Category Archives: emotional health

am i my body? my feelings? musings on identity and focusing

lately, my three-year-old grandson is quite interested in the whole concept of identity and relationships.

“what’s your mom’s name?” “mommy!”

“who’s that?” “that’s callan. he’s my sister. jaden is my friend.”

“grandma, who’s that in the picture?” “the father.” “what’s his name?” “i don’t know. jack, maybe?” “no, that’s not jack.” “michael?” “no, not michael.” “is his name gordon?” “noooo! not gordon!” (that went on for 10 minutes, to ever-increasing amusement)

and the most interesting one:

i poke him in the belly. he giggles.
me: “who’s that?”
him: “that’s my belly!”
me: “that’s fabian!”
him: “no, that’s not fabian. i’m fabian!”

he’s not his belly. that’s something i’ve been thinking about quite a bit these last few months. to what degree am i my body? my mind? my soul? my ideal version is that it’s all me. i am my mind and my toenail. but it’s so easy to split it all off, and especially from the body. when i say “my feelings” there is a different connotation, a different implication, a different understanding from when i say “my knee”. there is a tacit understanding, often, that i am indeed my feelings but my knee is something that is owned by me, subservient to me. which of course raises the question of who “me” is (that’s material for another post; suffice to say that i quite like what matthew says here, informed by buddhist thich nhat hanh).

these thoughts about identity come to the fore even more now that i am taking a course in focusing. part of this is to go inside and acknowledge/describe a “felt sense” – processes, feelings or sensations that are experienced in the body. a suggestion in focusing is to describe such a sense like in this example:

i notice there is something that feels sad.

what’s curious is how my body reacted to that distancing. there are a number of layers: “i notice”, “there”, “something that …”; even “feels.” it is very different from

i am sad.

my body didn’t like the distancing.  the challenge i see before me is to use the various distances, rather than judge them. i know how very useful it can be for my clients to distance themselves from their feelings, to contemplate the possibility that they are not their feelings, and/or that they are not dominated by their feelings. if that can be useful for them, then clearly i might find some use for it as well.

fortunately, one of the core philosophies of focusing is that wherever the focusser wants to go is right. so there is not party line for me to tow; i don’t HAVE to use the distancing, i CAN use it. that makes me much more amenable to playing with it …

looking into gratitude

this morning, i visited chitowngreg’s sunday post about gratitude. it was fabulous to see all the comments there – 48 at the time i was visiting.

and then of course my research brain got curious. what a great treasure trove to delve a little into to find out what specific things people are grateful for! i spent a few hours to analyze it a bit and cam up with a few surprises and a few things that were expected.

family was the biggest theme. i found 25 mentions of it. most of them were about children, e.g.

three wonderful children with their own uniqueness

and almost as many about spouses, e.g.

climbing into my warm bed, with my husband who loves me, and listening to the rain softly falling all night long……

then a surprise – the next category in “family” was dogs, before mothers, etc.:

for dogs who never tire of seeing me.

chitowngreg’s blog is a 12-step blog, so understandably, there were a lot (21) of expressions of gratitude about recovery and 12-step programs, like

i watched, “crazy heart”, last night. a story about an alcoholic country singer/ songwriter. made me very grateful for my sobriety and the second chance i was given.

indirectly, some of the comments where gratitude is expressed for those kinds of things would also fall into other categories such as spirituality and friends (because of the strong fellowship aspect of 12 steps). i found surprisingly few (5) for friends (“the companionship of friends”) and 4 for spirituality (e.g. “playing ave maria in a little while at mass this morning”).

i was also not necessarily surprised but perhaps “pleasantly confirmed” that those gratitudes contained none of the cultishness that 12-steppers are sometimes accused of.

another topic that came up frequently was basic needs, possibly inspired by greg’s intro to the post about how lucky most of us are. if your combined household income is over $ $26,400 a year, you’re in the top 10% of all income earners in the world. think about that. for many of us westerners, that’s mind boggling. when i think of how many people i know who are wringing their hands because they only make $25 an hour, it’s refreshing to hear this

thank god for running water!

