Book Review: The Last Lecture

I can’t remember when I first heard about The Last Lecture (as the lecture). It’s been years ago now. However, I do know that it was Jeffrey Barnes’ retelling of a story in Beyond the Wisdom of Walt that brought me back to it. It was one of many simple stories with a meaning. In this case, it was a salt and pepper shaker that Walt Disney World replaced after Randy Pausch and his sister bought, then broke, them.

The Real Last Lecture

It’s a thing in academic circles to prepare a lecture like it’s your last. If you could choose anything, what would you lecture on? It’s an entertaining series that Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) started, but little did they know that fate would intersect with their series. It turns out, for Randy Pausch, it would be his last lecture. His pancreatic cancer was no longer in remission, and this would be the last shot to leave his mark at the university and on the world.

The title of the talk was “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” and it explains how Randy’s life, though cut short, allowed him to achieve many of his childhood dreams. As of this writing, the video has over 19 million views. The popularity of the talk spawned Randy to work with a writer to further capture some of his remaining time.

For the Children

An impending death has a way of focusing your attention on what’s truly important. In Randy’s case, he was leaving behind his wife and young children. He wanted his children to know him as much as would be possible. Certainly, his wife, family, and friends would share his character, but it could never be enough.

I can understand this feeling, because, when we lost my brother, I could not help but weep that my nieces would never get the chance to know him like I knew him. They’d never understand the richness of his character.

It turns out that the talk was a twist. At one level, the talk was designed to inspire students and faculty at CMU just like the series was set up to do. However, if that was the only value to the lecture, it probably wouldn’t have happened. To prepare the lecture, Randy had to make the difficult decision to shift his focus from his wife and children. That’s a decision that would have been impossible to make knowing you had only months to live – except that the lecture was really his legacy for his children. It was a way that he could expose his core beliefs in a way that would be relatively immune to the effects of time and the fading of memories.

So, the lecture was a way of leaving himself for his children, and, as it turns out, so is the book. Captured as conversations between Randy and Jeffrey Zaslow, they took place while Randy was exercising, trying to stay as healthy as possible right up to the end. In a way, Randy found a way to extend his life beyond his life.

Life Lessons from the Dying

Bronnie Ware reported on what she found with her palliative care work in The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. However, The Last Lecture doesn’t seek to relay five profound observations about life. The goal is, instead, to save the stories and lessons that Randy held dear in his own life and those he wished to preserve for his children. The result is a series of short stories that shine light on some aspect of his life that was important for him.

Hard Work and Coddling

There are a few statements that recur across the chapters and in ways that punctuate the important to Randy. One of those starts early in the book with, “It saddens me that many kids today are so coddled.” He returns to this point later when explaining that his dad believed “manual labor was beneath no one.” He explains that Coach Graham instilled in him a sense of needing to work hard. He discovered that feedback about how you’re doing means that other people care.

Whether it was Coach Graham or his father, somewhere he found a yearning to work hard. While he admits that, at times, he was a workaholic and didn’t take time to relax, the life he enjoyed came from his not hard work.

Brick Walls

At one time or another, all of us have run into brick walls. Some door slammed in our face right as we arrived there. We’ve tried to be able to do something, and we failed. We’ve pounded our head into the wall until our forehead was flat. Randy believed that brick walls were there for a reason. Brick walls are an opportunity for us to demonstrate how badly we want something.

I’ll agree with the opposite assertion – but not necessarily that we should go charging through brick walls all the time. Randy himself quotes his father providing advice about navigating life, saying, “Just because you’re in the driver’s seat doesn’t mean you have to run people over.” In my experience, brick walls are sometimes placed there to help you remember to not run over people.

The opposite, I agree, is true. If you see a brick wall as a signal that you should give up, shut down, and never try again, you’ve missed the message. Brick walls – challenges – aren’t put in your way to cause you to shrink, cower, or give up. They’re there to shape your path. Sometimes, as Randy says, you need to demonstrate how much you want something. Other times, you need to look for other ways to accomplish your goal.

Randy knew this, as he wanted to experience weightlessness – because he wanted to be an astronaut as a child, as I did – but was turned down at the last moment for a ride on NASA’s zero gravity plane. He had created a situation where his students would do an experiment on the aircraft but was told that student advisors weren’t allowed to ride along. It looks like a brick wall. However, the solution was to become the member of the press documenting the trip – which was allowed. You can decide whether he ran through the wall or found a way around it.

Inspiration

Inspiration is a word that is thrown around with abandon today. People seek to inspire their organization, their coworkers, and their children. However, for most, this is an empty statement. They no more know how to inspire others than they know how to build a rocket. However, Randy believed that inspiration was the ultimate tool for doing good. He sought to bring together worlds and inspire students with the possibilities that the new computer technologies were creating.

Everyone who lives a great life must have a purpose, something that they’re trying to accomplish. For Randy, it seems like the answer was giving others the gifts that were given to him, including inspiration.

The Short Cut: Hard Work

Randy offers up a shortcut to life. It’s simply two words: hard work. It may not feel like much of a shortcut, but when you evaluate the alternatives, it can certainly feel that way. For Randy, he simply worked hard, and he attracted his dreams. He prepared, and the opportunities eventually came to him – even if he occasionally had to encourage them.

I Had To

In the end, Randy reports that he didn’t do The Last Lecture because he wanted to. He did it because he had to. I understand the “had to” when it comes to being true to living your life authentically. Maybe you’ll find some of the answers that you need to live as yourself in The Last Lecture.

Book Review-How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain

It’s no secret that I love dogs. I’ve spent most of my adult life with one or more canine companions. For the last 13 years, I’ve owned my own company, and the dogs have their own airlock doggie door system to get into the office. My love for our dogs and the dogs of our friends isn’t a secret. However, Gregory Berns was able to answer a different question. Do dogs love us? How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain walks us through the journey that Berns walked to answer that question.

What is Love?

Before one can embark on a journey to discover if dogs love us back, one first must understand what love is. Or, at least, one must decide what will settle for love, since poets, philosophers, psychologists, and neurologists have been trying to answer this question. Rather than create a large definition of love with its many facets and complications, one of the researchers on the team summed it up with “Love? I’d settle for codependence.” Though, in human relations, codependence has developed a bad rap, it’s a reasonable way to approximate the relationship with dogs.

I decided to look back at the book reviews and posts that I’ve written that included the word “love” in the title or subtitle. The books that jumped to the top were The Art of Loving, The Road Less Traveled, Daring Greatly, and Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness. The post Faith, Hope, and Love also surfaced prominently. In the end, the perspective that seemed to be the most relevant was that love is a choice. It’s a decision to sacrifice your needs and desires for the needs and desires of someone else. That’s what dogs seem to do when you ask them to stop chasing a squirrel to return to you – however, do they do this out of fear for the repercussions or based on their true desire to please you? That’s an interesting question that Berns tries to answer.

Ethical Considerations

Dogs have been used in research for a long time. Famously, Ivan Pavlov did research with dogs to learn that he could condition the dogs to salivate when a bell rang. He, according to Berns, however, didn’t have an affinity for dogs, they were just a part of the research. To figure out how dogs loved us, it would require a different approach. Instead of being objects used for the purposes of research, they would be active participants.

Strangely, there wasn’t a solid precedent for how to treat dogs as the primary subjects of the research. There are guidelines for how to perform research on adult humans – and even for getting parental consent for research on children – but no one had ever done an informed consent for dogs. After crossing boundaries for informed consent and animal research, the path was finally cleared to get an informed consent for family pets to be the subject of research.

The Approach

To figure out if dogs love us, the plan was to scan the dog’s brain with a fMRI. This creates an image of what is happening inside a brain by creating an electromagnetic field and then measuring the minute changes in this field that are created by the mind of the person – or, in this case, dog – inside the machine. The machine itself is very sensitive and only works if the subject is positioned correctly and remains completely still. Even for humans, this can be challenging. The machine is loud, and, for many people, it can trigger claustrophobia. Training a dog to go inside of the machine and stay still for the required period of time would prove to be challenging.

The machine itself was calibrated for humans, and a dog’s brain is different. Even getting the machine to process a canine brain was a hidden challenge that needed to be solved – but not until the dog could be trained to get in the machine.

Training

The training of the two dogs used for the initial test proceeded like normal dog training might, using praise, treats, and a clicker. The clicker is just a tool to help the dog know they’ve done something that the owner wants immediately. The dog learns that the click means a treat, so the trainer can signal when the exact behavior desired has been accomplished.

The fMRI machine had two key components that had to be conquered. The first is the tube that sometimes triggers claustrophobia in people, and the second was the “birdcage” where the head goes. As it turns out, dogs have little concern about running through tunnels, so that was the easy part. The difficult part turned out to be getting the dog to place their head in the birdcage in the same place reliably.

After making some molds that shaped to the dog’s head so that they laid their head down in the exact same spot, things became easier, but not before more than a few fMRI images didn’t turn out so well.

Dog Brain Maps

Having gotten the dogs trained well enough to get a consistent location, the images of the canine brain were forthcoming. However, no one had built the kind of comprehensive map for dogs that exists for the human brain. It was necessary to make some guesses about where things were – and to address the elephant in the middle of the brain. Or, rather, to recognize that the olfactory bulb in dogs was substantially larger than in human brains. That makes sense, given that dogs’ noses are substantially more sensitive, but it does mean that there wasn’t a one-to-one correspondence between a human brain map and a canine map.

Still, with some work, the general areas became apparent, and a picture emerged. The picture first showed that dogs had mirror neurons.

Mirror Neurons

We’ve known about mirror neurons since the work in the 1980s and 1990s with macaque monkeys. The monkey’s neurons would fire whether performing an action or watching the action be performed – even when the object of their observation wasn’t of the same species. In other words, they fired whether they were looking at a monkey doing the action or a human. The implications are profound. At some level, watching another animal perform an action causes you to think like they do.

Since the initial research, the awareness of mirror neurons has expanded to encompass mental rehearsal of actions as well as observations of others. Mirror neurons are believed to be at the heart of our ability to simulate what is in other’s minds. This is called theory of mind, and it’s the subject of the book Mindreading. The upshot of what Berns and his colleagues saw was that dogs had theory of mind for the humans that were giving them instructions.

