Daring Greatly

IMG_1830I finished Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly about a week ago while in London for Stoicon. I saw one of Brown’s TED talks years ago. I haven’t re-watched it recently. Many friends and even people I barely know have recommended Brown’s books to me so I thought I’d give one a try. Daring Greatly seemed the most appealing for what I want right now in my life. I would love to be more courageous and daring. Brené Brown makes a killing from her best selling books and also rakes it in as a popular keynote speaker. I was curious to see what she offers.

My initial reaction to this book was confusion. I had seen it marketed as psychology and self-help, neither of which I found here. Brown is a self-described shame researcher, but if this were a psychology book about shame, the Super-Ego would be mentioned at least. It’s not self-help because there are no practical suggestions or tools given for actually becoming more vulnerable and thus, courageous. I was also confused about what constitutes “shame.” For Brown, the shame tent is nearly all-encompassing. Self-loathing, fear of rejection, embarrassment (even though she says not), anxiety, overwhelm, discouragement, feelings of unworthiness, and perfectionism are all “shame” for Brown.

I also found myself wincing as I read. Brown’s constant reference to her credentials and popularity is off-putting. She seems to have an overpowering need to establish herself as an expert. It’s as if she were constantly asking, “Do you believe me know? And now? How about now?” On a related note, in the book she talks about how we wince when someone overshares. She attributes the compulsion to overshare to shame (of course) and justifies her own oversharing as acceptable because she only opens up about personal issues she has already worked through. I have not seen Brown on tv and barely remember her TED talk, but I imagine her to be a very charming and engaging speaker in person. She likely has an attractive personality and that’s why she gets away with oversharing and, well, neediness. Because she is so vibrant she comes off as being real and authentic in her neediness rather than tedious.  I should clarify that I didn’t flinch so much at her oversharing since she brings a lot of self-awareness to it, but to her need to convince readers that she is an expert.

Her book appears to be a description of the results of a sociological study rather than psychology or self help. However, as far as her research methods go, I am left with the question: How is this any different from someone talking to a lot of people and finding her own personal issues in other people’s stories? It’s a very human response for sure, but I’m not sure I’d call it scientific or research or data. Also, the entire tone of the book seems to be, “Did you know there is this thing out there called shame? and I have personally discovered  and uncovered it as the source of all of society’s ills!” There is zero historical context or mention of past shame researchers.

The truth is, a week after reading this book, very little of it sticks with me. There was a lot about the paralyzing effects of perfectionism. That is something I became aware of in myself and started dealing with in my early 20s. I couldn’t relate to many of her personal anecdotes. I did like the paragraph about Kristin Neff, self-compassion researcher but I had already seen Neff’s TED talk. In fact I had recommended here her website and self-compassion exercises as practical and useful.

I really can’t think who I would recommend this book to in spite of it being so popular and lauded. In its place I would recommend Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the voice of vocation by Parker J. Palmer if you are looking to feel more centered and grounded in your authentic self. I liked Freeing Our Families from Perfectionism by Thomas S. Greenspon.

I have to say I even question the importance of vulnerability in courageous action as compared to wisdom and discretion. Why was Catherine the Great such a powerfully courageous monarch? Because she was wise. She started reading practical philosophy as a young girl and sought to develop her own personal philosophy of life that guided her every action. She was courageous because after years of seeking wisdom in books and from her own astute observations of court life, she was expert at assessing risk, whether it be in a personal relationship with an advisor or a war with millions of lives at stake. I would like to be vulnerable in the way that Catherine the Great was, to have the ability to dispassionately take stock of my weaknesses and strengths, to be humble enough to take good counsel and yet confident enough to make my own decisions.

I have made some brave decisions in the past few years of my life. Many people have asked me how I got that courage and just now I have been reflecting on that. I think my dad encouraged me to be both wise and daring as a kid. Many times he would see that I wanted to do something, like to ride a spirited horse for example, but my fear kept me back. I remember his voice as he told me, “You can do it and you will be fine. Yes, that’s it. You’re doing great!” Many times these attempts ended in the “failure” of me being thrown from the horse and experiencing physical pain, but my father made me see these instances as triumphs over fear. I learned from him that you have to go for it and that sometimes pain happens. Pain is pain, nothing more and nothing less. As Marcus Aurelius said, “Pain is neither intolerable nor everlasting if you bear in mind that it has its limits, and if you add nothing to it in imagination.”

Ai Weiwei

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I had heard of Ai Weiwei and had seen his art in photos, but my first direct experience with his work was here in Málaga where we currently have his Zodiac Heads on exhibition. I mentioned to a friend that I would be going to London this past weekend, and he recommended the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Royal Academy of Art.

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“Tree,” installation by Ai Weiwei in Royal Academy of Art courtyard. The tree structures are composed of dead trees collected on the mountains of southern China. “These artificial constructions have been interpreted as a commentary on the way in which geographically and culturally diverse peoples have been brought together to form ‘One China’ […]”
It is immediately evident why Ai Weiwei is such a tremendously popular contemporary artist, especially in the West. His political message is irresistible to us. He is disgusted by and reacts to the superficiality, materialism, prudishness, and conformity of the newly-rich communists in China who only aspire to driving their Mercedes-Benz and wearing their couture. He has suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Beijing police as a result of his brave efforts to document and make public the corruption and outrages against human rights always present in China. But it’s not just the politics. The enormous scale of his works is appealing, as is the big personality that infuses them. His playful sense of humor is palpable. He flipped-off the White House. What more can you ask for?

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Grapes. 27 wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty.