and then there were more comments (14) about the weather/nature than there were about health (11)! that was perhaps the biggest surprise. i would have expected for health to be right up there with family. of course this is anything but a scientific research project – still, i find this remarkable, something i’m thinking of following up (maybe i’ll write one of my brainblogger articles about this sometime soon). loved this comment:

i’m grateful to have had a glorious weekend on the boat and that this afternoon there was a wonderful thunderstorm. we came back through the rain but were safe. nature in all its power!

another surprise: of all the gratitudes i looked at (about 140 altogether), this was the only one that explicitly mentioned nature.

here’s one about health:

i’m grateful today that i can think and speak in words. a dear friend is wordless after a brain hemorrhage, and it’s very hard.

other things that were mentioned more than once, with some examples, and in order of occurrence:

blogging

i’m grateful to have blogs that allow me to reconfirm i am doing the right thing in my life.

gratitude itself
people like you who remind me why i should be grateful when i’m grouchy just because its monday

personal growth

having the courage to ask “what am i going to do,” rather than sitting in pity saying “why”

mornings (that was another surprise – mentioned 7 times)

the possibilities of the whole day in front of me

also home, work, baseball (!!!) and peace.

august 2010 buddhist carnival: right action

every month i delve into the buddhasphere to come up with interesting tidbits in buddhist writing. this time around i was interested in the concept of right action.

the poem we start out with today is the famous shin jin mei poem

the perfect way knows no difficulties
except that it refuses to make preferences;
only when freed from hate and love,
it reveals itself fully and without disguise;
a tenth of an inch’s difference,
and heaven and earth are set apart;
if you wish to see it before your own eyes,
have no fixed thoughts either for or against it.
to set up what you like against what you dislike –
this is the disease of the mind:
when the deep meaning of the way is not understood
peace of mind is disturbed to no purpose.

thanks, tricycle!

right action and the death penalty

i’m including this one because the writer draws a (perhaps tentative) conclusion that is different from my own; it’s important to me look at a diversity of points of view. also, it’s fitting to start with this one because “do not kill” is almost always cited as the first exhortation in the teachings about right action. i like the simplicity of it, similar to hippocrates’ basic idea, “first do no harm”. here is an excerpt of the post dying for killing:

one of the most important things the buddha taught was “do not kill.” it’s commonly accepted as the first precept. so, buddhists clearly do not believe that it’s right to kill, to take life. as the buddha did not teach, “do not kill except in the following cases…”, it’s commonly accepted that all killing is wrong. this is why many buddhists are vegetarians, peace activists and conscientious objectors.

isn’t it amazing how something so straightforward can be treated with such confusion? because here’s where i start wavering.

right action and the body

here, in fact, is a translation offered by a buddhist from malaysia about the buddha’s teaching. it is interesting how in the west, the idea of right action is usually linked closely to ethics whereas this section clearly is concerned with what one does with one’s body:

and which, friends, are the 3 kinds of bodily moral behaviour in harmony with the dhamma? here someone, stop all killing of living beings, abstains from injuring living beings; with rod & weapon laid aside, gentle and kind, such one dwells sympathetic towards all living beings.

avoiding the taking of what is not given, one refrains from stealing,what is not freely give. one does not take by way of theft the wealth and property of others, neither in the village nor in the forest. abandoning abuse of sensual pleasures, such one gives up misuse in sensual pleasures. one does not have intercourse with partners, who are protected by their mother, or father, or mother and father, or brother, or sister, or relatives, who is married, betrothed to another, who are protected by law, in prison, or who are engaged to other side.

that is how there are three kinds of bodily moral behaviour in harmony with the dhamma… such is right action!

right action, teaching and fun
this excerpt here from back to buddhism illustrates why it can sometimes be difficult to find interesting posts about buddhism – many buddhists just don’t bother to stick the label “buddhism” onto all they write.

i really don’t think it’s necessary to categorize something as buddhism or not-buddhism; after all, there is really not much difference between the two. when i write about racism, i am writing about right mind. when i write about teaching, i am writing about right action.

so let’s see what he says about teaching.

in all my classes, whether they are english or computer science or meditation, i make a concerted effort to make sure it is fun. in fact, i try to make class silly. the class has to be fun for me and it has to be fun for my students. if we are not having fun, we are not learning.

