an opportunity was missing. But when I saw that it was missing and the associated numbing of positive emotions I knew I had found a trail worth exploring.

The most common way to deal with vulnerability is numbing of emotions. The really bad news is that we cannot selectively numb just the bad emotions and still have access to the good emotions like joy, creativity and love. About six months ago, a psychologist recommended I keep a log of the emotions I was experiencing. I was so numb to my emotions that I had to go to Wikipedia to get a list of common emotions to find the words to note what I was experiencing or, more accurately, what appeared to be was missing.

This kind of numbing sometimes leads to behavior that is symptomatic of traditional addiction. In her book, Dr. Brown notes that although the symptoms are similar, this behavior is not conducive to the traditional 12 step processes. I have attended a few meetings and never found them helpful. An analogy from my experience would be receiving a glass of water when you said you were hungry. Not good or bad; just not relevant.

The road back? Lean into the discomfort. Courage, compassion and connection. I’m just starting down that road. Scary, thrilling, and becoming alive!


Embracing the vulnerability requires courage, but a classic definition of courage that refers to telling the story of who you are with a whole heart. “Heroics is often about putting your life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting your vulnerabilities on the line.”

I have a friend who is the retired president of a very successful consulting company. I have always admired his ability to tell stories on himself. When I called him on Christmas we were talking about how difficult the economy was and he said: “My wife was kidding me the other day that my underwear was fraying and I said yes and now it’s from Target, not Nordstrom’s.”

The courage to tell it like it is and, if appropriate, play with it. Now it is about an end to being solemn and overly serious about everything. It’s about being willing to have fun and share it, to say thank you and be vulnerable. I am sure that is going to be easier said than done but I am on that road.


“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals. … Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” My friend has an immense ability to express compassion; but can also move to healer or fixer when I or other friends are acting wounded instead of being authentic about who we really are.

We can’t have compassion for other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.” Having done what I had done to damage my partner and the relationship-the big four mentioned above and thousands of others large and small-it looked impossible to treat myself kindly.  And then: “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as running from it.  Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy.” I did the things that damaged my partner and the relationship and I now know that until I own them, they will stand in the way of changing who I am being and my ability to bring love, belonging and joy to her and our relationship. This story and sharing it is part of the process of owning my past stories. I’m now on that road.


Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Too often relationships are subject to judgments including our judgments about whether or not we or they are worthy of the relationship. Dr. Brown’s research dealing with connection found that the only difference between people who routinely feel connected and those who do not feel connected is a belief or lack of belief in their own worthiness. Access to connections to others requires an authentic sense of one’s own worthiness. More about owning my stories.

What else was missing that I couldn’t see?

Why couldn’t I stop saying the mean and nasty things? No amount of “good intentions” has been able to last more than a few moments when the string of whys and the lack of answers start to break open vulnerability.

Integrity and “it doesn’t matter”

When I looked again at my “good intentions” I saw how worthless they were. Martin Luther King Jr. defined power as the ability to effect change. First, there is no power in not doing something; power comes from doing things to effect change. Second, my intentions had no structure of integrity. They existed as statements, not as commitments to action and promises on my part to effect change. And third, this is the nasty part, they existed in a context of: What I do won’t make any difference because, because, because. Because I will do it wrong, because I will say it wrong, because it will be too late, because it isn’t what he, she, or they want, because …

Integrity is more than just keeping my word. It also includes doing what needs to be done to deal with the possible “becauses” so they don’t get in the way of producing the intended result.

This is not the place to summarize a 20 minute video, a 130 page book, or the impact they have had on my life in a few days. It is more a story of crawling out from a hiding place under a rock and standing on top of the rock in search of aliveness, joy, sharing and “thank you.” It is part preface and part Chapter 1. It is an introduction to possibilities for action. It is the result of the first round in a wrestling match with new ideas.


The management book is The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management by Stephen Denning. The video is a TED presentation by Brene Brown: The power of vulnerability at  My other training in this area is that of Landmark Education. If you have 20 minutes I suggest you view the video. Brene is an interesting presenter and has some insights based on personal experience and ten years of research that will probably lead you in some new and different directions. Her book, The Gifts of Imperfections expands on the material in the video and is quoted here.

Short link:

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Back to the trail-head – Mindfulness

Back to the trail-head—the second of two beginning-points for this particular trail: my exploration of mindfulness

In the 1960’s I explored the human potential movement including several programs at Eslan which was one of the focal points for the new age of the mind in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. Rolphing to align my mind and body. Several encounter groups and the entire course work for a master’s degree in behavioral science. Then a neighbor introduced me to est. I followed est when it evolved into the Landmark Education Forum and continued until it just wasn’t providing all that I needed.

A psychiatrist said I needed both medication and some of the most recent forms of therapy that traced their roots to the 1960s. I looked at several of those. They had all evolved but were still 1960’s vintage. I even checked out a twelve step program. The one exception in all of these options seems to be mindfulness.

Mindfulness has an excellent pedigree. Its foundation dates back 2,500 years to Buddha and before that to yoga. And, its current form is part of the research and curricula at universities including UCLA and the University of Massachusetts. Its basic concepts are being validated in research projects that rely heavily on objective measurements of changes in the brain using fMRIs. There is clear physical evidence of positive improvements in practitioner’s brains and lives. Resources are available almost everywhere; my primary source are TED Talks, selected books and the programs of InsightLA.

So What Is Mindfulness?