I think it’s too bad that many people shy away from contemporary art. They say they don’t like it because they don’t understand it. I went to a contemporary art exhibition with my adolescent son in Málaga a couple months ago. It was great because he is at the perfect stage in which he was slightly uncomfortable because he feels that these works are supposed to be telling him something and he doesn’t know what, and yet open and curious enough to ask questions and independent enough to look for his own answers before finding them on the smart phone. This is the ideal attitude to bring to a contemporary art exhibition. Discomfort mingled with curiosity will take you a long way.

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Ai Weiwei’s art is very accessible anyway. Not to say it isn’t forceful in its impact, or that it lacks complexity. I had spent the previous day at Stoicon, the Stoic Week Event, surrounded by logic. I love Stoicism and I am grateful for the philosophers, past and present, who have helped me in my quest to live a larger, more meaningful life. But where I feel at home is in an art museum, a concert, or in the street dancing. I value how Stoicism helps me to center myself in my principles and focus on what really matters to me and brings meaning to my life: my relationship with myself, with the people I care about, and with art. Art is where I find the contradictions and tensions, power and beauty, that make life interesting and whole. Logic is great as long as it is accompanied by lots of creative passion, frequent laughter, and connection to my body. Art is a reminder that sometimes things aren’t orderly or logical, but they are right and true and just as they should be. (Or not.)

There was one large room of the exhibit in which I could not laugh. In the end I couldn’t even stay in there to see “Straight,” Weiwei’s response to the Sichuan earthquake in which more than five thousands children were killed when their shoddily-built schools collapsed. There are photos, films with footage from the aftermath, two enormous walls covered with the names of the victims, and 150 tons of steel-reinforced bars used in the construction of the schools that Weiwei purchased and had painstakingly straightened.

“Straight” Ai Weiwei’s response to the Sichuan earthquake

I saw about 30 seconds of the footage and a few photos. I turned around and saw the names covering those enormous walls, and I lost it. I started crying. I didn’t notice anyone else crying. I tried to pull myself together because I wanted to listen to the audio and look more, but I couldn’t do it. I had to move on to the next room. I returned to the room later and tried again, but no go. In fact, remembering it now as I write makes me cry. I tried to use my Stoic practices to get myself through it but it didn’t work. I couldn’t be there.

Ai Weiwei was very influenced in his New York City years by Marchel Duchamp and Dadaism, who sought to make art about challenging our assumptions. The Dadaists wanted art to be less visually pleasing and more intellectually stimulating. This kind of art appeals to me now. I’m going through this personal evolution right now in which it appears I no longer value “pretty.” I bought a joint ticket to the other big exhibition on at the RAA, Jean-Etienne Liotard, a wonderful and unusual portraitist I’ve always admired.

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Marie Adalaide of France by Jean-Etienne Liotard

Seeing Liotard after Weiwei was a mistake because I felt under-whelmed. I was a bit bored by Liotard’s portraits and he deserves better.

Prettiness bores me. Lately I’m far more drawn to realness and wildness. I find more beauty there, and in individuality. Stylistically I’m feeling inspired by Patti Smith and Iris Apfel.

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I know, nothing alike, but neither are pretty and both are much better than pretty.

I am single and while I am interested in having a relationship, I feel completely and utterly bored by men who are attracted to me mostly because they think I’m pretty. I know I should feel flattered and grateful by this attention, but… I’m not. And I suppose that makes me bitchy or what was it one guy called me not long ago? Arrogant. I am sorry I appear that way, but I simply can not get jazzed about guys who are only interested in prettiness. I can just hear my kick-ass grandmother responding to this attitude of mine with something like: “Well, Lindsay, you won’t be pretty for much longer, so there’s a blessing!” Yessah.

I’m not sure how I got from Ai Weiwei to here, but I do know I share this sentiment with him, at least today:tsn0hcb8ww2ykektmmt8

And I love his bicycle chandelier!

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Stoics and the Zombie Apocalypse

Imagine a reality show in which a lazy, spoiled, selfish young man is made to believe that the world is coming to an end. After experiencing a special-effects-laden meteor shower, he awakens to find himself in an abandoned hospital in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Civilization has collapsed. He goes on to meet people who demand of him the qualities of courage, compassion, and leadership that lied buried beneath his malaise and sense of entitlement.

Such a reality show exists. I just watched it and you can find it here. It was the brainchild and production of Derren Brown, British illusionist, mentalist, trickster, hypnotist, painter, and writer. Brown is evidently so famous in Britain that he has hordes of devotees and even stalkers, which is why his presence at this year’s Stoicon 2015 Event in London could not be publicized. This particular reality show was Brown’s idea of an extreme Stoic experiment. He discovered the ancient Stoics while reading Montaigne (his taste in philosophers is what makes him sexy, surely) and he took a shining to them. Here’s what he says in an article he published at Radio Times:

The Stoic philosophers advise us to regularly rehearse the loss of everything we love. Only that way can we learn to value what we have in life, rather than fixate upon things we don’t. It seems our psychological landscape hasn’t changed much since Seneca was penning advice to his protégés of ancient Rome. Those who study desire keep coming across the same answer: that to master desire, we must learn to want what we already have. We are bombarded daily by overt and covert messages from advertisers, media and peers, conditioning us to hanker after the latest, shiniest, most retinally-screened trinket, or to claim for ourselves our bigger house or faster car or sexier partner. And we may find ourselves anxious and distracted if we don’t find a way of acquiring these things, but more interestingly we only enjoy them for a very short while before reverting back to our former dissatisfied state. This hedonic treadmill keeps us moving forward at whatever level of happiness to which we are pre-disposed, and despite the spikes of momentary glee as some new status symbol comes our way, we don’t really grow any happier. The joy of the car and the house and the phone doesn’t stick around. The way to feel satisfied, and to know that your desires are being truly met, is to hunger after what you have already in your life.

