This week, I’ve been thinking about the power of imagination, especially as we age.
Imagination provides a spark for creativity.
Creativity feeds the soul.
Filmmaker David Lynch says that his best ideas come through daydreams. Others find space in nature.
In space and dreams, our imaginations have room to roam.
Here are a few quotes to think about:
“Love what you do and do what you love. Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it. You do what you want, what you love. Imagination should be the center of your life.” ― Ray Bradbury
We tend to consider imagination too lightly, forgetting that the life we make, for ourselves individually and for the world as a whole, is shaped and limited only by the perimeters of our imagination. Things are as we imagine them to be, as we imagine them into existence. Imagination is creativity, and the way we make our world depends on the vitality of our imagination.
— Thomas Moore
“Reality can be beaten with enough imagination.” –Mark Twain
What feeds your imagination? And where do you go to replenish it?
Another week, another tragedy. I was up before dawn to drive to a conference when tragic news, from the far side of the globe, jolted me awake. If you ever wonder if we’re all connected, notice how fast bad news travels.
Remember John Donne’s poem, written in 1621 when he himself was sick, “No Man is an Island?” He continues: “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
Four hundred years have not changed its relevance.
I began to wonder how I could keep my heart open with compassion for the world without feeling toppled by the weight of its tragedies?
For those of us who label ourselves “sensitive,” this is a real issue.
Another learning from dog land
Once again, I’m learning from the world of dog training (now drawing from BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training). My dog, Jackson, has been known to change, seemingly instantly, from Mr. Sweetheart to Mr. Watch-My-Fangs. I’m learning that he’s not a bad dog, he just gets pushed beyond the threshold of stimulation he can tolerate–for example, people or dogs showing up unexpectedly. He then has a doggy melt-down and begins his ferocious bark.
Since he has no tools for politely saying, “This is pushing my boundaries,” I have to watch out for him and learn to read the subtle signs of his becoming tense. When he’s in panic mode, it’s too late. My job is to challenge him to learn, without overstimulating him.
Life in an overstimulated world
We humans also become overstimulated by an environment where we can receive round the clock (bad) news, plus anxiety-provoking situations, such as politics, the economy or Seattle traffic. If we’re fatigued as we try to process it all, we may slip over our edge. We don’t bark, but we may freeze up, feel depressed, want to lash out, become exhausted, eat too much or not enough, drop the ball on a project–reacting in whatever is our default behavior.
My M.O. is to feel depressed and exhausted.
Sometimes my heart breaks after hearing the story of just one refugee family from Syria, let alone the enormity of the refugee crisis.
Stresses cumulate, as they do for Jackson. I need to learn when to pull back and calm, even if it means disconnecting from news of the world, at least for a while.
When the world starts weighing you down.
Here’s what I’m discovering.
See the gift
Recognize that your sensitivity, empathy, and compassion are sacred gifts, which may, in turn, weigh you down. You feel what is happening. Your intuition informs you about the pain of others. You’re moved by the world. How beautiful is that? Just remember, this gift comes with a price, one that requires learning to care for yourself.
On balance, isn’t it worth it?
Note to self: it’s normal to be depressed around mass shootings.
Take care of your body.
Sleep and eat decently. When I am tired and hungry, my sensitivities escalate, and I lose my ability to put life into perspective. I’ve learned not to make verdicts about the future when I’m exhausted. Better to eat some whole foods, go to bed early, and pray for more light in the morning.
Be careful generalizing about the world.
Bad news has a way of going viral, while good news just waits in the wings. I cringe with the latest foolish declarations from Washington, D.C. But babies keep being born, inventions created, scientists make amazing discoveries, and poets keep writing. And even politicians with whom I don’t agree are probably doing good work on many fronts. At least I hope so.
Take care of your energy level and sign off when needed.
It saddens me to know that some friends don’t listen to the news at all. I prefer to try for balance, which means listening to some news without letting it depress me
It’s hard to change the world when you’re feeling crippled by the news of the world.
Recognize the signs of over-stimulation.
When over-stimulated, Jackson goes on high alert. I’m trying to learn to read my signs of being over-stimulated or living off adrenalin. You don’t have to do it all. It’s 100% OK to cancel an engagement and pull back from a party if you need to be in a calm space and recover.
I can rebound by engaging creatively. When you create something you care about (poem, pasta, crossword puzzle) the process will slow you down, invite you to focus, engage your mind, and help you to express what you’re feeling, Plus you end up with something cool.
Creating is my favorite way to brain-flush.
Take a small step.
