Friday, February 6, 2015

Congressional Gridlock: Is there no solution?

Imagine a group of people gathered together to deal with an important task but who could not decisively agree on any action. What would they do? Assuming going home is not an option, you might say, "Intelligent people compromise." And you would be right, BUT........that's not the reality in the U.S. Congress (or, for that matter, around the world in numerous conflicts).

In the west when faced with decisions we think: "Either-or." In the east, where ratiocination is more intuitive, they are more likely to think: "Both-AND."

On a political decision, one might say, "We must live within our budget and we must leave people to be free to help themselves." Another might counter, "But we must share what we have and help those in need."

Either-or thinking makes no solution possible. Both-and thinking admits that each has a valid point of view and therefore, how can we find a middle path?

If the middle is compromise, well, never mind because it's obvious our Congress isn't inclined to be either rational or open to different points of view.

Is there an ALTERNATIVE? I think so.

What if the both-and (right brain) members of Congress proposed something like: "Let's each try our approach and see how they actually work." "Huh? How?" you ask.

We have what we call "red" and "blue" states, don't we? We also have a long-held premise that grants to the individual states a degree of autonomy and independence. We see that the federal government administers certain laws or policies such as in areas of health and education by parsing out to the states a degree of latitude of implementation, often on a sharing or matching basis (for funds). Well, let's take that a few steps further and have a win-win!

Let's take one extremely controversial and important issue in our country: health care. It's a complicated issue, too, isn't it? What if Congress passed only broad-reaching goals and policies, leaving the red and blue states to experiment with different forms of health care for an experimental window of time (5 to 10 years?). Wouldn't the results of each's approach(es) speak for themselves? It could even just stay that way, assuming it works to the satisfaction of both sides. Simple, well, no, but what is there about health care in this country, including Obamacare, that is simple?

We need creative solutions to major problems. By breaking it down and giving latitude to simultaneously work out independent and locally sensitive solutions, we could all gain by one another's experience.

Our pluralistic society seems to guarantee there's little meaning to the term "majority." Sure, right now the Republicans "control" Congress. But by how much of a margin of percent? A president can, I believe, even win the election with less than the popular majority vote. In any case the margin of winning is almost numerically insignificant in major races and votes. It is most certainly an insignificant reflection of the "will of the people," for the people are clearly divided on most every important matter! Worse still, this is not likely to change in hundred years. Only in the unfortunate event of a major war or other disaster are we likely to have a sufficiently united sentiment on anything nationally.

We must therefore find new ways to accommodate our plurality. We already have long established, at least in principle, and largely in practice, the ability for people and groups of a wide variety of lifestyles and beliefs to accept one another and leave one another in peace. Let's, therefore, extend our cultural gains further. It requires no changes in law; just a change in attitude as to what's possible and good!

Though with less confidence (and less knowledge of the facts), I can at least imagine that even immigration policies could reflect the legitimate needs of individual states. I know that sounds outrageous, but think it through. Why couldn't INS work cooperatively with various states to implement certain policies in a way that takes into account the needs and attitude of a given state and its residents? I think this could be implemented, even if to a limited degree, for the benefit and harmony of all.

At the risk of digressing, consider this: the giant Soviet empire broke apart into smaller units. This trend of fragmentation of the bigger into the smaller is happening all over the world. People want; nay, demand freedom. And this trend is only just beginning. And we started it all!

We certainly don't want another civil war or to divide our nation but we are the world's authority (imperfect as we are) on co-existence, tolerance, respect and compromise. (Sure we have a long way to go, but, heavens, look around at other nations.)

Our strength has been, in part, the recognition by the Founding Fathers of the need for check and balance, and specifically, for the federal government to be held in check by the states. The states have certainly taken a back seat during the 20th century and that was fine, then. But now, the pendulum is swinging back the other way. With the internet, travel, and general other freedoms, we want to do it "our way." We want to "occupy" our space. Yet, our problems are so large, we can't do it only alone. No one state or nation, e.g., can mitigate globe warming, what to mention national issues such as health care, immigration, infrastructure or education.

But if we cooperate, we can do anything! And by cooperation I don't mean "one size fits all." Rather, we need "co-processing power": working together yet also independently. Both-And is NOT the same as compromise. Compromise leaves no one satisfied, often offering pale, limpid solutions instead of bold and creative ones. Rather, both-and says "Let's each be given some latitude to try out our ideas."

