Questions are Never Stupid. Answers are Stupid.

As we head into the final series on managing holiday stress, I have two things to offer you: 

1.     The importance of questions
2.     The importance of self-love

There is a scene in the yoga docudrama, “Enlighten Up!” between Guru Sharan Ananda and Nick, the film’s protagonist. Guru Sharan Ananda sits on an elevated seat. Nick sits at Sharan Ananda’s feet, looking up. Nick’s guide lists all of the Guru Sharan Ananda’s qualifications which intimidates Nick. When prompted to speak, Nick apologizes and says, “If I ask you any stupid question or am in any way offensive -” Guru Sharan Ananda interrupts him and says, “Questions are never stupid. Answers are stupid.”

Questions are never stupid. Answers are stupid. 

As a teacher, Guru Sharan Ananda immediately recognizes Nick as the most important person in the room. His questions, whatever they are, are the spark for understanding. And that spark, is the most important ingredient in the knowledge soup. 

Questions are the pivot point for all learning. In a Socratic dialogue, the discussion happens not from Socrates just pontificating on something, but because a student asks a question. In the Bhaghavad Gita, Krishna teaches Arjuna the Dharma because Arjuna asks him questions. In our quest for understanding, the need to know is primary. I mean, without curiosity, what use is knowledge? 

This is an important distinction between what makes us learners and what makes us teachers. A teacher is not just someone who knows. A teacher is someone who can answer a question well. Each time we teach we are being tested. The student is always pushing us to see not only what we know, but how well we can convey it.

Knowing stuff is great. It is empowering. But knowing is not teaching. Being an expert is not teaching. Experts pontificate. Teachers illuminate. 

After this week, the earth will start to shift towards warmth and light. It is a predictable, arduous process towards illumination. Like learning, this happens, not just by brute force of the sun, but by the effort of the earth yearning towards the sun.

The art of teaching extends well beyond the classroom. It is a daily practice of awareness. This week think of what it means to be a teacher in all aspect of your life. Are you listening well? How do you illuminate? Are you appropriate? Are your answers relevant? Is it kind? 

Which leads me to my next point; when you are not, forgive and love yourself regardless. 

This past couple of weeks I have made many mistakes. I have not been my best self. 

And that is OK too. 

The other side of the teaching coin is that you must always, always be a student. A teacher that gives up their desire to learn, is not a teacher. Therefore, treat yourself the way you would the student who is struggling most in your class. Be gentle, be loving, be encouraging, be kind to you.

This time of year is wonderful and hard. It is fun and stressful. And we are humans being, not humans done. So, forgive yourself. Trust that you are enough, that you matter and know that there is a place at the table for you. I know there is a place for me. 

And, if there is a place for me, there is most certainly a place for you. ;)

Wishing you much love warmth and joy.

The Power of Three

We are heading into deep winter folks! Deep winter means the holiday season is upon us. And with the holidays we can look forward to fun, merriment and stress!  

I have always found this time of year a bit of a struggle. The natural inclination is to turn inward. It is a time to slow down and be cozy. It makes sense that we would seek the comfort and companionship of friends and family. But sometimes that drive feels antithetical. There are days where I would prefer to be left alone with my dreary, winter self rather than make merry. Plus, for me, living with four different people with four different thoughts, wants and needs means there are going to be clashes. And being cooped up indoors for days on end is going to throw wood on that fire no matter how much yoga I do!  

Chances are, like me, you are going to find yourself in closer than normal quarters. This intimacy may come with challenging personalities. That is why, over the next few weeks I am dedicating my emails to sharing tools I have found for managing the “season of togetherness.” My hope is that it will help you manage your togetherness, help you feel more in control of your experience, and find genuine joy. 

A couple of weeks ago I talked about listening (click here if you want to read that one). This week I am focusing on triangulation. 

Three is a magic number. Religions, philosophers and marketers all understand that three is where it’s at because one is an anomaly, two is a mistake, but three is a pattern. And we love patterns. We count on them to give us boundaries and perimeters. They help our “brain hole” function better. When we learn a new skill or start a new routine, it is as if we are trying to sprint through a dense forest. We have to use more brain energy to forcefully navigate the terrain and stay upright. Like a sprint, that brain stuff burns out quickly. Routines, however, create a trail in our brain forests. When we step on the trail the pitfalls are minimal, the mental fatigue lower. 

