February 25, 2021


     American psychologist Abraham Maslow contended that people have basic needs that must be met in order to have full satisfaction in living. Among them was what he called self-actualization. Even if all the other needs are satisfied, a new discontent and restlessness may eventually develop if we are not doing what we are intrinsically suited for.

     People tend to agree that musicians must make music, artists must paint, and poets must write if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. However, the pull toward completion is within all of us.  We are all pulled to satisfy our true nature.

     This level of maturity is often thought of as a distant goal.  However, self-actualization is going on all the time throughout one’s personal history.  In each person’s life, there are moments of higher functioning that show the person at the healthiest and best.  The person has a kind of spurt in which he or she is more integrated and less split, more open for experience, more clearly expressive, and less dependent on lower needs.

     Such episodes or spurts can come at any time in life to any person. What distinguishes self-actualizing people is that the moments of heightened awareness and functioning come more frequently and last longer than for people in general.  Thus, self-actualization is a matter of degree and frequency rather than a permanent state. The goal is to make these moments less fleeting and to expand them so that life gradually becomes more consistent with the higher stage of self-actualization.(Abraham H. Maslow, (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature)

Questions for Sharing

  1. When was a time when you had a special sense of insight or understanding?
  2. When was a time that you showed unusual creativity?
  3. When was a time when you felt especially connected to people who were not in your usual circle of acquaintances?
  4. When was a time when you felt intense compassion?
  5. When was a time when you had clear insight into solving a difficult problem?
  6. When was a time when you felt at peace with yourself?
  7. When was a time when you chose to follow your instincts rather than complying with what most people were doing and thinking?
  8. When was a time when you felt a strong sense of moral imperative that was not being followed by most people you knew?
  9. When was a time when you felt at peace with the world?

February 8, 2021

Who Am I?

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (Apostle Paul, Bible, Romans 7:15,19)

George Gurdjieff (1877-1949):   A person has no permanent and unchangeable I.  Every thought every mood, every desire, every sensation says “I.”  And in each case it seems to be taken for granted that this I belongs to the whole person, and that a thought, a desire, or an aversion is expressed by this Whole.  In fact, a person’s every thought and desire appears quite separately and independently of the Whole.  A person has no individual I.  But there are, instead, hundreds of separate small I’s.  Each person is a plurality. Each person’s name is legion.

Charles Tart, States of Consciousness:   Ordinary consciousness may actually consist of a large number of identity states. All share some common traits, such as using the same language, wearing the same clothes, responding to the same name, occupying the same body. 

Different identities define who people are in terms of the groups or categories to which they belong (social identities), the roles they occupy (role identities), and the personal characteristics they claim (person identities).

For example, an individual’s social identity as an American or an Australian is what it means to him or her to be an American or an Australian.

An individual’s role identity as a truck driver or a student is what it means to that individual to be a truck driver or a student.

An individual’s personal identity as a dominant person or a moral person is what it means to that individual to be dominant or moral.

The more important a role/identity is to a person, the more it is likely to provide a sense of purpose and meaning in life.

  1. What roles/identities have I liked best in my life (e.g., sibling, child, parent, employee, supervisor, professional, etc.)?
  2. Which roles/identities fit my personality?
  3. Which roles/identities have garnered greatest respect?
  4. Which roles/identities fit awkwardly?
  5. Which roles/identities was I glad to discard?
  6. What roles/identities do I have at this stage of life?
  7. What am I good at now? Better at than other people my age?
  8. What is winning in this stage of life? What makes me feel good about myself?

January 28, 2021

Traits of Belonging

     The term “community” is used to refer to many kinds of connections, from shared ethnic origin to geographical proximity.  Let us look more specifically at the feelings and behaviors that demonstrate unity of people in a group.  Unity exists when certain conditions exist between people.

  • Identify with each other as members of a group.

     Groups use a variety of ways to signal belonging: rituals, behavior, patterns of interacting, clothing, body appearance, habits. Compliance with the external signs can be important in maintaining membership.