In its simplest form it is a set of practices that are analogous in many ways to the exercises and training that athletes use  to prepare their minds and bodies for competition or just the pleasure of playing a game well.  Exercise focuses on the muscles and functioning of the body; mindfulness focuses on the mind and the functioning of the body for playing the game of life well.

A coach can describe and see most of how do you exercise and coach you how to do it right. Mindfulness is almost all in your mind and beyond the direct observation of any coach. In either case, the results are observable. In the case of muscles, by direct observation and in mindfulness by changes in the brain that are visible on  fMRIs, and in both cases, in terms of coaching discussions and actual performance.

In its simplest form it is a matter of closing your eyes, clearing you mind, noticing your breathing, and then gently noticing your thoughts. You will probably notice a nearly steady stream of thoughts including judgments about your past or concerns about your future or both.

Focusing on your breathing is a means to allow thoughts to occur and pass through your mind like clouds passing across the sky. Notice them, but don’t pay any more attention than that. There are probably things about the past and the future you need to deal with but that is not what mediation is about. When your mind drifts, gently return to your breathing. The process is not about doing it right but about being free of thoughts of the past and concerns about the future.  Simply put, to be in the present.

A stream of simple thoughts can pass quickly or an emotionally loaded thought can hijack your mind and keep you awake for hours. These are all real thoughts from your brain but they are just thoughts and they are almost never about what is happening now in the present.

Two definitions of mindfulness that work well for me:

Mindfulness is the gentle effort
to be continuously present
with experience.

Mindfulness means:
paying attention in a particular way;
On purpose,
in the present moment, and
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Notice particularly gentleness and non-judgmentally. You can’t control those thoughts in your head. You can’t make them stop. Your opinions about them are meaningless.

However, by noticing them and just letting them pass, you will develop the ability to simply let them pass quietly through your mind. Over time, as you notice them pass the number and significance will diminish. That will leave more room to pay attention to the present. Said another way, you will gain more mental resources to deal with the real challenges and opportunities of your life. Less stress from memories of the past and/or imagined futures and more participation in the present moment as life is happening around you.

In the simplest of terms those thoughts from in your head are irrelevant. They carry self-doubt and self-deprecation from the past and cause unnecessary concern for the future. There is little or nothing that can be done about the past, and the future is almost never as dark as imagined.

Those random thoughts interrupt good intentions, sidetrack good ideas, and interfere with effectively listening to what others are saying. They are the source of self-doubt and the enemy of self-confidence. They focus just on doing which is where stress and struggle occur to the exclusion of a combination of doing and being which is where the joy and rewards of doing are realized.

The amount of the processing in our brain of which we are conscious is incredibly small. One frequently cited estimate is that only about 0.01% of all the brain’s activity is experienced consciously. Clearly, everything we do does not require conscious thought. We have all had the experience of struggling with a problem and “going to lunch” only to find the answer somewhere on the way back to our desk. Use a calendar rather than your memory to remember important things in time and a notebook to remember observations or insights that may be worth future conscious thought.

Mindfulness provides training in the use of the brain’s conscious activity to focus on the present, to deal creatively with the world the way it is and, to apply emotions to respond to how it is for us and those around us. In short, to live!

Mindful recognition of the flow of uncalled for random thoughts and the recognition of them as just thoughts is enough to diminish their volume and significance. It frees resources and applies them to communication within the brain that provides more useful results: clearer, quicker thinking and the expression of emotions.

No comment on mindfulness would be complete without at least one mention of the brain-science mantra that neurons that fire together wire together—the resulting brain growth in specific areas is one of the results that are visible on fMRIs.


This is the second post on this new trail through the woods of life. The first post was Hardwiring Happiness which describes new initial findings about how mindfulness improves your brain. More to come. But this trail, like any trail I travel, will be marked by my experiences and insights and subject to revision. The material here represents my own early experience with mindfulness. I am not a health professional. Just someone who has travelled a number of paths, some of which have taken me places I shouldn’t have gone and others I find exciting and valuable. I hope my sharing of what I have found provides value in your life.

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Hardwiring Happiness

                 Exercise for the brain to add happiness to your life, really!

It has been more than a year since I wrote the last post in this Trails in the Woods blog. Before writing this post, I reread the last one: What Gets in the Way of Change? That post marks the end of an old trail and this post provides the starting point for a new one. Same general direction but the scenery is changing.

The blog began more than two years ago with a melding of work by Dr. Brenna Brown and my long term experience with the programs of Landmark Education. In a TED talk Dr. Brown presented, among other things, her findings that the suppression of any emotion causes a suppression of all emotions. I was doing pretty well in the business side of life but the social or emotional side was an emotionless desert; I couldn’t remember every playing all out for the sake of play; being so happy that I didn’t care if I made a silly fool of myself; or being fully expressed and able to love and be loved.

Dr. Brown’s TED talk began to rouse this grumpy bear from my emotional hibernation. The best analogy I have to the process of awakening is that I found myself standing on the top of a flag pole. I could see that I wanted and needed to change BUT it looked like any step in any direction could only go straight down, not forward. I was at the end of a 360 degree dead-end road.

Landmark provides training programs, not therapy. It begins with the assumption that you are whole and healthy but open for the possibility of more. I talked with a psychiatrist and she recommended an anti-depressant to manage some of the physical side of my brain and other tools to deal with the behavioral side to go after those long lost emotions. Rather than risk getting training mixed up with therapy I dropped out of Landmark. The last post was the ending of my direct experience of Landmark; a year later the post was still valid so I finally posted it.