Packs and People

Much about what people think about how to train dogs and relate to them comes from the study of wolves – called lupomorphism. The idea is that dogs and wolves are essentially the same animal separated by a bit of selective breeding. The models for how we came to adopt dogs as our constant companions isn’t clear. Cave paintings don’t show dogs helping us to hunt (apparently the picture of a dog with a duck in its mouth wasn’t painted on any walls they could find). Conversely, it’s unlikely that a wolf could have lived off the scraps that friendly humans might have provided as enticement for them to stay. If they’re not helping in the hunt, it’s unlikely that it would make sense for humans, who struggled for survival, to part with the precious food they needed. The result is an unclear picture of how our relationship with our canine companions really came to be.

However we came together, the prevailing thought is that dogs treat us like pack members. That is, we’re just a part of their pack, and they make no distinction between the humans in their world and other dogs. However, Berns et al.’s research showed something different. When exposed to the scent of dogs they knew and dogs they didn’t plus humans they knew and humans they didn’t, the pattern of neuron firing was different – very different. While the dogs showed they could recognize the difference between familiar and unfamiliar, they made a distinction between the people they knew and the dogs they knew.

Something special is happening in the mind of the dog that’s reserved just for people and speaking personally I know there’s some sort of special affinity for dogs – even if I can’t explain exactly why.

But What About Love?

It depends upon what you mean when you say love. The patterns were certainly there, that they knew what their masters wanted, and they desired to please them. The dogs were reading their masters with a level of interspecies theory of mind that no other animal has yet been discovered to possess. So, in the best approximation for a philosophical question that science can muster, the answer seems to be yes. Of course, you’ll have to make your own decision about How Dogs Love Us. For my part, I don’t need much evidence that my dogs love me – I don’t care if a scanner shows it or not. I can see it in their eyes – and they can see it in mine.

Book Review-Recovery: Freedom from Addictions

Sometimes you stumble into things, and you’re not quite sure how. I used to have book deals sent to my email and occasionally there would be a discount that made the book interesting. That was the case with Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions. I didn’t know the author, but the topic was interesting enough to buy the book and start reading.

As it turns out, the author has some level of fame. Russell Brand was apparently a comedian, big thing on MTV, and married to Katy Perry for a few years. He’s also an addict – now a recovering addict. He writes his version of the twelve steps, his story, and his perspective on the program that he needed – and that changed him.

Backstory

I wrote Why and How 12-Step Groups Work last year as a primer on the program and an attempt to help folks accept that addicts aren’t bad people, and * Anonymous groups aren’t scary. They’re places where people are connected and given the relationships and skills necessary to battle their addictions.

I share that addictions aren’t the problem, they’re the solution. The addiction is a way of coping with life that’s become out of balance and has taken control of the addict. It’s the spiral that, once it gets started, feeds on itself by distorting the world until people can’t see outside of the bubble of addiction.

Brand admits to his own disconnection with reality (and himself). As I explain in How to Be Yourself, figuring out who you are isn’t easy. From my perspective, Brand just landed in the right set of circumstances to get caught up in addiction. Starting in comedy can do that to you. When I did my study of standup comedy (see I am a Comedian for more), my research led me to an understanding of the drugs and sexual adventures of some famous comedians. Even cursory review of the news stories about comedians since that time will make it clear that it’s easy to get connected to addictive things.

What follows here is a mixture of Brand’s thoughts and my own experiences around the program that has helped so many people.

Step 1: Admitted Powerlessness

Brand’s quotes for the steps are much more colorful than mine. However, he adequately explains that the first step is admitting that your life is out of control. Most folks assume that you must admit powerlessness to the addiction, but, in truth, the admission is that what’s going on in your life isn’t working. It doesn’t technically require that you admit you’re an addict.

The idea that your life isn’t working can become a budding awareness that you’re not comfortable in the still quiet of the night. It can be that you recognize you move from one distraction to the next. It can be a faint glimmer of awareness that whatever you’re doing is gaining more control over you, or it’s there to numb some other part of you that hurts too bad to face directly.

However, whatever this thing – or, often, more than one thing – is in your life that was designed to help you cope has become your master. You depend on it to get you through the day, and that isn’t OK.

Step 2: Higher Power

It’s one thing to know you have a problem. It’s quite a different thing to believe that someone or something can “return us to sanity.” That is, there is a solution – it’s just not me. When we are self-centered and require that it’s always our way, we’re bound to have problems.

By giving it up and accepting that we’re not actually the center of the universe, we have the possibility of accepting that we don’t have to have the answers. Sometimes people get caught up on accepting the Christian view of God as their higher power, but it’s not really required. Stories in the program include sponsors telling sponsees that they can have their higher power until they discover their own – and they can make a doorknob their higher power if that makes them feel better. The point is simply that there’s a way out – not necessarily that you subscribe to a particular view. (If you’re struggling here, look at The Book of Joy, where the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu discuss, among other things, their respective faiths.)

Step 3: Turning Over

Still a different decision is the decision to turn things over. Steps 1-3 are a progression that, from the outside, may seem simple, but most folks are used to controlling their lives. As a result, letting go of that control can be hard. So, even after you can acknowledge that you don’t have the answers and someone else does, letting go of your life isn’t easy. Brand says, “I don’t like the idea that I’m not in charge of my own destiny.” I can say that he’s not alone. We all want to believe that we’re in control of our lives. (For more, see Compelled to Control.)

Step 4: Moral Inventory

If you want to pick the step that frightens people who are new to the program, it’s going to be step 4. Making a list of the things that you’ve done wrong isn’t easy. There plenty of reasons for that, and, despite the jokes, no one has ever run out of paper. Brand lays out an effective way to get these moral lapses on paper and acknowledges that it isn’t easy. You’ll be tempted to gloss over things, justify others, and often not see the root set of issues that lead to the poor choices.

What isn’t always shared is that this is a part of the process itself. No one gets this right the first time. They don’t figure out everything wrong they’ve done, evaluate every action with clarity, or “ace” the test. That’s because step 4 isn’t a test. It’s a step. It moves you closer to where you want to be.

And, in truth, step 4 isn’t the powerful step. That is step 5.

Step 5: Tell Someone

It’s not enough to just write down the things you’ve done wrong, you’ve got to tell someone. It should be someone safe, and it should be a time when no one is rushed. The key thing that people get out of this is relief. To some degree, we’ve hidden ourselves away from others. We didn’t want other people to know the bad things we’ve done. We didn’t want them to know how evil we can be at our core.

Most of the time, the response to a step 5 with someone who has been in the program for a while isn’t surprise, rejection, or concern. The response to someone doing a step 5 is often, “Is that all?” It’s meant as a prompt to continue, but also an acknowledgement that, whatever the bad things are, they don’t make the person a bad person. In truth, most addicts have a hole in their soul that makes them believe they’re not good enough to be loved or liked. That’s not truth, but it’s the lie they believe, because they’ve never told people the whole truth about who they are.

Step 6: Character Defects

While step 4 was focused on the things that you’ve done, step 6 is focused on the parts of you and your character that caused you to do them. Rather than looking at the top of the problem – the results – step 6 asks you to look for what was going on inside that caused you to want to behave that way.

Step 7: Replace the Defects

With the list made, the addict often finds that some of the things that led them to bad choices are parts about themselves that they like, at least a little. So, step 7 asks you to be ready to let go of what you like for the life that you’ll love. It’s a hard swap, just like moving to a new city in a new home for a “better” new job is amazing – and heart wrenching. You love what you’re going to get, but you hate to let go of what you have.

So, too, our character defects arise from a part of who we believe we are, and letting go isn’t easy.

Step 8: List of Wrongs

Between the 4th and 6th steps there’s been a lot of focus on the negative things that we’ve said or done and why. However, the focus has been on being able to expose to ourselves our true nature and that the true nature isn’t bad – it’s just done some bad things or made some bad choices. We’ve focused on integrating into the human condition and accepting that we’re all broken. Step 8 asks us to focus our thoughts differently. Instead of making it all about us – it’s all about what we’ve done to others.

The list of wrongs is designed to be sorted by person and is about what we’ve done to them – not what they may or may not have done to us. While it’s all too tempting to focus on what they did to provoke us, this step calls for us to own our part in the situation.

Step 9: Make Amends

If you’ve wronged someone, and there is a way to make amends to them in a way that isn’t harmful to them, step 9 calls us towards that action. The sticky part here – beyond the desire to run away and hide rather than apologize and make amends – is the bit about as long it won’t harm them.

There are also cases where it’s no longer possible. Consider someone who has died or someone you’ve lost touch with. In those cases, you can find alternative ways to relieve your burden of the wrong by writing them a letter and burning it, or whatever means you feel like is a way for you to let go. (If you’re struggling with a death take a look at On Death and Dying and Top Five Regrets of the Dying.)

For those whom making an amends would cause harm, you can use the same strategy. You can relieve yourself of the burden for now – and if the time ever comes that you need to address it because the circumstances have changed, you’ll be well prepared.

Step 10: Daily Inventory

Once you’ve gotten thus far, you’ve relieved yourself of the poison that you’ve built up, and now it’s important to create a pattern of living that doesn’t allow the poison to build. There will still be relapses and bad days, but the point of the final three steps – particularly step 10 – is to ensure that these incidents don’t create a change in direction in your life.

The idea is that every day you evaluate your day in the context of the wrongs you’ve done, the character defects that have revealed themselves, and the people to whom you need to make amends. By practicing this daily, there is no need for the massive efforts that took place in steps 4, 6, and 8.

Step 11: Conscious Contact

Whether you call it being centered, connected with nature, a commune with God, or anything else, there’s something to being a part of instead of apart from. Steps 1, 2, and 3 led you to getting connected to a higher power – whatever that is. Step 11 reminds you to stay connected.

Step 12: Take it To the Masses

Step 12 is the give-back step. It’s about helping others who were in the same spot as you to find their way back into connection with others. In the context of Brand’s story, it might be writing a book on Recovery. For others, it may be as simple as offering to help people when they’re struggling with addiction.