     A sense of belonging can be based on a shared ethnic or cultural heritage.  It can occur when we believe that we share a similar plight or significant experi­ences. 

     Understanding and empathy grow out of common experiences.  We find our own feeling of well-being linked to what is happening to other members of our group.  There is a mutual sense of we-ness.  The longer the in-group is together, the more experiences we accumulate to reinforce our sense of belonging. 

  • Show special concern toward one another.

     Genuine belonging requires that we have willingness to come to the aid of others in the group.  This kind of concern is beyond doing our moral duty; it is acting because of our sense of we-ness.  We may do what is morally or ethically required for those who are outside our group, but by choice we go much further than is required with the in-group.

  • Jointly committed to cer­tain values or goals.

     Shared values may be ideals, such as the equal worth of each person, or the inherent right to be treated with dignity.  The common values may be rituals or practices that bind us together in familiar behaviors.  They may be contained in a body of knowledge that we trust as the accurate story of truth.

  • Loyal to the group and its ideals.

     Belonging requires group loyalty.  We are the in-group and the rest are part of the out-group.  This sometimes creates tension, even controversy.  People of good will may like to think that creating in-groups is unnecessary. However, communities are defined by characteristics that cannot be shared by everyone, even if all people were willing.  Divisions are inevitable.  Loyalty to our own group is part of what includes us in the community.

  • Trust each other.

     In belonging, we feel that the others will not let us down.  We believe that others will stand with us in being faithful to our shared values, and they will not exploit or cheat us.  We believe that when we turn to them, they will be there for us in the same measure that we are there for them.

Thought-Starter Questions for Sharing

  1. To whom do you belong?
  2. What traits are strongest in your belonging connections?
  3. What traits are weakest in your belonging connections?
  4. Where else could you belong if you chose?
  5. What traits seem more difficult than you are willing to do?
  6. How does aging affect your sense of belonging?

January 14, 2021

The Pendulum of Life

Ecclesiastes 3 (from the Hebrew Bible)

1    There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

One way of interpreting this portion of wisdom literature is that at different times, the pendulum of life swings between opposites. To be wise is to live fully whatever time it is.

Some have taught that a basic truth is the inevitable suffering in all human life. This is not the view of modern life, at least in privileged cultures. The right to pursue happiness has become the right to happiness.

For many, suffering is an interruption in life, rather than an inevitability. In this mindset, suffering is something to be avoided, certainly, but also something that suspends normalcy until it passes. Ecclesiastes suggests wherever the pendulum is, that is still normal life.  Wisdom is learning to live fully, no matter what the time.

Ecclesiastes reminds us that the pendulum swings, believe it or not, ready or not. 

  1. In the list of Ecclesiastes, which times have been the most difficult to live through without losing your balance?
  2. What great value have you found in hard times? In other people? In yourself? In the important aspects of life?
  3. How does advancing age affect your perception of life’s balance between good times and difficult times?

January 7, 2021


Three authors with well-earned popularity come from different perspectives to make a point about fulfillment in your life.

David Keirsey says that fulfillment and satisfaction look different for people of different temperaments.  People look for experiences that suit their own values. (Please Understand Me II)

Zalman Schacter-Shalomi says that as we age, it is important to harvest our lives, that is, to gather in and feed upon and benefit from the lives we’ve lived. (From AGE-ING to SAGE-ING)

Ira Progoff says : “As we look carefully at our lives, the past experiences gradually fit into place, times of exaltation and times of despair, moments of hope and anger, crises and crossroads, partial failures and successes….We gradually discover that our life has been going somewhere, however blind we have been to its direction and however unhelpful to it (our conscious selves) may have been.  We find that a connective thread has been forming beneath the surface of our lives, carrying the meaning that has been trying to establish itself in our existence.  It is the continuity of our lives.” (At a Journal Workshop)

It’s an appropriate time to mentally step back from the constant steam of life in order to notice and appreciate what has gone well.  The purpose in doing this is two-fold: First, to simply enjoy a bit of harvest, to take it in, savor it, and be strengthened by it.   Secondly, to say to ourselves, “Hmm, if that has worked well; I can do some more of that.”