Action, however small, melts the numbness when I feel “it’s all too much.” Even making a phone call can bring a tiny sense of agency back into life.
If you are highly empathic, you may need a special program of grounding skills. You probably intuitively do this by taking a walk in nature, doing tai chi, yoga or meditation, or finding a way to feel rooted and connected to yourself and your surroundings. When I am grounded some of the pain I experience in the world can run through me without plugging up my heart.
Savor the bright moments.
This week, nature blessed Seattle-ites with unseasonably warm weather and blue skies, offering a window of early Spring, and making up, just a bit, for the blizzard that inflicted so much damage a few weeks ago. Thanks to nature’s gift, my mood has lifted, and the world feels less heavy. I am grateful.
Hear the music.
I offer a small treat below, just because.
As we navigate stressful times, when we have immediate access to pains from around the world, we need to take extra care of ourselves so that we can function without checking out.
The weight of the world doesn’t look like it’s going to get lighter any time soon, but we can learn to both feel it deeply and let it go.
“Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you.”
Remember the Everly Brothers hit “Devoted to You?*
Darlin’, you can count on me Till the sun dries up the sea Until then I’ll always be devoted to you.
Although they must have been singing to a girl, we can be devoted to whatever creative endeavor we most care about, whether it be our craft, a project, our job, or something we’re making.
I’ve been enjoying reading Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I confess that it’s the only Stephen King book I’ve read, given that I’m too freaked by violence and creepy things to enjoy horror stories.
King’s dedication to his work inspires me, not just in the here’s-another-writer-who-disciplines-himself-to-write-every-day sense of the word, but because his craft seems to be part of who he is. He is devoted.
Discipline, devotion, and dedication can turn craft into art.
You may already know the benefits of discipline, (for a writer it’s called butt-in-the-chair time), but have you given equal attention to its twin sisters, devotion and dedication?
For me, they’re the secret ingredients that bring zest to a drink, spice to a stew, and an invitation to magic whenever we’re creating.
Devotion and dedication are different from obsession. When you care about your craft, your project, your art, or your life, you have to care for yourself as well. Your work, if it could talk, would tell you this.
When I was working 16 hour days studying as a grad student in business school, (my big foray into extreme work-ism), I wasn’t devoted–I was seeing how hard I could push. No lilting reverence powered my actions. No magic. I liked what I was learning, but I was not transformed by it.
When I’m devoted, I am shaped by what I’m shaping.
Devotion comes from the old French word devovere that meant “love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause.” Dedication comes from the 15th-century French word dedicacioun that meant the “action of consecrating to a deity or sacred use.” Its 17th-century meaning became “the giving of oneself to some purpose.”
As we give ourselves to work we believe in, that work gives something back to us. When we dedicate ourselves, we find the sacred in everyday life.
When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I dedicated myself to its completion, investing money and months, and disciplined myself to finish even though I was also working a full-time job. The long hours spent writing could have felt like drudgery. They didn’t. I was devoted to the project, and the dissertation finally rewarded me, by “talking back” when I needed to figure out where it was going.
When I do the work to which I am devoted, whether it’s facilitating a story circle, coaching a client to deliver her story, or writing until my words finally begin to flow, I am shifted. Sometimes my heart is moved. Other times new ideas come to me.
My work begins to tell me what it needs.
Stephen King wrote about this. None, or almost none, of his novels, were plotted in advance. Instead, they revealed to him what they needed as he wrote them.
Devotion and dedication put us into a loving relationship with the world we are creating. We move out of a commodity-based, I-it relationship to our work and more of what Martin Buber called I-thou. We listen.
Elizabeth Gilbert, to whom I turn when I need a creative boost, writes in BIg Magic:
“For my own part, I decided early on to focus on my devotion to the work above all. That would be how I measured my worth. [rather than through an external measure of recognition or success]…
Mind you, hard work guarantees nothing in realms of creativity…But I cannot help but think that devotional discipline is the best approach. Do what you love to do, and do it with both seriousness and lightness. At last, then you will know that you have tried and that–whatever the outcome–you have traveled a noble path.”
Her thoughts apply if, like Martha Graham and many artists, you”ve found the calling of your lifetime (Graham stayed connected to dance into her nineties). Gilbert’s words also apply when you give yourself to a smaller and subtler calling that lasts but a brief while.
With devotion, you invite delight to join you in your work.
Invest your time in what you love because it enchants you, even if a project stretches you to your limits. Your dedication will keep you from falling into the trenches where the mind will insist you should try to “be someone” and “do something successful” or ” be really good.”