… after lunch is the most difficult time to teach. to counteract the drowsiness of my students, i knew i would have to really knock the lesson out of the park.

it’s relatively easy to act out the verbs – walk, shout, am. it’s also not so hard to point to nouns and dress them up with adjectives. even adverbs are not so hard to impersonate

however, acting out through and at and with is a bit more of a challenge; toward was nearly impossible.
we made it through prepositions i had planned. salt played a big role in the lesson. the salt is on the table, above the table, under the table, with the glass, behind the glass. there was a combination of horror and laughter when the salt went in the glass.

right action, software and the mundane. oh, and green living

at first glance, this post on buddhism and software selection (first found on another malay buddhist blog, buddhist bugs) seemed a little lightweight. well, it is, just like the book they suggest, what would buddha do? nevertheless, there is something intriguing to seeing buddhist teachings applied to something so seemingly mundane (and yet very important for businesses, just like not stealing and not cheating). after all, if we don’t apply the teachings to the mundane, what’s the point?

and if you’re in the mood for more lightweight reading, go to mother nature news and read about the book what would the buddha recycle? once again, it’s easy to raise our highbrow eyebrows but let’s be honest – isn’t light and fluffy material like this that sometimes provides the entrance to more profound learnings?

right action and inaction
buddha’s pillow has a number of posts on right action, like this one on responsibility:

many of us choose inaction in stressful or frightening situations. this is not practice. inaction in the presence of conscious choices of right vs. wrong actions is irresponsible to oneself and one’s world.

right action and social responsibility
more on responsibility.  here`s an interview at shambala sun about social action:
goodman: kittisaro often quotes ajahn chah as saying, “if it shouldn’t be this way, it wouldn’t be this way.” yet we live in a world of great suffering. how do you reconcile ajahn chah’s teaching with the buddhist precepts of “right speech” and “right action”?

thanissara: at some level it’s obviously true—it can be no way other than it is right now. however our actions in the present condition the future.

buddha didn’t just sit there and say, “oh well, the world is at it is.” he acted. in fact he tried three times to prevent a war between those in his home country of kapilavastu and the king of kosala. yet he wasn’t able to stop the bloodshed. he had to accept that this was a karma he couldn’t alter, but it didn’t mean that he didn’t try. on leaving the area, it is recorded that his beloved attendant ananda asked him why he was so sad, to which the buddha replied that his people would be massacred within the week.

right action, therapy, living in the now and values

the smart buddhist, written by a therapist, has all kinds of choice morsels on offer. here he touches on a sensitive point for me, the idea of being value neutral as a therapist:

the experience of living in the present, paradoxically, can tempt us into experiential avoidance all over again, just in a new form. it’s quite possible to trade escape from the now for escape into the now. the recent enthusiasm for mindfulness and acceptance in the west needs to be channeled properly or we risk creating just another form of western self-indulgence. by themselves, mindfulness methods as they’re often used in western psychotherapy don’t give sufficient attention to the organizing influence of purpose in human life. in the spiritual traditions from which such practices were drawn, “right action” is specified through ethical principles. but western therapists are encouraged to take a value-neutral professional stance, and not direct our clients to any particular belief or “right action” enjoined by a religious or spiritual tradition. nevertheless, we still can help our clients gain access to their deepest aspirations and turn a life lived in the present moment into a life worth living.

right action and rightness

in the last little while, i’ve come across a number of situations where people understandably got a little itchy at the idea of rightness, for example in the comments on my post about trying to come up with a definition of mental health. what’s with this right action, right thought, etc.? part of this comes precisely from the doctrine of value neutrality that many of us been exposed to – in therapy for some of us, but definitely in science. historically, this is also (paradoxically) connected to the very fabric of democracy and human rights, for example when it comes to religious freedom. it is useful, then, to look at this idea of rightness. dogen sangha gives a bit of insight here:

there is none among the many kinds of right that fails to appear at the very moment of doing right. the myriad kinds of right have no set shape, but they converge on the place of doing right faster than iron to a magnet, and with a force stronger than the vairambhaka winds.