Jules Evans interviewed Brown at the Stoicon Event on Saturday. I’m not British and I had no idea who Brown was before this event, but he struck me as thoughtful, creative, imaginative, modest, and that he cares deeply about philosophical issues. He also has “it.” Whatever “it” is, the man’s got it in spades. I include a picture of him here even though I look terrible in it–London is so bad to my hair. Brown is on the right. He doesn’t look like much, does he? Well. William Irvine (to the left, very funny and personable author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy) and I both agree that Brown is sexy.

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I liked what Derren Brown said in the interview about the practice of Stoicism not being about achieving “happiness” necessarily, but about living large. Creating a bigger, more meaningful life. That is what I have gained from Stoicism, and what I continue to seek from it. As I said at the beginning of Stoic Week, I renamed it Joie de Vivre Week for myself. My intention for the week was to stop focusing on the negatives in my life, especially those things which I do not control, and thus increase my joie de vivre. It’s worked. I do feel more joy after my study and meditation during Stoic Week and my attendance at the Stoic Week Event.

This year and last I had the opportunity to socialize a bit with the Stoic Event presenters, mostly academics in Philosophy. So, philosophers. Sounds like a really swinging crowd, doesn’t it? Or people you would do anything to avoid, more like it. I found them charming. At least, from the little I know them. They seem friendly, open, warm, funny, self-effacing, and easy to talk with. They have joie de vivre!

IMG_9475Here with Massimo Pigliucci, professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College (London was messing with my hair again). Massimo is organizing and hosting next year’s Stoicon in New York.  I also got to talk with Donald Robertson who besides writing the excellent Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, has written the Stoic Week Handbook and has a Stoicism Facebook group of nearly 10,000 members. The man has a Scottish accent to die for. I overheard Donald and Jules discussing a book of Stoic memes they plan to co-write to be entitled “Philosophical Tapas: Daily Stoic Affirmations.” I think Don should narrate the audio version.

Speaking of voices, I went to my voice lesson today not having practiced at all and with a slight cold. Neither my teacher nor I expected much of me in the lesson, and yet I proceeded to effortlessly execute a range exercise I struggled with last week. My teacher gasped and looked at me in shock. “What did you do different?” she asked. I shrugged and said I didn’t know. She asked me to do the same exercise again and I was able to do it twice more perfectly. She said she can tell I return from London with a different energy. I can feel it, too. She said that not only was I able to do the exercise better, but my voice sounded better. We think it might be due to a combination of bringing back a new energy from London, not overthinking, and having low expectations.

Stoicism helps a lot with limiting the overthinking and managing expectations. The philosophy lends itself to focusing on this moment and bringing your best to it. This weekend I was struck with what a simple and complete philosophy it is. I just finished reading Daring Greatly by Oprah darling Brené Brown, a shame researcher who writes these obscenely popular books about vulnerability, courage, and authenticity. While the book was motivational and interesting, I couldn’t help but compare this self-help book to the more elegant and simple Stoic writings. Do you want to stop feeling shame? Then stop caring what people think of you. People’s opinions of you are outside the realm of what you control. Make the center of who you are within yourself, grounded in your own principles and values. When you practice Stoicism, you naturally become more appealingly vulnerable, courageous, and authentic.

More Stoic thoughts to come. (And I was just kidding about Don and Jules’ Philosophical Tapas. Unfortunately, no such book is in the works. ;))

joie de vivre week

12204658_10208166150575640_725060995_nOn Halloween night two days ago I carefully painted my face to look like a decorated Mexican sugar skull. I put flowers in my hair and pulled on a sexy black dress and heels in preparation for a Halloween swing dance party. I felt good about how I looked, as did my friend, adorably got-up as Wednesday from The Addams Family. We left her flat in high spirits, anticipating a fun party, and stepped out into the cool October night (not cold–this is southern Spain) in search of a taxi. I was surprised to see a large percentage of my friend’s neighborhood turned out in Halloween mode with costumes, make-up, and trick-or-treat bags. Wow, how flattering that the Spaniards embrace our Halloween, I thought to myself.

And that’s when it hit me. Literally. An egg to the back, soiling the back of my dress and even my hair and face somewhat. My friend and I turned around to find a little posse of kids, just standing there. I was incredulous. I had never been hit by an egg in all of my 30+ years of Halloween in the States. But what really made my jaw drop was that the kids were not running away. They were just standing there. And then they threw more eggs. There were quite a few adults around observing, and they did nothing. Just stood there idiotically. I was enraged.

I took off running after the kids. They started running and then stopped and turned, throwing more eggs. They missed, and I kept running, screaming at them. “Gilipollas! Niños de mierda! Os voy a matar!” (Jerks! Stinking brats! I’m going to kill you!) In spite of the fact that I was wearing heels, I am proud to say I was close behind them. I chased them around the entire block and stopped. They stopped when I did and tried to look cool and pretend they hadn’t been running. When you think about it, it’s pretty lame for a pack of 10-14 year old boys to be running from a little lady in heels. “Ahora nos vamos a ver y os vais a enterar !”  (I will see you again and you are going to regret it!) was my parting shot. I walked back to the entrance of my friend’s building, where she was waiting. We went back up to her flat and cleaned off the egg as best as we could.

“What would you have done if you caught the kid?” my friend asked. I told her I would have grabbed him and scolded him. She said even though it made her really mad, she couldn’t imagine doing such a thing because then the kid’s parents could get angry and come tell me off. I replied that I would like nothing better than to have the opportunity to meet the little shit’s parents and tell them what I thought of their parenting, their genetics, and anything else that occurred to me in the moment.