In fact, what's staring us in the face, causing some to drool, is the ability of an authoritarian state (yes, China) to get things done! Is THAT what we want? I don't think so.

To preserve our freedom, I would say we have no real choice. Everyone could be a winner and a player with a vested interest in positive outcomes. Most leaders, yes, even in Congress, are sincere but they are deeply divided and benefit from do-nothingness. Pluralism must therefore extend to governance. It's really that simple.

A tall order? No, not really. I think Americans might even be ready for a shift in consciousness in this direction.

Well, a bit far from the subject of meditation and "living yoga," but there you have it. A soap box.

Nayaswami Hriman

Friday, January 16, 2015

Hear ye, hear ye: what does it take to hear ye?

I wear hearing aids and in the long process of getting to this point I’ve learned a lot about communication, about listening, hearing, and understanding. Each of these is a different aspect of the human interactions!

It’s axiomatic, or, well, at least a commonly heard joke, that women’s voices are more difficult (for men?) to hear! One could say more, but, what’s the point, I’d just lose most of my readers! I concur, however, with this time-honored adage in that at least some women’s voices are more difficult to hear. Most audiologists will mumble that it’s due to their higher pitch, but there’s more to it than that, at least sometimes. But truly, hearing loss is not merely about gender differences! So, don’t write me off too soon, ok?

Hearing differs from listening in that it takes the intention of listening to hear with understanding. In some cases, “not hearing” can mean either no sound was heard, or, more likely, I heard but I didn’t understand the words or the meaning of the words (again, these are two different things.) It may mean that “I don’t like you, or what you are saying, so I choose to ignore what you said!”
I sometimes hear the words perfectly well enough, but have no idea what they mean. Apart from brain dysfunction (always a possibility), I am referring to the fact (at first, it was shocking to me to come to grips with this) that without some context, or more complete explanation, or at least a preamble, it is sometimes impossible to know what a person is talking about even when the words are perfectly clear and understandable.

A common issue I’ve noticed is the use of too many pronouns: “Did you hear what she said?” “Who?” “No, what did she say?” Or, changing the subject without warning or introduction.
An even more common issue, and this relates in part to hearing loss, is to have another person begin a sentence with the key word or a person’s name. “Alice is decided to withdraw her name.” “Who?” “What did you say?” When this happens to me, I’m stuck back at the first word trying to figure out the “who” and entirely miss the rest of the sentence. A simple solution, for a conscious speaker in the presence of a person with hearing loss, is to always begin a sentence with some throwaway introductory words. “You know what I just heard? Alice…(pause)….has decided to withdraw her name from the auction drawing.”

I want to emphasize the importance of key words such as names, proper nouns, decisive adjectives and so on. Pronouncing key words consciously is critical to effective communication, both intimate and public.

Not enough can be said about the value of a preamble: “Do you have a minute? I wanted to mention to you something about Alice.” Speaking of preambles: “What’s my name?” Repeat: “What my name?” If you want to talk to me, use my name before launching into your dialogue. Of course, if I’m already nose to nose with you, that’s not necessary, but, otherwise, how about a simple, “Hriman, oh hi! You gotta minute?”

It may be hearing loss, age, or simply staying focused in my own boundaries, but I purposely DO NOT listen to conversations of other people. If you suddenly begin talking to me, even as I pass you, I may just keep walking. Not because I’m a jerk (which I suppose I can be, sometimes, too), but because I don’t wish to get caught up in idle conversations. So, if someone like me is not facing you, eye to eye, toe to toe, please start your sentence with my name, pause, and then say something “throw away” like “Oh, Hriman,……, there’s something I wanted to mention to you.” Then, as my ship comes about face, we can talk of more important matters!

Then there are the miscreants who deign to talk to me from another room. When I can, I simply ignore such people. Or, how about the ones who turn their back on you as they talk and even walk away in the opposite direction as they are speaking to you! Egads!!!! For some, it’s simply an impolite habit, but I suspect it might also represent a lack of commitment to the conversation; or, a lack of clarity or confidence in what he or she has to say. Or, and we all probably do this: not caring whether we are heard and liking the idea that we’ve said our piece aloud!

