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Is parenting really the hardest job in the world?

ct-sc-fam-1224-parenthood-reso-jpg-20131223I’m a parent of a six-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl, and for the most part I love parenting.

Sure, the little brats can be difficult at times, barely letting you get a word in edgewise with your partner, and making a godawful mess that you then have to wrestle with them to clean up.  And that’s just when they’re young.  I have no idea what more difficult challenges await me as they grow up.

But is parenting really the hardest job in the world, as many well-meaning folks (men, mostly) are wont to say?

In this wonderfully spirited debate on parenting, Frank Furedi suggests it most definitely is not.  In fact he argues that it’s only difficult if you a) lose touch with your natural parenting instincts and b) listen to all the endless parenting advice that circulates so freely online and in the mainstream media.

That’s not to say there aren’t real choices to be made as a parent, and some of those choices aren’t easy.  Do you push your child to do what you want them to do, or do you leave them to their own devices and hope they’ll discover their true passion for themselves?  This is obviously a bit of a false dichotomy, but I do think there’s a real choice to be made here.  And I know where I stand on the issue (hint: my 6-year-old son is on a competitive swim team, plays the cello, and is a member of his school’s chess club).

No matter where you stand on the issue, though, you’ll find lots to enjoy in this debate between Tiger mom Amy Chua, parenting blogger Justine Roberts, academic Frank Furedi, and the terrifically amusing, shamelessly old school, stereotypically English writer and psychologist Theodore Dalrymple.

You can watch the full debate here or download the audio podcast here.

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Confronting myself with Metta meditation

metta.001For the past month I’ve been doing a Metta meditation course at the Toronto Zen Centre.

Metta is the Pali word most often translated as Loving-kindness, and the process works like this.

Every day you engage in a meditation that includes four ‘requests.’  They are:

May I be well
May I be safe
May I be happy
May I be at ease

You expand on these as you so choose, including the inverse form of expression for each (i.e. May I be free of sickness, May I be free of danger, May I be free of suffering etc.), spending maybe 10-15 minutes building Metta, which I experience as a kind of warm-burning fire in the belly.

But where this exercise gets really interesting is when, as the course progresses, you start including more – and more challenging – people in the embrace of your Loving-kindness.

So in the first week of the course you wish these qualities for yourself.  In the second week you wish them for yourself and a ‘benefactor’ (someone you feel indebted to – a mentor, teacher, parent or similar).  In week three you wish them for yourself and a ‘loved one’ – a friend, partner, or confidante.  In week four you wish them for yourself and a ‘neutral’ person – someone you don’t really know and don’t have any strong feelings for either way.  And in week five you wish them for yourself and a ‘difficult’ person – an enemy, no less.

This exercise yields more interesting insights than you might think.

Over the past few weeks I’ve come face to face with:

  • My seemingly desperate need to change people – even those I love and feel indebted to
  • How my judgements about people are based on mostly invalid assumptions, skewed towards protecting my own sense of superiority
  • My intolerance for selfishness
  • My insecurities around money

Before doing this course I had strong suspicions about all four of these.  But they didn’t confront me in the way they did when doing Metta meditation.

You can learn more about the science behind Metta in this TED talk and about the Toronto Zen Centre’s Metta course here.

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Is porn good for you?

I have to confess that despite being extremely liberal in my outlook on sex, I remain somewhat ambivalent about pornography – despite (or maybe because of) having consumed quite a bit of it myself.

And I’m not the only one.  Porn-related advice appears frequently in Dan Savage’s Savage Love column, and this TED talk, by the wonderful Cindy Gallup, has received over a million hits on YouTube.

So it was with interest that I listened to the motion ‘Pornography is good for us: without it we would be a far more repressed society’ being debated by a porn producer, a porn researcher, an addictions counselor, and a leading feminist in this podcast.

The live audience was polled before the debate and 45% were for the motion, 22% against and 33% undecided.  At the end of the debate only 6% were undecided.  So you’ll likely get some clarity around how you feel about pornography by listening to this debate.

