Train to Withstand the Discomfort

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Exploring the Rules of Engagement for Healthier Political Discourse, First Query

How fascinating!  I thought this series would be so easy to write…  I spend so many hours every day deliberating on how to talk to people, fantasizing about successful encounters, and preparing mindful defenses against verbal attacks.  Yet crickets have chirped here for two weeks, and even now as I type, I feel almost overcome with apprehension.

The Better Part of Valor…

I had this lofty goal last month to seek out and engage in person, all of my friends on ‘the other side.’  I even sent a card to a couple of them on the other side of town, asking if I could come to visit and “talk.”  I feel an urgency to reconcile and reconnect.  But today I realize that you can’t force it.  Sometimes it’s just too uncomfortable.  You never know what the other person will say, or what you will say, that will trigger one or both of you and emotionally hijack the whole encounter.  So sometimes it’s best to just not go there.

Meanwhile, Back At the Ranch

But what can we do in the meantime?  How can we train now, to make it easier in the future?  It seems somewhat like exercise to me.  There is an app called TRX Force (I have no interests in this business), a twelve week progressive strength and interval training program using those torturous straps that hang from the ceiling.  When I first started the program with my trainer, I dreaded every session.  The shortness of breath, the shaking, the pain, gaaaagh!!  Every session early on, I secretly hoped she would let me off the hook.  But I also knew that with her support, I could overcome the discomfort and finish.  I have gotten through every session, some more easily than others.  Last Tuesday was Day 2 of Week 11. I felt so much weaker and less motivated than usual that day (all this stress, grrrr), and it was the hardest workout yet.  The ‘during’ part SUCKED.  My biceps and quads felt like jell-o melting off of their bones.  Then afterward, the victory of accomplishment filled me with pride.  It lit a new intrinsic fire, and my home workouts now are harder and longer than ever before.

Maybe it’s the same for talking politics.  Just thinking of encounters with ‘the other side’ can fill us with dread and tension.  We catastrophize immediately, not only about what they might say, but at how it might unleash torrents of our least controllable emotions.  So we instinctively run the other way.  What if we could train to withstand this discomfort?  What if we could find a safe space to practice, so we might feel stronger when challenged for real?  I propose two methods here.

Desensitize

We all know the satisfaction and comfort of echo chambers.  Seeing, hearing, and reading that which validates our existing positions feels so good.  But the farther we regress here, the harder it becomes to tolerate a dissenting view.  We must resist this temptation; we are called to be more disciplined than this.  I have friends and family who post articles and videos from sights like Conservative Fighter and Red State.  I find the headlines inflammatory, and my initial reaction is to cringe, dismiss, and move on.

Lately I have resolved to open at least one of these posts every few days.  To walk the talk of reaching across the divide, I must try seeing from others’ point of view.  These are my friends, people I grew up with, my colleagues.  What about these stories and articles appeals to them?  In the privacy of my home, at times of my choosing, I can practice opening my mind to a potential partial truth from any source.  I learned from life coaching a long time ago that, “we are all right, and only partially.”

In no way does opening my mind to possible other truths mean that I abandon skepticism or critical appraisal.  It does mean, however, that I practice excluding prejudice.  It means looking and listening with objectivity as much as possible.  “I have to pace myself,” a friend told me recently.  Yes.

In a recent episode of Bill Maher’s show, he interviewed the controversial alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos, during which he admonishes his audience, “Don’t take the bait, liberals.”  I think I agree.  The goal here is eventually to rise above the reflexive, emotionally hijacked state.  When I feel my brow furrow, lips curl, heart rate accelerate,  and armpits sweat, I know I’m close to my limits.  I can choose to disengage and try again next time.  Just like with TRX Force, my tolerance and openness core will strengthen the longer I stick with the program.  I can then engage with an intact and rational intellect, guided by my core values of connection and shared humanity, seeking common interests and goals.

Uphold the Devil’s Advocate

Since the election, I often feel attacked by people on ‘my side’ whenever I suggest that ‘the others’ may not all be racist and misogynist xenophobes.  It’s not safe in some of my own circles to consider the humanity of the other side.  This refusal to consider multiple points of view, even among those who mostly agree with us, seriously threatens our capacity for meaningful discourse, from the inside out.  The echo chambers reverberate ever louder, drowning out our intellectual and emotional calling for generosity and connection.  Us vs. Them group-think oppresses, and it’s dangerous to our dialogue.  I wonder if moderates on the right also experience this.