Sometimes there can be a good reason for getting it off our chest, regardless of whether the other person hears us fully! In any case, these half-way speakers are frustrating to be around and they can come across as rude, arrogant or at best thoughtless. I cannot help but feel that if you have self-respect for what you have to say and you wish to communicate it, and respect for your listener, it would do well to take the time to do so as to be heard.  

I’ve met quite a few ventriloquists in my day. It’s really quite amazing to hear (or not) how many can speak without moving their lips; or, without any air passing through them! Why do some do this? Shyness, habit, lack of confidence or sometimes simply a soft-spoken, internalized voice?

I’ve always admired my friend and teacher, Swami Kriyananda, for, inter alia, his skill at projecting his voice. Those of us with hearing loss should, in early stages, as yet not acknowledged, pay attention to how often we say “What?” But those with too soft of voices should also pay attention to how often they are asked to repeat themselves. If the latter, learn to open your mouth, move your lips, and use your lungs and chest to project your voice into the face or into the space occupied by your listener(s)!

I look back over many years of being with Swami Kriyananda. His hearing loss grew steadily worse until it became acute by the end of his life. I look back and wonder how much of his tendency to avoid conversation at meals was due to the difficulty of hearing while eating and in the challenge presented by surround-sound conversations, oft interrupted by others, confounded by the ambient noise of dishes, music, etc.

Indeed, I, too find, unfortunately, that I can’t chew food and listen at the same time. As I share many meals with friends and in public, it becomes a choice of eating or listening, but not at the same time. 

Standing in a crowded room holding a small plate of snacks with conversations around me 360makes it impossible to have an understandable conversation.

Ever see those big trucks that have a sign on them that says “If you can’t see my mirror(s), I can’t see you?” Ditto for my eyes! If I can’t see your eyes and vice versa in a conversation, the odds are very good I’m not going to “hear” you (meaning, either the words or the meaning or both).

I couldn’t possibly count the number of times someone spoke to me and I didn’t understand a word. It happens too frequently. Sometimes I even get slightly nauseous, like I’m drowning, when I can’t hear or understand the words.

Another shocking revelation (for me, at least) has been the degree to which my expectation of what a person is saying determines what I think I just heard! You’ve read, often perhaps, about the illusion of seeing a snake on the path ahead of you (perhaps in dim light, like dusk), reacting with fear, and then discovering that the snake is only a rope left on the ground? Yup, that’s what I am talking about!

I have learned that the same happens with sight, as well: especially under stress, as in when I am frantically looking for something, say, in various drawers. Many a time I discovered that based on the intensity of my focus and expectation I would momentarily think I saw what I was looking for only to discover (usually in a flash) that the object is something else.

This is what happens, I believe, to all of us when we are listening to others. I’ve seen or heard of some movie or maybe a quote from Churchhill (no, it was FDR, I think), who went around a room of partygoers saying something like, “I killed my mother.” He discovered that no one reacted because no one “heard” what he said because the words did not fit what his hearer expected to hear nor the context (of the party)!

Many a time I have been embarrassed for the fact that what I thought I heard was the opposite of what was said: like FDR’s experiment, I would end up smiling my congratulations when instead I should have been expressing sympathy! Sigh!

Now, let’s move up to left vs right brain conversation. When I was younger I could engage in that “witty repartee” that is characteristic of young, high metabolizing brains. I can still do this, but my métier as a man of wisdom and considerable life experience (I’m partly joking, here) leaves me somewhat uninterested in “witty repartee!”

My wife likes to tell friends how at a complete loss I am during our weekly staff meetings, when, surrounded only by women, I don’t have clue what they are talking about. An abundant use of pronouns, incomplete sentences, and rapid-fire changes in subject matter, can leave my head spinning: “clueless,” as it were, “in Seattle.”

The issue is, sometimes, a gender difference, but by NO means always. It’s really, or so I believe, a question of patterns of thought and speech: in short, left vs right brain. Men have right brains too, just as women have considerable prowess with their left brains! Still, brains do rule the day and no one in our society seems to have thrown out the “women are more intuitive” cliché quite yet. My own experience does confirm this, at least some of the time.