(even though each of milliaeds rights do never have any kinds of decisive form beforehand, and so there is no right, which exists before at the present moment, and at the same time there is no right, which continues its existence to the next moment. right is always exists just at the present moment, and such a present moment continue at every moment.)

right is a simple fact, which occurs just when it is done at the present moment, therefore it is perfectly impossible for right to exist at a different moment other than at the present moment at all.

right action and musicianship

we started with the art of poetry, let’s end with the art of trumpetry. here is a beautiful piece at macfune about musicians and right action

what, then, of the moral commitment of the musician? what is it to be a trumpet player? certainly we can differentiate between the hack who puts some plumbing to his lips every once in a while and the truest artist whose spiritual being is not separate from the physical processes inherent in performance. the difference is morality. the difference is how one lives one’s life, not how one thinks idly about right and wrong but how one acts.

(side note: nothing is still, nothing is constant, nothing exists from one instant to the next: all we are is action. there are no nouns in this universe, only verbs. all nouns are categorical statements that limit and defy the constantly changing nature of phenomenal existence. “i” should be understood as a verb, not a noun.)

right. so the musician is, like all artists, exploring the fundamental question of human existence: the moral question. when we listen to miles, coltrane, glenn gould, to the cleveland orchestra playing beethoven (!), or to any other great musician, if we pay attention we can hear a profound moral question posed.

i remember reading somewhere or other that the key to understanding jazz is to hear the hidden social message: in the softest, most intimate ballad are the seeds of a profound sadness, and in the most joyous, swinging celebratory bop number is wild rebellion, lurking just beneath the surface.

if you’ve made it this far, thank you! come again next month, on september 15, or read some of the other buddhist carnivals.

mental health, addiction and self medication

on tuesday i had the honour of hosting the #mhsm (mental health and social media) chat. that’s a weekly one-hour conversation about mental health on twitter. the topic we discussed was mental health and addictions. it was very lively, and perhaps the biggest topic was self medication, a topic that sprung up within the first few seconds and just kept coming back. here are some of the things that were said. the categories i chose are not mutually exclusive – they just make it a bit easies to see some of the patterns.

self medication to deal with life’s stressors
1:02 am floridlymad: [addiction is a] coping mechanism to life’s stressors gone wrong…
1:03 am floridlymad: @JoyFull_deb YES. a girl i know w/crack addiction once told me it’s her only joy left in life…
1:04 am GermanInAlabama: From my uneducated view I would say oftentimes attempt at self-‘medicating’ and means of forgetting about probloems
1:48 am twitertwotter: If addicts r using drugs 2 self-medicate we need to find out why and help them learn to cope with it and move forward from past trauma
1:06 am NAMIMass: Sometimes people don’t want to take prescribed medications but think it’s ok to drink or take illicit drugs to feel better
1:18 am twitertwotter: I think an important thing that gets missed in addiction is in many cases the underlying trauma

self medication to deal with mental health issues
1:02 am JoyFull_deb: Yes !! Addiction (whatever kind) can be used to self medicate mental illness.
1:04 am petequily: @moritherapy society often doesn’t take mental health seriously & pays the cost in self medication / addictions & other MH conditions
1:05 am EatsShootsEdits: I used to self medicate before I came to understand my illness and get stable on meds
1:08 am hollymclennan: @moritherapy i see the conx btwn mental health + addiction when ppl don’t get the help they need + self-medicate.
1:08 am floridlymad: addiction to certain substances can trigger (or worsen preexisting) psychosis, which may or may not persist even after *quitting*.
1:17 am perthtones: We now know cannabis is effective on a range of depressive disorders, ketamine being trialled for bipolar – legal/illegal is abritrary
1:47 am icantican: My hx of drinking problem w/ alcohol was directly related to self medicating my symptoms of depression, blips of mania, anxiety, ADHD
1:08 am EatsShootsEdits: at lot of people self medicate long before they know they have a mental illness. our minds seek comfort sometimes it is drugs first
1:23 am twitertwotter: Many addicts use marijuana and other drugs to medicate their hyperarousal, that can be a result of PTSD or overactive flight/fight

