#AtoZChallenge: Applying Zen And Zeal


Here we are, friends, the sprint to the end!! If I get this up by midnight that will be 5 posts in 2 days, a personal record!  I shall carry that pride for a while yet.  Many thanks to all who have visited from the A to Z Challenge this month, to all those who supported me through it, to the regular readers, and to the writers whose work I have had the distinct pleasure of reading.  We made it!!  And now, the last…

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, again:

Zen:  a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation. [On this last post I interject my own connotation for this word, as synonymous with peacefulness and thoughtful serenity.]

Zeal:  eagerness and ardent interest in pursuit of something: fervor, syn(onym) see passion.

Today listening again (still) to Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence, I learned a new relationship between cortisol and testosterone, in terms of power and behavior.  Cortisol rises under threat, when we feel powerless.  Testosterone rises when we feel confident and powerful.  But they are not mutually exclusive, and just like meaning and stress, they can coexist in variable amounts.  By Applying Zen and Zeal, I mean to describe what it looks and feels like when we think and act in the combined state—a low cortisol, high testosterone milieu:  Confident, strong, calm, powerful, and proactive.

One more time, through the alphabet:

Attitude.  Peaceful passion.  Confidently Aspiring to higher goals.

Behavior.  Measured, less impulsive.  Intentional, purposeful.

Conduct.  Consistent.  Steady.  Forthright.

Demeanor.  Welcoming, friendly.  Inviting.  Quietly exuding a mission.

Effect.  Inspiring.  Aspiring.  Cohesive, motivating.

Focus.  Clear, directed, sharp.

Goals.  Meaningful, worthy.

Happiness.  Derived from within, determined by Honoring core values.

Influence.  Stirring, benevolent, collaborative.

Judgment.  Wise, responsible.

Kinship.  With all of humanity, transcending skin color, ideology, rhetoric.

Lessons.  Lifelong Learning in humility, applied with grace and gratitude.

Mantras.  Expressive, centering, grounding.  Ideas to foster engagement with the world.

Narrative.  Analytical, honest, ongoing.

Objective.  Peace in action.

Pursuit.  Integrity, fairness, equality.

Query.  Self-awareness, withholding judgment, telling new stories.

Rest.  Respected, taken in intervals.  Recharging, never slothful.

Strength.  When collaborating with others—Synergistic.

Timbre.  Deep.  Resonant.  Moving.

Universe.  Vast, inclusive, mystical.

Vibration.  Stimulating.  Multi-synchronous.

Wealth.  Deep connection.

Xanadu.  World peace.

Yield.  World peace.

Zenith.  World peace.


Peace to all.

#AtoZChallenge: Yes, And!


Some practices take a while to establish, and it’s worth.every.minute.

I first learned about “Yes, and” from my residency classmate, c.2001. She was taking an improv class in her spare time (a revelation in itself for me at the time—you can do that?).  One day after rounds, she came into the workroom eager to share this new learning.  I warily accepted her invitation to try it.  For those of you unfamiliar, the “Yes, and” exercise goes thusly, according to Wikipedia:

“Yes, and…” is a rule-of-thumb response in improvisational comedy that suggests a participant should accept what another participant has stated (“yes”) and then expand on that line of thinking (“and”).[1][2]


The “Yes” portion of the rule encourages the acceptance of the contributions added by others.[3] Participants in an improvisation are encouraged “to agree to the basic situation and set-up.” Thus, “By saying yes, we accept the reality created by our partners and begin the collaborative process.” [1]

“And ”

In addition to accepting the premise offer by others, a participant in an improvisation is expected to add new information into the narrative. Hence the phrase “Yes, And!”[1]


The goal is to open our minds, allow possibilities, expand our boundaries, and encourage creativity. I can still see her smile, the gleaming light of engagement and anticipation in her eyes.  I also remember my own hesitation and self-consciousness.  What do you mean, pimple on my forehead?  Is it really about to burst?  I need a mirror!  I was distracted, trepidatious, reserved—less than an engaging partner.  Sadly, I think she left that interaction a bit deflated.  So sorry, Carol!

In August of 2003, I read an interview with Tina Fey.  [Hey, isn’t that AMAZING, that I can Google “tina fey interview 2003 yes and” and it pops right up??]  In it, she recalls, “A couple of times I’ve been called on to do things—jobs or whatever—where I’ve felt, ‘Maybe I’m not quite ready. Maybe it’s a little early for this to happen to me.’ But the rules are so ingrained. ‘Say yes, and you’ll figure it out afterward’ has helped me to be more adventurous. It has definitely helped me be less afraid.” For whatever reason, perhaps primed by Carol’s invitation to try improv, this spoke to me, and I resolved to say Yes more often.  The very next day, I was invited to attend a luncheon at my church at the last minute, when another attendee had cancelled.  Normally I would have said no, thanks, and gone home.  I would not have wanted to overstep usual social boundaries, assume a position higher than my own (the luncheon was to honor benefactors).  AND, as I had nothing else going on that day, I thought of Tina Fey’s advice, and said yes.  I learned about all the people who give their time, talent, and treasure to help our faith community thrive.  I was humbled and grateful to be included.  Years later, I would give the keynote address at that annual event.

