Tuesday, January 30, 2007

an emotional diet

You are what you eat. Or so the saying goes. It's a recognition of the fact that what we consume affects us, affects who we are and what we become.

But as Thich Nhat Hanh has pointed out (in his book "Anger"), this notion does not apply merely to food. If we surround ourselves with anger and conflict, spend our days thinking angry thoughts, we will grow the anger and sadness inside of ourselves. But the reverse is also true -- if we fill our lives with those who are peaceful and loving, if our thoughts and actions embody peace and love, then we grow love and happiness inside of ourselves.

I really like the metaphor Thich Nhat Hanh uses here -- that our inner world is a garden, a garden with beautiful plants and weeds. And every thought and action will water something. So we are constantly watering either the flowers of love, peace, and compassion -- or we are watering the weeds of anger, sadness, and despair.

If we take seriously the notion that every thought is important in the creation of our inner world, the issue becomes how to make changes in our thoughts. They are often based on powerfully habitual ways of perceiving the world, and cannot be simply "turned off." But what we can do is to be mindful of the dialogue, and to examine how we choose to respond to it. So often I think we act as our own worst enemies -- condemning ourselves, putting ourselves down, criticizing ourselves.

Were others to say such thoughts to us, we might respond with understanding, compassion, and goodness. Yet when the thought is our own we respond with such negativity.

I wonder if much of the key is learning to respond to our own inner dialogue with the kind of compassion and understanding that we wish to show to others. After all, which is more likely to create an inner world of peace and joy?

Monday, January 29, 2007

musings on my day

You just never know what reaction you're going to get.

I had the duty today of letting some parents know that their child is autistic. And it's one of those kinds of situations where parental reactions show such tremendous variability. Some will just stare at you blankly. Some will become angry, even argue with you (if you let them). Others will weep, as if I've just given them some kind of proverbial death sentence for their dreams for their child.

So I tend to go into such meetings with a bit of trepidation, careful to describe just what it is that their child is struggling with -- and what I think can be done to remediate the problem.

The situation today was heightened a bit in terms of its intensity when I discovered that one of hte parents had spent a fair amount of time in prison. Didn't find out just why -- it didn't seem like the moment to ask. But it is fair to say that my mind engaged in all manner of thoughts about what could have sent them there.

"Your son is in the autistic spectrum" I explained to them.

And this gruff, unpolished person with all the physical signs of a having lived a hard life expressed...relief. He finally knew what it was about his son that had always seemed wrong, that he couldn't understand. He eagerly soaked up my explanations of how to start helping their son.

It's perhaps odd that of all of us in that room, I was perhaps the one who learned the most. They simply put a name to what they had sensed for a long time, and picked up a few bits of knowledge about how to start working on that problem. I learned something about assumptions, preconceptions, and how easy it is to judge before you've gotten to know someone.

interviews with god

Over on velveteen rabbi's website, I found this link to a blog by Blaugustine. She has this series of comics detailing a character known as Augustine and her interviews with God that seem funny, warm, and wise. I've only read a few of them, but I trust velveteen rabbi's judgment implicitly on such matters and she speaks very highly of them. If you're interested, you can even order a new book of them.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

playing ball

I've mentioned on my blog before that both of my sons have been diagnosed in the autism spectrum. Patrick (age 6) has been more severely affected.

Today I was playing around with him and after awhile I decided to try something that hasn't worked so well in the past -- playing ball. I don't know if it was a problem with motor coordination or just getting the idea of the activity that was the problem. But he tended to just get frustrated and walk away.

So today I just took what he gave me. He didn't want to catch the ball at first, but he would sort-of hit it back to me. So I went with that. I'd throw it to him, he'd hit it back, and we just went like that for awhile, laughing together if we missed or dropped it.

And then, slowly, I added more complexity. First, he began to get the idea of catching and then throwing. We practiced that for awhile, and then I tried bouncing the ball to each other. It took him a bit, but then he got the idea and gradually improved his skill in doing so. Then we rolled the ball rather than throwing or bouncing.

I know this may be hopelessly stereotypically "guy" of me, but there's something powerful about being able to play ball with your son. Something archetypal about the activity, to use the Jungian term. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it.

Friday, January 26, 2007

my Mom would be pleased...

You paid attention during 100% of high school!

85-100% You must be an autodidact, because American high schools don't get scores that high! Good show, old chap!

Do you deserve your high school diploma?
Create a Quiz

Of course, now I have to look up the word "autodidact." Maybe I didn't pay such good attention after all....