Thought-Starter Questions for Sharing

Relationships – What has worked well with regard to people you’ve chosen to…

  1. Be close to
  2. Be faithful to
  3. Confide in
  4. Listen to
  5. Learn from
  6. Avoid
  7. Give up on
  8. Protect yourself from

Leisure, Fun

  1. How do you think about playing?
  2. What kind of play has been most satisfying?
  3. What have you learned about teams?
  4. What new enjoyments have you found?
  5. How has play affected your feelings about yourself and other people?
  6. What activity has been the most pure pleasure?
  7. What do you do now that is purely for pleasure?

Inner Life – What has gone well in…

  1. Your personal growth?
  2. Your increased understanding?
  3. Your emotional stability?
  4. Your comfort with yourself?

December 31, 2020

Skills for Emotional Well-Being

In a recently published paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison introduced a new framework for emotional well-being. It focuses on specific skills that can be learned. The framework is based on scientific evidence that suggests well-being can be cultivated through practice in daily life.

The framework is comprised of four areas that have been studied in the lab and have been shown to improve with training:

  • Awareness, or attentiveness to your environment and internal cues such as bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings;
  • Connection, or appreciation, kindness and compassion;
  • Insight, which refers to fostering curiosity and self-knowledge;
  • Purpose, understanding your values and motivations.

Awareness — and in particular meta-awareness (being aware that you’re aware) — appears to decrease stress, increase positive emotions, and can be strengthened through mental training practices like meditation. Awareness helps curb some of the harmful effects of distraction, which is shown to impair cognitive function and increase stress-related responses in the body related to inflammation and aging.

“The faculty of bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.” (William James, American psychologist)

Connections with individuals and groups create physical, mental, and emotional responses that can enhance life. Through connections, you can learn by watching others.  Seeing demonstrations can create willingness to try new approaches to varied aspects of everyday life.. It is possible to achieve things in the company of others that you cannot do alone. 

Insight is being curious about your own preconceived thoughts and opinions. Your brain is not set. You can question your own assumptions and biases, and this has tremendous potential to heal the division and “othering” that creates tension in society. Insight can be widened by exposing yourself to information that you had previously ignored.  A reliable source of increased self-awareness is structured journaling or guided autobiography writing. 

Dr. David Burns, a renowned researcher and teacher, said: “You can change the way you think about things, and you can also change your basic values and beliefs.  And when you do, you will often experience profound and lasting changes in your mood, outlook, and productivity.” (Feeling Good, 1980)

Purpose in life is a personally meaningful aim that you can apply to daily life. Having purpose seems to have positive effect not only on your mental health, but even your physical health. Studies have shown that some of the natural hormones that affect positive feelings are increased by engaging in purposeful activities.

Thought-Starters for Sharing

  1. What activities sharpen your awareness and attention?
  2. What attitudes make it easier for you to pay full attention to what is going on around you?
  3. What positive effects (physical, mental, emotional) have you noticed when you connect with people?
  4. What have you tried because you saw someone else do something?
  5. What mindset have you tried to adopt because you saw someone else’s different perspective?
  6. What new insights have you learned lately?
  7. What new mental activities have you tried lately?
  8. What is something you strongly care about?
  9. How can you advocate for, or participate in, or learn more about your strong interest?

December 24, 2020

Good Will

In the second chapter of Luke, the Biblical Christmas story mentions two elements that seem particularly scarce in our own era.  One is in verse 10: And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. (KJV)  In verse 14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (KJV)  The story sounds like finding good will is the source of the joy.

I think we could find agreement across all kinds of political and personal divisions if we said that there is a scarcity of good will that creates widespread joy. 

Where to find it?  According to Charles Truax and Robert Carkhuff, it is not a secret. 