The est training used to say that understanding is the booby prize in life and I agree. But I still try to figure it out. Understanding is sweet and delicious even if the calories are hollow and the goodness is short lived.

I still don’t have it figured out. But, I am reaching a point where I am finding bits and pieces that make sense and are worth sharing. My new-found learning model is a mix of TED talks, books, and the mindfulness programs of InsightLA. What I want to share with you in this post is the work of Dr. Rick Hanson, his TED talk (published November 2013) and excerpts from his book, Hardwiring Happiness.

He points out that our brains have changed very little since we left the Serengeti thousands of years ago. Our stone-age brains evolved with a negative bias that paid more attention to bad news because it often warned of danger. Our forbearers who ignored those warning were eaten by saber tooth tigers or other predators and they dropped from the evolutionary tree. There was no offsetting reward for paying attention to good news other than the momentary pleasure it provided. Even today good news usually has only a momentary impact on our lives. Bad news highlights potential risks that haunt us but seldom come true.

Scientific studies are showing that we can overcome our inherited bias toward bad news and create a bias for good news that supports happiness. It requires a process of changing the brain to provide hard wiring for happiness.

The process begins by noticing the good news when it happens—a complement, a job well done, being part of a winning team—and letting it marinate for 10 to 20 second as we continue about our business, in other words be mindful of it. We have to let it sink in and then refer to it occasionally in the near future a number of times to move it from short term to long term memory. With mastery, we can link good with bad and the good can even replace some of the bad.

Mindfulness provides the means to modify our brains to reduce stress and give us greater access to happiness. It isn’t particularly easy and replacing our negative bias often requires actions that are counter intuitive.

Modern brain science is combining with ancient wisdom—yoga and Buddhism—to find new ways to tailor our brains to our needs for the 21st century and beyond. A trail that will lead to answers useful today instead of just seeking to answer a long series of questions about how and why our stone-age brains leave us struggling with stress and negative thoughts. Thoughts that are more aligned to the historic need to constantly be on the alert for the physical threats of saber tooth tigers rather than the today’s reality where threats are almost all psychological and sometimes cause us to figuratively “eat our heart” out.


Standard blog protocol is to post new material at the top of the page. I chose the Vulnerability, Joy, Creativity and Love post to be the first on the blog to provide an introduction to the blog and the posts that would follow. As noted above, this post is the start of a new trail. The posts from the old trail provide a foundation for the new and are included  for references from this continuing blog. The panel at the right of your screen provides some guidelines.

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What Gets in the Way of Change?

You have to explore different trails in the woods if you want to find the wild berries. Recently I spent the weekend in a Landmark Education program called Direct Access and Monday evening in a Landmark seminar. Tuesday the pieces came together for me. There may be some wild berries here for you.

We all know the frustration of trying to change something about ourselves. One of the most common? Lose weight. Mine? Give up my arrogance.

Why is it so hard for some people to lose weight? Neuroscience has established that our brains work with patterns based on past experiences and that different parts of our brains deal with different functions and issues. One of the parts of the brain that gets in the way of changing an existing set of patterns is a very ancient part that is dedicated to our individual survival. It was part of the evolutionary process long before man walked the earth. It doesn’t deal with joy or relationships or the pleasures of life. It doesn’t deal with what modern science has told us about the risks of obesity or what we tell ourselves about what we should do. It ignores all that. It just looks for potential threats and deals with them for our survival.

It deals with the obvious don’t step in front of a bus and the not so obvious don’t let anyone threaten your self-image. This part of the brain considers your image to be an important part of who you are. A threat to your image is a threat to the survival of who you are. If someone shows disrespect or insults you the survival of who you are is at risk. What they have said or done may have nothing to do with you, but some of it gets sprayed on you. The ancient part of your brain takes it personally and reacts. It’s purely automatic. Thousands of years of civilization have taught us to redirect some of our reactions. Now we are more likely to beat ourselves up mentally than to attack someone else physically.

How is that related to losing weight? As a starting point, you only want to lose weight if you are overweight or have a problem that is outside the scope of this discussion. Your brain takes one look at your decision to lose weight and says, “There’s no reason to change anything. You have been overweight for years and you are surviving. I’m getting my job done. I have other things to do.” And then ten minutes later it says, “Oh, I notice you are hungry. That could lead to starvation which would be a serious threat to your survival. Go get something to eat.” What’s the running score in this battle? Brain patterns 1, you 0.

And my arrogance? A bit more complex but an extension of the same issues.

As part of the process of providing for our survival our brain is constantly scanning the near term future. If you are making a public speech in a week and terrified of public speaking, the threats associated with that future speech impacts your life today. Your brain is already at work applying patterns that worked in the past to deal with the threats looming in the future.

We move past most threats over time and get new ones, but some threats are stuck in our future and move along with us. They are like the carrot dangling on a stick in front of a donkey. In the case of humans that carrot sometimes takes the form of an internal conversation. That internal conversation hides in the shadows at the outer edge of our conscious experience. It provides a context for the assessment of threats. Any possibility of a threat now or in the near future triggers the survival part of our brain.

One woman in the seminar has been looking at why she does not have a committed relationship with a man. She is successful in business, leads a good life, but doesn’t have a committed relationship. In an earlier session she saw that that she was managing her relationships like her business. Who she was being might inspire a guy who is looking for a business partner but not one who is looking for a relationship.

