"Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you."

In the last 24 hours I've seen three excellent movies (after all, I am in L.A.): The Last Station, An Education, and A Single Man.  Each is a sharply visioned depiction of the ecstasy and pain of love.  In "A Single Man" the main character recites the Aldous Huxley quote cited above.  "A Single Man" is very much about that quote, but the words also beautifully summarize my take on the way to lead a happier life.  Namely, that we divorce our experiences from "objective reality" and instead focus on the subjective nature of experience.  The meaning we make of our experiences, and thus what we do with them, is entirely within our control, at least theoretically.  Through consistent practice, we can exercise & strengthen that subjective lens.

By the way, for those of you who have difficulty accepting the notion that there are limits to the accuracy of "objective reality", I recommend that you read a bit about quantum physics.  "The Quantum World: quantum physics for everyone" by Kenneth W. Ford and Diane Goldstein.  It's quantum theory made very accessible.  An important conclusion of quantum physics is that the observer has a measurable impact on what is being observed.  Said another way, one often sees what one expects to see, as opposed to simply "what is there", as there are many possible "theres" there.  But, if you don't want to go to the trouble of reading about quantum physics, notice how your perception changes when someone says to you "Look how run-down this neighborhood is" as opposed to another person who might point out all of the recent visible improvements in the area.  The prescriptions each of these people will have for addressing neighborhood planning will most likely diverge pretty widely. Or watch what happens when you decide to pay attention to the number of, say, red cars on the road.  They assume much greater visibility than they would ordinarily. In the world of politics, just think about the many differences between how Conservatives and Progressives view the world.  Each group takes a certain set of objective facts and projects from them a reality.  The issue with doing this is twofold: 1) Are the facts used all-encompassing, or do they tell only part of the story; 2) Is the projection made from the facts indeed the only one possible?

To take this into the realm of personal experience, imagine yourself walking into a cocktail party of 50 people where you know virtually all the guests, and only two acknowledge you (a fact).  You might then conclude that you are unlikable (a projection).  However, you didn't notice the 3 people who tried to get your attention (perhaps they were blocked by other guests, or your anxiety about fitting into the group caused you to focus more on the guests who didn't look at you than on those who did), nor did you notice the four who intended to go up to you as soon as they finished the conversations they were engaged in.  Turns out your facts were incomplete, and from those incomplete facts you drew an erroneous conclusion.

Victor Frankl, a prisoner of Auschwitz, summed up the lesson he learned about the power of the meaning we make of objective facts with the words: "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing - the freedom to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances".  Practice choosing yours!  Please see my blog of January 21, 2010, for more on this very important issue.


Choosing Your Thoughts

Arrived at Baltimore airport for my flight to L.A. this morning, only to discover that it wasn’t a nonstop.  I was briefly annoyed and then, realizing there was nothing I could do about it, dropped the annoyance and started writing this entry.  As it turns out, the stop was in Nashville, and I was reminded that my old college fraternity brother & his girlfriend (now wife) live there.  During the one hour layover I called them and we reconnected after not having spoken for 5 years.  I hung up feeling wonderful.

I could have made other choices upon learning of the unplanned stop: I could have beaten myself up for not being more careful when I booked,  or I could have lamented that I would now be stuck on the plane for 2 hours longer than I’d planned.

I encountered a more challenging situation a few years ago when one evening, during the time my house was being remodeled. I inadvertently locked myself - naked - in the small guest bathroom.  After 15 minutes of trying everything I could think of to escape I resigned myself to spending the night there.  Although it was fereezing cold (it was summertime and there was an air conditioning vent in the 7 x 5 foot room) and I was famished, I reminded myself that I could make of the experience exactly what I chose to, dwelling on my stupidity and carelessness OR making a different choice, using the situation as an opportunity for emotional growth   I decided to do the latter.

What choices will you make when confronted by an annoying or adverse situation?  Ask yourself if you have any control over it.  Examples: Stuck in traffic?  Late for work?  In bed with the flu? Football game you had tickets for rained out?  When you’re in a situation you can’t influence, stewing about it is like banging your head against the wall.  Choose to focus on something else.  Many of my clients initially claim that they "can't control" their thoughts.  This may be true in "fight or flight" situations where the "reptilian brain" response is so fast that our cognitive powers are essentially useless.  But in the vast majority of situations, what you think about is entirely up to you.

To start exercising your mental focusing "muscles", try this exercise: next time you are on a long, slow-moving line (for example in a supermarket, or waiting to clear security at an airport), make the choice to focus on a thought unrelated to the situation you find yourself in at that moment, a thought that's peaceful and soothing.  You might, for example, envision yourself waiting in line to board a cruise ship that will take you to an exotic destination.

A more intensive focusing "workout" is a form of meditation in which you focus on your breathing and notice the thoughts that pop into your head seemingly from nowhere.  Acknowledge them and then gently bring your attention back to your breathing.  Doing this for 5 or 10 minutes a day will help train your mind to go where you want it to go, rather than having it be captured by a thought that's negative and unnecessary.


Shedding One's Identity

Returned from L.A. this evening, where I used to have a practice, and where I lived for 17 years. Leaving behind a well-established life was difficult, but a step worth taking in the service of further growth and transformation. In L.A. I was strictly a psychotherapist - - divorcing myself completely from the almost twenty years of experience I had as an advertising executive.  DC has enabled me to see the link in my two career worlds, and I am now a life consultant (a psychotherapist, a career counselor, and a life coach rolled into one). The lesson here -  an evolution in who you are virtually REQUIRES an ultimate shedding of an earlier identity and many of its components: geographic, social, behavioral, perhaps spiritual.  The evolution is painful in that it involves huge losses, but like evolution moves you to a higher plane of existence with many attendant rewards.


Gratitude for the Present

In my capacity as a life consultant and psychotherapist, a client was referred to me yesterday by his Washington, D.C. doctor.  His partner of 15 years caught what at first appeared to be a cold but then turned into a virulent bacterial infection that caused a four week coma and, ultimately, death.  Also yesterday I was asked to lead a grief group to process feelings about the suicide of a young man in his 30s.  These two deaths serve as powerful reminders of the fleeting nature of life, and underline the importance of living each moment to its fullest. 

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