Book Review-Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself

I didn’t really intend to spend so much time investigating Buddhism. Mark Epstein was recommended reading for me as I tried to integrate Western thoughts on positive attachment and Buddhist beliefs that attachment is the root of suffering. As I read Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, I began to see how both traditional Western psychotherapy and Buddhism revolve around finding a way to align our thoughts with reality. It’s not that we don’t need ego, and that it should be crushed or destroyed – nor does it mean that we should necessarily inflate it to be bigger than it should be.

In The Trauma of Everyday Life, Epstein looks at a few small components of Buddhism centered around the concept that life is suffering. In Advice Not Given he walks, chapter-by-chapter, through the Eightfold Path, introducing the traditional thinking and integrating Western psychology. However, he starts by framing the primary work of the path: our ego.

Our Ego

It’s the one affliction that we all have in common. We all have egos. We’re constantly tending to the size and shape of our ego – or it’s running amuck and causing havoc to us and to others in our lives. Unrestrained, the ego implores us to be bigger, better, stronger, richer, more attractive and more. The result is a constant nagging fear that we won’t be enough. It’s a self-doubt that is hard to shake. (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on being enough.)

Conversely, some degenerate the ego and believe that it’s bad. John Dixon in Humilitas says, “One of the failings of contemporary Western culture is to confuse conviction with arrogance.” That is, those whose ego is sufficient to operate with conviction are confused with those whose ego is out of control. (See The Wisdom of Not Invented Here for a collected set of ego references.)

Enlightenment

A Hunger for Healing quotes a Zen (Buddhist) saying: “After enlightenment, draw water, chop wood.” Advice Not Given repeats this as, “after ecstasy, it is said, comes the laundry.” That is that while the Eightfold Path – and all self-reflection may lead to enlightenment– it doesn’t alleviate our need to be in the world and attend to our material needs and duties. After all, enlightenment (or awaking) doesn’t make the ego disappear, it changes our relationship to it.

The Eightfold Path to enlightenment is:

  • Right View
  • Right Motivation
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

Before looking at each component, it’s important to pause and address the use of the word “right.” Epstein makes a point that the word doesn’t have to be translated to right as in “correct.” The original word could also mean “realistic” or “complete.” Epstein shares that he thinks of it as balanced, attuned, or fitting. This is important, because there’s no one “right” way to walk the path. There is a way of walking the path that is balanced or attuned to you, your needs, and the needs of the world around you.

Let’s walk the path as Epstein did.

Right View

Accepting reality as it is – not as we want it to be – is hard. It is, however, necessary to be in harmony with it. The right view has us constantly seeking to accept reality for what it is. The Serenity Prayer includes, “Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it.”

Too often, we see something unpleasant or discomforting, and we turn away from it. We seek to avoid the suffering of this life and only make it double. Right view isn’t eliminating suffering, but it’s changing how we approach it, so that it’s no larger and no smaller than it should be. It’s recognizing that both happiness and suffering – and everything else – is temporary. We don’t need to grasp onto it too tightly.

Right Motivation

We all have unconscious desires that drive us. Right motivation suggests that we don’t have to be at the mercy of our neuroses. By shining light into the dark places of our soul, we can come to know them – and address them in healthier ways. We must, of course, admit that the dark places exist. We must accept that there are parts of ourselves that we don’t yet know and some that we may not like.

Motivation also means a balance between the need to develop wisdom and the need to cultivate compassion. Epstein recounts more than one situation where a hermit was admonished for not living in the world. Buddha made a point of having his monks go out into the community each day to keep them connected to the world and realize that they weren’t above or apart from the rest of the world.

Right Speech

Traditionally, right speech is about refraining from harmful talk, like lying, gossip, and such. However, it can have a deeper meaning about not just the talk that we share outwardly with others but also with the talk whispered under our breath and our self-talk. If people heard what we say to ourselves about ourselves, they would be appalled. We speak to ourselves in such a compassionless and unfair way – and we continue to allow it.

Right speech leads us to pay attention to the space between thought and action to create more space and give us greater opportunity to intervene before harmful words or actions occur. Sometimes that intervention is to prevent us from adding more meaning than is there. (See Choice Theory and Argyris’ Ladder of Inference for more on how we add meaning.) Sometimes that intervention is to assess whether what we’re thinking is just a thought or whether it is reality. Too often, we believe that we know reality, when we’re just making a series of assumptions.

We can create a space where we’re open, accepting, and inquisitive about our inner lives and the inner lives of others. In this space, we can process our thoughts and emotions, comparing them with reality and enabling us to prevent past hurts from being borne out into the future.

Right Action

Right action is about not acting destructively. This means many of the things that make God’s top ten list (also known as the Ten Commandments): killing, stealing, etc. It also includes things like excessive drinking, which didn’t make God’s top ten list but are addressed in the Bible. It’s important to recognize, as the Dalai Lama has pointed out, that all religions fundamentally operate in the same direction – towards love. (See The Book of Joy for more.)

Much of right action could be compared to The Marshmallow Test. It’s denying our selfish, immediate needs in the service of greater rewards in the future. It’s difficult to delay our gratification and be willing to confront difficult decisions when they don’t fit with our previously established ideas or vows.

We have to live in the world – even when what is happening to us in the world isn’t what we planned. If our lives aren’t going along the script that we had planned, we have to accept that and only take the actions that we can to move us forward – without an attempt to overcontrol things.

Right Livelihood

Everyone has to make a living –but you don’t have to do it in a way that is deceitful or exploitative. The heart of right livelihood is finding a way to live which enriches your life – and the life of others. Making money is necessary. However, making money while preying on others isn’t.

Right Effort

The middle way – neither living in self-denial or indulgent materialism – is what right effort is about. It reflects the nature of life where both extremes on a continuum are bad. Only a middle path balances discipline and love. Children, as Donald Winnicott noted, need “good enough” parenting that doesn’t over indulge nor neglect the child for them to develop normally. Children need challenges, but, at the same time, they need to know that they’re supported.

Like strings on an instrument that can be too tight or too loose, we need to find the right grip on the things we work at so that we neither over- nor under-control. This delicate balance – the middle way – isn’t easy, but the result of the rightly-tuned string is good music. The result of the rightly-tuned life is happiness.

Right Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a bit of a misnomer. The word used is sati – which means “remembering.” When we’re being mindful, we’re remembering to pay attention to the world – and ourselves. Mindfulness isn’t anything special or additional that must be done. It’s not something that’s done only in the midst of meditation. Mindfulness is a way of viewing things where you keep an eye on your own mental processes.

In the learning and education space, it’s called “metacognitive.” In the Buddhist context, it’s keeping a distant eye on the processing that’s happening, so that we’re more aware of it.

Right Concentration

In terms of teaching, concentration is typically taught before mindfulness, because it’s useful in the process of trying to be mindful. In truth, we’re not taught how to concentrate in our schools or societies. Though concentration is a powerful force – like how focusing light makes a laser that can cut metal – it’s not something that most folks know how to do.

Together

Together, these ideas are the path towards enlightenment. However, even those on the path may find that they are buffeted by the waves of uncertainty and change. If you’re trying to find peace, Advice Not Given counsels, it’s important to remember that the waves are a part of the ocean. They rise, and they descend, but they’re all a part of the ocean.

Perhaps my favorite part of Advice Not Given is the ending. “Our egos do not have to have the last word.” Our egos may keep us from accepting advice, but it can’t stop us from reading Advice Not Given.

Book Review-The Trauma of Everyday Life

Trauma is everywhere. It spares no one. The constant march of time propels it forward without end. It’s The Trauma of Everyday Life that Buddha spoke of when he used the word dukkha. It’s the suffering that we all face. Mark Epstein in The Trauma of Everyday Life succeeds in helping to explain some fundamentals of our mental worlds as they intersect in Western and Buddhist philosophies.

Suffering

A man was being followed. Every street he turned onto, this figure followed. He ran, and the figure ran, too – as fast as he did. Every step, the figure followed. As he slowed, so did the figure. It was half an hour before the man realized that he was running from his shadow. That’s the experience that we have in life when we seek to avoid suffering. Wherever we go, suffering and trauma is there. We cannot escape it, because it’s an inescapable part of our lives.

Buddha called it dukkha, which is most typically translated as “suffering,” but the literal meaning is closer to “hard to face.” In Jewish and Christian traditions, it’s described that we live in a fallen world. The brokenness, pain, and suffering we experience are – according to the tradition – a result of the original sin. They’re a part of our existence now.

In Buddhist writings, there is a story of a woman carrying her dead baby and looking for a physician to bring the baby back to life. The Buddha told her to bring back mustard seeds from a family that had never known death. Of course, she couldn’t find any family who hadn’t experienced death. In the process, she realized that she wasn’t alone in her suffering and finally let go of her baby.

Suffering is a universal and unfortunate part of our lives, but we can’t run from it; we must accept it as a truth rather than try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

It’s Not Your Fault

Suffering or tragedy is not your fault. It’s not “ye of little faith” that causes the suffering. You didn’t do anything wrong. Even with Buddha’s belief in karma, he believed that perhaps only one in eight bad things that happen to a person is related to their bad karma. That is even the most consequential view. The good or bad you did that was reflected back to you didn’t necessarily lead – in his opinion – to suffering. Suffering is, as was the first noble truth, simply a part of life.

When you accept that suffering – or “trauma,” the word Mark Epstein uses – is a fundamental part of our world, you can let go of the shame and guilt that you’re receiving suffering as the consequences for your living. You can address only the suffering and not the feelings that the suffering brings up.

The Path Through Suffering

Many people believe that the way to happiness and joy is to avoid suffering. This is like the idea that mental health is the absence of mental illness. (See Flourish.) Both are fallacies. Joy isn’t the absence of pain and suffering. Joy is something else.

In fact, the path to joy isn’t in the opposite direction of suffering – it’s through it. In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and The Dalai Lama speak of the path to joy – and to how their joy led them both through struggles. If we stop short of joy at inner peace, we find that it too takes a path through suffering – not around it.