The seminar leader worked with her a bit and she discovered an internal conversation that says life is unfair. Living into a future where life is unfair is not inspiring to you or others around you. It does not lead to behaviors that invite others to join you in a relationship. It is random, and what you do probably won’t make a difference. The net result is she hasn’t been doing the things that would improve her chances of meeting the right guy and creating a relationship. Her past failures at creating a relationship reinforced the conversation that life is unfair. In the past when she set out to change, her mind said, “You are surviving. I’m getting my job done. I have other things to do. Keep doing what you are doing. And by the way, we have agreed that life is unfair and what you do probably won’t make a difference.” Her efforts to change weren’t just running up against old patterns, they were also running up against a disempowering internal conversation. The running score in this battle? Brain’s patterns plus disempowering conversation 2, her 0.

For a long time I have known that my internal conversation is: I can figure it out. If you want to get full value from figuring it out, it helps to be able to make things complicated. My arrogance is supported by my ability to figure out really complicate stuff. I have an MBA from Harvard that proves I can figure stuff out. I earn my salary figuring stuff out. If it can be figured out, I can do it. Of course, there are things that can’t be figure out like relationships, emotions, love, joy and beauty. I have just ignored them. Let sleeping dogs lie. Don’t stir up trouble. Stay away from what you are not good at. Use my arrogance to hide how stupid I feel in these areas.

About six months ago some emotions started wiggling to the surface and I began to see that I was missing the good stuff in life. The day after the seminar, it began to come together. I can figure it out just wasn’t working as well as it had. Something was missing. I went looking and found a second internal conversation. Sometime way back in the past my brain or I or both of us in an unholy alliance decided the world is rational. A rational world is the necessary foundation for I can figure it out. If it is not rational, it cannot be figured out.

My irrational mind and I made an irrational decision that the world is rational. This part of the mind is about survival, not logic. Looked at in the cool light of day it doesn’t make any sense. But, this is about survival, not logic. The world is rational is no more true than the world is unfair and both are equally irrational. But rational world has shaped my life for as long as I can remember.

Here’s the really nasty part. I can figure it out was in the way of giving up my arrogance and getting in touch with the people and the world around me. It looked like all I had to do to give up my arrogance was to give up figuring it out. Stop figuring it out. Step off my pedestal. Open up to my emotions. Embrace being human.

I got close several times but the experiences were terrifying. Why? Because I hadn’t seen the lower level internal conversation that the world is rational. As long as the rational world internal conversation was part of my threat analysis process it would be stupid to give up figuring it out. If I gave it up, I would continue to be stupid in the irrational part of my world and become equally stupid in the rational part. Totally stupid, beginning to end, top to bottom! I was at the top of a flag pole and a step in any direction could only be straight down. The running score in this battle to change? Brain’s patterns, the conversations, and the risk of being totally stupid 3, me 0.

Once the breakthrough started it took just a matter of minutes to see the solution. Don’t give up figuring it out. Give up the world is rational. Figure it out when that works. The rest of the time, embrace it the way it is. Jump into the sadness and joy, loneliness and friendship, ugly and beautiful, planned and spontaneous. I can have access to what I love doing AND maybe, just maybe have access to the parts of life where the really good stuff is. I can share it with the lady in my life and others who are important to me.

Arrogance has left a trail of patterns in the minds of those around me. Particularly in the minds of those who are closest to me and have been hurt over and over again. They have been down the I am changing road with me before and have been disappointed when I didn’t change. They have a right to be cynical. And, I have an opportunity to join them in life and contribute to their well being and happiness. Let the good times roll.


Footnote: The first week was terrific. Things got done quickly and well. There was an ease and grace. I was able to talk and joke with associates in the office and strangers wherever we met.

The following Sunday it all crashed. My arrogance was back in full force and I caused it. My wife and I had planned a shopping day. I had prepared some Google maps of possible stores. We got a delayed start and set off for a store that was a last minute addition to our list. Store one, OK. We set off for store two. My maps didn’t have the detail we needed. I took out my new smart phone and we started a series of wild goose chases because I had never used the navigation app and did one misstep after another. This way, no that way, maybe that way, we just missed the turn … We stumbled our way from store to store, never in a direct route and often on a route she chose out of frustration. I’ve always been the navigator, the map guy and the newly minted cell phone guy. I ran my old stupid patterns, spouted poor me’s, got upset, lost our way and my cool. We finally got to our last store and by then it was closed. Semi-successful trip in terms of shopping but at way too high a cost in gasoline, time, patience, and frustration. I was totally operating in a set of old patterns. And, totally invalidating my promises to her to give up my arrogance. The old patterns, the internal conversation and risk aversion won the day.

By Tuesday, I was almost back on the good track. This is going to take some work. They told us that in Direct Access. Its true. As they say on the evening news: Stay tuned; tape at eleven.


I wrote this on August 21, 2012. Today is August 20, 2013. An evening to write, a year to post.
Still good stuff but there are also new trails to explore.


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When Why Doesn’t Work

This is the second of a two-part post about “why.” Part 1: “Why Why

If you do something wrong and someone who is important to you asks why, It provides an opportunity to make things right and heal the relationship. When they ask why they show you they care and also expect you to care about what you have done. Their asking why isn’t a blank check. You owe them a reasonable reason why. If you do, the answer puts both of you on the path to righting what you did wrong and to rebuilding the relationship.

