Mar 262016
 

The dominant hues in the picture I painted of the young man on the phone were strength, perseverance, courage and determination. All he could see were dark pigments of failure, disappointment and weakness.

Sam (not his real name) was negotiating his senior year in high school. In junior high, he found himself in an unspeakably horrific hole. Nearly anything you wish to stuff into that hole was likely there tormenting him. He had lost himself, and I suspect, the world nearly lost him as well. Sometime during his sophomore year he realized he no longer wanted to be the person he saw himself becoming, so he clawed his way out of that hellhole. He rid himself of the enormous negative influences that kept him i015mprisoned, kicked numerous frightening habits, jettisoned most of his “friends,” and dedicated himself to his studies. Now, as a senior, he has good grades and is applying to several wonderful colleges.

I was so taken by him I told him I loved him, loved who he is and who he is becoming. He began to sob. I asked the source of the tears. “You’re the first person who ever told me they loved me.” That nearly ripped my heart out. But all Sam could see when he looked in the mirror was a failed young man who made countless, unforgivable mistakes. In his mind he feared that who he truly is, and always will be, is a failure.

In the figure above, the two squares highlighted by the arrows are—ready?—the exact same shade of gray. If you don’t believe me, put them side by side.

I find this a powerful metaphor. What if the two squares represent the differing portraits of Sam; that which I saw versus that to which Sam is witness? It’s the same person, but our views are so dramatically different…so incongruous…it’s hard to imagine we are picturing the same person.

So, from where do the two images of Sam—mine versus his—emerge?

I’m told John Keats once posited the heart is the only organ strong enough to educate the mind. As I reflect on my time with Sam, the palette with which I painted was of the heart. As we spoke, my heart broke open and the emerging masterpiece that was Sam simply appeared. He was a strong, courageous young man who had made many, forgivable mistakes. He is human after all.

The primary palette at Sam’s disposal was of the mind, tainted and dulled by the memory of failures, hurts and mistakes. As I painted, the canvas was not distorted by the foibles of his humanity. His was, so his brush was unable to capture the beauty and authenticity.

On another call a few weeks later, a young man announced he had a gun in his lap and intended to use it. From as far back as he could remember he was tormented physically, emotionally and sexually—from every quarter of his existence. The story was painful to hear—impossible to imagine as anyone’s reality. He felt worthless, hopeless and ready to end his unspeakable pain. I suggested the story he told emerged largely from the scars and hurts that filled his memory. I asked if a different story might emerge if he listened to his heart. When he glimpsed his world through his sensitive, complex and delicate heart, he tearfully told of his ability to change the lives of many other young people. Because of his deep understanding of the meaning of human existence, he could hold up a powerful mirror to others to help them see themselves in new ways. As our call ended, he happily put the gun away.

For too many, the canvas of our lives is distorted by memories of hurt, failure and scars. We are far more facile at opening our hearts and seeing the masterpiece that is the other, than we are at seeing our own. But if we had the facility to see the image others paint of us—that of the heart—we just might witness a masterpiece.

Aug 052015
 

Note: The following will appear in the September/October issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

I have spoken before larger audiences, but this was to be my first TEDx talk[*]. Giving such a talk is a huge honor, but, at some point you realize your remarks will live forever on the Internet; it matters not whether you deliver them with eloquence…or stumble meaninglessly for 18 minutes. The thought of reliving a poor performance for the rest of one’s life can add a certain amount of terror to the moment.

As I drafted, edited and practiced my remarks, my hope was to influence those who might eventually hear them. I had a number of groups willing to hear what was on my mind in the weeks preceding TEDxIIT, so I had abundant opportunities to rehearse. I discovered, as the ideas rewrote themselves, the more I spoke from my heart, the stronger the reaction to my message. When I edged towards a logical, rational narration, the audience responded with polite applause and kind comments. When I spoke from my heart, with words tinted by emotion, those to whom I spoke reacted with rapt attention and walked away with deeper understanding. They found within, and shared with each other, more profound wisdom.

John Keats once said the heart is the only organ strong enough to educate the mind. A number of years ago, when improvisational pianist Michael Jones reminded me of Keats’ wisdom, he added, “When we are thinking from our heart we are never far from tears.”

The journey I traversed in the 24 hours before my walk onto that stage this past April is worth a moment so I can honor the person who gave me permission to think from my heart…to navigate the territory between logic and emotion with deep authenticity in that very public, frightening place.