It has long been recognized that the beneficial effects of any interchange are enhanced by such qualities as accurate and sensitive awareness of other’s feelings, deep concern for the other’s welfare without attempts to control him/her, and openness about one’s own reactions to the person. (Toward Effective Counseling and Psychotherapy, 1967).

To put it succinctly, good will is wherever we find accurate empathy, non-possessive warmth, and genuineness. 

The conclusion of Truax and Carkhuff’s important book was that whatever kind of interaction was attempted, if these three elements were present, the result would beneficial for the long-term. I think it is faithful to both sources to say that it would result in what the ancient stories call joyful good will.

We know, then, what we are looking for.  Where can we find it?

You can begin with your own experience.  In 1990 the director of The Gestalt Institute of Memphis exposed me to what she called the rule of thirds.  She said that all of the people we encounter, whether in our own family or social groups or work environment, fit into one of three categories.  For the purpose of the lesson the categories are called “thirds,” though they are not necessarily numerically equal. It is a simple tool for thinking about the different ways that people relate to us. 

The rule suggests that the three categories are: people who are for you, people who are neutral (fair weather friends), and people who are against you.

Good will is found in the “for you” third.  You have people in your life who are for you no matter what.  They celebrate your victories without envy. They are genuinely sorry for your defeats. They share resources. They stick with you. They are honest about themselves and you. They delight in you now, rather than waiting until you have corrected imperfections and achieved success.  They smile reflexively when you enter the room.  Your failures do not alienate them because they are attracted to your essence, your presence, not your superior performance.  Merely being around these people makes you feel at your best, as if they are giving you energy.  Some of them may be in your family, others among fellow workers, and others you have met in churches or in the neighborhood. They embody the traits identified by Truax and Carkhuff: accurate empathy, non-possessive warmth, and genuineness. They bring the joy of good will.

You can expand your search by applying these standards beyond your own third.  Where do you cross paths with people and institutions that actually take into account your situation and well-being? Where do you encounter people and institutions that show interest in helping without controlling you? Where to you cross paths with people and institutions who are honest and transparent in all dealings with you?

The story line of the Christmas stories had elements of good, not so good, and downright terrible.  The categories we still deal with.  Joy comes as we hunt for good will and find it. Even if it is nearly always a small fraction of all that is.

Thought-Starter Questions for Sharing

  1. Who are some people who have understood you accurately?
  2. What institutions/organizations have been willing to deal with you according to your specific needs?
  3. Who are some people who maintained good will in spite your different perspectives?
  4. What institutions/organizations have treated you fairly and kindly in difficult times?
  5. Who are some people whom you trust to be honest with you?
  6. What institutions/organizations do you trust because of their past interactions with you?

December 17, 2020

Christmas Mindset

The Christmas season is a tapestry of feelings, memories, and reactions.  It has been woven over your lifetime.  It comes out of its storage place each year and wraps you round, ready or not.

One strand is the atmosphere created in your family of origin. As a child, it was simply there – beyond your ability to clearly define, even if you had thought to try.

Another strand is the atmosphere created in your adult life, which includes changes embedded in and caused by different stages of life.

Another strand is the religious stories told, both those absorbed and those rejected. 

Another strand is the cultural overlay – decorations, gift obligations and expectations, excitement and disappointment and aftermath.

All these and more are woven together to form your unique Christmas tapestry.  Let us look and share. Sometimes the sharing brings a new level of appreciation, or release, or peace, or joy.

Thought Starters for Sharing

  1. How would you describe the family atmosphere of Christmas in your childhood?
  2. How would you describe the family atmosphere of Christmas your adult family units?
  3. What spiritual or religious feelings did you have about Christmas in your early life?
  4. What spiritual or religious feelings about Christmas are significant now?
  5. What gift giving or receiving memories have lasting significance?
  6. What negative reactions do you have this time of year? How are these reactions affected by this stage of life?
  7. What positive reactions do you have this time of year? How are these reactions affected by this stage of life?