self soothing
1:26 am twitertwotter: Treatment definitely needs to address mental health issues, coping mechanisms, affect regulation and self-soothing techniques
1:51 am twitertwotter: People who drugs to feel better, or to forget, or to escape. That is self-medication. They do not know how to self-soothe.
1:53 am NAMIMass: @twitertwotter Not all addiction is about self soothing. We’ve talked about self-medicating substance abuse for #mentalhealth issues
1:46 am moritherapy: if addiction is about self soothing, then it doesn’t matter that much what the substance/behaviour is
1:57 am NAMIMass: @moritherapy I’m not sure I do agree. I’m not thinking of them at same level. I think of self soothing as less than self medicating
1:54 am moritherapy: @NAMIMass self soothing and self medicating very similar, wouldn’t you say?
1:56 am moritherapy: @NAMIMass but if you talk to health care ppl, self soothing/medication will NOT be #1 for them

self medication and ADHD
1:08 am petequily: Smallest # of addicts with #ADHD in clinical journals I’ve seen is 20%. But only 5% of pop. has ADHD http://bit.ly/7cXP8
1:10 am petequily: Study 35% of Cocaine Abusers had #ADHD http://bit.ly/4vRuoi #selfmedicate #mentalhealth
1:25 am petequily: I know of people who had undiagnosed #ADHD & self medicated w/ one addiction, stopped it & started & stopped multiple other addictions
1:44 am petequily: Study 33% of Alcoholics had #ADHD 65% of Drug Users Had ADHD http://bit.ly/b4EwqG #addiction
1:47 am petequily: @unxpctdblessing well by telling other people about how he self medicated his #ADHD w/ pot you may save others from same exp.
1:54 am asdquefty: With ADHD or depression, substance abuse can be obtaining artificial motivation.

stories of self medication
1:03 am JoyFull_deb: I watched my sister “self medicate” for many, many years….
1:16 am MelissaMashburn: my brother is a vet and almost lost his license because he was self medicating with xanex and writing his own scrips.
1:39 am MelissaMashburn: I used internet games to self medicate
1:40 am unxpctdblessing: @petequily I agree. He had been self medicating since he was 14 years old. I knew he used when I met him but had no idea the extent.
1:44 am MelissaMashburn: For me the addiction to an internet browser game, was away for me to self isolate, and self medicate

alcoholism and everyday addictions

the 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous are sometimes summarized in these seven words:

i can’t
god can
i better let god

these pithy words come from the first three steps:

1. we admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable
2. we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves would restore us to sanity.
3. we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understood him.

depending on one’s interpretation, that can sound quite defeatist (“i can’t / i’m powerless”) and cultish (“i better let god / turn over our will”).

in my occasional musings on how the 12 steps can be used outside of traditional addiction recovery (for example, here are some thoughts on step 3) i’d like to propose that these seven pithy words and these three steps can be useful for anyone as a guide in their lives.

we admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable.

it may not be alcohol, it may not be drugs, food, work, cigarettes or caffeine – but the truth is that there are a lot of things inside and outside of ourselves that we are powerless over, and that feel totally overwhelming. i have no power over the traffic, you have no power over your boss, joe has no power over politics. but it goes deeper than that – it is our reactions to these things that truly trouble us – the feelings of helplessness, the endless worry, the anger. we hate these feelings, so we run to do something about them – TV, romance novels, potato chips, blackjack chips. at the root of that are fear and pain and avoidance of fear and pain through escape into instant gratification. so how about:

step 1: we are run by fear and pain and avoidance of them, and that the endless cycling between those two is exhausting and overwhelming – it is insanity.

we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves would restore us to sanity.