If nobody asks, that raises two issues. You now have involuntary secret about what you did that may be discovered at any time in the future. Do they know what I did? Will they find out? What will they say or do? You now have to start closely managing conversations to avoid any discussion related in any way to what you did. You have to avoid any conversations that might raise suspicions or cause your awful deed to be discovered. Or, you have to fess up now. Fessing up is difficult and awkward and will almost never seem like a good idea. If no one asks and you don’t fess us, it will look like you got away with something once and the temptation will be greater the next time. If you do it a second time, your secret will become twice the burden.

If nobody asks why you did it, maybe nobody cares about what you did, or worse, who you are. The issue moves from what you did to who you are; from an issue of doing to an issue of being. If you decide that you don’t care that you did what you did, it proves you are not really worthy of love and care from others. If you say you care and don’t do anything about it, you wind up at the same place.

Why would people do that? When there is a threat to who you say you are your brain interprets it as a threat to your survival. That is not a realm where logic rules. Long before men walked on the planet, the animals that had the strongest survival instincts listened carefully and ran fast. They survived and bore young to carry on the species. Those that didn’t were eaten.

The ancient part of our brain, common to almost all animals, is called the Amygdala. It is the part of the brain that is always on the alert to threats to survival of who you are or any of the many roles that define who you are. It is the source of fight, flight or freeze. It is the force that causes a mother to rush in to a burning building to try to save her child because if she just stood around outside, she would be a woman who stood around rather than a mother concerned about her child. She would no longer be a mother. It causes the teen aged boy to come out swinging in response to an insult that others would shrug off. When the amygdala senses a threat to survival, it “hijacks the rational brain.”1

If you have done something that is not consistent with the actions of the good person you say you are, the survival of who you say you are is threatened. Clean it up, or live with it.

If you do not have an opportunity to clean it up or chose not to, the survival of who you say you are is threatened and will stay threatened until it is cleaned up or you die. You will begin to shut down some of your emotions to avoid the pain, the shame and the sense of being unworthy. But, as Dr. Brown points out, you can’t just shut down the bad. The good stuff gets shut down too. I have been there and done that.

If you do something bad and someone asks why, you have an opportunity to clean it up and regain your relationship with others around you. But, if no one asks why, what do you do?

Dr. Brown says you do what is directly counter intuitive: Practice courage and reach out. You get in communication, but not just any communication with anyone. “If you share your shame story with the wrong person, they can become just one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm. … We are looking for compassion … we need someone who embraces us for strengths and struggles. We need to honor our struggle by sharing it with someone who has earned the right to hear it. … [Her sister] didn’t try to fix me or make me feel better; she just listened and had the courage to share some of her own vulnerabilities with me.”2

There is an issue of timeliness here. If you fall down in a well-used horse corral you want to get the sticky stinky stuff off before it dries and before you get it on others. Same thing with shame.

But as noted in my last post, when I was in the third grade the way to deal with wrong doing was a paddle and shame. Shame for you and your family. Mom and dad both had to come to the school. You stood before your peers, teachers, the principal and your parents and were shamed. They did what they did with the intention of demonstrating to me and my classmates that there were consequences of not doing what you are supposed to do. Pain and shame were simply tools they thought would communicate that message, and they were right. But … those tools also created circumstances that can, and in my case did, lead to shame and a loss of feeling worthy.

It was a long road from the third grade playground to the beginning of redemption. It began with a recognition of the symptom—lack of joy and happiness and their impact on my family. Discovery of the source—loss of a feeling of worthiness and subsequent shutting down of my emotions. Confrontation with my lack of social skills—who do I talk to and what do I say that will make a difference? Recognition of the difficulty other have in accepting that any change in my behavior is real and not just another con. The little pleasures in my life that indicate, but do not prove, change and improvement.

My experience did not create enough shame that I would seek help and find understanding. But enough to put a low ceiling over the joy of life and occasionally create an amygdala high jack that would lead to actions so out-of-character and irrational that the self-worth of my wife and family where threatened. Enough shame that I detracted from their lives rather than contributed.

A series of coincidences beginning with my wife finding the courage and/or desperation to throw me out of the house, Dr. Brown’s TED presentation, several books, the work of several healthcare professionals and the caring that my wife showed by not abandoning me to my own poor-me story. Why was a question without an answer and hindered, rather than helped. But the mere asking and the frustration of dealing with my response showed a faith and concern that kept me looking.

The lessons: If you see someone screwing up, ask why. Not to gather evidence to punish them, but to let them see that you care and so should they. Let them know what they need to do to show that they want to right the wrong they did and hold them to it. Focus on what they did, not who they are. They are still human beings and important to you.

If you screw up, clean it up. If you feel bad about who you are, as contrast to feeling bad about what you did, find someone you can trust and talk about it, a friend or a healthcare professional that will listen. Don’t put yourself and those who are important to you at risk of missing out on the joy of life.

1 Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ; 1996
2 Dr. Brene Brown: The Gifts of Imperfection; 2010


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Why Why?

Read me first: Vulnerability, Joy, Creativity and Love
This is the first part of a two part post about Why. Part two:
When Why Doesn’t Work


Why has been a leitmotif through a number of my posts. It is a near constant refrain from my wife and the topic of frequent conversations in my head. I find references in my reading and insights as I wander the trails in the woods of life.

