From oxygen masks to understanding: naming the emotion is key to empathy


To be understood as to understand,

The need to be understood has been a lifelong struggle for me. I suspect I am not alone in this, but admit to having very little perspective, as immersed in that longing as I’ve been. The problem is, during an encounter or argument with a loved one, to keep insisting on being understood closes me off from their needs and leads to repetition and stridency.

It strikes me that one of St. Francis’ overarching messages is that we always have the choice between turning inward and reaching outward, between isolation and connection. Between victimhood and generosity. It’s no accident that connection feels better. That being true, I wonder what stops me. Other than years of habit (not to be underestimated), why do I so often fall into the trap of insisting on being understood?  Continue reading

Love is courage in action


Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Given that outer is a reflection of inner, love begins within. I sow love by bringing its warmth and compassion into the cold, dark, unloved places deep inside me. I wonder it’s this region that is moved to tears when touched by a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Or the beauty of the world in general, which has much to teach me about love. Red berries touched by snow, whitecaps on water, a young boy singing the high soprano notes opening “Once in Royal David’s City.”

The film “Still Alice” is a lovely exploration of this verse. While she, and her family, hated what was happening to her well-honed intellectual mind, they made the choice to seek solace in the love that bound them together. That love, and the attendant grief of loss, illuminated unique aspects of each of them. The youngest daughter, Lydia, had the fiercest courage to face her emotions, and so she let her love turn to curiosity. She asked her mother what she was experiencing, giving her the precious gift of being witnessed. To stand in helplessness with that much power requires tremendous love and awareness. Continue reading

We have a lot to learn from nature’s design intelligence, even if throwing a hammer in first doesn’t help

Hunters Field_620w

Yesterday, I mentioned David Korten’s work on new economic systems, which he calls “living economies.” This strikes me as a beautiful interim step away from our unquestioned disconnection from nature and elevation of reason over intuition, towards a more humble, conscious, and connected relationship with the living earth. We’re talking here about “biomimicry,” which I first discovered from Janine Benyus, a science writer who published a book by the same name in 1997.

Biomimicry has three basic principles. 1) Nature as model. Study, learn, and imitate how nature works, rather than how objects in nature look. 2) Nature as measure. Use an ecological standard to judge the rightness of our innovations. Nature has a 3.8 billion year head start on us and has learned what works, what is appropriate and what lasts. 3) Nature as mentor. Approach nature not from a perspective of what we can extract, but of what we can learn. Continue reading

Overlook the evidence and let yourself imagine


This guest post is by Lindsay McLaughlin. You can read a bit about her on the “Denizens” page

It’s snowing, and the temperature is hanging just below freezing. The flakes are light and small and fast, almost sleety; but they don’t amount to much, a dusting of powder over the brown leaves and fallen twigs. Still, the sky is sunless, a blanket of soft gray. The elegantly arching branches of the tulip poplar and the robust, sinewy branches of the oak are dusky brown against the pale sky. Evidently, a winter landscape.

Evidence, though, is a poor foundation on which to make a case. Evidence is about surfaces and edges and boundaries. This planet, this earth, this life is blurry and messy and uncontained. Things like times and seasons bleed into one another. Continue reading

Holding complexity in community


This guest post is by Lindsay McLaughlin. You can read a bit about her on the “Denizens” page

It is cold. The mud on the path to the Meditation Shelter has frozen up in small bubbles and lumps. It crunches and crackles underfoot. The tree trunks and tangled branches are etched crisply against a pale sky, the high contour of the ridge clearly visible through the dry air. There are long pauses in the conversations of the forest creatures: a woodpecker’s thunk- thunk, silence, a blackbird’s caw, silence. The water in Deer Spring creek has stopped in icy patterns against the stones. I am reminded of the phrase we use when calling on the directions at the beginning of Restorying retreats: “Let us turn to the North, place of frozen stillness and quiet waiting, home of wolf and the season of winter…” Continue reading

The generosity of trees, an elegy


My son has always loved to draw trees from his imagination. The one here is recent and typical of his “style,” if a thirteen year old can be said to have style. We are both fascinated by the tracery of bare trees at this time of year – how they seem to mirror the design of our own circulatory systems, as diagrammed in anatomy books. Come to think of it, he used to love looking at the multi-colored drawings in anatomy books when he was younger.

One of my favorite passages in any book is Annie Dillard’s musings about trees in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” I loved it so much, when I first opened my own firm as an architect, I put a phrase from it on my business card: “Trees bespeak a generosity of spirit.” While that does sum it up quite neatly, the whole passage is a treasure: Continue reading

Attention is the greatest gift you can give


Life throws so much at us, we can forget to slow down and do one thing at a time. I recently heard the story of a woman who had difficulty as a child getting her parents’ undivided attention. Forced to settle for whatever they gave her, she eventually came to believe that she didn’t have anything important enough to say that would warrant their — or anyone else’s — full attention. She stopped sharing her innermost thoughts and feelings with people, resulting in isolation and loneliness.

When I share genuinely with someone, I am unconsciously looking to be seen and treated as the most fascinating thing going in that moment. In acknowledgement of this universal longing, there’s a wonderful African greeting. When a person arrives in a village after being away, they say, “I am here to be seen.” And the response from the group is, “We see you.” Isn’t that what all of us want? Continue reading

Storying our way to vibrant communities

Shoes_620wOften, the things I think I’m seeking in life are already present, so close I’m not even aware of them. Like the fish not recognizing the water it swims in. I may jump on a particular bandwagon, like longing for “community,” as a sort of magic talisman that’s going to right the sinking ship of modern civilization, only to be shown, in beautifully concrete ways, that it’s right here, all around me.

Last night, my next-door neighbor and I were both coming home late from meetings. He stopped while closing his front gate to call a hello through the darkness and ask if I was all right. Then he said, “Did you hear about R?” (Our 55-year-old across-the-street neighbor had just informed my husband a few days before that he’d had a heart attack in mid-December, necessitating shunt surgery. It was the first we’d heard about it.) Continue reading

Listening for the birthday song


One day, fifty-two trips around the sun ago, a soul made its leap into the body of a baby being born. The young mother had an artistic spirit and was already stretched to her limits with three children. She wouldn’t let herself admit her misgivings about this fourth because her husband, a soldier, was a good man who loved his growing family.

The soul saw all this and chose this family for its earth walk, and to help the child weather the coming storms, it bestowed these gifts: Continue reading

Reconsidering our origin stories


What is your family of origin? In this tapestry of a country with its multi-cultural past, how often have you heard or asked that question? My grandmother used to put it differently, just straight out: “What kind of name is that?” Which, translated, meant: “What is your ethnic background?” Although she had great curiosity and zest for life, in this case, the subtext was less generous. She was a WASP to the core, and a dedicated xenophobe.

At our Restorying retreats, we ask people to introduce themselves by starting with the phrase, “Once upon a time,” and then tell about their birth as if being interviewed by Hans Christian Andersen. I like how it brings people directly into the mythic “everywhen” mind that immerses them in the realm of symbol and archetype. Why does this matter? At the heart of living into the new story of connection and belonging is a reconsideration of our origin stories, both personal and cultural. Continue reading