A Survival Guide for Uncertain Times Week 2: Communicate

Ponte che collega le persone

“I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.” –Mother Teresa

A few weeks ago, I attended the New York City Women’s March. When I got home, I received a call from a friend who voted for Donald Trump.  He felt the Women’s March was divisive and portrayed those who had voted for Donald Trump as horrible people. He said he was not a horrible person simply because he voted for Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton. He told me he had seen on the news signs from the march that proclaimed, “He is not my president,” and “Dump Trump.” He heard a clip from Madonna in Washington, DC that he found violent and upsetting. I tried to express to him how wonderful the March was for me and how the people at these marches care about important issues facing the world today. But my friend could only focus on the negatives he has seen on the news.

As I lay awake in bed that night, I felt overwhelmed that my relationship with this dear old friend had become so argumentative. The next day I called him back. The first thing I said was, “Donald Trump is President of the United States.  I don’t want to discuss the election and I just want to focus on what is happening today.  Let’s talk facts.”

As the discussion continued, the things my friend said to me sounded like a string of Fox News sound bites. I probably sounded to him like a tape of MSNBC sound bites!  Again, we were getting nowhere.  My friend and I took a pause. We each Continue reading…

A Paradigm Shift in New Year’s Resolutions

art Christmas and 2016 New year party background

Last summer, I spent a few days at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City to see Mata Amritanandamayi, known throughout the world as Amma [“Mother”], the Hugging Saint. Amma has inspired and transformed more than 34 million people through her hugs, her spiritual wisdom and her network of global charities, known as Embracing the World. In 40 countries, Amma feeds the hungry, educates children and women, builds homes and provides healthcare and disaster relief for those in need. When asked where she gets the energy to help so many people, Amma answers, “Where there is true love, anything is effortless.” I watched this woman for three days as she hugged and inspired people for free no matter who they were, what they looked like or how much money they had. She stayed up all night long just to make sure each person who came to see her received a hug and had a chance to feel loved.

During the event, Amma told a story about a woman who boarded a bus. The woman sat right behind the bus driver and as he drove she gave him some peanuts. The bus driver did not want the peanuts but ate them because he did not want to insult the lady. A few minutes later she gave him some more peanuts and he reluctantly ate them again. When she tried to give him peanuts a third time he asked her, “Why did you buy a bag of peanuts if you don’t want them?” She responded to the bus driver, “Oh no, I hate peanuts. But I love chocolate. All they had at the store was chocolate covered peanuts. So I am eating off the chocolate and giving the peanuts to you!”

Amma told this story to make us reflect on how we give to other people. She said that people often give by writing checks with Continue reading…

Who Does Your Anger Really Hurt?


Furious emoticon

If your house is on fire, the most urgent thing to do is to go back and try to put out the fire, not to run after the person you believe to be the arsonist. If you run after the person you suspect has burned your house, your house will burn down while you are chasing him or her. That is not wise. You must go back and put the fire out. So when you are angry, if you continue to interact with or argue with the other person, if you try to punish her, you are acting exactly like someone who runs after the arsonist while everything goes up in flames.” Thich Nhat Hanh,  Anger

My client, whom I’ll call Ann, called me the other day.  She has a tense relationship with her sister-in-law, and was very upset when her sister-in-law came to her house a few days earlier with her children, ate dinner, and left without saying thank you or goodbye. Ann told me that she felt so angry she did not sleep well that night and kept thinking about ways to confront her sister-in-law. She was so angry by the next afternoon that she had an acid reflux attack and had to take some medication. That night she spoke to her husband about it and she could not sleep again. I was speaking with her a full two days after the incident.

As Ann went over the story with me, she told me that she was more angry about the incident today than when it had first happened. All she wanted to do was yell at her sister-n-law and then never speak with her again. When she was done speaking, I acknowledged the pain that she was feeling. I then read to her the quote from Thich Nhat Hahn, reprinted above. “Let’s stop chasing your sister-n-law for a moment,” I said. “Let’s go back to your breath to cool your own anger. Let’s sit and just breathe and slow it down.” Ann resisted at first and tried to keep telling me about her horrible sister-in-law, but we eventually sat for twenty minutes breathing and saying nothing.