So, we are past the gender thing and have emerged into the human brain.  I’m not authority on brains but I think it’s not as simple as left vs right. There are some people whose speech patterns are discombobulated: they don’t adhere to the time honored concept that a sentence begins with a subject that gets some traction by using a verb that takes aims in the direction of an object. This idea just isn’t there for some brains. I don’t know much about “Attention-deficit disorder” or Obsessive-compulsive disorder” and to make reference to it here may be hugely inaccurate, but I throw it into the brain soup, just in case it might complete someone’s alphabet.  In any case and in a simple way, some people’s minds work at a different pace then their mouth.

Blurt-ers simply speak whatever channels through their mind. The result is disconcerting, often dismaying, and sometimes poorly said and all too often negative. Many, however, simply skip saying what they started in favor of the latest thought that brightens their bulb. This leaves the rest of us hanging on the edge of a steep cliff of cognition.

Then there are the infamous Mumblers. Some haven’t moved their lips since birth. Others are perhaps too are shy or hesitant to put their speech out into clear view. Perhaps they fear being wrong or being critiqued. Fear of critique, I have found, is balanced by a critical mind that expects from others what they, themselves, are inclined to do.

Suffice to say, I have to walk a line between saying “What” so frequently that I might be mistaken for a parrot; or, simply staying out of many conversations and miss a valuable sharing. There are numerous conversations I refrain from entering or I just simply smile and nod or offer some offhand monosyllabic utterance to indicate that I haven’t had a stroke.

If I judge that I need to pay attention and say “What?” I will but I am cautious. People frown upon those whose conversation is limited to repeating “What.” No doubt there are times when I misjudge and lose important information. After all, my work is very with and for people, so missteps do happen.

By the end, which is coming hopefully soon, it gets down to the fact that it is simply amazing that humans understand each other. It seems that communication is like a game of chance, or to quote Forest, Forest Gump: a box of chocolates (“You never know what you’re gonna’ get.”).

Ultimately, truth is, I’m just letting off steam: can you hear it hiss? Nothing I write here will actually change the conditions one faces due to hearing loss! Hearing aids are no substitute for good hearing. 

And I suppose you should remind me to “Be the change I seek.” Eh?

My favorite chant these days is “Listen, listen, listen” by Paramhansa Yogananda.

Thanks for hearing me out.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Is Negativity a Habit?

In my many years living in intentional community I have seen that people who are otherwise idealistic can yet be negative owing, largely, to habit. I have noticed, for example, that one customary way to express friendship, intimacy, trust, and bonding is to "let your hair down" and "tell all."

In spiritual groups, nonprofit organizations, and other idealistic settings, it is the norm to affirm an upbeat, positive, and cheerful attitude. But this is simply not always possible because each of us has our ups and downs. But here I am not talking about mere ups and down. Here I am talking about what can become an entrenched habit.

What I have observed is that confiding in another person too often goes in the downward direction of digging in the dirt of one's fears, anxieties, regrets, and resentments -- things that you don't normally admit you are holding onto. Worse than that is that this digging can develop into a habit: merely something to talk about (again and again and again).

Thus, when good people get together one-on-one or in smaller, bonded groups, the whispered confidences become less than upbeat. It is too bad that sharing negativity (including fear) signals that "you are my friend and I trust you." Sometimes we all have to "let off some steam."

But it can become a habit. I've come to see that the negativity some people express is in no small way because they don't know what else to talk about! I have several friends -- good people and otherwise intelligent -- who repeat the same old junk every time he or she has a one-on-one conversation. In part their social skills may be inadequate; in part, in fact, they aren't that "bright" or at least mindful (even if in areas of skill and expertise they are rather accomplished).

A case in point surrounding a useful habit for the ego is a friend who frequently expressed her "exhaustion" in spite of being consistently day-in and day-out the most energetic person around! This habit was useful because she could use it as a tool to keep a person at bay whom she didn't like; or on the basis of a subject she didn't wish to discuss; or an attitude she thought inappropriate. Over time her co-workers and friends felt her cold and inaccessible and often turned that towards themselves assuming they must have done something wrong or were not liked.

Certainly we all have such moments when fatigue renders us brain-dead. So it is understandable to a point, but not past the point of an ingrained habit that snubs others and their sincere needs. A counselor once told her, with some intensity, that for one year she should not say to anyone how tired she was. (Maybe it helped. I don't know.)