The work of Dr. Brena Brown provides one of my most reliable trail maps and I have found new trails for exploration in The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood. His book explores in depth the importance of the interaction between nature and nurture. Perhaps his best illustration is that children worldwide develop speech at about the same time; clearly something in the nature of being human. And, they all learn the language of their native culture; clearly something in the nurturing of the children and adults around them. He argues and demonstrates that a significant part of our definition of who we are is based on what we think others think about us. If we think they like us we are likable. If others think we are worthy, we are worthy—more on that in a moment.

Somewhere in all of this I recently began to wrestle with some new ideas. The original source is early Dr. Brown: guilt is about doing something wrong; un-worthiness is about a failure in being. Guilt is about what I have done, or have not done that I should have done, based in large part on the standards of the people around me. Shame is about who I have been or am being based my standards and how I measure up to what I think are the standards of others. If I am judged to be a contributing member of the groups of people around me, I am worthy of belonging. If I am or have been inadequate or inappropriate, I am unworthy.

I choose to do what I do; people around me provide the measure used to judge what I have done. A failure makes me guilty. I choose to do what I do; I provide the measure of who I am being. A failure makes me unworthy.

If judged guilty I may be able to justify what I have done and change the judgment; I acted in self-defense. Not guilty. If judged guilty I may be able to set things right; here is all of the money I took, I apologize and I promise never to do it again. If judged guilty I may be punished and judged redeemed; 10 years in jail. If judged inadequate or unworthy, how can I make things right?

A key element in dealing with guilt is found in the wrong doer’s answer to why; as an example, self-defense. If my answer is judged satisfactory it can eliminate or mitigate the harm from what I have done. I can return to the people around me and they can begin to forgive me. An acceptable answer to why provides a key element in recovery from wrong doing.

Why is an easy place to start and may lead to an acceptable answer and healing. It is easy to initiate and has a high probability of success. It may require some intense coaching to help the wrong doer find the answer and fees-up, but it is worth the effort. An acceptable answer to why works if the wrong is couched in terms of what I have done.

When I say I am ashamed and both I and the people around me begin to agree that there is something wrong with me: stupid, self-centered, arrogant, thoughtless, and/or mean, etc., there isn’t much I or they can do to put things right. An unacceptable answer—I’m stupid—leaves both the wrong doer and the person wronged with almost nowhere to go to repair the damage that has been done and recreate the relationship. If I say, I don’t know why I did what I did, both I and they are almost totally dis-empowered. I am flawed and I am unworthy of love and relationship.

There is no acceptable answer if the wrong is couched term of what is wrong with you? I’m stupid isn’t acceptable unless you are actually handicapped. Shame on you!

Shame: The intensely painful feeling or expression of believing that
we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

Shame is about who we are, shame corrodes the part
of us that believes we can change and do better.

Shame loves secrecy.

Demands for answers to questions that can’t be answered compound the feeling of being inadequate and shameful. Why in the face of shame doesn’t lead to an answer and healing; it reinforces the shame and picks the scab off of any healing that has occurred.

Why is equally toxic for the questioner. My inability to answer why I did what I did came back years later in her question: How could you hate me just eight hours after you married me? In her mind at the time and years later the underlying question was what is wrong with you? Why do you make me feel I am unworthy of your love? A question not of doing, but of being.

A marriage full of promise became an entanglement of missed opportunities. I submitted to the corrosion and loss of believing that I could change and do better. I gave up creativity and lost any hope of finding the source of my wrong doing. She struggled to salvage the relationship. When breast cancer led her to a support group she picked up the mantra of why? That proved to be an unanswerable question that drove me deeper and deeper into a struggle with my own shame and a concurrent diminishing of concern for her. The growing insult to her worthiness in our relationship drove her to throw me out of the house and I left with a sigh of relief.

Flash back to the third grade. My buddy and I were late to school one day. There were a few kids on the playground. Fewer than normal but more than there should have been if school had started. We were tagged as the ringleaders who kept the other kids out of school. We were paddled hard as an example to others. Our parents had to come to the school. What I did was to get to school late and not go to class—wrongs of doing or not doing. What I made it mean was I was stupid. Not stupid about school stuff. But stupid about how to be around other people. A failure of being.

I started closing down around other people. Dr. Brown points out that we shut down the bad feelings to minimize their impact, but if you shut down any of your feeling you shut down all of them. Avoid the bad; lose the good at the same time. Life became a struggle of proving I wasn’t stupid and knowing I was—anybody who did what I did in the third grade had to be stupid.

In those days there was no effort to deal with wrong doing other than the paddle and shame for you and your parents which of course meant another helping of shame when I got home. How could you do that to us? This raises a serious question young man about whether or not you are worthy of being part of this household—neither I nor they really said that but that’s how a third grader feels when shamed in front of his friends by teachers and the principle and how he feels when surrounded by his peers whispering, “He’s going to get it again when he gets home.”

I didn’t totally shut down. That would be really stupid. I just learned to get by, con people when I needed something, put on a happy face and live a life without joy, celebration, play or sharing. I almost never asked for anything—I was unworthy. I was ineffective at relationships which just proved that I was stupid about people. I was, in the oft repeated words of my wife, my own worst enemy.

Now I think I have the answer to why why? Because it provides a paths to deal with the circumstances where someone has done something wrong. But what about the circumstances where someone is shamed and feeling unworthy? Why adds to the feeling of unworthiness and unravels any progress. So what is one to do? That’s another post.