The fourteen presenters rehearsed the day before TEDxIIT. After my rehearsal, Bob Roitblat, the stage manager and advisor, pulled me aside and admitted my remarks touched him. Bob is a professional speaker and actor—his command of the stage is inspiring—so his generous comment helped build my confidence and allay the terror. However, as the conference began the following day, my trepidation grew. Since many of the talks preceding mine had a decidedly technical bent, I feared the audience would be uninterested in my message. My remarks were written to educate their mind by touching on their hearts.

At the break, I told Bob I was losing my nerve. When I expressed my fear the audience was in a state of mind rather than a state of heart, he told me “What you have to say is more important than any of the technology stuff.” It was kind and generous, but not nearly as powerful as the words he imparted the moment before I walked on the stage. He grabbed me by the arm, looked me in the eye and said, “You go out there and make me cry!”

From the first moments on that stage, as I mentioned my work on the suicide hotline, I wrestled with tears. I wondered if I touched on my emotions too early, but as I walked off the stage, Bob reassured me once again. “Did you see the audience’s reaction? You grabbed their attention from those early moments and never let go.”

I frequently find myself betwixt and between logical thought and deep emotion; caught somewhere in the fissure between my cerebral cortex and my heart. We live in an era that would have us believe the logical and rational are the singular keys to success. We practically abhor emotions. When they arrive, often unbidden, we are encouraged not to feel. One young man I spoke with last year was suffering from a number of reversals in his life. He was struggling mightily, and told me tearfully how frightened he was. When I asked if he could gain support and comfort from his father and older brother, he said, “You don’t understand, in my family, a man who admits to a struggle is simply ridiculed.”

The word courage and the word heart both derive from the Latin word cor. It takes courage to allow the heart to educate the mind. Perhaps someday we will, collectively, become more comfortable thinking from our hearts…and honor those who are never far from tears.

 

[*] You can find a link to my remarks, entitled “Beyond Measure,” on the homepage of REBreisch.com. If you are unfamiliar with TED talks, I recommend a visit to TED.com. There are thousands of short videos from brilliant thinkers around the world on virtually any topic. TEDx conferences are independently organized, local conferences intended to give tens of thousands of others an opportunity to share thoughts and ideas.

Feb 052015
 

Note: This article will appear in the March/April issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

You don’t have to agree with my premise, however, if I propose a thought experiment, would you play along for just a moment?

Starting right now, suppose you knew for a fact that a significant portion—perhaps 30 or 40 percent—of everything you thought, felt and believed was wrong, or at least considerably askew. Further, what if everyone else had the same awareness of their own thoughts and feelings? How might you enter the world differently? I have been asking this question in recent presentations, and the conclusions vary wildly.

Some find the idea horrifying: “I’d never be able to make a decision.” “I would be frightened to say anything.” “I think I would be paralyzed.” “We’d never get anything done!”

Many find it reassuring: “I’d be more curious, less dogmatic.” “I would ask more questions.” “I would enter the world more gently.” “I’d be more open to learning.”

Admittedly, I fall into this latter category.

Too often, in today’s public discourse, the retort to an opposing view often sounds like “You’re an idiot, and let me tell you why.” We have public hearings in which, I fear, no one is listening. Attend one sometime and see if you can discern any question marks hiding out amongst the very large and forceful periods that end most sentences. Of course you’ll have to discount “questions” the likes of “Are you nuts?”

The world would be a better place if each of us opened ourselves first to the possibility of our own rational shortcomings, rather than clawing desperately for the flaw in the logic of others. If I was truly interested in listening for my shortcomings, rather than yours, might it become a more thoughtful, sympathetic world imbued with greater understanding? But then, attention to my own failings would require courage…and a less tenacious ego.

Having read a great deal about our current understanding of the human brain, there are overwhelming reasons to accept the premise that a significant percent of a human’s thoughts are misguided. I previously documented many[1], so I won’t repeat them here. But consider a few more.

Human memory is imprecise and capricious. Your brain dissects experiences and stores them in disparate parts of your cortex. When memories are recalled, these pieces are reassembled, not accurately, but in a “good-enough” fashion that is easily distorted. Eyewitness accounts in a court of law, we now know, are among the least reliable pieces of evidence. Once a supposed culprit is identified in a sketchbook or lineup, that image replaces the one real one formed in the cortex at the moment of the offense.