The big surprise for me was Germaine Greer, whose work I’ve been following, on and off, since I discovered ‘The Female Eunuch’ on my sister’s bookshelf when I was a young lad of thirteen or so. In this debate not only did I learn that she was once a porn star herself (albeit with a political agenda) but also that she’s really quite out of it when it comes to contemporary popular culture (she believes most people get their pornography through the TV – their ‘hotel room’ TV at that – which is so far from the truth it’s not even funny).

Nevertheless, a debate worth having.  And with your partner, too, if this is something you struggle with in your relationship.

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How to be happy in four (unfortunately not-so-easy) steps

3d-stone-test-renderWe all want to be happy.  But instead of directly pursuing happiness, most of us pin the goal of happiness on the attainment of other goals.  A loving wife, a great career, a bigger house etc. etc.

While it’s unrealistic to say there’s no relationship between the attainment of specific life goals and happiness, it is fair to say that the relationship is overstated.  Studies have shown baseline levels of happiness are resistant to changes in external circumstances.  People who win the lottery, while experiencing short-term euphoria, soon return to their previous levels of happiness (or unhappiness).  And people who are left paraplegic after an accident, although experiencing more negative emotions in the short term, soon return to their baseline levels.

If you’ve been around the block you’ll probably have had the experience of pinning your happiness on the attainment of specific life goals, only to then achieve those life goals and discover that they actually didn’t make you happy in the way you expected.  There may be some exceptions – studies suggest that building a healthy, happy marriage does permanently increase happiness levels, but this could be because happiness is part of the explicit goal of a ‘happy marriage.’

One of the reasons people don’t explicitly and directly focus on happiness as a goal is because they don’t know what steps to take to achieve it.  So here is my best effort at articulating, in four (unfortunately not-so-easy) steps, the path to greater happiness.

1. Get rid of distraction

And I don’t mean turning off your cell phone for a couple of hours every day.

I mean ALL distraction.  Even the distraction you’re not currently aware of as distraction.  In fact, particularly distraction you’re not currently aware of as distraction.

For example:

  • Thoughts that distract you from other thoughts (e.g. judgment instead of curiosity)
  • Emotions that distract you from other emotions (e.g. anger instead of sadness)
  • Actions that distract you from experience (e.g. busyness instead of present, moment-to-moment awareness)

To get rid of distraction means to live every moment in its entirety, fully embracing everything there is for you in that moment, good and bad.

It is to burn up every moment so all that’s left is ash.

2. Get rid of delusion

Get rid of distraction and delusion will surely follow.

So long as you’re distracted, you’re not seeing the world as it really is.

I used to think there was no such thing as seeing the world as it really is.  We’re always seeing it from a perspective, and that perspective is usually our own.

But when you avoid distraction, including the distraction of thought, you experience the world as it really is – unmediated by sign systems, including language.

As a result the delusion of ‘I’ and ‘them,’ along with all other binary distinctions, falls away.

You no longer see yourself as a separate entity, set apart from the world.  Nor do you see yourself as the most important person in your world.   You are the world, just as the world is you. (Even this language doesn’t capture the reality, it simply points to it.)

3. Get rid of clinging

Once you no longer see yourself as a discrete entity, set apart from the world, you no longer cling to the idea that your happiness is anything other than the happiness you are capable of experiencing in THIS moment.

Instead of clinging to happiness – past, present, and future – you are happy in THIS moment.

This is not some weird, mystical BS.  This is a proven fact (see this TED talk by Mark Killingsworth).

Clinging to moments takes you out of THIS moment – and out of any potential happiness there is to be had in this moment.

And if there is no happiness in this moment, then there is no happiness for you right now.  And life is a series of THIS moments.  So if you’re not happy in THIS moment, when will you be happy?

So long as you are clinging to prior experiences of happiness and trying to recreate them in this moment, you are distancing yourself from the unique possibilities and opportunities for happiness in this moment.

So long as you are clinging to future experiences of happiness and trying to pre-create them in this moment, you are distancing yourself from the unique possibilities and opportunities for happiness in this moment.

Getting rid of clinging means you can be fully present in this moment, and now this moment, and now this moment … with all that these moments have to offer.

4. Get rid of craving

When you commit to experiencing all there is to experience in each passing moment, you no longer crave anything outside that moment.