is there something greater than fear and avoidance of fear? god? maybe for some. how about for those uncomfortable with or plainly disinterested in the idea of god? the 12 steps are informed by underlying principles such as honesty, hope, courage, integrity, love, justice and service – all positive, life-affirming, values that are greater than our little egos and ids, our inner factories that constantly crank out more fear and fear avoidance. here is my proposition, then:

step 2: we remind ourselves that by holding on to our values, we can rise above fear and instant gratification and leave insanity behind.

we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understood him.

the awareness that there is an alternative to fear, pain and instant gratification is a good start but it is not enough. a lot of us are aware that there are problems. we need to make a decision to do something with that awareness. this decision, by the way, needs to happen on a daily, hourly, sometimes minute-by-minute basis. fear and pain and our desire to escape them are incredibly strong; if we want to let go of them as prime motivators for our lives, we need to counter them with our values, virtues and beliefs on an almost constant basis. one of my favourite quotes is freud’s about us having but a “thin veneer of civilization”. i firmly believe if we are to keep this world going, maybe even make it a better place, we need to do everything we can to make this veneer stronger and thicker. we literally need to become more civil. isn’t that one of the main goals of democracry (a concept deeply informed by civility): to create and nurture an environment where citizens need not be governed by fear? just as we need to keep working on and fighting for democracy, we need to keep building our own personal virtues and values. here is my suggestion for step 3:

step 3: we decided to lead our lives by our virtues and values.

i would be very interested in hearing your thoughts about this.

going up the country

yeah, i’m goin’ up the country, for my yearly week in the sunny okanagan, canada’s version of california.  for some reason, after mental health camp, my batteries are taking forever to recharge.  maybe because i never fully recovered from my trip to germany.  maybe because i had a mental health blip (was it a mini episode of depression?  or what?  it sure felt like the wiring in my brain was going all bzzzzzz and chrkhrrrrk) a few days before mental health camp.  maybe because there was some drama there.  maybe because work has been very intense.  maybe because i haven’t repainted my toenails yet.  who knows.

but as always, there is some learning.  i feel uncomfortable that i’m not back to form yet.  i should be back to form!  i should get things done and not be so friggin’ unproductive!  i should not get all squirmy and guilty when i say “no” to people and events.

well, you can hear the shoulds.

the truth is, it takes as long as it takes, and no-one but i can take responsibility for looking after myself.  there is no mathematical formula whereby i can calculate how long it takes for my batteries to charge.  it just is what it is.

so i’m going up to kelowna, where i’ll do as much relaxation as possible and you know what?  if i’m back and i still don’t feel recharged, i’ll just have to relax some more.

shoulds be damned.

my mental health camp talk: insanity in the workplace

my talk at mental health camp yesterday:

it’s not about mental illness. it’s about mental health.

in 1996, 510 murders occurred in canada. taking a prevalence rate of about 3% of violent crimes committed by people with mental illness, at most, 16 of these people were killed by someone with a mental illness. i’m mentioning that because of the tragedy that happened a few days ago where a little girl was killed.

still. i’d like you to get that number. 16.

at the same time, 45,000 deaths were attributed to tobacco, 2,900 to car accidents, and 1,900 to alcohol.

mental illness is not the big problem.

i think mental health is.

an industry that makes products that kill tens of thousands of people in canada alone is not mentally healthy. in fact, it is literally insane.

i’ll tell you what else is insane.

a country that does not extradite someone who has been judged responsible for the death of at least 25,000 people is insane. the country is the united states, the person in question is warren anderson. he was the executive in charge at the time of the bhopal disaster.

who else is insane?

a company that disregards safety just like union carbide in bhopal did. the company is BP. it is insane.

a police force that is more concerned with turf wars than preventing disasters is insane. the police force is the RCMP and the disaster is the air india crash.

i’m not here to say that mental illness is not important, that all of us here who are dealing with depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder or whatever, either ourselves or through our loved ones, are not important because otherwise we wouldn’t have mental health camp.

but right here, right now, i want to talk about mental HEALTH. because i’ve looked at all these things and all of a sudden, i realized something enormous:

the vast majority of big disasters nowadays, from environmental crimes to wars to major health problems such as lung cancer and diabetes – you know where most of them come from, or more precisely, where the decisions are made to go ahead and do or not do things that have vast negative consequences?

they are all fomented in the work place. union carbide, the RCMP, the cigarette company philip morris, BP – all the decisions that have a horrible effect on countless people are made at the workplace.

those workplaces are insane.

who here has worked in an insane workplace?

who here is working in an insane workplace right now?

what type of insanity do we find in the workplace?