Brene Brown’s TEDx presentation   has been downloaded just under 6 million times; that’s about 10,000 downloads a day. The Gift of Imperfection, 2010, is the source of the quotations

Bruce Hood: The Self Illusion – Howe the Social Brain Creates Identities, 2012

Short link:

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Vulnerability & Direct Access

A different branch on one of the Trails In The Woods.

I have participated in the courses and seminars of Landmark Education off and on for a number of years. Several weekends ago I participated in a new Landmark course called Direct Access. The course looks at and applies some of the advances in neurology and related sciences to deal with the things that get in the way of joy, creativity, love, belonging, full self expression, openness and effectiveness.

An editorial note: The comments here are based on my recollection of what happened in the course. That means this material has been filtered through my prior experience. And, as you read it, you will add another filter. This is not the way the course leader would describe what happened, but it is close. For those of you familiar with The Landmark Forum, THIS IS NOT THE FORUM.

One of the major premises of the course is that since the beginning of time, long before human beings got here, the brains that did the best job of providing for the survival of their hosts were successfully reproduced. The lesser ones and the unlucky ones were not. A significant part of our brain is still looking for threats and initiating actions consistent with what is occurring. Now we have very few threats to our actual survival but once in a while a nearly instantaneous action gets us out of the way of an oncoming bus or allows us to recover from a near fall on a bicycle. In this day and age the threats are almost always based on perceived threats to who we are and to our sense of belonging; threats aimed at our vulnerabilities.

The course covers a number of topics but two of them will illustrate some of the differences between Direct Access and the material found in other Landmark courses and in other personal development programs.

An incident happened in grade school that left me convinced I was stupid. Anything that reminded me of that incident showed up as a threat that others were about to see how stupid I was. I’ve worked on it for years and its power has waned but elements of it are still there. Science now tells us that there are patterns stored in my brain that have what happened and what I made it mean mixed together. There wasn’t any measure of my mental skills or ability in the entire incident but I made it mean I was stupid. Since that point in time, any similar incident got added to that set of patterns so the vulnerability got bigger and stronger. In the best cases, I changed the subject in a conversation. In the worst cases I got angry and left.

Recent research shows that the occurring of a threat and action consistent with that occurring happen independently, with no apparent cause and effect, and almost simultaneously. To be effective in supporting survival the reaction has to be fast. No time for assessment, selecting alternatives, or minimizing the impact. Action consistent with the occurring has to happen almost instantly. My ancestors and yours perceived threats and acted quickly and avoided being eaten. Folks who moved just a little slower didn’t make it and there is no one left from their branch of the family tree.

In an earlier post I mentioned that I would occasionally respond to my wife with a rude or cutting remark and it kept happening. Good intentions, promises to her and to myself had no effect. In the past she, or perhaps someone else, had said something similar, When she said it, I lashed out. Occuring + Action and I’m still here. My brain noted the combination of occurring, action and survival to prove that the action was successfully and therefore necessary. No assessment of the impact on her, on me, or on our relationship. No time for anything but survival, real or imagined.

When the threats are low, our brains have some spare resources to do the kind of creative thinking that distinguishes us as human beings. The larger the number and size of the vulnerabilities, the greater the likelihood that the brain will find threats lurking around every corner. As the threats rise, there are fewer resources available for creativity and automatic reactions becomes more likely.

If we can’t control our actions, what can we do?

One of the take-away’s from the course is a process, the essence of which is:

If you are facing a situation where a threat may arise describe it to yourself beforehand:
I will be meeting someone and they will express a concern; I will hear it as a set up to demonstrate that I am stupid.

What will be the almost certain outcome?
I will feel stupid and threatened and will lash out.

How else could the situation occur?
I could listen just a bit and see if they really do have a concern and I may be able to help.

Instead of trying to change an action that is automatic, do some work to set up an alternative occurring that will result in a different action consistent with that different occurring.

I have used the process twice now and the results were not a bed of roses but they weren’t the sort of disaster that occurred in the past. Both times I was able to stay in the conversation. Those historic patterns of occurring and action got broken up a bit. My brain got a new pattern that produced a better survival—stay in the conversation—than in the past—leave. Perhaps most important, the conversation continued and immediately we both had a bit better relationship.

Over the course of the course something happened to a bunch of my vulnerabilities. Some of them are still there, most that are are weaker and some have totally disappeared. I have no idea how or why that happened, but I love it. The people around me haven’t changed. They still do the things they have always done. Now when they get close to an historic vulnerability I have some room to be creative in the way it occurs and the freedom to stay in the conversation. If I say something and see them backing away, I do a better job of backing off and giving them room to stay in the conversation. And, because we both stay in the conversation our conversations are more interesting and rewarding.

The second topic has to do with a shift in our point of view about where life occurs. The traditional view is that things happen out there and in here. I am separate from the rest of life. That separate me is most easily recognized in “poor me.”

The shift in point of view is from out there and in here to just out here. It all happens out here. I am impacted by everything around me and I have an impact on it. We are related. The separation is apparent and not real.

One of the benefits of this shift in point of view is that what’s happening occurs differently than it did in the past. The new point of view means that the occurring is always fresh with little or no historic correlated action. There are no constraints from the past and there is room for creative solutions.

Another benefit, when I meet you I am already related to you. We are not separated by your in here and my in here. We are both out here together. The conversation has an openness to talk about what is important to each of us and to both of us.