Thursday, January 25, 2007

on friendships and life past college

I find myself really missing my friends tonight.

I mean, the people I think of as my really deep, true, and good friends. People I got to know during my time in college. I miss them, and I find myself acutely aware of the fact that I have no friendships like that in the town where I live now.

Which is perhaps odd, really. I mean, I've lived here now for about eight years. I've met people, perfectly nice people. I would even say that I would consider some of them friends. And yet, there is a difference... a difference in the depth of the relationship, I guess.

I don't know if it's just the experience of having gone through that time in our lives together, or if its the fact that I was so blessed as to make friends with truly outstanding individuals at that time in my life. Maybe I'm a little less open to friendship -- or, better, more cautious because of the role I'm in because of my profession.

Maybe it's partly that, in college, you're around these people a great deal of the time, whereas now I see my local friends a couple of times per month. Maybe it's that all the energy I'm putting into work and the kids leaves little time or room for developing outside friendships.

Maybe I've grown more cynical. Maybe I spend so much time hearing of the pain in others' lives that compassion fatigue sets in and I have less emotional energy to invest into forming new friendships.

Maybe some combination of all of the above.

Regardless, right now I miss my friends. I may just have to call them.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


My Peculiar Aristocratic Title is:
Viscount Steven the Arboreal of Heffton St Mallet
Get your Peculiar Aristocratic Title

Wow. A Viscount! I mean, first, Time magazine named little old me their person of the year (OK, technically they said "you," but as I was the reader, their intention was clear). Then Barack Obama tells me that I was his inspiration for running for president (OK, so technically, again, he used the word "you" -- see notation after the whole 'person of the year' thing). And now I'm a viscount.

I'm having a damn fine year so far.

BTW, what the heck is a viscount?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


My youngest son, Jacob, loves green shirts. Which wouldn't be such a big thing, but what with his autistic features, this isn't always just a "I'd really prefer a green shirt" kind of thing. No, this is a "I want THAT green shirt and if you don't find the one that I want and put it on me I'm going to scream and fight you every square inch on the way to preschool."

Today was just such a day. Fighting to get him into his jacket because we just didn't happen to have that particular green shirt clean today. Fighting to get him into his carseat. Fighting to get the safety belt on him. Fighting to KEEP the safety belt on him. Putting up with his screams and wails every second of the trip to preschool.

Then I pick him up a few hours later and he has forgotten all of this, certainly holds no anger towards me for the events earlier in the day. Instead, he looks up to find me and has a look of pure joy as he yells out "Dad! You picked me up!"

And I pick him up into my arms, and he whispers in my ear "I love you, Dad."

"He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 18:2-4

Friday, January 19, 2007


One of the interesting things about my job is administering tests like the "Sentence Completion Test." You may have heard of it. You know, it's the personality test where the test starts a series of sentences for you, and asks you to complete them in a manner that expresses "...how you really feel."

Some time ago, I came across responses that made me think. Several of the items begin with prompts like "I hate..." or "I can't stand...." And this one individual repeatedly answered "non-Christians."

"Non-Christians?" I thought to myself. "By whose definition, I wonder?"

Putting aside for a moment the bizarre idea that worship of a God of love could be consistent with hatred towards another human being regardless of their beliefs, I think what struck me the most was how this really didn't seem that out of the ordinary. I hear that kind of reasoning from various (mostly fundamentalistic) sources all the time.

When faith and worship is reduced to a series of "correct" or "incorrect" beliefs, it is capable of producing hatred. Because then opposing beliefs or points of view become threats to that which is considered holy. People become enemies. Ideas become threats. Defending the rightness of one's position begins to feel compulsory. Hatred seems justified, even blessed.

It makes me want to tear my *%$#*&@ hair out.

As I spoke to the counselor working with this person (who sent them to me for the evaluation), she asked me whether I thought his statements were a reflection of his personality -- or just a repetition of things he had heard in his (rather conservative) church. I told her that I thought it was probably from his personality, though I wouldn't doubt if certain teachings reinforced that side of him.

I find myself praying that I'm right about that, because the other possibility is a bit too terrifying for me. In trying to defend what is seen as holy, do we have large numbers of people being taught to hate?

I've had other clients of GLBT persuasion who have talked to me about living in a relatively rural area in a state like this one. They tell me of the comments, not just by half drunk idiots at a bar, but by religious authorities a few dozen feet away from them. Telling them how sinful they are for who they love. Telling them how they are ruining the moral foundation of our country. Spewing hatred while mouthing the words "love the sinner, but hate the sin." Reinforcing the self-loathing these individuals developed from years of hearing this kind of thing over and over.