  • incivility
  • bullying
  • abusive supervisors
  • resentment
  • never being appreciated
  • blame
  • betrayal
  • cynicism
  • distrust, always on the lookout for trouble
  • focusing on shortcomings
  • obsessed with reputation
  • reluctance and lack of cooperation
  • fear of disappointment
  • anger
  • grief
  • anxiety
  • extreme vigilance
  • phoniness
  • being a “hard-ass,”
  • playing favorites
  • irrationality
  • scrutinizing everything for hidden meaning
  • closed mindedness
  • uneasy relationships that never get repaired – toxins build up
  • layoffs and other painful measures that are being pushed through disregarding the effect they have
  • disconnection from reality
  • in-groups and out-groups that fight each other
  • differential treatment from bosses
  • active and passive provocation
  • incompetence
  • not admitting problems
  • not asking for help
  • lack of meaningful relationships at work
  • getting blindsided
  • frustration
  • evasiveness
  • lack of fairness
  • nobody listens
  • deflecting responsibility
  • self-handicapping

(adapted from an MIT sloan management review article)

there’s quite a bit of research on the dysfunctional workplace, for example on violence in the workplace, or the effect abusive supervisors have on turnover in the workplace. however, i haven’t seen anything yet on how the dysfunctionality that seems to be the norm in many workplaces makes it possible for disastrous decisions to be made.

but i’m just going to go out on a limb and say that someone who is in complete and optimal mental health cannot make the kinds of decisions that end up killing people, destroying the environment and otherwise compromising the wellbeing of people and the planet.

let me use the air india disaster as an example. reading through justice john major’s report, we see that these things happened at the RCMP and CSIS

  • not communicating effectively with each other
  • RCMP not sharing information with CSIS when they clearly should have, and vice versa
  • not respecting each others’ rules and requirements – e.g. RCMP was often careless in protecting CSIS sources
  • a culture of managing information designed to protect individual institutional interests and not the public interest
  • compromising the need for reliable proof (when the parmar tapes were erased)
  • misunderstanding or dismissing that the relevance of information, not who has the information, determines what happens before the court
  • institutional lack of self-restraint and self-discipline
  • overstating the need for secrecy

i propose that all of these things are signs of dysfunctional mental health. i propose that most people would say that these are signs of mental health:

  • open and honest communication
  • reflecting on the consequences of one’s actions
  • having a degree of basic trust towards others
  • working hard to resolve any tensions that arise
  • co-operating for the common good
  • a degree of maturity that includes self restraint and self discipline where needed

and i propose that if these and other indicators of mental health were present, there would be less, and probably far less, calamities in the world.

i have to tell you that these ideas are still pretty new to me. as some of you know, i was going to talk about a different topic. but then one day, interestingly enough, when i was preparing a talk somewhere else about mental health in the workplace, i saw this connection between war and destruction and the workplace.

a book i have been reading avidly lately is tony schwartz’s the way we’re working isn’t working. (you can follow tony on twitter, it’s @tonyschwartz.)

let me read you just a few excerpts. here is the one that may have triggered all of this:

not a single CEO or senior executive at a large bank ever stood up and blew the whistle on the practices that led to the worldwide financial meltdown in 2008. nor has virtually any one of them ever explicitly acknowledged any personal responsibility for what happened.

we tolerate extraordinary disconnects in our own lives, even in areas we plainly have the power to influence.

human beings have continued to evolve by leaps and bounds in terms of what can be externally measured and observed. but for all these extraordinary external advances, we’ve devoted remarkably little attention to better understanding our inner world.