December 10, 2020


Newspaper columnist Charles Blow wrote about the experience of attending his older brother’s funeral in Louisiana.  He was moved by the sensitivity of friends who came to comfort his mother.  One relative came to drop off food, but didn’t want to stay long and crowd the immediate family. As she put it, “We’ll be here when the stillness comes.”

It seems that the comforter knew about something that we don’t often think about.  That is, until it comes.  The stillness.

What could she have meant?  Those who have been hit by severe tragedy know that in the immediate aftermath there is likely to be a flurry of activity.  Facing the facts, answering questions, making arrangements, taking care of legal and business matters that won’t wait, showing up for events and ceremonies, meeting well-wishers, making necessary adjustments. Then comes the stillness. 

What can lead to stillness?

  1. Death of a highly valued person
  2. Loss of health
  3. Loss of activity that was the major source of meaning (job, child, reputation, freedom …)
  4. Errors in judgement that lead to unintended, perhaps irreversible consequences
  5. Stages of life that have meager appeal
  6. Long life (moving beyond stages of life that were satisfying, outliving people whose value has been irreplaceable, waning interest and curiosity about life)

An experience of this sort unmakes our world. It draws sharp lines marked “before” and “after”. The “before“ demarcates the comfortable world, the self that we knew. The ‘after’ is the devastation of a broken life-world that remains. (Anna Gotlibis, The Moral Psychology of Sadness, 2018.)

What happens in the stillness?

Aloneness. The flurry settles, sometimes disturbingly quickly.  All the things that pushed in and demanded attention – either finished or delayed.  All who asked questions and offered words of varying comfort – silent. All who brought food and offered to do mundane tasks – gone. Treasured is that person who moves through our fog and finds us.

Cessation of familiar routines, rituals, habits that have bestowed security. (Children listen to the same stories repeatedly because they enjoy the feeling of control in knowing the plot and the ending.) We savor continuity. Brains are inherently conservative and want to keep doing what has worked in the past.

Stillness that is sameness. Fear that I will always be who I have been; loss of hope that I can change enough to make an important difference.

Stillness that is solitude rather than loneliness. Relief from busyness that defined me. Space for newness. Who am I anyway?  Can I enjoy times of play and calm? Can I experience moments of insight? Can I find validation from within rather than from acting out the role expected of me? Can I finding meaning within joyful moments?

Stillness as a pause before a new start. We face the difficult process of world-repair through the restoration of meaning – through our work, our relationships, and through engaging with suffering itself. The earth-shattering experience is not a virus to be medicated away, nor a tale to be forgotten, nor a deep sadness to be replaced with reckless optimism. It can be a catalyst for different stories about who we are, what we value, and how we might live in the “after”. (Anna Gotlibis, The Moral Psychology of Sadness,  2018)

Thought Starter Questions for Sharing

  1. What kinds of stillness have you experienced following extremely disruptive crisis?
  2. What did the stillness reveal to you about you?
  3. What did the stillness reveal about other people?
  4. How did you deal with the stillness?
  5. What new stories about the various layers of self and world have you fashioned?
  6. What resources were most helpful?

December 3, 2020

Emotional Inflammation

Ideas from the book Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times (2020), by Lise Van Susteren and Stacey Colino.

These days it’s common to feel anxious, outraged, stressed out, fearful about the future, hyper-reactive, agitated, or otherwise on edge. It’s a state that Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist in Washington, DC., has dubbed “emotional inflammation.”  She says it is a phenomenon that’s similar to post-traumatic stress stemming from simply living in today’s tumultuous world.

At the most fundamental level, inflammation is a defense mechanism that occurs when the body recognizes problems and attempts to heal them. Although we tend to think inflammation has a physical cause, it can also have an emotional cause.

Emotional manifestations can make us feel hot, irritated, uncomfortable, and can even be painful. It can make moving through everyday life more difficult and leave us feeling tired or depleted.

A substantial body of scientific evidence now links negative emotions to the kind of chronic, invisible, systemic (or internal) inflammation that’s associated with life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.

A recent study revealed that adults who experienced considerable anger over the course of a week had higher blood levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a marker of chronic low-grade inflammation. Another study found a strong association between depression and higher IL-6 levels.