Have you ever jumped to conclusions about another human being based on how they dress, a bumper sticker on their car, a sound bite or rumor…only to discover you pre-judged them erroneously?

How much of what you believe today is identical with what you believed 10 or 20 years ago? While some new thinking is based on adding to your store of knowledge, haven’t you discovered many ways in which your thinking in years past was inaccurate?

How much of what humankind believes today is the same as we believed, say, 500 years ago? I dare say very little. Is it possible what we believe 500 years from now will be equally distant from what we “know” is true today? I think it is possible.

So is it conceivable that 10 or 20 years from now, each of us will, in fact, discover that some large portion of our beliefs today are limited, misguided or flat out wrong? I hope so! Put another way: in 10 years, if I am destined to think exactly as I do today…just shoot me now!

When I think back on the myriad difficult relationships that populate portions of my personal history, it pains me to realize, had I had the wisdom to end more of my sentences with question marks rather than periods, life could have been so much sweeter…and I so much the wiser for having been less certain and more curious.

But, then again, maybe I am wrong about this whole idea.

[1] See my April 7, 2013 blog post, “Majesty and Radiance.”

Apr 072013
 

 

Note: This post will be published in the May-June Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
 
Funny, how the cost of a ball can lead me to thoughts of the value of life itself.
Several recent books (Antifragile, The Power of Habit and Thinking, Fast and Slow) reflect upon the human brain and the vast amount of sensory data with which it is barraged. Even at this moment, there is nearly infinite visual, auditory, olfactory, savory and corporeal information bombarding you, and you will absorb, consciously and subconsciously, a minuscule percent. What fascinates me is how the mind can take in—by the nature in which you choose to notice— data that are disparate, incongruent, and misleading, and create what we believe is a coherent picture of the world. The question is, how often are the decisions we make, and the conclusions we draw, based on a truly accurate picture.
If I tell you that, together, a bat and ball cost $1.10, and that the bat costs a dollar more than the ball, can you tell me the cost of the ball? 10¢? Excellent! I’ll sell it to you for 10¢ because it cost half that. If the ball cost 10¢, the bat costs a dollar, which is only 90¢ more than the ball.
If I tell you the redwoods of California are less than 1200 feet tall, and then ask their average height, what would you say? Your estimate is likely much taller than if I began by suggesting instead, they are taller than 150 feet. In replicated experiments, the human brain gets “anchored” to the number first suggested and moves from there; down a small number of feet from 1200 feet or up a few from 150, suggesting answers that are closer to the anchor than to reality.
Did you know that most people, you perhaps, turn right as they enter stores? It is no coincidence the fruits and vegetables are typically the first thing you encounter. Placing healthy items in your cart as you begin your shopping allows you to feel slightly less guilty when you tuck candy and less healthy food in beside it. School cafeterias can change youthful diets simply by the placement of the menu choices.
In experiments, people who sense money in their immediate environment, become less generous in the ensuing moments. It’s true, even if we are not sure why.
All this suggests that whenever we make a decision, or draw a conclusion about the world, we should remember that our view is built on a foundation of limited, disparate information. The human mind will use that incomplete, narrow and inadequate evidence in fickle and often misleading ways.
Not long ago, I spoke with a woman who, the evening before, fell victim to a frail part of her humanity. She slipped into a very human pattern and subsequently said angry, hurtful things to her boyfriend. She knows him to be kind and loving; not at all deserving of the things she said. As a result she felt herself to be malicious and evil, and was tearfully questioning her value as a human being.
The two of us talked about what it means to be human; that everyone fails to live up to their ideals of perfection from time to time. Our brief conversation allowed us to build a relationship based on acceptance of our humanity, rather than judgment of occasional failure. When I asked her to peer more deeply into her world and see if she might find even a small bit of goodness and value, she paused and quietly admitted, “Maybe…just a little.” Then I asked if it’s possible the goodness within her is far larger than she was able to see at the moment, and the angry, worthless parts were much smaller. She paused again a bit longer this time and said “Yes, I think so.” Soon, she was eager to apologize to her boyfriend, work diligently to avoid future failures, knowing full-well that, being human nearly assures she will.
It matters little if we peer into the world, absorb limited, incongruent data, and conclude incorrectly that a ball is worth 10¢. But if we gaze into the world and find ourselves to be worth less than the majesty and radiance that existence itself bestows, it is time to reach out and find someone who can hold up a mirror that better reflects the beauty inherent in life.
See my related review of the book Thinking, Fast and Slow in the next post.
Apr 072013
 