Routines are coping mechanisms as well. They help us feel secure and help us relate to one another. This is one of the reasons why triangulation is so seductive; like the number three, triangles, with their three points, three angles and three lines, tend to be satisfying. Triangulation taps into our love of threes, it creates dramatic swings in emotions and it relies upon familiarity and pattern to yield results. 

So, what is triangulation? Triangulation is a form of manipulation where a person uses at least two other people to control the narrative of a situation with the “triangulator” at the center. It is a means of maintaining power and control by creating divisiveness. Although it is largely viewed as a tool of narcissist, it is not exclusive to narcissists. 

Gossip is the most common form of triangulation. For example; someone in your job gets a promotion that someone else wanted. Rather than go to the hiring manager and ask, “why didn’t I get the job?” The triangulator will go to a colleague and say, “Sally only got the job because she is a suck up! I can’t believe they fell for it, I thought they were smarter than that!” As long as the other person continues to talk to the triangulator, the triangulator retains power and control. The triangulator is both the messenger and the creator of the message. 

Most likely we have all found ourselves in, or been the perpetrator of, this dynamic. And while this behavior is absolutely toxic, it is important to note that this behavior has created a connection for the triangulator. This choice, feeble and toxic though it may be, allowed the triangulator to feel connected to another person. And that feeling, the feeling of being seen and heard, is satisfying. 

So, what should we do with triangulators? First of all, it is impossible to change anyone. The only control we have is over our own reactions. Therefore, we must change the message. 

For me, yoga has been very helpful with triangulation because yoga teaches us compassion, patience and possibility. Triangulation is generally caused by trauma. It is born from pain and suffering. I try and remember that when I am confronted with a gossip. This is not the same thing as excusing a person’s behavior. Pitting people against each other is never OK. But it does help me remember that everyone is doing the best they can. 

And I have compassion for that. 

With these three (there's that number again) tools, compassion, patience, possibility, I use this formula (note the 3’s!):

1.     compassion, 
2.     sympathy and/or option, 
3.     leave

Let’s Role Play!

Triangulator: “I can’t believe they gave the job to Sally! She is the worst suck up I have ever seen! How can they not see that?!”

Target: “You are upset that Sally got the job.” 
TRI: “Yes! I feel completely betrayed.”
Target: “I am sorry you are so hurt.”
TRI: “Yes, she is the worst! She – “
Target: “I’m so sorry you are so hurt. That is hard. I hope you are able to speak with the hiring manager about this. It sounds like you need closure. Excuse me.”

Then LEAVE. 

It is important at this point to extract yourself. By not allowing the triangulator to continue, you are changing the message. You are telling this person that you are interested in them, sympathetic to their pain, but not interested in this conversation. 

Of course, this is harder when dealing with family members or friends, because triangulating family/friends is intimate. We have been participating in that triangle for a long time. When dealing with triangulation with a loved one, it is important to discover for ourselves what we get out of the triangulation. What need is being “satisfied” by both the triangulator and by me? Often it is a fear of abandonment or shame. Once we understand our triggers, we can address them, i.e. “Mom, it sounds like you are upset. I love you. I am not going anywhere, but you need to talk to them about this, not me.” Compassion, sympathy and/or options, leave.

The key to this technique’s success - you need to actually feel compassion. When I say “I am sorry you are hurt” I mean it. I do not wish anyone to suffer. Likewise, I sincerely do not wish to participate in this destructive behavior. That is why I am comfortable with leaving. It is not working for me. And a conversation, if it is successful, needs to work for both people. 

Yoga is practical and applicable. As you head onto your mat in the coming weeks, I encourage you to practice these steps on your mat. When you find yourself saying “why can’t I balance today!” offer yourself compassion, give yourself sympathy and/or options and, if necessary, give yourself the room to take a break. Sometimes loving is hard work, so start with you. 

Good luck out there yogis! I believe in you!