Part of what made me so angry was the complete indifference on the part of the many other adults who observed a 12-year-old boy throwing eggs at an adult woman. Can I just tell you what the response would have been if in my town in Maine, adults had witnessed such a thing? The kid would have been immediately grabbed by the collar (or ear) by whichever adult was closest. He would have been marched to his parents’ door, getting an earful of scolding the entire way. His parents would have grounded him to his room at least for the rest of the evening and there would surely be other consequences, like not being allowed to go out with his friends for a month and having to apologize in person to the lady he threw the egg at. Also, he would probably have to do yard work in the lady’s yard or something as atonement.

As I remember this I still get angry. It really pisses me off. I did go on to have a fabulous time at that party. But we couldn’t get all of the egg out of my dress, so it felt a bit sticky to me the entire night and it galled me. Every time I noticed it I thought of those disrespectful boys and it made me mad.

This week I am participating in International Stoic Week. I have a specific intention for this week, and it is to develop the ability to ignore things I don’t like. I have been too quick to anger lately, too likely to hold on to negative feelings, and too focused, in general, on negativity. This reactivity to things I do not control and readiness to engage with negative situations and people is killing my joie de vivre. I want greater indifference to things that bug me. I want my joie de vivre back!

I have a few maxims I will be repeating to myself throughout the week, besides doing the Stoic readings and meditations. I chose the following maxims from the Handbook of Epictetus, ancient Stoic philosopher, to help me develop the habit of ignoring what I don’t like (and don’t control):

You are nothing to me. (Said to the person, situation, etc. that I don’t like.)

If you want any good, get it from within yourself.

What is beyond my control is indifferent to me.

So, for myself I am renaming Stoic Week. I’m calling it Joie de Vivre week. I’ll let you know how it goes.

religious trauma syndrome

Just because you are having an existential crisis doesn't mean you can't wear some kick-ass mascara.
Just because you are having an existential crisis doesn’t mean you can’t wear some kick-ass mascara.

I’m writing this post at the request of some friends and because I think talking about my experience may possibly help other people facing similar challenges.

In Leaving Mormonism, a post I wrote about eight months ago, I talk about how it was to begin distancing myself from my religion and what I felt at that time. In Stoicism for Passionate People, a guest post I wrote for Stoicism Today, I mention some other major life challenges I went through at the same time I was experiencing a crisis of faith. Within a couple years’ time, my father died young and unexpectedly, I divorced the man I had married at 19, I had a crisis of faith and became inactive in the Mormon church, and I experienced a business failure and large financial loss.

Any one of those events would have been very difficult, and facing them all together was devastating. I cried a lot, I couldn’t sleep, I frequently felt nauseous or exhausted, I had recurring nightmares, and I woke every morning at 4 am to a racing heart and paralyzing fear. I had difficulty focusing. For example, I had always been a voracious reader, and during this time I stopped reading because I couldn’t focus enough to remember anything I read. I had always been a prolific journaler/blogger and I stopped that, too. Now I recognize that what I had was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This lasted for a solid year at least, and then intermittently for a second year. As I explain in Stoicism for Passionate People, discovering ancient philosophy and Stoicism in particular helped me a great deal. It put me on the track toward healing.

After I got home in August from a wonderful vacation in Maine, I had some problems with friends and my reaction to the situation was extreme. For several weeks I felt like I had returned to the dark times of two years ago. All of the PTSD symptoms returned. Crying, insomnia, panic attacks, and even a fight or flight response. I fought with my friends for days and I decided I wanted to move away. I felt attacked.

Now that a little time has passed and I’ve calmed down and gained some perspective, I see that this particular situation triggered the same feelings that I had when I was leaving the church. I felt that my intimacy was betrayed and that my integrity was violated. I felt unfairly judged.

Of all the bad things that happened to me in those two years, the most difficult to deal with has been the trauma of leaving the Mormon church and how that has affected me mentally, physically, and emotionally . I have been reading more about it this past week. It even has a name: Religious Trauma Syndrome. It is with hesitance that I link to Journey Free: Resources for recovery from harmful religion, because I do not share all of this group’s views including their negative attitude toward religion. I do not make the claim that religion is universally damaging to all adherents. I only say that leaving religion has provoked in me an existential crisis and psychological trauma. I only speak from my own personal experience and if people can identify with it, great. If not, great. But maybe those who don’t will understand better those of us who do leave organized religion and develop the symptoms of this syndrome.

I imagine it might be difficult to understand what it’s like to have RTS unless you have it, especially if you haven’t been a faithful believer in a religion that informs totally and completely your self concept, your core beliefs, and every hour of every day of your life, what you eat, do, wear, say. This religion is the lens through which you see your past, present, and future. Actually, it IS your past, present, and future. It’s you. It’s your entire worldview. Now. Imagine what happens when that bubble bursts. Imagine how that is. You are no longer you. You have no core beliefs. You have no past, present, or future, at least not the one you had a month ago, or yesterday, or whenever it was when you were still a believer. That is gone. You find yourself in mourning because your former life is dead. Except you are poorly equipped to mourn, say nothing about moving on with a new life because you are nothing. You have no idea how to relate to yourself and other people and you don’t know who you are in the world or what your place is. You are faced with the task of completely reconstructing your reality from scratch.

As far as experiencing RTS goes, it doesn’t matter what brand of religion it is, what matters is how much that religion controls you though fear. In my religious activity I was not wholly motivated by fear of sinning and going to Hell, and maybe not even principally. I was also motivated by love. I loved my community and I loved helping other people. I loved spirituality and personal growth. I loved God. However, if when you begin to have doubts and you communicate those doubts to a believer friend, and the friend’s response is to tell you to be careful of your choices because some day you will be held accountable not only for your sins but the sins of your wayward children if they stray from the fold for having followed your bad example… Well. Obviously fear is being used to control you and there is little room for any real exploration within the bounds of that religion.