[we have a] tendency to default to impatience, irritation and even anger as a way to mobilize others to action

no single behaviour, we’ve come to believe, more funamentally influences our effectiveness in waking life than sleep

the survival zone is an acceptable place in which to operate in most organizations

survivial zone, performance zone, burnout zone, renewal zone

[when a amy pascal needed to implement some major changes at sony] she began by asking herself a simple question: “what is the right thing to do here? … everybody knows that it means to do the right thing. it means serving the greatest good even when it doesn’t seem to be in your immediate self-interest. it means you don’t make choices out of fear of failure or just because they seem expedient, you don’t make choices that are quicker or easier because that’s what everyone else is doing.”

okay, so now we’ve spent about 35 minutes on doom and gloom, and that’s just about all i can handle. i want to talk about more positive things now. like mental illness.

actually, about the experience and wisdom of people with mental illness. more precisely, the experience and wisdom of people with mental illness who are working hard at making the best of their lives. i’ll assume there’s a few of us in here right now, and more who may have friends or family who have learned to manage mental illness.

part of that management is medication. but the other part of that is therapy and even more importantly, leading a life that strives for as much mental health as possible.

in the course of managing mental illness, we have learned some valuable things. so what i’m saying is that precisely BECAUSE we are forced to manage mental illness we have gained tools that can make a difference, a big difference.

my final point then is, seeing that the world needs help, and seeing that in managing mental illness, we have gained these valuable tools, how can we practically, day by day, today and not tomorrow, use these tools to influence our places of work? because i think that’s one place where we can start. make it our responsibility to make our places of work places where we can be in what tony schwartz calls the performance and renewal zones, where we can be calm, engaged, invigorated and peaceful, mellow and receptive. and even more specifically, how can we use social media to make this happen?

incivility

bullying

abusive supervisors

resentful


never being appreciated

blame

betrayal

cynicism

distrustful, always on the lookout for trouble

focusing on shortcomings

obsessed with reputation

reluctance and lack of cooperation

fear of disappointment

anger

grief

anxiety,

extreme vigilance,

phony

being a “hard-ass,”

playing favorites

irrational

scrutinizing everything for hidden meaning

closed minded

uneasy relationship that never get repaired – toxins build up

layoffs and other painful measures that are being pushed through disregarding the effect they have

disconnection from reality

in-groups and out-groups that fight each other

differential treatment from bosses

active and passive provocation.

incompetence

not admitting problems

not asking for help

lack of meaningful relationships at work

getting blindsided

frustration

evasiveness

lack of fairness

nobody listens

deflecting responsibility

self-handicapping

focusing: body and mind at the murky edge

please enjoy this guest post by my good friend jael, who is currently studying a fascinating therapeutic technique called focusing.

when i was in my early 20’s i decided to switch from social science to computer science and math at university and live at home with my parents. when the offer of admission arrived, my body’s response (within two minutes of reading the offer) was a bad headache. i ignored the headache, carried out my plan, and went through a painful and difficult academic year that ended badly.

not all bodily knowings get signalled as dramatically as a headache. however, accessing this knowledge can be useful, powerful, exciting. one way of doing this is focusing.

focusing, first promoted by the highly successful therapist and philosopher eugine gendlin, is a way of welcoming subtle body wisdom, and interacting with it to support life-forward movement, whatever that looks like to the individual. each person is different; each person’s bodily process is unique, and each journey unfolds in its own way.

“focusing is direct access to a bodily knowing.” what could that mean? direct access – i sense something in my body that knows more than i can think about with words.

at first, it feels confusing, like there’s something there, and, then, gradually, more comes to me. what do i do with that information from my body? i observe, patiently, respectfully, as the feelings and insights shift and change. being in presence, holding a space for my body to communicate to me; giving space and time for the process to move forward and for a sense of fresh air to be welcomed and received.

are you curious, reading these words? mental health camp 2010 is one place where you can find out more.

there will be a quiet space at this event, where people can rest and renew themselves, and be listened to by focusing volunteers.

katarina halm will be presenting an introduction to inner relationship focusing.

here you can see a video by eugene gendlin about the murky edge of knowing