Because my mind is so quick to judge (me), I have to remind myself of my dedication and devotion–the why behind what I do.
Instead, I wake up in the morning and go to sleep grateful that i have something to which I can dedicate myself. My devotion stays with me like a friend.
As the Shirelles sang back in the 1960s:
Each night before you go to bed, my baby
Whisper a little prayer for me, my baby
And tell all the stars above
This is dedicated to the one I love.
Where do you devote yourself? To what are you dedicated?
One of my writing buddies inspires me with her ability to not let rejection stop her. We’re part of an online writing circle, where she regularly shares about disappointing rejections from potential agents and publishers–as well as the occasional exciting acceptance.
She understands that the writer’s path is one of regular rejection and considers her recent stats–twenty rejections and two acceptances–as a kind of badge of honor. I’m proud of her for that. She’s not immune to pain, and I’ve seen lousy news knock her down a bit, but then she stands back up, dusts herself off, and sends out more material.
Brava! I’m hoping that some of her ability to withstand rejection will rub off on me.
Right. AIDs, the death of friends, his own HIV diagnosis and other significant life experiences would make a few criticisms of his book look small. He admitted that rejection can still hurt, but he doesn’t hang on to that hurt for long.
I, on the other hand, conflate rejection with they-don’t-love-me and it’s-the-end-of-the-known-world.
I don’t recommend my approach.
In the spirit of sharing what I need to learn, I’ve developed the following for any of us who suffer when our work, ideas, projects, or art are rejected:
It’s your work they are rejecting–not you.
Yes, I know this, but it’s still tough to believe, For many of us, memories of disappointment, rejection, or lack of acknowledgment are buried deep in our cells. I’m not talking metaphorically. Traumatic memories can live somatically (in the body) often untouched by years of talk-therapy. Trying to tell yourself to “not take it personally” can help if it buys you some time to take a breath and look at your situation with a little objectivity. But today’s small rejection may quickly trigger a connection with painful incidents from the past. Bottom line: don’t make yourself wrong if it still hurts, and repeat the mantra: it’s not about me.
Explore the source of the wound.
While thinking might not make your hurt go away, writing about it, breathing into it, or exploring where the feelings live in your body (Focusing), can keep you from staying stuck in the pain. Some wounds may never go away entirely, but they can be prevented from directing your life. Your disappointments can point you to where healing and self-acceptance are still needed and prove themselves to be a gift you can use.
Notice the scale of the rejection.
Some rejections are not earth-shatteringly important. I had a piece of writing rejected for a conference (ouch!) but the organizer said I could submit something else that she would use (yay!). I may not be chosen to give a talk (boo), but that doesn’t keep me from pursuing other prospects (yay).
What does being turned down or rejected mean, really? I lost a contract (OUCH!). Did my life end? No. Were my legs cut off? No. Did anyone die? I doubt it. Did the loss of that opportunity open the door to a new, much more fulfilling direction for my work? YES. In retrospect, I’m grateful to have not been chosen, many years ago, for a couple of jobs that would never have suited me and weren’t half as interesting as the work I eventually found.
No sense pretending that rejection is not painful when it is. Better to give yourself a moment to feel the pain, with a few requisite comforts at the ready. Mine include chocolate, popcorn, and binge-watching Netflix. Yours?
As soon as you’re able, start moving in any way that brings you joy–walk, run, dance, garden, lift weights, etc. Blood pumping seems to have healing and brain cleansing effects and can prepare you to use the suggestion below-my power card.
As soon as I get a little energy back, or caffeinate myself back into normality, this is my ticket to real recovery. There’s never just one way to proceed towards my goals. When I’ve managed to shake off the discouragement that still comes with rejection (and damps down my creative juices), I’m amazed at all the options my creative mind will come up with when it’s invited to brainstorm and play. I may need to throw a fit first to clear the air. Then, there’s always a way forward.
So, if you’ve experienced rejection and the after-effects are starting to fog your mind, give yourself a moment to recover, then take a big swig of perseverance, a healthy dose of new energy, and a sprinkling of devil-may-care bravado, and carry on, because something that your heart really desires is out there waiting for you.
What if one click of acknowledgment could reinforce the skill, craft, or project you’re working on?
Why not reinforce the best of what you do, while letting the rest, well, fade away?
The limits of willpower
In working alone on my book, blog, or podcast, I sometimes need to rely on willpower to keep going. But that elusive resource eventually runs out, leaving me struggling to keep my engines going.