Fear and love are very powerful emotions. Though I have been able to distance myself from the Mormon church mentally, I feel secure in my conviction that it’s not where I belong right now, and I enjoy building my new reality, I am still emotionally attached to some of those ingrained beliefs. There are situations that automatically trigger those feelings of panic, fear, and insecurity that I had when I first stopped going to church. This past week has been about accepting that this is the case and that I have RTS.

I have felt immensely moved and inspired by the people who are going public about their addictions in an effort to remove the stigma of addiction and raise awareness and funds for treatment. Their example motivates me to write this post. I think there needs to be more awareness about RTS. I don’t think a lot of people know what it is, and yet it is very common. I don’t know very much about it myself and I’m curious to investigate. In upcoming posts I’ll be talking more about RTS and the different things I’ve discovered this past year that help me heal.

podcast debut

This is the first podcast at philosofina.com. I’m so excited! And nervous, too. For this first podcast I decided to answer some questions from readers, so here it goes.

What are your most popular posts?

My most popular post has been Leaving Mormonism, where I talk about my crisis of faith and my changing relationship with the Mormon church I was born and raised in. The post was controversial and there was some negative feedback, I expected that, but what most surprised me in a wonderful way was the outpouring of supportive messages I received from others who struggle with their faith, as well as words of love and understanding from nonbelievers and faithful Mormons alike.

The next most popular is a post that was simultaneously published on Stoicism Today, a piece called Stoicism for Passionate People. I’ve been pleased with the positive feedback on that post as well and it seems some of the regular readers of this blog discovered it from that Stoicism Today link.

Why is the blog named Philosofina?

I like philosophy. I think everyone needs to have a personal philosophy of life and this blog is where I develop mine from one post to another. That, and I just like the name. I get a lot of compliments on it.

Who is your favorite philosopher?

Michel de Montaigne, 16th-century French nobleman and inventor of the personal essay. I have this vivid mental image of Montaigne sitting down at his writing desk with a serious topic in mind, but once he started scratching that quill across the paper, all hell broke lose because he had this rich, fertile, imagination that would not be contained. It had its way with him every time. His writing is always fresh and organic, interspersed with tangents where he related funny anecdotes and personal stories, like listening to the best storyteller at the party. I love how playful and irreverent he is, never takes himself too seriously, and yet he has these profound insights on the complexity and contradictions in human nature. Montaigne also had a series of major life challenges in his thirties, at the very same ages that I had the same kinds of events in my life. And those events provoked in him, as they did in me, a time of self-reflection that ultimately led him to make some major changes in his life.  I feel like Montaigne and I have a lot in common and he is a major inspiration.

Why do you write so much about relationships and dating?

Since I married when I was still in my teens, I never dated until three years ago after I divorced. When you first enter the dating world at my age instead of at 18 or 20, you have a much different awareness of yourself and others, you look at it all with some distance and perspective, and you can’t help but notice and laugh at all of these strange things we do in our courtship and mating rituals. I have dated quite a bit because I’m always curious to meet new people. It’s sometimes been fun and sometimes maddening, but ALWAYS fascinating, and I love to write about what I’m seeing and experiencing and the insights I have. Several people have told me I should do a talk show about dating and relationships, and I’m considering it. Sounds fun!

What is a life coach? Is that like a therapist or something?

You hire a life coach if you want to transform your life. Life coaches help you to develop a greater awareness than you would otherwise be able to on your own, providing a better perspective from which to make important choices. A life coach can help move you back into action when you are stuck. You hire a life coach to provoke you, to ask the questions you need to be asked and say the things you need to hear.

A life coach can help you identify your values and create a life purpose, find resources within yourself to make the changes you want to make in your life, help you see the blind spots and hang-ups you have that are holding you back from making those changes, and learn to recognize the voices in your own mind that could be sabotaging your success.

As far as how life coaching may be related to seeing a psychologist, for example, I can only speak from my own experience. A few years ago after going through some difficult challenges, I felt depressed and eventually I started seeing a psychologist. After seeing me a couple times, the psychologist told me that we needed to go back into my childhood to see why it is that I have the insecurities and fears that I have. I asked how that would help me feel better, and she said that as we uncovered different layers, I would discover the root of my problems. I asked how THAT would make me feel better, and she said that the knowledge of where my insecurities and fears came from would help me to overcome them. I went a few more times, but I felt bored and frustrated by the process. I didn’t want to focus on my problems. All I wanted was to make my life beautiful again.

I stopped going to the psychologist and started focusing on doing and being those few things that I absolutely knew, regardless of any passing identity crisis, made me feel like me. In other words, I started living my values. I nourished my soul with great music, books, art, and friendships, and I wrote about it all. I got myself into a better place. When I finally listened to my own little heart, it told me how to heal myself. Around that time I discovered life coaching, and I was hooked! Because for me, that is what coaching is, getting the help you need to learn to listen to your own heart and letting it tell you what is best for you rather than taking advice from others. It’s about exploring within and developing new registers you never even imagined were there. While psychotherapy may be more focused on your emotional or mental problems and looking back toward the past, life coaching is focused in the here and now with a view toward the future.

What issues and topics do you work with as a coach?

I have coached people on dating and relationship issues, physical fitness goals, weight loss, self-confidence, friendships, parenting, pregnancy, writing, self-mastery and forming habits, and other things. Right now I am developing personalized programs to help people:

  • thrive as singles
  • emerge from an identity crisis as stronger, better, new versions of themselves
  • feel confident, secure, and empowered in their sexuality
  • discover their passions

I don’t have a niche, but I think I do have a theme that runs through my work with people, and that is helping people discover and live up to the greatness they have within. I think one of the worst tragedies of life is how we allow ourselves to be mediocre out of fear our own greatness and because we don’t want those around us to feel threatened by it. I love nothing better than working with people who want to let their light shine in spite of these fears.