A 2018 study found that several anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, are associated with increased levels of C-reactive protein, another biomarker of chronic inflammation.

The fact that our emotions are highly inflamed these days is indisputable – and this reality is harmful for our bodies and minds.

As uncomfortable as emotional inflammation can feel, it’s a natural or appropriate response to the conditions we’ve been living with in recently. However, that doesn’t mean you have to be at its mercy.  Being in a constant state of agitation can have insidious ripple effects on your physical, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing. The key is to help yourself recover from emotional inflammation, just as you would if you suffered physical inflammation after spraining your ankle or bruising your knee.

Strategies for Taking Care of Yourself

  1. Care for your body
    • Get enough good-quality sleep
    • Steady your body’s circadian rhythms by dimming artificial lights and setting curfews on digital devices
    • Eat healthily
    • Exercise regularly
    • Regularly decompress from stress (with meditation or even deep breathing exercises)
  2. Recognize your feelings – At various times during the day, it helps to pause and ask yourself: how am I feeling? What words describe my current mood or state of mind? What have I dreamt about that has stuck with me? What am I thinking about or worrying about excessively? If you have trouble identifying these feelings in your mind, it can help to engage in expressive writing with pen and paper or on your computer.
  3. Reality-check your thoughts – To prevent your thoughts from spiraling out of control into worst-case scenarios or what-if propositions, use critical thinking skills to evaluate them. Ask yourself: what evidence suggests this thought is true? Are there other ways I could look at the situation? This is what’s called “cognitive reframing,” which helps change the way you think, feel, and behave If you find this difficult to do, you can talk with a friend who has skills at being reasonable and analytical.
  4. Limit media exposure – When we’re subjected to a continuous influx of disturbing or alarming news, that information overload can easily upset our emotional equilibrium. A survey by the American Psychological Association involving adults in the US showed that fifty-six per cent of people surveyed reported that following the news closely caused them stress. A group of psychologists warned that repeated media exposure to news could present a risk of psychological distress, including increased anxiety and heightened stress responses that could lead to symptoms that are similar to post-traumatic stress.
  5. Connect with nature and awe – The scientific literature is filled with studies illustrating how experiencing or viewing scenes from nature relieves stress and physical pain, enhances attention and cognition, and provides other mind-body benefits.  So, take a walk in a park, the woods, a garden, or near a body of water.  Soak in the sights, sounds, and smells of plants and trees, wildlife and other natural elements. Tune into the power of awe by gazing at the stars and planets at night, and appreciate the sense of wonder at being a part of something larger than yourself.
  6. Become an agent of change – Taking any action to help make the world a more humane and equitable place can have a profound effect on your sense of empowerment and wellbeing. Make an effort to shift from inaction to action, from bystander to upstander (by recognizing that something is wrong and speaking up, or standing up to work to make it right). You can do this in many different ways, both large and small – by financially supporting or volunteering for a cause you believe in, writing letters to elected officials about an important issue, working on a get-out-the-vote campaign, doing things to reduce your carbon footprint, and so much more.

     Instead of simply feeling vulnerable and unsteady, you can redirect the energy behind your outrage, fear, or despair.  You can take action that will change the conditions that fuel your worries. Seizing that opportunity is the hidden gift in emotional inflammation. It’s yours for the taking.

Thought-Starters for Sharing

  1. What signs have you noticed that you have enough agitation to make you uncomfortable?
  2. How much is related in some way to advancing age?
  3. Where in your body can you notice tension?
  4. What habits have you developed that benefit your body?
  5. What are some of the feelings you have in a typical day? Bad feelings? Good feelings?
  6. When have you spent time focusing/worrying about matters that you don’t know much about?
  7. Whose conversations give you different perspectives?
  8. How much time do you spend each day on watching/listening to news programs?
  9. What activities in nature affect you positively? How often do you do them?
  10. What actions make you feel useful?
  11. What kind of power do you have?