We can’t avoid suffering, we can’t run in fear that we may be hurt. Instead, we walk through it, not minimizing the suffering but acknowledging it as impermanent – only temporary. When we choose to run away from the possibility of suffering, we cheat ourselves out of a whole life and spend our time running from our own shadow, pretending that we can get away from suffering.

A View of Suffering

The pain we feel from something that goes wrong, misses our expectations, or harms us is only the first thing. What is more challenging – and longer lasting – is the harm that we cause ourselves by the perspective we take to the suffering.

Consider a beautiful vase in a store that you see crash to the ground. Though it is bad, you’re likely to not feel much. When the same vase is in your home and it’s a prized possession, because you bought it on your last vacation with your mother before she died, it will likely bring more suffering. The vase itself is the same. The meaning that we assign to it – and the perspective on the loss – is different. It’s that difference that causes the pain.

Another point of view is the old story about two Buddhist monks who had taken a vow to never touch a woman. Seeing a woman struggling and in need of assistance across a river, one carries her to the other side. He continues for the rest of the day with his companion, who finally explodes, “How could you carry that woman? You took a vow.” The first monk responds, “I only carried her across the river; you’ve carried her all day.” In one perspective, the monk was responding to the greater need for compassion than the limitation of his vow, and, in the second, the broken vow was unforgivable.

The first monk presumably suffered with the conflict between his vow to not touch a woman and his commitment to cultivating his compassion. This conflict was suffering – but briefly held as he moved on. The other monk presumably felt the same conflict but carried the suffering as his companion carried the woman.

Suffering is less about the objective pain or discomfort that we feel and more about how we view that pain – as having meaning or being pointless. (For more, see The Hope Circuit.) The way that we process the pain is substantially more important than the pain itself. (See Flourish for the difference between post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic growth.)

Basic Buddhist Meditation

There are many kinds of meditative practices and perspectives on those practices. However, the most basic meditative practices in Buddhism are about watching your breath or body. The idea is not that you’re trying to change anything. Instead, you simply watch your thoughts and gently guide them back to your breath.

Not only is there no condemnation if your mind wanders, there is an expectation that it will wander. Even the most practiced meditators find that their mind wanders from time to time, and they simply lead it back gently and firmly, like you would a child.

Embedded in this practice is a paradox. People often come to meditation to change their life, to make pains disappear, or to feel less anxiety. The meditation itself isn’t trying to change anything. People change through these practices while they’re not trying to change anything.

Impermanence

One of the things about our breath is that it is constantly changing. Each breath is slightly different from the last, like snowflakes gently drifting down into our consciousness before melting away. All of life is like these snowflakes, which are here for the moment and then gone or changed the next. Our perspective that things are permanent is an illusion.

Scientists typically prefer to picture time as being laid out along a line and that we are simply moving along that line. Everything that will happen has – in essence – already happened. While this challenges our belief in our free will, it helps us visualize impermanence. We don’t expect that our home will exist in the same way that it does forever – or that we’ll even own it. Instead, we can recognize that everything that we feel is permanent really isn’t.

Absolute-isms

We like to believe that the world is much more cause-and-effect than it really is. We like to forget that there are probabilities in everything. We believe that we’re going to drive to the store safely – even though there is a small chance of an accident. These absolute-isms that things are going to be OK are what allow us to function. (See Change or Die for more on this.) Trauma can take these absolute-isms from us and force us to deal with our world in a more realistic way.

For me, losing my brother to an airplane accident was probably my singularly worst moment. In addition to losing a brother and a friend, I had to confront that even the best pilot and mechanic could have a set of things happen that he couldn’t compensate for. I had to come face to face with knowing that, no matter how good a pilot he was, it wasn’t enough.

Emotions

The mistaken impression of most is that Buddha transcended emotion. He eradicated it from his life and from the things that burdened his spirit. However, in truth, it’s more accurate to say that he learned how to come to terms with his emotions. He didn’t fear that they would overtake him and run amuck. Nor did he berate himself for negative (or afflictive) thoughts. He learned to simply allow his emotions to pass by as he saw them.

So many people want relief from the pressures of their emotions. The result is they turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, and other maladaptive coping strategies to allow them to numb themselves from their unpleasant emotions. This approach is different than the approach of learning to work with your emotions.

The Problem of Attachment

Buddha was surrounded by those who thought that the path to enlightenment was found through denying oneself and through inducing more suffering. However, as Buddha articulated, life is suffering. There is then no reason to try to add to it. There is enough suffering. Conversely, there were those who believed that there was no reason to suffer, that they should live life to its fullest and be materialistic in their desires. This too, he thought was wrong. Thus, he developed a middle way, which acknowledges life for what it is and still seeks to make it better.

In the middle way, Buddha realized that there is nothing wrong with pleasure. The problems that most people ascribed to pleasure were really problems with attachment to the outcomes, objects, and people that are necessarily impermanent.

Integrated Self Image

Epstein speaks of Buddha’s dreams and how he learned how to accept himself fully. He didn’t trouble himself with second-guessing. He accepted his bad parts – and his good parts – as one integrated person. He isn’t the result of one decision, one thought, or one action. He’s one collective whole. This is a concept that I’ve written about before in my reviews of Rising Strong, Schools Without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries. Clearly, it’s a recurring concept and important to me personally. I believe that developing an integrated self-image is key to surviving The Trauma of Everyday Life. What do you think?

Book Review-The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World

There aren’t many members in the moral leaders club. For that reason alone, when two moral leaders – The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – gather to share deep discussions of morality and, in this case, joy, it’s worth investigating. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World both chronicles the meeting and walks through the agreements and disagreements of these two great leaders.

What is Joy?

I’ve written about my journey to find happiness with many reviews (Stumbling on Happiness, Hardwiring Happiness, Flourish, etc.). I’ve considered the difference between hedonistic happiness and value-based happiness in my reading and reviews of The Time Paradox and The Happiness Hypothesis. Joy is something different.

The Archbishop says, “Joy is much bigger than happiness. While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not.” The Dalai Lama echoes this in the inverse by saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Joy, then, is a conscious choice to respond to our circumstances in a positive and fulfilling way. We cannot change our circumstances, but we can change how we respond.

Everyone Has Pain

The Archbishop comments, “I’m really actually very humbled listening to His Holiness, because I’ve frequently mentioned to people the fact of his serenity and his calm and joyfulness. We would probably have said ‘in spite of’ the adversity, but it seems like he’s saying ‘because of’ the adversity that this has evolved for him.” The Dalai Lama has certainly known pain. It isn’t in spite of the pain that he’s become the great man he is today but rather because of it. It’s because of the way that he’s been able to work through his pain and choose his response that he is revered – even by other leaders – for his serenity, calm, and joyfulness.

The research says that if you “help” hatching sea turtles to get to the ocean, you’ll disrupt their sense of bearing and ultimately kill them. If you “help” a chick to escape the egg shell, you’ll condemn it to death. Even our stem cells need biological stress to cause them to become the specific cells we need. Pain, stress, hardship, challenge, or whatever you call it is the power that drives us to be better.

The challenge, as we learned in The Hope Circuit, is to find meaning in the pain. Without meaning to our pain, we see no sense to it nor control, and we develop the state of learned helplessness – or, rather, we fail to develop a sense of control that enables us to persevere. So, it’s not in spite of hardship that we develop joy but through it.

Dejection

Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist master, wrote, “If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection? And if nothing can be done about it, what use is there for being dejected?” It is key for joy to not be sucked in by destructive emotions like dejection. Shantideva is saying that, on both sides of the coin, dejection is not useful. If nothing can be done, then your dejection will do nothing but further zap your energy. If something can be done, then why wallow in a dejected state – why not just go do it?

Ultimately, the feeling of dejection arises when you don’t believe that you can do anything about your situation – that you have no control. This may be the literal truth, but being dejected does nothing to change that fact. In fact, it reduces your capacity to do other things. By accepting that you can’t do anything and moving on, you’re better off.

Destructive Emotions

Dejection is only one form of destructive emotion. Other destructive emotions like envy literally block a person’s ability to feel love, empathy, and compassion, and, as a result, they prevent joy. Destructive Emotions is the subject of a book by Daniel Goleman and The Dalai Lama. It came from a set of meetings between spiritual leaders and scientists. The conversation centered on the Buddhist belief that emotions can be either afflictive or non-afflictive. In other words, they can be either destructive or not.

The problem with destructive emotions is that they block the path to joy. Anger that is maintained for too long becomes afflictive (destructive) and keeps someone from reaching joy. The path to joy, in this case, is through forgiveness or letting go of the anger. Consider a man who was imprisoned for 30 years, who was asked how he could forgive those who jailed him. His response was, “If I’m angry and unforgiving, they will have taken the rest of my life.”

Despite the encouragement to release destructive emotions, both the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop acknowledge that destructive emotions come to everyone, and there should be no shame in them occurring. They should simply be set aside.

Emotional Control

One of the areas that the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama disagree is the degree to which people have control of their emotions. The Archbishop feels like people have little influence on their emotions, and the Dalai Lama feels that we have more. How Emotions Are Made argues that emotions are entirely constructed in our mind – and therefore we should be able to control our emotions. While I think that this goes too far, to say that we have significant influence on our emotions isn’t an understatement.

Paul Ekman has been working with the Dalai Lama since Daniel Goleman introduced him back at the conference that led to the Destructive Emotions book. In fact, Ekman and the Dalai Lama have authored a book titled Emotional Awareness. Ekman is known for his work in developing the facial action coding system (FACS) or, more colloquially, in his ability to train people to detect lies. (See Telling Lies for more.) Ekman believes that, in addition to the ability to shape your emotions, there’s a gap between feeling the emotion and responding, and that this gap can be cultivated. However, he cautions that this isn’t easy, because evolution designed emotions and their responses to happen quickly.

Shifting Perceptions

Jinpa (who is the Dalai Lama’s primary English interpreter) mentions that it’s much easier to change perceptions than it is to change your emotions. I find this to be very true. To change perception simply requires examining the perception and others’ perceptions. However, telling someone that they shouldn’t be angry denies and invalidates them. (See Motivational Interviewing for more)

Once perceptions are changed, it’s possible to get folks to re-evaluate their emotions in the context of new information. Sometimes they are so moved that they will adjust their emotion to match the facts – but often not without internal difficulty. I often encounter people saying that they know that they shouldn’t be angry, frustrated, sad, etc., but they still are. The feelings, however, tend to fade with time.