Marianne Williamson says it well:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. […] And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Have you worked with a coach? What did you work on?

I have definitely worked with coaches and I have a life coach of my own. In the past one thing I have worked on is embracing my sexy side. I’ve found that change isn’t always easy and it takes time, but it happens! I am amazed at the progress I’ve made. It’s also been fascinating to me to see how other aspects of my life have changed now that I have more confidence in this one area. Fascinating and very encouraging! Maybe I’ll talk more about that in my next podcast.

blue moon

20110319-JLB_4506-4041This evening I went for a walk along the beach of Belfast Bay just after the sun had set. The sky was still tinged orange in the west and I started my walk toward the east. I saw that the  moon was just beginning to rise. 2015’s blue moon. It was the palest of whites when it first peeked over the horizon but soon it was a luminous pink and orange, something like this photo I found online. It was much more impressive than this photo. I watched it rise and for some reason I remembered a conversation I had a couple weeks ago.

I was at home in Málaga eating grilled sardines under the stars with a poet who I suspect of being a wise man. I was telling him that my life was very lovely and orderly for many years, and in fact people used to tell me that I had the perfect family and the ideal life, like something out of the movies. I was seldom unhappy or angry. He said, “Well, I think such a life as that is a shit. How are you to appreciate it and really know you are happy if you never suffer, if you just go through life feeling great all the time?” That’s how poets talk. Spiritual gurus are slightly (or very) condescending and poets just say straight out, Your life was a shit.

But I think he’s on to something. For the past couple years my life has been a mess. At first I was embarrassed by it. I was failing all the time and I felt ashamed of these failures and angry at myself for letting them happen. I felt like a loser, like I couldn’t do anything right anymore. The internal work I’ve done through coaching and Stoic meditation has gone a long way in helping me see how wonderful it is to fail. It means I’ve taken a risk, I’ve hopefully learned something, and I’m living my life in a bold way. I can fail quite spectacularly now and feel relatively unfazed by it. It does hurt a bit still, but usually I’m so quickly on to the next endeavor that I’m not down for long.

For example, for the past six months or so I’ve been kissing a lot of frogs. I’m learning that there are many types of frogs. According to this article there are nearly 4000 types, including toads which are part of the frog family. I think I’ve kissed some of those too. I do hope I will find the type that turns into a prince before I get too close to the 4000 mark, but I’m making progress. See, a couple years ago it would have really grossed me out to be kissing all these frogs and it would have traumatized me. But now I take it less seriously and I also see that this experience is helping me to become quite an expert in the herpetological field. I’m now able to identify many types of frogs by their identifying spots or the shape of their nostrils without having to kiss them at all. As in, this is the type who lies, this is the type who doesn’t have a lot going on upstairs, etc.

It’s all good. My life is no longer picture perfect, nor is it a shit. It’s a beautiful mess. I’m a beautiful mess.

 

The Secret is wrong. So is Mark Manson.

The Universe aka Santa Claus
The Universe aka Santa Claus

Here is the perfect example of why I feel for people who, lacking a personal philosophy of life and a clear vision of who they are, seek answers among the morass of self help and psychology articles.

On the one hand you have positive psychology and the likes of The Secret. I never read it because after seeing it on Oprah years ago and reading a synopsis I knew it wasn’t for me. If it’s been a while since you heard about The Secret, let me refresh your memory. It’s a mystical spin on positive psychology. There is supposedly this Law of Attraction out there in the Universe that really boils down to: like attracts like. If you think positive thoughts, you put out this high frequency vibration that attracts all the good stuff because the good stuff also vibrates at a high frequency. Ditto for negative thoughts and their corresponding low frequency that attracts bad stuff. Also, if you shout it out into the Universe that you want a certain thing that you believe will make you happy, and you really really really believe that you’ll get it, the Universe (that good ol’ Santa) will provide it for you.

Mark Manson recently came out as hating The Secret. His criticism of this particular book as well as the positive psychology camp minus mystical trappings is spot on and I completely agree. It makes perfect sense to me that this mind set, especially if adopted by people of limited intellectual or emotional capacity or obsessive tendencies, can lead to complacency, extreme risk-taking, and delusional thinking. It can aggravate and perhaps cause rumination, OCD, depression, and anxiety. I agree with Manson that making your own personal happiness your ultimate priority is likely to make you self absorbed and consequently, unhappy.

What I don’t agree with is Manson’s answer to the question, if not The Secret, then what? He says:

Call me crazy, but I believe that changing and improving your life requires destroying a part of yourself and replacing it with a newer, better part of yourself. It is therefore, by definition, a painful process full of resistance and anxiety. You can’t grow muscle without challenging it with greater weight. You can’t build emotional resilience without forging through hardship and loss. And you can’t build a better mind without challenging your own beliefs and assumptions.

So why would we ever expect that becoming a better person is easy or pleasant or…positive?

These are all, by definition, difficult and stressful activities.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to give up on improving myself forever. Pass me the Doritos and the remote control.

I think Mark Manson is an incredibly gifted communicator. His brash, in-your-face style has its appeal. He’s funny. We were talking about Manson in positive terms last night at a party. I think The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***  is wonderful, and this from someone who dislikes the f-word. Very Stoic! I approve. However, in spite of Manson’s way with words and the fact that we both look askance at positive psychology, I would never in a million hire him as a life coach. Sounds like psychological boot camp for the rest of your life.

I don’t believe in these kinds of extremes. Thank merciful heavens I don’t believe my only two choices are between starry-eyed, silly positive psychology and a harsh, stressful demolition and construction project for my soul.

Here is my choice. I’ll even put it to you manifesto style.