A habit like that is, further, is a tool for the ego to extract sympathy from others. Sympathy is a very deep and usually true form of sharing, friendship and intimacy. Too much, however, of the wrong kind simply pulls the sympathizer into the swamp of the other's self pity. Couples have to watch this tendency. My motive for supporting my spouse's frustration at a co-worker might be more for the reason I get "points" in the sympathy and negativity bank for when I need them. It would be better to be silent or to say something positive or helpful (maybe later, though). Paramhansa Yogananda warned couples (as did Swami Kriyananda) not to reinforce each other's negativity.

But others I see, and very commonly, simply don't know what else to talk about and feel that in order to have a conversation and express their genuineness and friendship necessitates revealing some negative attitude or opinion, as if in a whispered hush. And that's where the habit can start to form.

I've come to understand why, in part, my spiritual teacher (Swami Kriyananda) and his guru (Paramhansa Yogananda) did not engage in small talk with those close to them. There is such a tendency to "confess," to "reveal," and to say things like, "Frankly....."

I said "Frankly" once when I was in the car, alone, with Swami Kriyananda. He had invited me to drive with him to the nearby town (Grass Valley, CA) and I knew he had some things to say to me. At one point, I began a sentence with "Frankly....." and he cut me short. He knew that I was about to dump some negative opinion on him. Though he never "always" did one thing or another, nor ever "never," I witnessed occasions where once he got the gist of what someone was expressing, he'd cut them off so that they wouldn't augur further down the rabbit hole of negativity.

In counseling, too, and based on his example, I will do something similar, especially if it's about someone who isn't present in the room!

Some of the techniques that Swami Kriyananda taught us (and received from Yogananda) included responding to another's person's negativity with positive, counter-comments or illustrations. He said be on your guard because even in spiritual settings, negativity (which is in each of us) rears its cobra-head, ready to strike. Newer people to a group are often sought out by the negative and merely talkative, self-important types, eager for an audience and new victims. Such people, having been unmasked, are more or less ignored by the more positive and creatively engaged doers.

Such people begin with positive praise of the goings-on, and then, conspiratorially lowering their voices, thrust the dagger of negativity by telling the real story of so-and-so or such-and-such. Avoid such human cobras, Yogananda counseled, like the plague. Stay positive. In this world which is a mixture of good and bad, anyone can find fault with anything or anybody. What's the point, unless some grave injustice or personal duty is at stake and some positive action can be taken to make amends.

Another is: if you have a concern or even a complaint, talk to those responsible, at least potentially, for correcting the situation. Don't talk idly to anyone who will listen to you but will be powerless to make the situation better. (That reminds me of people who argue or shout about all the bad things going on in the world about which they themselves have no intention of lifting a finger to change. I sometimes joke, "Why don't they call me? I have the solution to ALL the world's problems!)

I find that, over the years, I prefer to be friendly but to avoid rambling small talk if I can and still be polite. I don't impose spiritual conversations on others if I either have nothing to offer in that direction or sense a lack of interest.

Lastly, learn how to NOT respond to a person. Just listen and look at them. When you don't react, they will, at first not know what to do or say. In the end, they'll "shut up" or likely change the subject or simply walk away. You should also learn how to have the courage to do that, too: "Ah, excuse me, I've got to go....I've forgotten something".....or just plain, "Excuse me" and walk away.

Aging can produce negativity, too. I don't know what the brain chemistry is on this. Some get sweeter and others get irritable or worse. Patience and silence and short visits, where possible. Outside and third party help might be a good idea.

BTW: Logic is not a solution to negativity: of any kind. Positive feeling, sympathy short of supporting negativity, and a smile ready to act or suggest solutions is usually better.

When a friend gets into a slump but you know he or she is not normally negative, then you can jolly 'em along with a poke in the ribs, a smile of understanding and then positive words of encouragement and so on. A person steeped in negativity will soon tire of your positive responses and will eventually leave you alone.

The essence of what I want to share in these words is the observation I have made that humans sometimes use negativity as a form of bonding. Watch for this in yourself and your friends. Work with yourself patiently to transcend this all-too-normal tendency. Teach yourself when you are with a close friend or loved one, to express admiration, respect, devotion and inspiration for things or people in your life; for the beauty of nature; and gratitude for each and every thing, big or small. Keep your conversation positive and you will be a true friend. In time your friendship will be sweeter, more comfortable, and deeper!

May we always be a Friend in God,

Nayaswami Hriman