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
One premise of Kahneman’s best-selling work, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is that the mind operates as if it relies on two separate systems. “System 1” refers to our ability to look out into the world and draw an immediately coherent picture based on the data we take in. “System 2” is the cognitive, thoughtful ability we call into play when we realize System 1 is beyond its ability to conjure an answer. 2X2 is no problem for System 1, but 17X54 requires the aid of System 2.
Here is what gives me pause. System 2 is lazy; delighted to accept nearly any coherent picture System 1 conjures. We prefer not to think because thinking requires energy. You come home tired and the kids are fighting. System 1 will scan for immediately available data, take no more than a nanosecond to compare it to preconceived thoughts about your children and develop a picture of what happened: who did what to whom and their motivations for doing so. My father had a phrase to describe those moments… often wrong but never in doubt!
Throughout this work, the author illustrates myriad ways our brain chooses not to make decisions based on System 2’s careful consideration of relevant data. The stories we tell about how the world operates are limited at best. Kahneman says “our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
If you are a fan of, Built to Last, for example, the ability to assemble data and create a coherent picture of success is smoke and mirrors. Author of The Halo Effect, Phil Rozenzweig, concludes “stories of success and failure consistently exaggerate the impact of leadership style and management practices on firm outcomes, and thus their message is rarely useful.”
If you choose to read this work, be prepared. It is the fickle mind struggling to understand itself. You have to love the irony!
Apr 072012
 

 

As I reflect on the human journey, today is the eve of the most holy of holy days on the Christian calendar. I am informed, and confused, by words attributed to Jesus as he neared death: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”that is, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” In this moment, I wonder if even Jesus, who tradition tells us could see beyond the reality of this world—what I call the finite—into the Infinite, had moments of doubt about the Infinite? In his excruciating moment of pain, it would not be surprising if, even Jesus’ understanding of the Infinite was obfuscated by his experience of the finite?
Even though I hope never to experience the finite in that same horrific way, I wonder if the Infinite is hidden from me also by my experience of the finite. For more than 60 years I have read hundreds of books that attempt to describe this world—from Quantum Physics, Evolutionary Biology and Moral Psychology to Buddhism, Confucianism and New Age Spirituality. Each with its explanation of what this world really is, and why we are here. What if every explanation we attempt actually prevents us from seeing what is beyond them?
I have come to believe the Universe is ineffable—beyond words. It is beyond anything we can understand from the perspective of the finite. And yet, we continue to manufacture concepts, images and paradigms to help us understand that which is ineffable. What if, instead of helping us understand, the paradigms obfuscate, distort and confuse?
What if we are actually in the Infinite—what many refer to as Heaven—right now, but are unable to see it, or experience it, because we remain so confused by what our minds think they are supposed to see? What if nothing I see is what I think it is? What if life has been gifted to me, not to comprehend the finite, but as a brief opportunity for me to see that what lies beyond is not beyond at all, but right in front of me, concealed by my thinking? But then, that too would be a paradigm, perhaps also keeping me from witnessing what is beyond. It is as if the paradigms that make up my world keep me locked in this place…keep me from the Infinite. It is as if, every time I try to see beyond, another view from the finite reflects me back to this world and this place.
Hundreds of teachers ask me to see that life is in being, not doing. They encourage me to see this moment—as I allow life to be lived through me and, to the extent I can, give up my ego—as filled with grace. It is in not knowing that I even glimpse what might be beyond the finite. The Buddha would have called this Beginner’s Mind. True knowledge is not found by thinking, I am instructed. But how do I approach their thinking, if it is about the non-belief in thoughts?  Is it permissible to use thoughts to get beyond thought? All truly is paradox. Yet somehow I feel that beyond the paradox…beyond the thinking…beyond the paradigms is the Infinite.
If the wisdom of the ages is to let go of all, to stop trying and simply be, then the ultimate paradox, the meta-paradigm if you will, is that it has taken so many words, concepts and paradigms for me to see that the Infinite is only available when I let go of all that led me to this moment.