Willpower is definitely overrated. Imagine the results (my guess: zero) if we asked our dogs (or staff) to stay motivated on willpower alone. Fueling on willpower is too hard.
Treats and rewards can be much more helpful…but I’ll come back to that later.
We all need acknowledgment and positive reinforcement, and I’m learning just how important that is from my new ventures into dog training.
A new (older) foster dog recently joined us, the irrepressible Jackson. A bit of training was in order and we hired a coach who specializes in “Clicker Training.” I’m hooked. I want to use Clicker Training on me.
It’s is a form of positive reinforcement that comes out of Behaviorism, a branch of psychology I used to criticize. Rats working in boxes weren’t my thing.
But I’m reconsidering now.
Basically, you click to reinforce behaviors you want so that they will increase. You ignore or don’t reinforce negative behaviors and they decrease. That may sound manipulative, but Clicker Training works a lot better than the punish and reprimand school of dog training.
A clicker is a small device you hold in your hand and immediately click when your dog does what you’ve asked for (or makes a credible try). You click to reinforce his good choice and always follow with a small treat.
Your massively intelligent dog thinks, “Wow, I did something right, yum, treat is coming,” and feels reinforced for doing the behavior you wanted.
Clicker training has been used to shape the behavior of a tiny crab and to train champion sheepdogs. It works.
Our new dog, Jackson, at ten years old, is on for the program. He believes all treats are good.
I’m now wondering if I could clicker-train myself?
Click to train leaders
As I think about it, I suspect a sizeable chunk of management literature has borrowed liberally from behaviorism, such as Ken Blanchard’s classic The One Minute Manager, in which he advocates “catching people in the act of doing something right,” or Charles Duhigg’sThe Power of Habit, in which a series of cues are set up to shape a habit you want to develop.
Maybe a lot of management consulting could be replaced with clicker training. Hmmm. Just an idea…
How we might click to train ourselves
I’m no expert on Clicker Training, but I’ve distilled a few principles to try:
Our dog trainer, Maggi McClure, exudes ease when you’re with her. You relax and shift from thinking, “Oh my god, you wouldn’t believe that (bad) thing our dog just did,” to “Let’s have some fun together.” This definitely helps the dog.
For people: Since over-efforting is my M.O., I could use more ease at the start of my workday. A little breathing, meditation, or relaxation would surely improve my focus.
Plus, fun makes me more functional.
Become more observant
We often think we see what dogs are doing, or focus on what they “should” do, and miss what they’re actually doing. Clicker trainers become very observant. Is that waggy-tail a show of happiness or a reflection of stressed over-excitement?
For people: I often don’t see my own behavior. I don’t notice that I’m tensing, demonstrating signs of stress, “over-adrenalizing,” or making a project harder than it needs to be.
Focus on the positive
Clicker trainers catch dogs in the act of doing something right, even if it’s the smallest beginning step of a command, such as a head turn. They still occasionally reprimand. But they’ll try to substitute a positive pathway for your pooch’s knock-guests-down-at-the-door behavior.
For people: Some writing coaches feel it’s their job to rip apart student writing. Actor/writing-coach Ann Randolph uses only positive reinforcement to power up her improv-writing courses. She finds something interesting to highlight in each participant’s writing. You learn to build on your successes and, even more importantly, you’re motivated to keep writing.
Clicker trainers break down actions into the small steps required to succeed with a command. It takes artistry to break a skill into manageable bites. For example, before a dog will come to you, he needs to look at you.
For people: Big goals can give you a direction. But I’ve discovered that a broad goal like “I want to write a book” is too general to help me focus my day. I’d be better off identifying the specific steps I need to take or break apart the particular skills I need to learn.
In clicker training, the click tells the dog immediately that it’s got the right idea. (Timing is key.)
For people: I wish someone would click to tell me that I’m doing my life right. (God, are you listening?) Short of that, I have to be my own clicker and find friends who can remind me of the positive steps on my path I’ve made.
The clicker is always followed by a reward.
For people: Give yourself more rewards. You deserve them. They don’t have to make you fat. (Jackson is on a strict diet.) Make a list of the best low-calorie treats, breaks, or special experiences you could use to reward yourself for even small progress. (Send me your list, please…)
Keep the sessions short and focused
Maggi recommends lots of 2-minute dog training sessions and tells us to end with a win while the dog is still focused.
For people: Determine how long you can sustain deep focus and schedule accordingly. For me, it’s about 25 minutes. After that, I’ll perform better after my reward!