I believe that all humans have an innate need to progress and become a little better every day. We all need to engage in some variety of soul crafting. While it’s true that this is not an easy process, it needn’t be especially stressful and certainly not unpleasant! For me it’s a glorious and fulfilling undertaking that brings me great joy. I believe that in order to be brave enough to make ourselves sufficiently vulnerable and have the strength to make difficult changes in our lives, we need to be our own best friends. We must treat ourselves with compassion and fill our lives with the things we love best. We need to find ways to fulfill our needs for beauty and connection, and when we do that, we are able to approach challenging issues from a place of abundance and a strong sense of self worth. Then it’s not nearly as painful or difficult to remove the barriers that hold us back. It is never selfish to take care of our own needs first. It is only when we feel that we are taken care of that we are able to turn our gaze outward with curiosity and generosity and engage with the world in a healthy, effective way. I believe that we find our best answers within ourselves and not in the pages of a self-help book.

guest post at Stoicism Today

laughing-animals2

Stoicism Today has published a piece I wrote on passionate Stoicism. I repost it here. And welcome, Stoicism Today readers!

Stoicism for Passionate People’ by Lindsay Varnum

I cry when I’m ecstatically happy. I cry when a friend or family member or sometimes even a stranger cries. I cry when I’m angry or when something’s not fair. I cry at orchestra concerts. I occasionally cry at museums if I’m seeing for the first time a work of art that touches me deeply. I admit to having more than once cried in the middle of sex just because I was having such a good time.

It seems I was always like this. My father’s nickname for me was Little Feist. My constant crying as an infant and violent temper tantrums as a young child were scary and overwhelming for my mother, who just wanted to make it all stop. Luckily for her, my more tranquil and easy-going siblings soon came along, providing her with amiable distraction from her first child’s baffling intensity. If my strong feelings were difficult for my mother to deal with, they were much more so for me. Even as a young child I was able to perceive that I was more sensitive than most people. Unfortunately I only saw the negative aspects of this and how it made me a challenge for my family, teachers, and peers. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I started to see the positive side of being passionate. As a child I didn’t want to be seen as the difficult, oversensitive one and these strong feelings scared me and made me feel out of control. I spent all of my childhood and young adulthood at best trying to hide my emotions and at worst suppressing them entirely.

In my thirties within a short period of time came a series of life changes that made it impossible for me to continue dealing with my feelings in the same way I always had. My father died young and unexpectedly, I experienced a crisis of faith, divorced, left my religious community, and suffered a large financial loss. I wanted to handle all of this with strength and dignity. I kept getting up in the morning and going through the motions of daily life. I could still laugh and give hugs and dance, so I thought I was doing ok. But then I would find myself in public places like the grocery store with tears streaming down my face for no apparent reason. I was not doing ok.

I discovered Stoicism and started practicing it because I wanted to silence the compulsive negative thoughts that were making me feel increasingly worse about myself. That was the emergency situation that had to be handled immediately. Once that was under control and I was feeling less anxious and depressed, I realized that in Stoicism I had found a methodical way to work on character development and living my values again. As a member of a strict religious faith I had been used to studying the scriptures every day and tracking my personal spiritual growth. Studying Stoicism, self-monitoring, and practicing meditation came easily to me after a lifetime of religious practice and helped somewhat fill the void left when I stopped practicing my religion.

I started learning about Stoicism less than six months ago and by no means do I have an extensive grasp of it. However, I can share my experience with Stoic practice and how it has helped me so far. One of the many positive effects Stoicism has had on my life is that it has helped me become an even more passionate person.

I know, that sounds like crazy talk. But before you dismiss this assertion, let me explain the three ways I believe that Stoicism can help the passionate person flourish. In this context I define the “passionate person” as one who is highly sensitive and experiences intense feelings.

1. Practicing Stoicism frees us of fear of our emotions.

Somehow in my childhood I internalized the belief that my emotions were bad and could be inconvenient to the people I cared about or lead to sinful behavior. Because I feared my emotions, I practiced stoicism with a small “s” by hiding or suppressing them. I needed to discard this belief, then replace it with the belief that my emotions are a positive part of who I am as long as they don’t keep me from living my values. Before discovering Stoicism I felt constant guilt and fear about how my emotions could affect others. All of that melted away once I really believed that I am responsible only for what I control, and that does not include other people’s feelings.

Also, I know that through the Stoic practice of creating distance between my feelings and myself I can moderate extreme emotions that could potentially send me out of control. I can nip unwanted anger in the bud and pull myself out of a paralyzing sadness. I can bring down into reality the unrealistic, over-exuberant flashes of “genius” that come to me in moments of outrageous happiness. It’s one thing to wake up one morning and say to yourself, “Ok, from now on, my feelings do not control me, I control them. Ta-da!” and an entirely different thing to actually have a system in place that makes it possible for you to do that. Stoic practice has provided that system for me. Experiencing intense emotions and expressing them with considerably less fear and guilt is new to me, and for now at least, it feels healthy and liberating.

2. Stoicism makes us more spontaneous.

Spontaneous people are easier to trust and more fun to be around than those who are on the more inhibited or calculating side. However, being spontaneous doesn’t come naturally to people who are extremely sensitive because we are constantly trying to protect ourselves from getting hurt. We tend to be oversensitive to criticism and the opinions of others. When I learned about Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the first damaging belief I tackled was this idea I had that other people’s opinions of me were of vital importance. That belief had to go because it was causing me serious harm. There were many people, including most of my friends and family, who were critical of me when I divorced and left my religious community. With effort, I have been able to stop caring so much what others think. I know this is true because now I so seldom wonder what someone’s opinion of me is. As Coco Chanel put it, “I don’t care what you think of me. I don’t think of you at all.” Once you don’t especially care what people think of you, you have removed a large impediment to being spontaneous.