You will not say:

“Once I [fill in the blank] I will be happy”

Or

“I was happy when [fill in the blank]”

You will be happy now, and want other people to be happy now too.

Happiness will no longer be something you situate ‘out there,’ but something ‘in here,’ always already available to you.

That’s not to say you can’t achieve extraordinary things.  It’s not to say you can’t have goals, aspirations, or passions.  It simply means you recognize those goals, aspirations and passions as real for you in THIS moment.  And maybe also subsequent moments.  But always in THIS moment.

So there you have it.  How to be happy in 4 (unfortunately not-so-easy) steps.

Why are they not so easy? Because

  1. Almost everything in our culture encourages the distraction-delusion-clinging-craving approach to happiness.
  2. The being-in-the-moment approach to happiness needs to be practised.  It isn’t something that can be rationally understood and then simply implemented based on that rational understanding.  Just as understanding that running 6km a day is likely to lead to greater happiness is not enough to actually achieve greater happiness, so the understanding that being present in the moment is likely to lead to greater happiness is not enough to actually achieve it.  You need to practise being in the moment, over and over again, to realize the benefits.  Just as you need to run, over and over again, day after day, to realize its benefits.
  3. You will remain unconvinced that the distraction-delusion-clinging-craving approach to happiness is not the best approach until you have had enough personal experience to conclude this for yourself. If you have said to yourself, “Once I [fill in the blank] then I will be happy” and you have then achieved your goal, only to discover that it didn’t make you happy in the way that you expected, then you may be willing to try an alternative approach.  Or not.  Some people repeat the cycle over and over and over again, endlessly chasing an illusory happiness.  But the wise person will take a cold hard look at their actions and the results of their actions, and conclude that there may be a better way.  And then take the time to experiment.

There is nothing in this 4-step approach that you need to accept on faith.  You can try it for yourself and see what happens.

If you would like me to support you in that process, it would be my pleasure to do so.

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How much sex are you having?

sexEnough, not enough, or more than enough?

Relationship coach Michele Weiner-Davis argues in this TED talk that in a committed, monogamous relationship the partner with the lower sex drive is in a position of power with respect to the higher sex drive partner, simply by virtue of being in possession of a scarce, in-demand resource.

And the lower sex drive partner can wield that power in different ways.

They can either diminish the importance of the higher sex drive partner’s needs, seeing those needs as a nuisance that their partner is responsible for dealing with in whatever way works (albeit still within the confines of the monogamous relationship).

Or they can dignify the higher sex drive partner’s needs as worthy of respect, and do whatever is within their power to match or even exceed them.  And if that’s not possible, at least go along with things, in the hope that by doing so genuine desire will kick in.

I can see why this perspective is challenging to some people (as evidenced in the comments posted on the YouTube video), with some comparing the idea that a lower sex drive partner should just go along with the higher sex drive partner’s needs as akin to rape.  And men reading this may well wonder how ‘going along with things’ is even possible (this assumption raises questions about what constitutes ‘sex,’ but that’s another question).

But if you can get past the sex negativity that pervades our culture and see sex as just one more legitimate human need, worthy of respect like any other, then attempting to satisfy your partner’s sexual needs is no different than attempting to satisfy their social and emotional needs.

We respect and admire people who do their best to satisfy their partner’s social and emotional needs.  Why should sex be any different?

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Less crazy after all these years

http://i0.wp.com/www.namipasco.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/mental.jpg?resize=301%2C202There’s never been a better time to be mentally ill.

When I flirted with mental illness back in 1991, the whole subject was taboo – if you were depressed, anxious, obsessive, struggling with addiction, sexually confused, or in any other way “abnormal,” you were pretty much not welcome in polite society, and certainly not welcome to talk about it.  As if anyone would care!

Now twenty-five years later you can’t NOT hear people talking about their mental difficulties.  Just this week, in preparing to give a lecture on The New Normal, I’ve heard Lena Dunham talk about her obsessive-compusive disorder, Stephen Fry talk about his cocaine addiction, Andrea Martin talk about her struggle with bulimia, and Cara Anna talk about her attempted suicides.

In every instance their insights into mental illness have not only been fascinating in and of themselves, but also helpful in further destabilizing and reconfiguring what we as a society consider ‘normal.’