As she calmed down, Ann said, “You know, my anger was making me feel sick and after breathing quietly for twenty minutes I feel a bit better.  I also just realized that I am not as angry as I am hurt. My sister-in-law didn’t appreciate the fact that I spent half the day making that dinner. She never really appreciates me.” I acknowledged her realization and asked her to sit with it more for a few days but not to call her sister-in-law until we spoke again. Before Ann left, I read another Thich Nhat Hanh passage in which he asked his readers to attempt to understand the situation of the person who had made them angry, and in this way transform anger into compassion. Ann listened thoughtfully.

Ann called me a few days later and told me that, after breathing and quieting her mind for 20 minutes a day and thinking about the Thich Nhat Hanh passage about understanding, she did not feel angry anymore. She realized her sister-in-law was probably sleep-deprived from her baby waking up at night and remembered that her other two children were very cranky when they were at Ann’s house, too. It was wrong that her sister-in-law had left the house without saying thank you or goodbye, but Ann said she understood what it was like to feel overwhelmed with young children. Ann indicated that she would have a conversation with her sister-in-law about the incident, but she would also be there for her sister-n-law to discuss what she was going through with her children. My client also decided to take care of herself by not inviting her sister-in-law and her family over for dinner again for a while. They would all meet out at a restaurant instead so Ann could remain compassionate and understanding and not feel taken advantage of.

Of course, we are all faced with similar situations everyday that can make us angry, but I wonder how much of our suffering would dissipate if we took care to cool our anger first and then tried to cultivate more understanding towards others. By caring for our anger before we react to another person’s behavior, we can see the truth of what we feel and lessen our own internal suffering. Then, through understanding, we can give up the act of declaring the other person right or wrong and instead explore how that person might feel.  Doing this allows us to stand in our antagonist’s shoes and, although we might not agree with his or her position, doing so cools our anger and makes room for the insight we need to resolve problems.

Cooling and understanding. Maybe these two practices can be the key to letting go of our anger and finding a more peaceful and harmonious life with the ones around us.

Just Maybe.


Is There Ever Just One Side To A Story?

Funny houses

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.  Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.  Marcus Aurelius

One day my daughter came home upset that she was excluded by her two best friends. I had witnessed her being excluded on a prior occasion and my heart was breaking for her. She cried inconsolably and I couldn’t even understand most of what she was saying. The next day I dropped her off at school and saw the mother of one of the best friends. She mentioned to me that she had heard that my daughter was upset the other day. I then cautiously told her what my daughter had told me. Her response was to say that her daughter often comes home feeling excluded by my daughter and their other friend. As first, it was hard to imagine that this mom was telling me an accurate account of my daughter’s behavior and then I remembered a conversation between two characters in the book The Spiritualist by Megan Chance:

“Imagine you come upon a house painted brown. What color would you say the house was?”

“Why brown, of course.”

“But what if I came upon it from the other side, and found it to be white?”

“That would be absurd. Who would paint a house two colors?”

He ignored my question. “You say it’s brown, and I say it’s white. Who’s right?”

“We’re both right.”

“No,” he said. “We’re both wrong. The house isn’t brown or white. It’s both. You and I only see one side. But that doesn’t mean the other side doesn’t exist. To not see the whole is to not see the truth.”

No matter the facts of the situation, it turned out both of our daughters were feeling excluded. I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “to not see the whole is to not see the truth.”  I knew I needed to respect and try to understand this little girl’s perspective of my child’s behavior regardless of what I originally believed. Maybe there was another side of the situation that I was not able to see from my vantage point. With this realization, I suggested to the other mom that we should speak separately to the girls about how the other one has been feeling and then let them speak to each other. The minute the girls got on the phone, they realized they were both feeling the same way, talked about for it for 2 minutes, apologized and began playing a web game together as if nothing had happened.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how someone else could have another perspective when we feel so right about how we perceive a situation. But if we are willing to pause and think about why the other person feels the way that they do, we might open our hearts a bit. Being right doesn’t always create the best relationships or resolutions to conflict, but compassion and understanding can work miracles.

So today, try to take a deep breath when you are disagreeing with your co-worker, your child, or a neighbor.  Try to remember that you are only standing on “one side of the house” and there might be more to the situation than meets the eye.  Try to step back from your position and see the situation from their perspective. You might not agree with the other person, but Maybe some understanding will lead you to a better resolution and improve your relationship.  Just Maybe!