Multiple Brain Circuits

What we may be experiencing is the same sort of tug of war that we saw in The Hope Circuit, where the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is able to dampen the response of the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN). It takes time (and training) for one part of the brain to attenuate the function of another. The more we research the brain, the more we realize that there are separate, sometimes redundant, pathways. Richard Davidson, for instance, discovered there are four separate brain “circuits” involved in joy. There are one each for maintaining positive states, recovering from negative states, generating focus and anti-mind-wandering, and generosity. It’s amazing that we have four separate circuits that are converged on the ability to help us find joy.

The fact that nature designed so much into the possibility of joy gives us hope that we can each find our own joy – irrespective of our circumstances.

Cultivating Joy

In the end, it’s possible to cultivate joy by cultivating our compassion and focusing our thoughts towards more compassionate directions. Further, we can cultivate joy by forming and maintaining intimate relationships with other humans. The more connected we become to others in a meaningful way, the more joy we find.

Breaking Traditions

There are traditions in each religion. For Christians – particularly Catholics – it’s traditional to only offer the Eucharist to other Christians. It’s the symbolic body of Jesus and his blood. The thinking goes that you would want to only offer this special rite to those who would honor it. For the Dalai Lama, he made a vow not to dance. Both the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama broke their tradition (or vow) during the course of their meeting. The Archbishop by offering the Dalai Lama the Eucharist and the Dalai Lama by indulging in a bit of a dance to follow the Archbishop’s irrepressible boogie.

To some this may seem like a major transgression; to me, it seems like an awareness that the customs, conventions, and vows are designed to direct us towards the goal of our religion – which both men would describe as love. In context, love most likely equates to the Greek word agape, and thus is essentially the same as compassion. I was impressed, when I read Heroic Leadership, to find that the Jesuits focused on the essentials of their beliefs and bent those traditions that inhibited their ability to become a part of other communities. I see these leaders’ acts as attempts to close the gaps between differing religious views and to unify us all in our acceptance of everyone.

We open ourselves up to joy when we realize that we’re all a part of one large community of humans, and we desire to be in relationships with others. The Book of Joy is written with space for all our names. We just need to seek to be in community with all of our brothers and sisters across the planet Earth.

Book Review: Mere Christianity

Most folks don’t describe Christianity with the adjective “mere.” However, C.S. Lewis isn’t most folks – rather, he’s a common man with an uncommon view. Mere Christianity is the written record of what started as a series of BBC broadcasts to help explain what Christians believed. He didn’t speak as an authoritative source who had dedicated his life to the scholarly study and application of ancient texts in Christianity. He came as a man who could see to the heart of Christianity and who could speak so eloquently that anyone could understand what he saw in it.

The One Denomination to Rule Them All

Lewis quickly dispensed with the internal conflict that pits Christian against Christian and divides the one brotherhood into many different factions. He describes a great hall off of which each of the denominations has a room. He invites us to stand in the hall, accepting the rules of the house – the rules all Christians believe – but also to move into a room where we can be comfortable and fed.

To Lewis, it seems, all of Christianity receives the benefits of the house, no matter which room you’re in. He has no quarrel with someone who believes in Christ but believes slightly differently about things that matter little.

Pathfinding

Finding our individual paths isn’t easy. There are times when we’ll end up off track. Lewis has a way of conveying the fundamental truths about finding your path that is both practical and direct. Whether it’s reminding us that going farther in the wrong direction doesn’t bring us closer to our goal or that progress isn’t just changing, it’s changing for the better, Lewis is gently reminding us that, in whatever journey we’re on, we must keep the end in mind.

With understanding Christianity, our goal is to understand how to behave more like Christ would behave. Before this, however, we must think through how we have come to believe this goal. We must move through the theological and ideological challenges that have been laid at the feet of Christianity and be able to explain them to ourselves with reasonable satisfaction.

It’s only then that we can start on the path forward to find where walking in Christ’s footsteps will lead us.

Other Religions

It’s not like Christianity is the only game in town when it comes to religion. However, there are some distinct differences. Christianity is the only religion where your sins have already been paid for – you’ve been redeemed. Sometimes, however, other religions are more appealing. They provide the same comfort of believing in a benevolent power greater than yourselves with none of the guilt.

Still, Lewis remains open to Christians to considering other religions and believing that they may have some hint of truth. After all, when you’re dealing with an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being that created the universe, it’s possible that we may not be able to fully comprehend him.

Free Will

Injecting common sense into a difficult argument, Lewis points out that free will opens the door to evil in the world. However, at the same time, the only way to truly express love, goodness, or joy is to do it freely. Free will is an expensive tool that makes it possible to see into the hearts of men and illuminate meaning and intent in ways that perfunctory words could not.

The God of the Material

The Christian (and therefore Jewish and Muslim as well) God is said to be a jealous God. We’re to make no god before him. However, what does that mean? Certainly, the Bible is clear about making golden calves, but few people would do that today. It doesn’t need to be taken in the completely literal sense. Having a god before God can be anything that takes the place of importance.

Some worship at the shrine of football. Others worship at the shopping mall. Others worship their beauty. The idols that we have today aren’t explicitly called out as other gods, yet we insist that they must come before everything else.

God is Love

If God is love, then a discussion of Christianity should include a conversation about love. Lewis makes the point that love is a relationship between two. If God is love, then who is he loving? The short answer is us. Lewis spends his time in Mere Christianity focused on those things that are important. It seems like if more people modeled God’s love with others, we wouldn’t just call it Mere Christianity.

Why and How 12-Step Groups Work

Alcoholics Anonymous and other “recovery” groups still suffer from a stigma in popular culture.  Much like going to a counselor does – or did – demonstrate that you didn’t have everything together, 12-step “recovery” groups are seen as a demonstration of weakness; however, I can tell you that I find them to be the places where I have seen the greatest strengths of character and where I see the most authentic people.

The first challenge in the opportunity to speak about this is to help people understand that I believe everyone can benefit from the core tenets of a 12-step program.  I don’t mean that as a prescriptive follow the steps as written.  I mean that, when you take a step back and you look at the process of building safety, fearlessly looking into our own souls with the help of others, and doing acts of service, you find a path where everyone can grow and become greater than themselves.

Building Safety

There are several tenets built into the 12-step program that are designed to increase the perception of safety.  (You may want to look at my post Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on why I describe safety as a perception.)  Alcoholics Anonymous’ name is the start – anonymous.  You’re not going to be identified, labeled, or judged on the street, because no one is going to know you were there.

The check-in process helps to build connection, even in this anonymous world.  We get other people’s first names so that we can start the process of connecting with them.  “Hi, my name is Rob” is a simple start to connection, which conveys a name – and gives others an opportunity to hear the tone and tenor of my voice to know, to some degree, where my heart is.  You don’t have to have Dr. Ekman’s FACS training to know what I’m feeling.  (See Nonverbal Messages: Cracking the Code: My Life’s Pursuit for more on FACS and Dr. Ekman’s work.)  The opportunity to connect activates our understanding of safety that comes with being “a part of.”  (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on our need for connection.)

Many groups are facilitated by those who’ve been “working their program” for a long time.  Those who have been with the process for a long time have developed a wisdom for how to gently nudge a group into healthy trust and safety enhancing directions.  The process they share with the rest of the group isn’t a command or an instruction.  They’re simply sharing what worked for them while acknowledging others’ paths may be different.  Most also have a compassion for those who come to a group for the first time.  They remember how intensely frightening and confusing the first few meetings could be.

Community

Attendees eventually come to understand and accept the rhythm of the group and the supportive approach that the group takes towards one another.  While there may be, at times, pointed conversations about how folks are deluding themselves or minimizing their dysfunction, there’s a clear undercurrent carrying the conversations.  That undercurrent is concern for the wellbeing of the others who are there.

We used to have small communities of people who worked together to conquer nature and defend the hamlet against the ravages of Mother Nature and the outside world.  This stance was seen in the wagon trains that conquered the American West as they “circled the wagons” so that the community could defend itself from the forces on the outside.

Somehow, a culture emerges in the 12-step group that places everyone inside the group as a part of the brotherhood (or sisterhood).  There’s a shared experience in whatever addiction brought them to the group.  The bonds of the community are an important part of building trust and separating the old habits.

The friendships and bonds which are forged in these communities are strong.  They provide a network of strength when the inevitable storms come.  Instead of turning to a substance, communities can turn to each other to support and hold each other up.

Accountability Partners

Sometimes, people will emerge from the community who are willing and able to hold you accountable.  The trust builds to a level that you know these people – in particular – are willing to speak truth into your life, with the grace that informs you they’re not judging.  These are people that come beside you when you’re struggling and help you keep moving forward when it’s difficult.  They encourage you to keep up the fight.

Accountability partners are sometimes semi-formal in that you ask someone to help hold you accountable, and sometimes they just evolve as people decide to speak truth into your life and as a result have become close friends.  It’s the truth being spoken into your life that begins to give you space to see where you’re hurt and broken.  As they speak trust into your life, frequently you’re given permission to speak truth into theirs.  The perspective is that no one recovers alone.  There’s no “I” in recovery, only “We.”

Sponsors

Sponsorship in a 12-step group is an opportunity for someone ahead of you to help guide you.  Sometimes the people who are ahead of you aren’t ahead by much – but they’re there to not just hold you accountable but to lead you.  Accountability partners sometimes become sponsors, but sponsorship inside of a 12-step group is a more structured arrangement.  More than just trying to hold you accountable to the standards that you set for yourself, sponsors are committed to walking with you through the 12-steps.

Sponsors don’t have it all figured out themselves, but they trust in the community and the process to lead them.  Sponsors themselves have sponsors.  The acceptance that the process of having someone there to lead you when you may lead yourself astray is a necessary part of facing an addiction.  It’s important to understand that sponsors share their experience and path, which may be quite different than the path of the sponsee.  I’ve found that having others to share when they believe you are headed astray is a helpful approach to going through life.