Build on success
As a dog becomes more successful, clicks and rewards can become more intermittent. If he’s mastered one behavior, you add a new challenge. If that new challenge proves too big (“don’t chase squirrels” would almost always be too big), you ease back to a place where he can again experience success. You keep the overall experience positive.
For people: Count all the ways you’ve improved so that you can remember on one of those dark “the-sky-is-falling” days.
Go off duty
When a dog is not in training, he’s off duty.
For people: Go outside and play.
Obviously, not all learning can be built around stimulus-response. Some deep learning may require years of thought and questions. Or, it may come in one unplanned Eureka moment.
Yet, the idea of identifying a lot of small positive steps, and giving myself lots of specific acknowledgments and rewards is appealing to me. I’ll just have to be my own clicker.
Sometimes you build community by talking, finding common interests, and slowly building trust.
Sometimes you find community by…sweating.
That’s what I did this past weekend in my Zumba (dance-fitness) instructor training. I almost didn’t make it. Life’s been a bit rough recently, and it was hard to imagine myself spending a day doing high-energy, Latin-inspired moves, while feeling burdened by some unexpected problems.
I tried to picture myself among the clientele I thought might be attending this training: nubile, super-buff, exercise-freaks in their twenties, their butts thinly coated by tight, designer stretch pants. Would there be other 67-year-old women, with aching knees, vulnerable ankles and other physical limitations? Not likely.
However, the idea of chickening out made me feel worse than the prospect of feeling out of place. And, thanks to a couple of handfuls of ibuprofen, I did survive all the high energy movement. It was fun, but what I really loved was taking a deep dive into a diverse community.
The participants didn’t fit any stereotypes. They came in every color, and even from some different parts of the world. I danced next to a woman wearing a Hijab and form-fitting pants, and boy could she wiggle!
Yes, there were some crazy designer leggings and tank tops. But it turned out that the insanely cool black and white tights I saw came from Walmart.
Moving together connects us across different experiences, backgrounds, and countries.
Great dance music is democratically distributed around the globe.
Zumba was started by a man from Colombia who started life poor. He danced in the streets before he stumbled on a formula for dance-fitness success. Two Latin business partners joined in, and soon they had created a multi-million dollar empire of instructors and participants. You can find Zumba today in two hundred countries. No longer limited to Latin rhythms, Zumba now draws inspiration from music and steps worldwide.
What stood out for me last Sunday, apart from the fun of dancing, was how fast our little rainbow classroom started feeling like a supportive community. I wished that my pale, winter-white skin could borrow some color from the beautiful Indian woman who was dancing next to me. (She, too, had the moves!) Participant ages ranged from 17 to 67 (yours truly).
Did I tell you we came in many shapes, from finely chiseled to, well, big? What we had in common was that we could all shake (or try), laugh, and enjoy letting our hearts beat with the music we were hearing.
No introductions needed.
We started the day with no introductions, no sitting around a circle discussing our goals, no check-in opportunities for me to give the instructor my list of physical limitations and tell her why I might not make it through the class, Nope. After sharing a few words at the beginning of class, the instructor got us up on our feet. Then she revved up the music and we were dancing.
The instructor was a high-octane bundle of crazy-wild energy, whose might exceeded the size of her well-sculpted 5’4″ body. With a lingering Puerto Rican accent, she shouted out encouragement for us to follow her as she demonstrated some basic variations of core Zumba moves.
The intense beat of the music seemed to bond us.
At lunch, I noticed how easy it was to share with my new Zumba buddies, who no longer felt like strangers. Where else could I ask a dancing friend how many women in her Muslim community dance in Hijabs? (Some do, some don’t.)
Movement, like storytelling and other arts, is a gateway to community.
I’ve written before about forming community through the amazing Story Bridge process. Expressive arts like storytelling, music, and dance encourage us to make connections with each other independent of our intellect or opinions.
We open up for a moment, and enter a truer part of ourselves where we are free to move with less pretense, and, in the case of Zumba, more sass!
Don’t hold your breath–I have no immediate plans to teach Zumba. Trying to do the angular hip-hop inspired Reggaeton moves was still beyond me. (My back agrees with this verdict.)
I kept thinking that dancing is such a cool way to build community quickly, and span differences in backgrounds, experiences, and cultures. On the island where I live, the Zumba community is an amazingly supportive bunch.
The core elements that bond us are so simple:
Music. Movement. Sharing joy together. Engaging our minds together with our bodies (It takes brains to do those moves!) Laughter. Smiles. Sweat.
Maybe we don’t always need to talk through our problems.