Hereafter, I resolve to stand up a little taller in defense of people in general.  When I hear broad brush generalizations, I will play Devil’s Advocate and speak up for a valid alternative point of view.  I will ask questions starting with phrases like, “What if they also…” and “What is a more generous assumption we can make about…”  I hope more of us can practice holding this precious space.  Making room for another’s point of view does not weaken our own.  Respectful debate of dissenting opinions makes us more agile and articulate.  And the best place to practice is first within our own tribes.

Moving Forward

I had a list of ideals for this series, like “Rehumanize the ‘Others’” “Mind your limits,” and “Stay in Curiosity.”  It’s hard to separate and prioritize them; as I think of any one, the others inevitably intertwine.  So it will take me a while between posts to disentangle my thoughts.  Thank you for your patience and your feedback.  Maybe we can all be training buddies on this long journey.

On What You Can Do

 

img_4564NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 12

To Patients Wondering What to Do:

Take this Wise Lady’s advice.

I had an inspiring conversation this week, one that lifted me up, which I sorely needed.

This incredible woman grew up in the era before women could have credit cards in their own names, before women could play organized sports, and before spousal rape was finally outlawed.  She survived brain tumor surgery and the death of her son.  She has attained advanced education, acquired innovative skills, built and sold a business.  Throughout it all she seems to have thrived.

I queried her response to adversity.  Was she born wired for resilience?  Did she acquire such effective coping skills simply by experience?  She referenced the teachings of her father.  Through her childhood, she said, he taught her to how to face difficulties.  Before she went off to college her dad had a specific talk with her:  “Here’s how you deal with problems,” he said.  “When faced with a problem, first ask yourself, ‘what can I do?’”  Not what should I do, what do others expect me to do, what would s/he/they do.  “What can I do?”  “If you can’t figure it out right away, stop.  Go outside, take a walk.  Come back and ask again, ‘What can I do?’”

Wise Lady said this one strategy got her through myriad struggles and crises in life, and she taught it to her kids the way her dad taught her.  But life flung faster, sharper arrows her way, and she had to develop additional coping tactics.  Seeking a path to clarity through the mires of crisis, she began asking herself, “What do I need to get rid of?”  And that has made all the difference since.

I will tell you, Wise Lady has a serenity about her countenance that I meet only occasionally anymore.  She has racked miles on her soul, yet I sense no cynicism or regret.  I so want to be like her!

From now on I will ask myself more often,

“What can I do?” and

“What do I need to get rid of?”

 

On Setting Intentions

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NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 9

To Patients Seeking Bearing and Beacons

Set your intentions for the day.

In the aftermath of the election…  I feel an intense need to self-soothe and focus.

A wise friend recently introduced me to a morning practice that has impacted my days in wonderfully tangible ways.  He describes a 5×5 grid which he pencils in his journal each morning.  He fills each box with a word that he wants to hold in intention for the day.  For each word, he meditates on its meaning, then what it would feel like.  Then he meditates to feel it and live it already.  Throughout the day he then recalls the words and their sensations.  He started with a 2×2 grid (four words), then gradually increased it to 5×5.

I have had 9 (now 10) presentations to prepare between mid-August and the end of this month.  My practice continues to grow.  The kids’ schedules and activities multiply proportional to their heights.  Learning this anchoring method from him has been a Godsend for focus and grounding, and I am so grateful.

I started with 3 words, and have practiced inconsistently (this appears to be a pattern for me).  But each day that I take time to determine the words and sit with them a while, I notice a remarkable steadiness throughout the day.

Patience.  Compassion.  Focus.  Love.  Empathy.  Ease.  Generosity.  Equanimity.  Joy.  Fun.  Peace.  Forgiveness.  More Love.  Connected.  Center.  Openness.  Curiosity.  Engage.  Movement.  Lightness.  Ground.  Calm.  Acceptance.  Non-judgment.  Happy.

It’s really amazing:  Just a few minutes in the morning are all it takes to frame my mind and resolve my heart.  I feel steadfast as I walk out the door.  I go about my day and forget.  Then, in those unfocused moments, the words rise to conscious awareness and I remember, reset, and re-center.

Maybe you’re feeling a little unsteady now, also?  Give the Word Intention practice a try.  It can’t hurt.  It costs a few minutes of time.  You can start with one word.  You can write it on your hand.  There is no such thing as cheating, only seeking and centering.

Best wishes and peace to you.