It saddens me deeply. And I have little enough hair left to be pulling it out like this.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

"...but I'm such a GOOD guy on my blog!"

My lovely wife goes to a group called Mothers of Preschoolers (or MOPS) a couple of times per month. They have these discussions on various matters related to parenting children of that age, and this evening their topic was "putting your marriage first."

So she comes home with this story of how this woman and her husband get up at 4:30 in the morning so they can have at least 30 minutes of talking together before the children get up. (4:30! In the morning!) I mean no sacrilege, but I sometimes wonder if Jesus himself were to call me at 4:30 in the morning whether I would ask if I could call Him back. Because of the me and the not so much being a morning person.

But the serious point she was making was whether we have been doing enough to put our marriage first. I wish I could say yes. But, in the spirit of honesty, probably not as much as much as we should. As I should. What with the aforementioned (on previous posts) "financial panic" of recent months, working more to try and alleviate said financial panic, my doctor's injunction for more exercise...well, sometimes it seems like we go to work, spend time doing RDI with the kids (for their autism), make meals, get the kids to bed, watch TV...and go to bed ourselves.

All of which makes me feel like a pretty crummy husband. (The fact that I would dismiss getting up at 4:30 so quickly doesn't help me feel any better about that.) And it makes me reflect on how easy it is to seem so good on a blog, whereas in reality I have to face sides of myself that are selfish, tired, stubborn, etc.

Not to make excuses here, but I do think part of this situation is a reflection of just how much is on our plates right now. Busy private practices, the normal parenting stuff, needing to make time for RDI, the extra time commitment from the dietary stuff we're trying to do...time for ourselves, time for the marriage somehow these get pushed aside.

Which is, of course, not good. And how many times do I tell my clients to make this stuff a priority? I can almost hear their refrain: "psychologist, heal thyself." But the devil in fixing this is in the details, as it were. In other words, what to cut back? At times, it seems like dilemma after dilemma.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

speech and love

For years, people knew that autistic kids had a hard time learning to talk. And in the 1970's, the behaviorists of the world came in with what they saw as a solution: teaching autistic kids to say words.

So they would sit across the table from them, show them a picture, and reinforce them for saying the word that goes with the object. Apple. Dog. Cow. Nose.

And in a very limited sense, they could claim success. The autistic kids would learn to say words. But there was a problem: many times, the autistic child wasn't really communicating. They would say "dog" or "cat" or "tree," but if you asked them what they did that day? Nothing. Ask them what their favorite kind of ice cream is? Again, nothing.

So you'd get kids who would say a bunch of words, perhaps repeating songs over and over from TV shoes or movies they'd seen, but not really communicating, not really sharing anything about their inner world.

In recent times, insightful folks studying developmental psychology and language have come to realize that the behaviorists had it all backwards. First you have to create rich mental life, full of things that the child understands and wants to express. Then come the words, because the child has something to talk about.

Which all reminded me of some of Paul's great writing about gifts. "If I speak in tongues" "If I have the faith to move mountains"...all for naught if love is not also present. It struck me that perhaps in a sense, our inner emotional and spiritual life is rather like a young child learning to talk. Will our actions, our gifts be simply words, lacking anything communicative or substantial? Will we be little more than the "noisy gong" Paul refers to? Or will our gifts reflect an emotional and spiritual life filled with love?

In my job, there are some sessions that seem profoundly moving to the people I'm working with, that seem to trigger or create meaningful change. But there is no easy way of understanding why that session was helpful and another perhaps not so much. It isn't about whether I talk a lot or a little, whether we focus on the past or the present, whether we look at their inner world or try to manage the outer one.

I like to think instead that any of these approaches can be helpful, depending on the circumstance. What is important is for me to try my best to stay attuned to them. Not to try to prove that I have wisdom to offer, or that I am competent in what I do. Not to solve the problem for them or give them all the answers. But to trust in them and myself, to offer love and compassion -- as well as loving and compassionate confrontations at times, and to respond to where they are at that moment.

Then (if I am lucky) my words might have the power to move people. Then, perhaps, the words become more than a noisy gong.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Til Tuesday

OK, I don't know how many of you will actually remember the semi-obscure band from the 1980's known as "Til Tuesday." I do. It was the group Aimee Mann played for before going out on her own.

Anyway, they had this song called "Voices Carry" -- and I have vivid memories of watching the video for the song in the early days of MTV (say, back when they PLAYED music videos). The song and video is about a woman who is controlled by an aggressive and manipulative man, a man who stifles her independence, her very sense of herself.