In 2005 I started working with my life coach, Christine. The “Yes, and” idea resurfaced again, this time as a practice in mindfulness.  Rather than saying, “I want to be in Colorado, but I am stuck in Chicago,” I redirected to say instead, “I want to be in Colorado, AND I am stuck in Chicago.”  The first was a straight-up complaint—a whine.  Changing the one word made all the difference, propelling me beyond the ‘stuck’ness.  After the ‘and’ statement, I intuitively accepted the current situation as it was, and a logical, sequential question arose: “So, what do I want to do now?”  In the following year, I moved (somewhat) past my resentment, feeling anchored in Chicago for the rest of my professional life, and embraced the opportunities a life here could offer.  The but-to-and modification played an important role in this attitude shift.  I was even able to apply it to my patient interactions, holding space for their stuck-ness and inviting them into new possibilities.

Fast forward to 2009, my first time at the Harvard Coaching Conference.  I had the enormous fortune to attend a presentation by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, based on their book, The Art of Possibility.  I had my picture taken with Mr. Zander, and soon became of disciple of the book’s teachings, including the practice of substituting ‘and’ for ‘but’ in daily vernacular.  ‘But’ implies limitation and scarcity.  ‘And,’ conversely, opens our minds to movement and possibility.  I would say that by this time, my Yes, And practice was almost second nature.

And, it was February of 2013 when everything truly gelled. I was offered the privilege of leading a group of internists in the Chicago area, in an innovative educational initiative—weekly board review webinars for practicing physicians.  The format was new to all of us, so we took an improv workshop to hone presentation skills and build the team.  My partner, Sean, and I engaged in iterative exercises to demonstrate the power of ‘No,’ ‘Yes, but,’ and finally, ‘Yes, and.’  You can try it yourself.  Get a partner, and whatever you say, your partner says, ‘No.’  Do that a few minutes, then switch to ‘Yes, but,’ then finally, ‘Yes, and.’  The first two responses have essentially the same effect—shutting down the conversation, tempting the initiator to disengage in exasperation.

When we got to ‘Yes, and,’ I could feel my anticipation rising. Where would this go, what positively outlandish ideas could we possibly come up with?  I understood Carol’s excitement at sharing an imminent journey of imagination and creativity.  Between Sean and me, we devised a plan to hitchhike to California through the Badlands and Yellowstone.  We would stop on the Golden Gate bridge after our car broke down and help tourists take pictures.  Then we would steal one of their cars and joy ride down to Jay Leno’s house, or some professional athlete’s house, by way of Candlestick Park, I can’t remember for sure.  We would somehow convince the celebrity to drive with us, in his car, back to Chicago, taking selfies along the way, and make a presentation to our colleagues about the importance of primary care…  Or something like that!  I patted myself on the back; I am a Yes, And pro.

Our webinar series is now well into its second two-year cycle, and the Yes, And approach has guided us well through changes in communication, marketing, staffing, and expansion.

I’m reminded of a strategy that that Dr. Phil McGraw’s team implements when they brainstorm content for his show: “We love every idea for fifteen minutes.” That is the essence of Yes, And!  Take any idea, love it, embrace it, flesh it out, water it, pour Miracle Grow on it, throw it around, bounce it off the walls, crack it open, dissect it, sit on it, taste it!  You never know what will come of it until you let loose your imagination—YES, AND it!

Yes, And can be applied in every conversation, every relationship, every decision. Yes.  And?…

#AtoZChallenge: Xerophyte People

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

Xerophyte: a plant structurally adapted for life and growth with a limited water supply esp. by means of mechanisms that limit transpiration or that provide for the storage of water.

AC cactus 2016

Photo courtesy of Cyndie Abbott, Green Valley, Arizona, 2016


Water is essential for growth and survival—of plants and animals alike. So how is it that some plants can not only survive, but thrive and even reproduce, with so little water?  On top of that, they also provide beauty, habitation, and even sustenance for others.  Their short-lived flowers splash color onto monochromatic landscapes.  Regional animals are adapted to live nestled among some xerophytes’ barbs.  Survival programs tell us to seek these plants as a source of essential hydration when stranded in the dessert.

Humans share many of these tough flora’s adaptive qualities. We evolved as omnivores, able to eat most things that grow in nature.  Our big forebrains allowed us to cultivate plants to eat.  We learned to capture, then herd, animals for our own use.  We have come so far as to alter and control our environments, in order to live in places where nature may never have intended.

But the more interesting parallel between xerophyte plants and Xerophyte People is resilience.  If we consider metaphorical water for human life, many things come to mind: joy, security, connection, purpose, meaning, love.  Think of all the people who live with little or none of these things.  Think of those who once had these things, and then had them forcibly taken away, often indefinitely—by war, abuse, illness, death.  In medicine, we witness this kind of suffering regularly.  Our hearts break alongside those of our patients and their families.  But it’s not always forever.  In primary care, where I have the privilege of knowing patients over long periods, I have also celebrated remarkable reversals.  New relationships, revelations, births, treatment innovations—you never know what will happen to turn the tide.

So what keeps us hanging on? Like plants, maybe we figure out ways to prevent further loss—limit transpiration.  Thick skin and prickly spines keep us protected.  Only the very persistent or the specially equipped can penetrate our defenses.  But more important, we have adapted to store what we need.  Even if we cannot readily identify or articulate it, something keeps us going.  Maybe it’s hope, remembrance, or some core value or aspiration we have yet to realize—some inner pilot light that never goes out.  Some might call it the human spirit.  Whatever it is, I stand in reverence of its mystery, its utterly saving presence.

To all the Xerophyte People in our world, I say as Glennon Doyle Melton does:  Carry On, Warriors.


Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico, June 2015