Simple sources for a new sense of freedom and opportunity. Progress marches on.


This is the first post in this series that have dealt directly with Landmark Education.  Here are some other posts on WordPress that you may find of interes:

Stories About Landmark Education in Ireland  Published in the The Irish Mail on Sunday -( Sun Feb 18, 2012) Well written description of peoples’ experiences, ane a bit about how it works.

Creating the Life You Really Want: Stimulating Risk Is Inseparable from Living, by By Jeff Willmore, a Landmark Forum leader.

The Possibility of YOU – Kim Snider, DC Student, upbeat personal experience and results.



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The Things That Get In The Way

Vulnerable: can be wounded or injured;
open to or easily hurt by criticism,
affected by a specific influence.

…our minds … seek out patterns
and assign meaning to them.

…the birthplace of …

… the things that get in the way.

Read me first: Vulnerability, Joy, Creativity and Love

I am a fan of the work of Dr Brown. It has provided a window into parts of my life I have been working on for years. Parts that I knew could be better if … But I couldn’t find the place to start. Her presentation on TED and her books provided that starting point. Her insights about self respect as a critical part of being willing to change created the room I needed before I was willing to even think about change. Her work has made a major contribution to my life. With all of that, you know there has to be a “but …”

What are vulnerabilities? Where do they live? They live in experience and in speaking. They have no physical form but they can cause physical and emotional pain. They always have a historical element—something that happened in the past—even if the connection is not obvious. They are always based on one or more decisions you made about you, someone important to you, or a particular set of circumstances. The fundamental decision is always “I never ever want that to happen again. I’ve got to avoid it at any cost.” You may have been physically or emotionally hurt or you may have escaped a really scary close call. Either way: NEVER AGAIN!

There is usually another decision that is part of our effort to find meaning in our lives. In this case a common decision is that what happened means we are unworthy of love, affection and belonging. Unworthy to be close to our family or others who are important to us. If we ever do it again or even if the people who are close to us just knew what happened in the past they would decide we are not worthy. We decided, and we decided they would also decide, that what happened was because of some failure on our part, some inadequacy, some careless, thoughtless or evil thing that we did that makes us no longer worthy of their affection.

No matter what they say or do, you can’t get that others believe you are worthy of their affection until you believe that you are. Nothing they say or do will convince you of your worthiness. If you do not believe you are worthy you will do things to prove that you aren’t. Little things like not saying thank you, forgetting a birthday, not sharing someone’s everyday moments of joy or concern, and you will occasionally do a big thing that will expand your area of unworthiness.

You don’t want to talk about it or even think about it. And for sure, you don’t want anyone who knows about it to be reminded of it and start to talk about it. You begin to close down. As Dr. Brown points out, you can’t close down the bad without closing the good at the same time. Then there is a near miss where something similar happens or almost happens, then another near miss, and another. Now you have to stay away from what happened and an expanding set of similar events that grow like the concentric circles that flow outward from a stone that is tossed in a lake. Shut down more, more near misses, shutdown more … Now you have your very own vulnerability or a set of related vulnerabilities or perhaps even several sets.

Have you ever noticed how personal vulnerabilities are? Other people have vulnerabilities but not as big or as bad or as hard to deal with as yours. A personal story provides a perfect illustration of the personal nature of vulnerabilities. Several years ago I had the opportunity to bungee jump from the bridge in New Zealand that was the birthplace of bungee jumping. For me there was no vulnerability attached to the jump. The jump master said, “I will push you on three.” I said, “No you won’t.” “ One, Two,” and I did a perfect swan dive off the platform. No vulnerability, just pure Thrill! Just a few minutes before they had tied the rope to my legs and I had to waddle-walk to the edge of the platform. That was scary. What if I fell on the platform in front of friends and all of those spectators? Vulnerabilities and freedoms are very personal.

In those places where you are vulnerable, it’s your vulnerability. Nobody else has one exactly like it. Dr. Brown says embrace it. If I have a sliver in my finger, I don’t embrace it in search of relief. Embrace is much too nice a word for what needs to be done. I have to go there, to the heart of the vulnerability. I have to encounter it.

At the risk of seeming unappreciative I would like to rewrite a bit of her work. Vulnerability is not the birthplace of joy, creativity and love. Vulnerability is the birthplace of the things that get in the way of joy, creativity and love.

We are born with a childlike sense of joy, creativity and love. Things happen and we begin to shut down. Joy, creativity and love are sacrificed in our efforts to avoid ever again having to deal with the original source of our vulnerability or anything related to it. You may have hidden your vulnerabilities so well that you need help finding them, but you have to look at your vulnerabilities to get free. Was what happened really that bad? Maybe it was. There are programs and groups and new technologies that will help you put it in perspective and learn to deal with it through the shared experiences of others. Look at your vulnerabilities carefully. What scared a five year old and started the whole process may look silly rather than frightening now that you are an adult.

Don’t go to vulnerability to find joy, creativity and love. They aren’t there. What’s there are the things that get in the way. Find those. Deal with them. The price may be high, but it is a temporary price. Begin to rediscover the joy, creativity and love that was yours all along. And use Dr. Brown’s work to help you start, to stay on the path, and to celebrate letting go and rediscovering your natural joy, creativity, love and the sense of your self worth.

The Gifts of Imperfections Dr. Brene Brown, Hazeldon Publishing © 2010: meaning, p, ix; the things that get in the way, p31


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