There's this scene at the end of the video where they're at some performance at Carnegie Hall. And she just has had enough of being silenced by this guy. So she starts singing. Quietly at first, but continuing despite his protests. Then louder. And louder. Asserting her right to be who she is. Singing despite his protests, his demands, despite all those who are looking askance.

She sings. She asserts who she is, demonstrates her own voice, refuses to be silent.

Maybe its partially because of the age I was when I first saw the video, but to this day I consider it one of the best pieces of visual art I've ever seen.

And now it is finally available on iTunes! Yay!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Teachings I admire

"As we learn to see with the eyes of love, we empty our minds of anger and hatred. As long as these negative mental formations are present in us, our love is incomplete. We may think we understand and accept others, but we are not yet able to love them fully....The moment we give rise to the desire for all beings to be happy and at peace, the energy of love arises in our mind, and all our feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are permeated by love; in fact, they become love." Thich Nhat Hanh (in "Teachings on Love")

I love this book by Thich Nhat Hanh. It is probably the most profound book on the topic of love I've yet to find. And yet it is also very readable, very practical.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Thoughts from a calendar

"If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace." Thich Nhat Hanh

This is the first quote on my new Thich Nhat Hanh calendar. I simply adore his teachings. What I love from this one is the refreshing emphasis on just how important it is that we nurture our inner lives. It can be so easy, in my experience, to put this off, to make our own happiness a low priority, easily lost amidst the business (or busy-ness) of life. Yet we do so at great cost, I think. The greatest gift we can give to those who know is and care about us is our own peace and happiness.

Which is not to say that we aren't allowed to be sad, or anxious, or angry. Of course we are allowed these things; they are as much a part of our humanity as anything else. But we also should recognize the importance of valuing our own emotional and spiritual sustenance. Making it a priority rather than simply paying lip service.

Peace to you all.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Yahoo religion & spirituality

It almost feels like a confession: I, um, Yahoo.

That is to say, I use the Yahoo service for their free e-mail. And for those of you unfamiliar with the world of Yahoo, they have this thing now called "Y! Answers" where people of all stripes can ask questions on any number of subjects -- and others can write in their answers.

An interesting idea. Then they throw in their little incentives. For example, you start on "Level One." Being on this level is the Yahoo equivalent of serfdom status in the Middle Ages. Sure, you can put in your answers and try desperately to achieve the lofty status of, say, Level Two. But can you comment on other people's questions or answers (with the all-powerful "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" rating)? Nope.

Not being one to willingly remain in such a denigrating position, I set to work achieving Level Two. Need help with your homework on why and how Hitler could be classified as a bad leader? I'm there with helpful advice like "read your history book" and "pay special attention to mentions of the word 'Holocaust.'" Wondering if you should leave your spouse simply because you're unhappy? Once again, I'm there with tasty morsels of wisdom like "don't make this kind of decision lightly" and "try talking to them about your concerns."

But what was most interesting for me was the section of questions dealing with "Religion and Spirituality." In my brief experience, this was easily the area of Y! Answers most filled with nut jobs (to use the technical term for them). In this section, we find questions like "Can I perform miracles if I eat the right kind of Scooby snack?" and "How come there's no verse in the Bible condemning sex with minors?" We also find debates about whether the earth could possibly be more than 6000 years old, whether anybody should give credence to the theory of evolution, and "Why does American society hate Christianity?"

Some of the questioners seem to be deliberate "flamers," people who make outrageous statements or who ask inflammatory questions just to get a response. But others seem to be genuine in asking their questions, like one individual who sincerely asked whether her "religious experience" while on Acid would be sufficient to gain her entry into heaven.

It's difficult to know for sure just how representative that particular community in terms of religious believers (or the athiests who hang around that site in order to insult the more outrageous statements by the fundamentalists). But I found the whole experience very disheartening (except for the part about achieving Level Two -- now I revel in my almost godlike ability to cast fear into the hearts of fellow posters by clicking the "thumbs down" next to their comments.)

But seriously, are these kinds of questions indicative of modern religious discourse on a broader sociological level? Are the kinds of accusations, insults, and outright hatred indicative of how many people talk and treat each other when discussing matters of religion?

In the end, I found myself sympathizing more with the athiests, who generally stood up for the recognition of science, an acceptance of homosexuals as full human beings, an attempt to live live with dignity and compassion. And then I found myself asking: where are the religious moderates? Why are our voices so silent, so overwhelmed by the loudness of the ideological extremes?

Sometimes it can feel that way in our larger society, not just on Y! Answers.