Taking a Step

Step 1 may be the “hardest” step – up to that point.  Admitting that our lives have become unmanageable may be more than what most people are willing to admit.  After all, we have jobs, cars, houses, and the modern conveniences that most people expect.  Our lives aren’t unmanageable in the same way that an addict’s life is – and at this stage, few are willing to admit their addictions.

However, most of us would admit that managing our lives is exhausting.  Wouldn’t it be good to get a break from the need to manage our lives?  Wouldn’t it be amazing to have an opportunity to allow our lives to become unmanageable for a little while?  Somewhere deep inside, we know that our control is an illusion.  We know that we can’t control our lives any more than we can control the weather.  We know that we influence and direct our lives, but still far too much is ruled by chance.  (See Compelled to Control for more on the illusion.)

Step 2 and step 3 acknowledge the presence of a higher power and release the management of our lives into their control.  In short, it’s a break, a rest from having to have it all figured out and getting it right all the time.  The first three steps of a 12-step program are all about releasing the burden of trying to have our lives all figured out.  Instead, we’re given the opportunity to place our trust in a higher power that can carry the load that we can’t – or that we don’t always want to – carry.

Non-Addictive Escapes

An addict is someone who has lost control of a coping skill until it gradually begins to control them.  Addictive behaviors are either compulsive – they “must” be done – or they’re risky – they can cause great harm.  Addicts started just like us.  They had a pain in life or their soul that they were coping with.  They grabbed that drink, that drug, or that food, and they used it to soothe their pain.  The difference between an addict and a non-addict often isn’t the coping strategy that they used – it’s that the coping strategy didn’t take over the non-addict.  The coping strategy didn’t make it into the category of a means of survival.

For the addict, new coping skills are needed.  They can’t turn back to the skills that gained control of them for fear that they may gain control once again.  For many, the new life in community and the ability to connect with others is able to support them during the same lows that they might have turned to their addiction to in the past.

To be clear, I’m not saying that we should never use coping strategies to help soothe ourselves.  Having coping strategies is healthy.  Allowing the coping strategy to take control of us isn’t.  All of us use coping strategies when we recognize that we aren’t going to get what we want and, ultimately, that we’re not in control.

The point of accepting a higher power is to realize that, even though we don’t have control, someone does.  We don’t have to be in control if our advocate, our trusted friend, is the one who is in control.  Developing an acceptance of the higher power to build trust and safety that everything will be OK is one of the key areas of growth that new “steppers” find themselves in.

Ultimately, the tenor of the 12-step community is designed to create trust and develop a sense of safety that you can stand on to accomplish the difficult work of looking deeply into who you are.

Fearlessly Looking

Fearless is not the way that most people describe the process of looking inside of themselves.  In fact, I’ve never met anyone who would describe the process of truly looking at what they believe and who they are as fearless.  Instead, people describe the process of learning to slip past the ego and its defenses into the inner sanctum of our most cherished beliefs about the world and ourselves as an intensely frightening activity.  (See Change or Die for more on the ego and its defenses.)  In fact, I’ve personally seen dozens, if not hundreds, of people who have started the journey only to turn back.

Why, then, should I call it fearless?  Because those who do it fear less than those who don’t make it.  The fulcrum of personal growth and development is the capacity to stare deeply into our own personal darkness and not turn our gaze.  Our fear causes us to turn away from the very activities that have the greatest promise for making us happy and changing the trajectory of our lives.

The point of building such a high tower of trust and safety in the beginning is to create the opportunity to peer into those deep recesses of ourselves in a way that, if not fearless, is at least safe.

Courageous

If fear is still present when we seek to slip past our own defenses to see – and challenge – our core beliefs, then how do we move forward?  The answer is courage.  Most people believe that courage is the absence of fear.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  Courage requires fear.  Courage is movement in the presence of fear.  Courage is overcoming fear.  (See Find Your Courage for more on how to find courage.)

So, while it’s important to fear less, it’s equally important to have the courage to move forward through whatever fear remains.  The community that 12-step programs build create a sense of safety that makes it more possible for people to proceed courageously.

Warped Perspectives

Walking through a carnival funhouse, one moment you’re tall and skinny, and the next moment you’re short and fat.  You’re the same person.  You didn’t change in the two steps you took.  The only change was the perspective that the mirror provided.  It’s these bad mirrors that the process of fearlessly looking is designed to eliminate.

We all have distorted versions of ourselves.  That’s a part of our human nature.  In fact, those poor souls who have depression have a more accurate view of themselves than those of us who are “normal.”  In our normalcy, we believe we’re better than average.  We believe that we’re the best students, teachers, leaders, friends, and spouses – even in the face of evidence that says this can’t be possible.

Through some poor conditions while growing, some people have developed a view of the world as a hostile and competitive place, where you must scratch and claw your way up from the bottom.  (See How Children Succeed for more on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study and the impacts.)  It’s possible that this is an accurate view of your world, but, ultimately, a different perspective may be more helpful to your growth and happiness.  Viewing the world as a helpful place rather than one that is hostile yields lower stress and that means longer life.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers – The Physical Impact of Stress for more.)

The more clearly we can see where our perspectives are warped, evaluate by how much, and seek to lean upon other views and other trusted people for a better overall picture, the greater we can eliminate those pains that continue to haunt us and work on ourselves in ways that bring about our ability to grow and thrive.

Painful Before It’s Peaceful

A splinter isn’t something anyone would ask for.  Underneath your skin, the sliver of wood will eventually create an infection.  It will create a stronghold for infection before our immune system can send out its troops in the war for our survival.  The splinter hurts a bit when it first enters.  Left alone, it will continue to have a low level of pain until it becomes a problem.  That is, unless we’re willing to accept the additional pain of its removal.

Done well, removing a splinter doesn’t hurt that much more than just leaving it in.  Even done poorly, splinter removal yields a rapid decrease in pain.  So, splinter removal starts with a greater pain and results in less pain – in peace.  Our psychological splinters are the same.  Left alone, they fester and become infected; identified and removed, they lose their power over us.

Feeling our Feelings

Our feelings will demand to make themselves known.  No matter how hard we try to stamp them down, avoid them, run away, ignore, or subvert them, feelings want to be known.  The 12-Step group creates a safe space for us to experience our feelings and to have those feelings validated by others.  Someone can say that they felt something, and you can acknowledge that you too have felt that, or the reverse may happen.

Often, we forget that feelings aren’t good or bad.  We forget that everyone has feelings.  By making feelings safe again 12-Step groups create less need for the out-of-control coping skill.

Marshmallows

One of the greatest predictors of how someone will do in their life can be found in a simple decision.  One marshmallow now, or two in a few minutes.  This test, given to pre-school-age children was illustrative of how well a child would do in the future.  If they were able to delay their gratification and wait for the two marshmallows, they would find themselves better off in life in nearly every measure.  However, what is going on?  How can a humble marshmallow have such predictive powers?

The answer isn’t in the sugary fluff.  The answer is in the skills that the children who were able to delay their gratification found.  These skills allowed them to make better long-term decisions over the course of a lifetime.  In short, they were willing to endure some level of pain today for the relief that it brings in the future.  (For more, see The Marshmallow Test.)

Trusting in the Future

There have been many studies and discussions about Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiment – including his own and those of his contemporaries.  Interesting correlations seemed to show up.  When you position children in environments that are less stable – including fatherless homes and those with lower socio-economic status – the ability to delay gratification is lower.  That is, the less you trust the person promising you a better future result, the less willing you are to forgo the treat or relief today.

An important part of 12-steps groups is the ability to see those who have succeeded in building their lives, recovering from their addictions, and learning how to thrive.  If you trust the people – and you trust the outcomes – you’ve got a foundation to delay gratification, whether that gratification comes in the form of an addiction or not.

12-Step programs are often quick to focus the degree of trust to the near term.  They’re talking about living one day at a time.  It’s not a question about how you’ll survive a year or ten years.  Instead, it’s a question of tomorrow and then the day after that.  This substantially narrows the need for trust and helps move things forward without worrying about whether the goal can be achieved.

Good is the Enemy of Great

Jim Collin’s Good to Great explains that we get to “good enough” and never come back to get to great.  It’s not that our patterns aren’t good – they can be.  It’s that our patterns aren’t great.  They aren’t allowing us to move towards that maximum expression of ourselves in business, our family, our relationships, or ourselves.  We must expose the places where our perspectives and patterns are just ok, might be good, but aren’t great.

We’ve only got so much emotional energy to expend each day.  The more that we fret over something that’s already good, the less energy we have left over to deal with other things – including those things that may not be good.

Constructive Destruction

Sometimes you’ve got to break the good to get to the great.  Sometimes you’ve got to break down something that has every appearance of working to get to something that excels at whatever it is.  Sometimes that’s well-worn patterns of interactions with other people including family, friends, and coworkers.  Facing the reality of our lives sometimes means that we’ve got to look towards what isn’t particularly bad but remains broken – or at least sub-optimal.

Acts of Service

One of the most amazing things that I hear from addicts who have been in the program for a long time is that they’re “recovering.”  This is a simple and telling statement.  It’s not that they’ve conquered their addiction, or that they’ve come to terms with their life and are thriving.  Instead, the healthiest members of the community routinely admit that they’re still learning, growing, and healing.  They’re not recovered.  They’re not done.  They’re works in progress.

Humility echoes through their statements.  They’re not thinking of themselves as lower.  Rather, they’re thinking less about themselves and more about others.

This, too, is why 12-step programs work.  They anchor inside of every member that they’re never done moving into the life that their higher power has for them.  For most of the members of the community, the way that they keep this humility is through their acts of service to others and to the community.

Humility

My favorite definition for humility comes from Humilitas.  It says that “humility is power held in service to others.”  That is, I use what strength I have so that I can lift others up.  Humility is power.  It is in having something that you can share.  It’s also in freely giving it to others so that they may benefit from it too.

Humility acts as an insulator from the pain that leads to the desire for the coping skill that leads to the addiction.  Much of the pain we experience is due to our own lack of humility.  (See A Hunger for Healing for more on this perspective.)  Without humility, we feel entitled, and we judge others, because we are unwilling to judge ourselves.