Listening Well

I recently attended a 3-day immersion program studying attachment theory. At one point we were asked to draw a circle and plot how we were raised to deal with nine “core” emotions. If we were allowed to have/express that emotion in our family, it went in the circle. If not, it went outside the circle.

Without thinking about it, I plotted the emotional map of my childhood as “before” and “after.” “Before” was life with a bi-polar father before he accepted care. “After” was life after he accepted care. This was not a dramatic choice. It was a very banal choice; almost clinical. I had grown up with two distinctly different experiences, both were valuable insights for me. As such, they both had a place in the circle.

We were then asked to break into small groups and share our circles. After sharing mine, the conversation immediately shifted from “oh that is interesting” to curiosity about the mentally ill. I was peppered with questions like, “What was that like?” and “What did that do to you?”

I felt very exposed, vulnerable. I backpedaled. “Oh, no it’s fine. I’m totally fine! I am fine now. It’s totally fine!” 

When I was finally able to break away, I had a good run, then a good think. Why was I so disturbed by their reaction? I am familiar with people’s curiosity. I usually anticipate it. Why was this so upsetting? 

Because, to me, mental illness wasn’t a focal point of this exercise. I was on a different trajectory. And for them, the only thing they heard was “bi-polar.” They just heard the “before.” They completely ignored the “after.” They were so interested in the juicy tabloid bits of bi-polar that they ignored the fact that I also talked about an after - a point at which many of those core emotions were sitting comfortably inside that circle with a bi-polar father.

They missed my point. They didn’t hear me.

There are a lot of reasons why we misunderstand each other. Maybe it is because the other seems foreign and that makes us scared. Maybe because it peaks our curiosity. Maybe it is because we are distracted. Maybe we are clinging to preconceived notions and stereo-types.

Maybe it is because we are not listening well.

Listening well requires that we turn down the volume on our own internal conversation. We have to focus on the “hear” (see what I did there?) and now.

This week, if we are lucky and blessed, we will be sharing a meal with people we love and who love us. That often means we will be breaking bread with people we don’t ideologically agree with. This can cause a contraction. It can make us mad. How do we share space with people we don’t agree with?

There are no easy answers. Your best option may be to walk away. It may be to avoid the conversation entirely. If, however, you are endeavoring to turn down your own noise and be a better listener, I recommend trying the “2 second pause then reflect” approach.

When someone says something to you, wait 2 seconds and then tell them what you heard. For example:

Kiddo:  Mom, I do not want to do Math is Cool!

Me: (RAPID THINKING “Yes you do! You love math! You will have so much fun! All your friends are doing it! Just give it a try!!”Wait 2 seconds. Reflect… You don’t want to do Math is cool.

I know, this sounds phony, and it actually is when you first do it. But it works. It forces you to pay attention.

The two second pause forces us to process what we heard rather than jumping right into what we are thinking (which, let’s be honest here, is usually something about ourselves). Reflecting back makes us codify what we heard. And, since we most likely don’t want to get caught looking silly, we will pay closer attention so that when we reflect back, we get it right. 

Give it a shot. You may be surprised how often you hear yourself saying “oh I know exactly what you mean! I blah blah blah…” Notice how often you start forming your next question, counter point, or thought without even processing what the person said. 

When you find yourself saying bum-rushing the conversation, stop. Take a moment and reflect back what you heard: 

Kiddo: No! Math is Cool is going to be a lot of work. 

Me: (RAPID THINKING: Wellyeahitisgoingtobealotofwork,butthat’sOK!) Wait 2 seconds, Reflects… You don’t want a lot of extra work. 

Kiddo: No! I can barely keep up with what I have now. 

Me: (RAPID THINKING. Yes, this is true you are struggling with your work loadWait 2 sec. Reflect… It sounds like you are afraid you will be overwhelmed. Am I hearing you correctly? 

Kiddo: Yes! 

I’m not going to lie, it’s a ton of work. It also feels very hokey and awkward at first. However, the whole point of conversation is to hear each other and be heard. Anything less is just us making noises at each other. Anything less and we’ve missed the point entirely. 

I wish you all the love and bounty of the season friends. May your table be full and your heart fuller.