When I stopped practicing religion I began to doubt some of my values and I didn’t always know where I stood. This made me constantly second guess throughout the day everything I thought, said, and did. Now I have a set time every morning to study and ponder the principles I want to live by, as well as inspire myself to live wisely throughout the day. I reserve judgment on how well I’ve done until nighttime when I review the day’s events. This setting aside of specific times for contemplation has effectively eliminated exhausting and pointless rumination from my life. Now I can just spontaneously live! And being more spontaneous makes me live more fully and in the moment, more passionately.

3. Practicing Stoicism helps us to become more humble and teachable.

Identifying too closely with our emotions and taking them too seriously shrinks our world and makes us more likely to be self-absorbed. It can be extra hard for passionate people to not get caught up in our emotions at the expense of other more important things, like cultivating virtue. When our feelings are stronger than other people’s, we can easily develop the mistaken idea that our feelings are more important than other people’s.

Stoicism trains us to become detached observers of our emotions, and the space that is thereby created between our feelings and who we really are is magical. All kinds of marvelous things can happen there. The Stoics want us to use that space to insert reason first and foremost so that we make wiser choices, but we can also bring in a sense of humor toward ourselves, one of the most attractive of qualities. It is that space that allows us to attain the perspective in which we recognize our place in the cosmos. It is in that space that we can become wise, humble, and open to change if we choose to do so.

Maybe at some point in life I will tire of being oversensitive, impulsive, mercurial, intense, and otherwise passionate. For now I would like to see how life plays out when I am the most sincere and transparent version possible of myself. I like to think that I can maintain these qualities I’ve had since childhood and at the same time cultivate virtue; that the one does not preclude the other. I like to believe that passion and eudemonia are not mutually exclusive. I feel like it is too early in my experiment to draw any definite conclusions, but so far, so good.

amor fati style

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Valentine’s Day is coming up in just a few days. Hooray! I have a little too much to celebrate this year, as I recently started two affairs. One is with myself. The other is with my fate.

It seems it was Nietzsche who coined the term amor fati, though the idea of living in harmony with whatever life sends your way is an ancient philosophy. Nietzche said,

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it–all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary–but love it.

I am a recovering idealist. Not only can idealism be insincere in the face of reality as Nietzsche says, but it can also be greedy, contrary to nature, and painful. I’m reading Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness in which he says,

Whether we realize it or not, we are all living out the lives fated for us, either willingly or reluctantly. Zeno illustrated this with a striking metaphor: the wise man is like a dog tethered to a cart, running alongside and smoothly keeping pace with it, whereas a foolish man is like a dog that struggles against the leash but finds himself dragged alongside the cart anyway.

What does loving your fate look like?

In a day-to-day way, maybe like this. A couple weeks ago my son took my house keys with him to school. He did this because he knew it was a day I wouldn’t be home when he arrived in the afternoon, he had misplaced his own keys, and he didn’t want to be stuck outside waiting until I got home. When I realized what he’d done I had to go to the school to get the keys, highly annoyed because I was short on time. While I waited at the school’s front desk, a woman I’d been trying to reach for days appeared with paperwork to fill out for my daughter’s visa to go to India, including some extra requirements that would have me sitting in Immigration for the next two mornings. That put me in an even worse mood. However, the second morning waiting in Immigration, I had an amor fati moment: I realized that if my son hadn’t taken my keys, I probably wouldn’t have run into that woman at the school, thus I wouldn’t have known about this extra paperwork and would likely not have been able to complete it on time.

Maybe that seems insignificant. I could tell you about how amor fati has helped me come to terms with enormous life difficulties like my divorce and business failure. This philosophy has helped me realize that I am thriving now largely due to what I learned from those failures. However, I think it’s in the small everyday matters where amor fati can have the most impact. I find that now I live a more joyful existence because I’m always looking for a way to love whatever is going on in my life. I’m no longer rushing through boring chores as a means to an end, but finding ways to enjoy those moments. Last Monday morning I decided I wanted to move, by that evening I had found a house, I signed the papers on Friday, and now I’m packing. I thought I hated moving, but it turns out I love it. I love going through all my stuff. I’m finding so many things I had forgotten I had. I’m coming across little reminders here and there of suffering I went though a couple years ago that I have moved far past now.

Amor fati is not only about not wanting anything different in your past, present, and future environments, but within yourself. Amor fati, besides cheerful acceptance of the moment, can also mean radical self acceptance. I just finished a wonderful Montaigne biography that I hope to write about soon. Montaigne was all about amor fati, and it is in the specific way he applied it to his view of himself that I am working on now in myself. Montaigne would look back on essays he had written ten years previously and realize that his views had changed. Did that make him want to heavily edit or completely rewrite the essays when he published subsequent collections? Especially since leaving them as is would mean the reader would find significant contradictions between his earlier vs. later essays. Well, it seems honey badger didn’t care. Biographer Sarah Bakewell says,

The spirit of repentance was alien to him in writing, just as it was in life, where he remained firmly wedded to amor fati: the cheerful acceptance of whatever happens.

And later:

Montaigne knew that some of the things he had done in the past no longer made sense to him, but he was content to presume that he must have been a different person at the time, and leave it at that. His past selves were as diverse as a group of people at a party. Just as he would not think of passing judgment on a roomful of acquaintances, all of whom had their own reasons and points of view to explain what they had done, so he would not think of judging previous versions of Montaigne. ‘We are all patchwork,’ he wrote, ‘and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game.’

And that is where I join with my two new loves: me, myself, and my fate. A glorious threesome! That is quite possibly the cheesiest thing ever. We’ll blame it on the approaching 14th.

Should I get an amor fati tattoo? Where and in what script?