Value-based Happiness

If you want to remain free of the bonds of addiction, the best way to do that is to avoid the places and things that cause a desire for the coping skill that lead to addiction to be activated.  To do that, we need to understand what we can do to avoid situations of unattenuated pain.  That is, while pain is necessary, it should be the right kind of pain, and we should have the right psychological immune system to protect us from the need to seek a coping skill that leads to an addiction.  (See Stumbling on Happiness for the psychological immune system.)

How do we fuel our psychological immune system?  We fuel it with happiness or joy.  The happier we are, the more resilient we are to pain.  (For more about this, see Flourish and Positivity.)  The way to develop a persistent, long-term happiness is to help other people.  When we are in service to other people, we literally build happiness into ourselves.  (See The Time Paradox and The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness.)

We must keep our heads in the right place, that we are truly serving others, while at the same time realizing where the rewards are.  Whether they’re grateful or not, we should be grateful for the opportunity to serve our fellow man, and at the same time accept the positive emotions that flow to us in the process.

There are many lists of values that can bring us joy.  How to Be an Adult in Relationships offers the five As – Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection, and Allowing – which bring joy to us through our relationships.  Others list traditional values like honesty.  Honesty leaves us with more of our precious mental resources, because we’re not required to remember our lies or come up with excuses.  (See Telling Lies for the ways which lies trip us up.)

Stable Core

What I discovered in my participation in a 12-step group was who I was.  I knew who I was at one point.  I had a picture in my mind of a time when I knew what my life meant and was going to mean.  Somewhere I had lost my trail.  It took being with people who had great clarity in who they are so that I could remember that picture and use it as a map to find my way back onto the trail.

Once I had found my “stable core” again – the part of me that was unchanging, what Beyond Boundaries would call my “defining boundaries” – I was able to accept that I am both good and bad.  I’m neither worthless nor perfect.  I found a way to know myself again through my willingness to walk into those parts of me that I don’t like to find the splinter and remove it.  I’m far from done, but at the same time, I’ve made a great deal of progress.

In the end, 12-step programs work because they allow people to discover themselves, feel safe, and walk through the pain necessary to heal for good, so they don’t have to use coping skills as often or to such a degree.  The coping skills don’t rule them, and we can all use that.

Footnote

It’s important that I say that unlike most of my posts, this post was developed through the strength of the amazing people I’ve met.  Many members of my broader community provided some input on this posts but I’d particularly like to thank Brad and Ben who substantially tightened my thinking and my language.

Book Review-The Public Library: A Photographic Essay

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for libraries. They’re safe places where you can get lost and eventually become found. That’s why when a deal for purchasing The Public Library: A Photographic Essay crossed my path, I decided to pick it up and explore some diversity in public libraries. After all, even though there’s some consistency in the libraries that Carnegie helped to get started, there is a local flavor and character that can’t be captured by visiting just one or two libraries.

Road Trip

The book is the result of a set of road trips designed to visit and capture libraries in pictures. Much like my wife and I have made a point of touring and capturing lighthouses, this is the capture of libraries. While traveling from town to town with camera at the ready, the authors share the diversity of libraries across the US. From the tiny library boxes that grace neighborhoods – including mine – to the massive central libraries of large cities, The Public Library is a tour of the places that people can go to meet with others and elevate themselves through reading.

Reading

American’s reading time fell by 50 percent between 1925 and 1995. That’s a startling statistic that makes sense when considered in the context of our consumerism society, with radio, TV, and other options competing for our attention. However, the challenge is that a good reader can read at roughly three times the speed of the spoken word. In short, you can learn more in less time by reading than you can by watching even educational programming.

Reading books also combats the challenge of our interrupt-driven, no concentration, lack of deep thinking world that is emerging. Books demand our full attention where other activities rarely do. Libraries are designed to allow us to take full advantage of the ability to concentrate that books train us how to do.

Electrons and Atoms

One of the concerns about the library’s future came as books made the transition from their physical form to electronic form. There was a real concern that people would not come to the library to get a book, and that we’d transition to electronic books only. While electronic books are now outselling printed books – and have been for some time – traditional printed books are far from dead. There are still many people who prefer the feel of a book to the feel of an electronic book on a reader.

Libraries, as they often do, adapted to the change by developing mechanisms of sharing books on electronic readers. This allows patrons to share copies of electronic books like they might check out and use a physical book.

Death

Libraries are threatened with death on multiple fronts, as our entertainment options increase and concerns about continue about the transition to electronic books. Certainly, there are communities where libraries are dying – or are dead. The library hours become so constrained that they no longer adequately support the needs of the community and are eventually scuttled.

Libraries are not destined to die. They die when their communities cannot or will not commit the resources to support them. They die when the community can’t see the value that they provide – or that they’re unable to provide. It’s a sad state of affairs when a community abandons its library, because it can feel like it’s abandoning its most vulnerable population.

Equalizer

Libraries are the great equalizer. You’ll find the richest and the poorest together in one space enjoying the fruits that authors have created. Before the invention of the printing press, owning books was something people didn’t aspire to. The Bible was carefully (and sometimes erroneously) copied by hand. (See Misquoting Jesus for more on transcription errors.) Over time, owning books moved from royalty, to nobles, to the wealthy, and finally to the common man. However, even with books getting substantially cheaper, owning your own collection of books is an expensive proposition.

Interestingly, most people don’t read books more than once. They read the book and capture the story or the idea and then set the book aside forever. There’s little value in maintaining ownership. It’s this relatively low-use time that makes books ideal for sharing and the idea of a library one that makes sense.

Some libraries have extended this idea to tools, DVDs, and other resources that aren’t the traditional space of libraries, but they serve the same purpose. They allow many to receive the benefit of the resources that are owned in a shared collective. They remove the separation between those that can afford the tools – including tools of the mind, books – and those that cannot.

Community

Libraries are one of the last non-commercial and non-religious places available to a community. They provide space for people to meet – and sometimes to just get out of the cold or hot weather. They’re places that create the conditions for community. Whether the library provides space for a Pokémon group, a computer club, or another meetup, it helps to strengthen the roots of the community. If you want to understand the roots of the community, it may be that the way to find it is by looking at the dead trees that occupy the bookshelves. It may be that your next step is into The Public Library in the form of a photographic essay.

Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson

Book Review-Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson

Doubt is a natural and healthy part of the human experience so when Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson crossed my path, I was intrigued. What could I learn about doubt?

The great irony of the book is that it is a history of atheism but one that reaffirmed my faith. Doubt is focused on religious doubt but along the way showed a pattern of even the doubters disagreeing with one another. How can I accept that one of the doubters is right about their doubt if the doubters can’t agree with each other about how or why God doesn’t exist?

What is God?

Humans have been trying to make sense of the world around them and the causes for things since we began to walk upright, if not before. (See Man’s Search for Meaning to see Viktor Frankl’s perspective that meaning is the primary drive of life.) We have been seeking a way to better control our lives and our fates through appeal to powerful beings who could intervene on our behalf. The view of what these powers are has varied culturally, from the polytheistic beliefs of the Greeks to the more modern monotheistic belief in one all-powerful God.

Monotheism finds its roots in Judaism. Once God gave Abraham instruction to kill his son, and before he faithfully carried out God’s command, God intervened. Abraham and his wife then filled the planet with their descendants. (Or so the story goes.) This gave rise to Judaism, which in turn gave rise to Christianity. Jesus put a new spin on the old religion, recasting God as a loving father instead of a vengeful and angry God.

Muslims, too, owe their God to the God of the Jews. Mohammad saw himself as the last in a line of prophets, from Moses to Jesus and finally to him. Of course, today we tend to see Islam as a separate religion, but the roots and heritage are the same.

Not all religions can trace their roots to Judaism. Hinduism has a polytheistic approach like the ancient Greeks, with gods having power over different aspects of life. Buddhism doesn’t have a god as such. The approach here is simply to view the next stage in evolution as a higher place, where we’re disconnected from the encumbrances of our lives.

There are as many views of what God is as there are grains of sand on a beach. However, folks generally fall into the preceding handful of categories. See this pie chart of the various religions:

Disbelief “Proofs”

There have been various ideas of God over the eons of our time on Earth, and so too have there been various ideas about why there cannot be a god or why our conception of God must be wrong. A few of the recurring themes in the history of doubt are:

  • God is the universe/world – This model doesn’t accept that there is a separate entity called “God,” but rather says that there is a universal force in the universe.
  • God logically can’t exist – The proofs offered are different, but they often hinge on the question of who God’s creator is. Since we have no frame of reference for a being that wasn’t created, we assume that this cannot be.
  • God is irrelevant – God is unconcerned with the lives of humans, and the presence or lack of presence of a god is irrelevant to our lives.
  • God is cruel – Why would someone worship a god who has left the world with so much suffering?
  • God was invented to keep people in check – Many of God’s structures seemed be to keep the people in check.

Certainly, there are more variants of the challenges to God’s existence; however, the general idea is that, using our rational thinking and logic, we establish – or fail to establish – a mechanism by which God exists.

Bread and Circuses

The Roman Empire was powerful in its time and strange in its longevity. Some of this is surely due to the times they were in and some to their military presence, but at least some of the reason why the Roman Empire was so successful had to do with how they managed the citizenship. Citizenship was a responsibility. It was something that people could look up to being a part of. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on how membership might change perspectives.)

However, the real genius may have been what has been labeled as “bread and circuses.” The bread component is the ability for everyone to meet their basic needs – including, of course, food. This means that, for most, there was enough to eat to sustain themselves. Having your basic necessities met leads to a lower level of angst. It was thousands of years before we discovered how our basic disposition changes when we’re not well fed. (See The One Thing, Willpower, and Predictably Irrational for more on the impact of low blood sugar on decision-making.) Augustus seemed to know empirically that food was a baseline that must be met.

Circuses is a proxy for entertainment. There were grand spectacles that kept people connected to the magic of the empire. They had their basic needs met, and they got regular entertainment. What else could anyone want? It turns out the answer might be fulfillment.