The happy result is that we can all be a little more comfortable with all those quirks of character that make us unique and interesting – even if at times they also make us a little weird.

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What’s the point?

http://i2.wp.com/moreintelligentlife.com/sites/default/files/legacy/Baby.jpg?resize=359%2C267This month’s Intelligent Life, the sister publication of The Economist, asks a bunch of different writers ‘What’s the point?’, as in, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’

The range of responses is fascinating, proving beyond a doubt that, despite this being a pretty important question, none of us really know the answer!

I feel pretty aligned with the first answer, given by novelist Philip Pullman, that the point is to bring about more consciousness.  But I’m not convinced that the best path to raising consciousness is “teaching, or doing mathematics or science or philosophy, or writing novels and poems, or making music, or painting pictures, or studying history,” as he suggests.  I spent twenty years of my life doing that, and although I don’t think it harmed me, I don’t think it made me more conscious in the true sense of the word.

Because although it made me more conscious of systems – whether those systems be visual, aural or linguistic – it didn’t make me more conscious of what lies beyond systems, that ephemeral realm that becomes available to us only when we purposefully disengage from all the things Pullman celebrates, and focus our minds inward, on the breath, and then on our non-linguistic, non-rational, non-systems-driven awareness.

Which just goes to show how complex this question ‘What’s the point?’ is.  Because even when you agree with someone on what the point is – bringing about more consciousness – you may disagree with them on how to get there.

You can read the full range of responses here.

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identity

Why I’m resistant to labels (and why you should be too)

labels-vWho are you?

If you make an honest attempt to answer that question, you’ll probably refer to

your gender
your race
your occupation
your sexuality
your marital status
your religion

or you may simply say your name.

Simply saying your name may not say much, but at least it highlights one simple truth – that who you are is necessarily defined by other people, not yourself.

You may think you’re defining yourself, when you say, ‘I’m the kind of person who …’ or ‘At my core I’m …’

But the kind of person you are and who you are at your core are not neutral with respect to your environment.  You became those things by virtue of your family upbringing, your education, your peer group, and the particular time and place you happened to land upon this earth.

Two quotes perfectly capture this reality for me.  They are:

“I seem to be a verb” – Buckminster Fuller

and

“The time to make up your mind about people is never” – The Philadelphia story

The first highlights the extent to which we are constantly in flux, not just from year to year, but from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, second to second, millisecond to millisecond.

And the second highlights the extent to which this is as true for ourselves as it is for others.  Just as we limit ourselves with labels, so we limit others when we label them as mean and difficult, or even kind and generous.

One of the things I like most about being a coach is seeing this complexity of being that each of us holds within us, and allowing that complexity to be experienced in the moment, without judgement.

Great things happen when you are who you are without labels.

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How engaged are you at work?

I’ve been researching Employee Engagement for a workshop I’m doing with executive coach Cheryl Keates and came across this report by Gallup, which includes some pretty interesting, and sometimes surprising, statistics on Employee Engagement (all data US):

  • 70% of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’
  • Employees who are allowed to work remotely are more engaged
  • Women are slightly more engaged than men
  • Employees who are thriving in their lives outside of work are more than twice as likely to be engaged at work
  • More educated employees are on average less engaged than less educated ones

More interesting than the statistics themselves, though, are the means Gallup used to obtain them.

Here are some of the questions they asked to measure employee engagement:

  • I know what is expected of me at work
  • At work, my opinions seem to count
  • I have a best friend at work
  • In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work
  • This last year, I have had opportunities to learn and grow

Not only are these great questions to ask of your team if you’re a manager, but they’re also great questions to ask of yourself if you’re feeling disengaged at work.

boredladyAre you clear on what your role is all about?  If the answer is less than a resounding ‘yes’ then maybe it’s time to get some clarity around that.

Do you feel you’re learning and growing in your role?  If the answer is no, maybe it’s time to have a chat with your manager about training and development opportunities.

Are you feeling lonely and isolated?  Maybe it’s time to attend some company social events and make a new friend.

Through a process of elimination you’ll be able to figure out exactly what’s causing you to disengage – and it is a choice – so you can remedy the situation … before it remedies you!

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