In Drive, Daniel Pink explains what motivates us: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Richard Florida makes a point that, today, we’re seeing the rise of a creative class, where these motivators are strengthened. However, the drivers have always been there behind the scenes, pulling us towards a different way of motivation. Once our basic needs are met, the next thing we want to do is to meet these higher needs. Strangely, in the times of the Roman Empire, we may have found that folks had a great degree of autonomy and felt a great degree of mastery. The missing component was purpose.

If your life is an endless struggle for survival, and each season seems like the next, you’ll start looking for purpose. (See When – also by Daniel Pink – to understand how we created the concept of time to break the monotony.) We’re hardwired as humans to try to make sense of our surroundings. (See Incognito for more on the way we’re wired to make sense of things.)

Religion is a way to make sense out of our world. It’s a way to ascribe meaning to the things that happen to us, even when some of those meanings are painful for us.

Crime and Punishment

One view of God is that He’s just, and therefore anyone who is suffering deserves it. That is, they’re being punished for something they did – or didn’t – do. This is an awful burden to place upon someone who has fallen victim to misfortune. If you lose a brother, it must be because you did something wrong. If you’re sick, you must not have said your prayers. Or perhaps you had too little faith.

This view of God is inconsistent with the literal meaning contained in the Bible – but that doesn’t matter when you’re unable to read. See Faith, Hope, and Love for more on what these really mean – and why it doesn’t mean that you’ve done wrong.

One view is that God was created to keep those who are less fortunate shrouded in shame. In this way, they can be perpetually kept down. (See Daring Greatly for more on shame and its power.)

Karma and Castes

Transitioning from Christianity to Hinduism, there are signs pointing to the fact that the idea of karma was designed to keep the caste system in place. The caste system places people into different strata in society. The idea is that you have a station in life that you should keep.

Karma holds the system in place by helping to explain that you are responsible for your “lot in life.” That is, you must have done something bad in a past life if you find yourself in a lower caste, or something good if you happen to find yourself in a higher caste. Suddenly, there’s an explanation for your bad – or good – luck in life, and it’s you.

It’s not hard to see how one could hold the position that religion is created by the ruling class to keep the working classes down.

Lenin Read a Book of Marx

Marx, a famous atheist, believed that religion was “the opiate of the masses.” That is, it served to dull the pain of a life of struggle. Instead of being to control, Marx believed it served to mollify people. It’s the answer to what bread and circuses couldn’t do. In a great sense of irony, Marxism took on many of the characteristics of a religion. Instead of a religion that had a god, Marxism had a belief that there was no god and no reason to worship anyone. He began an attack on religion.

Lenin liked Marxism but disagreed about religion being bad. Lenin saw no need to immediately remove religion. It was serving a purpose. In his grand plan, religion wouldn’t be necessary any longer; but until the fruition of the plan, there was little reason to rock the boat. Once peoples’ lives were better, they would no longer need the support of religion.

In a ironic twist, most religions have components of helping out your fellow man. What Marx and Lenin wanted to do was have the community or the state do what most religions said they were supposed to be doing.

Morality and the Afterlife

The start of religion concerned itself only with what was going on in this life. It was some time before the idea of an afterlife came into wide acceptance. Many of the “doubters” were concerned not with whether they believed in a god as most religions defined them, but rather what would happen in the absence of the concept of a god. How would individual power of kings and leaders be limited if there wasn’t a higher authority to which people could appeal their case?

Morality is a tricky topic. Haidt seems to have isolated six foundations of morality, as he describes in The Righteous Mind. Bandura speaks volumes about how morality can be disengaged in Moral Disengagement. Milgram’s experiments showed that, with very tiny nudges, most people – good, decent people – could be encouraged to give what they believed were lethal shocks. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Influencer for more.) It’s no surprise that early philosophers were concerned what would happen if they “killed God” in the service of reason. What happens to morality when you remove its moorings?

With the introduction of an idea that there was something beyond this life, comfort was offered to those losing loved ones, people were more likely to sacrifice themselves for others, and there was a place and time for consequences – both positive and negative – for the decisions made now. The afterlife – or what happens after life – was a good addition to religion, both in terms of easing suffering and in terms of increasing the hold of morality.

The Narrow Gate and the Middle Way

Buddha recommended the Middle Way between self-indulgence and abnegation. Jesus explained, “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13). For Buddha’s part, he said that it was as narrow as a razor’s edge – one must be vigilant against the seductions of either tendency. Jesus’ call was for others to follow him, and in this call is the complexity of what to do is answered by the question now found on bracelets: “What Would Jesus Do?” – or, simply, WWJD. Both calls are about finding the path where indulgence doesn’t rule, but there’s no self-harm through denial of basic needs.

In many cases, organized religion has attempted to simplify the message to a set of rules that can be followed rather than a set of guiding principles. We know from leadership research into excellence that getting everyone aligned around guiding principles is substantially more effective than legislating every action and thought that every person should have.

Even the army recognizes that no plan survives engagement with the enemy. It may be useful to do the planning exercise, but “commander’s intent” is now included with orders. (See Made to Stick for more on this.) Religion may have run aground on the sandbar of rules instead of being guided by purpose.

Failures of Religion

It doesn’t take a scholar to find where religions have failed us. It doesn’t require much work to find priests and ministers having “inappropriate relationships.” It’s not hard to overhear a Jew and a Catholic having a competition about which religion is better at inflicting shame and guilt on its members. At every level, there are places where religion – as a human institution – has failed. I’ve been too close to churches who have shunned the spiritually wounded. I’ve been in the splash zone as people were shamed for their behaviors and their identity.

It seems pointless to enumerate the failures because they are so many. However, it’s these failures that the doubters latch on to. “If there is a god, how can they let this happen?” is a common cry of both believers and those filled with doubt. It’s a hard question that none of the proposed answers seem to satisfy.

Monopoly on Truth

Doubters – like religions – must have some degree of believing that they’ve got a monopoly on the truth. There’s a belief that you’ve figured it out, and the “others” got it wrong. At one level, this is our ego protecting us and our decisions. (See Change or Die.) However, understanding how we come by our belief that we’ve got the only right answer doesn’t make the consequences any less tragic.

The things that have been done in the name of religion are gruesome. Consider how the Protestants were massacred by a king to prevent a revolt – and how the Catholic Parisians extended the carnage to their fellow townsmen. Here, you have two religious groups who believe that Jesus came to save everyone from their sins. They disagreed with some of the church doctrine layered on Jesus’ teaching, but in most ways, they believed the same things. And in the end, three thousand were dead, because they didn’t believe in the church doctrine.

This is hardly an isolated occurrence in any religion. When we become convinced that we – and only we – know the answers, we become vulnerable to irrational rationalizations about how we’re right and others aren’t. For me, it’s important to realize that we all go through a growth process, from following the ideas of others, to being fluent in our understanding of them, and, finally, to detaching and recognizing that there are other views that should be considered as well. (See Following, Fluent, Detaching in Story Genius for more.)

Successes of Religion

Most of the philanthropy done is done in the name of religion. Certainly, religion harms people, but it gathers people together and rallies them for the common good – and a lot of good is done. Religion connects us to one another and helps us to align to a common set of goals. The pursuit of righteousness with God has shaped the moral fiber of many people. So even in its current imperfect state, the religions of the world seem to serve more than they take away from the experience of life.

Religion also comes with a set of rhythms and rituals that help bind us together. They help us to be better at that trick of mindreading (see Mindreading).

Wanting and Lacking

Among the doubters are those who have found the way. They learned how to not want anything – and therefore not feel as if they’re lacking anything. They realized that a change in their fundamental attitude was “all” it took to change their outlook on life. They realized, rather than comparing themselves to others through material things, that they could look at the world as owing them nothing. They could accept the blessings of the things that they had and not long for more – or different.

When you don’t want anything, then you don’t want for anything. When you don’t feel like you need things, then you don’t lack them. Certainly, there’s a need for basic necessities, but once you’re beyond those, what is it that you lack that you need? The answer is typically nothing.

The Fear of Pain

There’s a power to anticipation. While we may discount future gains when comparing them to current losses, we amplify the potential losses. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on this asymmetry.) This evolutionary trick may have been helpful when the fears could result in death, but today, most of our pains are not fatal. Yet, there are a great many pains that we face that never really happen. They’re imaginations in our mind. They’re projections of stress that may never come to be. (For more on stress, see Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)

Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” He knew that there were far more worries in his head than things actually happening that were life threatening – or even truly troublesome. Tucked inside doubt is the awareness that sometimes the healthiest thing is to face fear and pain and move through it.

Consider a storm rolling across the plains. Some animals stand firm in their spot. They hunker down. Other animals move away from the rain and continue as it overtakes them. Other animals charge headlong into the turbulent weather. Which group of animals experiences the least amount of rain? Those animals who are willing (and able) to move into the storm are those who experience the least of it.

Great Awakening

Many doubters consider themselves to have had a great awakening. They believe that they figured out the great mystery of religion. Zen Buddhists believe “Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening. No doubt: no awakening.” That is, to really understand the world, you must have great doubt, great curiosity about what is real as opposed to the lie that our eyes and our brain tell us. (See Incognito for more on the lies our brain tells us.)

This mirrors trust. Our ability to truly trust is exposed when others are trustworthy. That is when our trust has been tested. Similarly, we can feel convinced of our great resolve of our faith only after we’ve been tested. It is for this reason that I believe that reading books like Doubt and Misquoting Jesus can help us to become more resolute in our faith.

God Is Love

It’s only fair that I share my beliefs about God and religion. Personally, I believe that every religion gets God wrong. I believe that it’s not possible for our finite and limited human condition to fully comprehend the wonder and majesty that is God. I do not believe in a disinterested God who does not care about us. Nor do I believe that he would like to know our latest tweets.

Many of the great doubters have held out the idea that there may be a god that is the universe. I believe this in that I believe that God is connected to all living things. I believe that God is love. God is the love the binds our human condition to each other. Love – or social cooperation – is what allowed us to succeed in a competitive environment where we have few assets. If you doubt me, perhaps you can develop faith through reading Doubt.