March 23, 2008

Thoughts about Jill Bolte Taylor and The Work of Byron Katie

What if the truth of who and what we are were already contained in our brain circuitry? In other words, what if "enlightenment" is a function (or dysfunction) of the brain?

Here's a video from the TED website
that's getting a lot of link-love. Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor "suffered" a stroke that deteriorated her left brain, the hemisphere that processes information. She says, "I essentially became an infant in a woman's body."

Herewith, a summary of her findings and experience:

The right brain is where the awareness of "unity consciousness" lives. It also witnesses the activity of the left brain. The left hemisphere is linear, methodical, all about the past and future. It takes everything that the past has ever learned and projects it into the future. The left brain relies on language as the connector to "reality." It's the hemisphere that says, "I know" and "I am."

Dr. Bolte Taylor temporarily lost her language center—and her "I am"—as a result of her brain hemorrhage. She felt at one with everything that is, no physical boundaries, no connection to the "story" that creates separation. She calls her experience "a wave of clarity" and "nirvana."

Suddenly the left hemisphere kicked back in, and there was a problem with this! Thirty-seven years of emotional baggage returned in an instant.

We could say that the times her left brain was working were the moments Dr. Bolte Taylor was "functional." She knew she was having a stroke, that she needed to get to a hospital, that she probably couldn't drive. It was the brain's "dysfunction" that let her know she was not the "doer," that the stroke was a "stroke of insight" into the way we live our lives...and this at once allowed her to surrender the fate of her body, and, once she saw she was still alive, motivated her to recover—a process that took eight years.

"Who are we?" Dr. Bolte Taylor asks. "We are the life-force power of the universe...and we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world."

It's a beautiful, life-affirming story...and I am left with questions.

Do we really have that power to choose our reality? I am not convinced; if we're not in charge of this thing called life, how do we have any power to choose anything? Dr. Bolte Taylor seems to contradict herself here. If The Work has taught me anything, it's that everything that can be pointed to by language and reasoning is not "it." "I choose how to show up" and "I show up choicelessly" are both thoughts, nothing more. That takes a lot of pressure off.

Is knowing "the truth" as simple as a matter of biology? Could it be that everyone who has had an experience of awakening had nothing more mystical than a brain dysfunction? (We're never going to get a definitive answer to this one!)

If the right brain is the sole seat of "nirvana," how come all left hemisphere strokes don't produce euphoria and sustained insight into our true nature?

If we are defined by our brains, as Dr. Bolte Taylor suggests, then, assuming we all have brains, how can we ever know the truth of our being?

Are we in fact practicing self-induced brain dysfunction when we strive to understand "nothing?" Those who are skeptical about or condemning of practices that involve suspending or questioning the "I-Know" mind seem to think so. I'm not convinced of this either.

As someone who has never been particularly a left-brain adept (my scores on the logic and math sections of standardized tests have always been so low, I think I received credit only for writing my name), I experience that as long as we collectively agree that we live in a world, it's useful to have some left hemisphere skills. Unless you have people taking care of your every worldly need, you may want to know how to balance a checkbook, be able to use language, see a reason to dial 9-1-1 if you are in or if you witness a car accident. It might be a good idea to heed the left brain and step outside if your house is on fire, if only to save your family the trouble of identifying your charred remains.

It's also wonderful to have the right brain around to let me know that all is not as it seems. It's whimsical, creative, unworried, connnected, loving, unsuspicious, accepting, and it knows how to check in with the left side if it needs some assistance with the business of life.

It appears we need self-awareness in order to develop "Self-awareness." Brain death is not the same thing as awakened awareness. Liberation from stressful thoughts doesn't mean that you're going to stand by and watch a murder, stop eating because you don't believe you "need" to eat, or wear your shoes on your hands because you're so equality-conscious, you can't see a difference.

Balance is good. Through inquiry, I strive to understand and therefore enjoy the best of both worlds...or, perhaps more accurately, the best of both hemispheres.

©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.

March 20, 2008

I'm In Love with a Dead Jesuit

He was a celibate Jesuit priest, he wore nerdy eyeglasses, and he died in 1987. Still, I think I have met the love of my life.

Quotes from Fr. Anthony de Mello:

"It is a great mystery that though the human heart longs for Truth, in which alone it finds liberation and delight, the first reaction of human beings to Truth is one of hostility and fear!"

"There is only one cause of unhappiness: the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them."

"As you identify less and less with the 'me.' you will be more at ease with everybody and with everything. Do you know why? Because you are no longer afraid of being hurt or not liked. You no longer desire to impress anyone. Can you imagine the relief when you don't have to impress anybody anymore? Oh, what a relief. Happiness at last!"

"Wisdom tends to grow in proportion to one's awareness of one's ignorance."

"Suffering points out that there is falsehood somewhere. Suffering occurs when you clash with reality. When your illusions clash with reality when your falsehoods clash with the truth, then you have suffering. Otherwise there is no suffering."

"People who want a cure, provided they can have it without pain, are like those who favor progress, provided they can have it without change."

"Realizing that God has nothing to do with the idea I form of God...There is only one way of knowing him: by unknowing!"

Don't take de Mello's, or anyone's, word for it; if you're reading this blog, you have the questions that can lead you to your own answers. I think I love his answers so much because they are so simple and elegant and, in my moments of clarity, they reflect my experience.

If you're new to Tony de Mello's work, check out his books, Awareness
and Awakening.

©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.

What Does This Mean to You?

"Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves."
—Carl Jung

In what ways do you experience this as true for you?

©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.

Taming and Befriending the Elephant

You've heard the expression, "There's an elephant in the living room"? That purported pachyderm represents something huge that everyone knows about, yet no one wants to call attention to, for fear of setting off a stampede.

Most of us learn to pretend there's no elephant when we're very small. Maybe one parent is alcoholic, or having an affair. Big sister throws up after dinner, little brother seems blue lately, but "it's just a phase kids go through." We don't talk about these things, especially outside the family; we fear we could rock the boat, and lose our "happy" home.

Later in life, there may be other issues we're reluctant to acknowledge. If we're trying to keep status quo, we can end up not simply with an elephant in the room, but with bats in the belfry.

"This marriage isn't working, but we have to stay together for the kids, and pretend everything is okay for their sake."

"I'm sure everyone is aware there's something amiss at the office, but I'm not going to be the whistle blower; we all need our paychecks."

"Yeah, I did notice the bruises. She said she fell downstairs. Well, of course she seemed shaken, wouldn't you?"

Why do we pretend something is okay when it isn't—or, in extreme cases, that it doesn't even exist? Some possibilities:

1. Shame. What a terrible thing for the elephant to be here!
2. We believe so strongly that the "elephant" shouldn't be there that we can't even recognize it as an elephant.
3. If we see something as a problem it means we're "negative" or "unevolved."
4. We believe that if we told the truth, we could hurt someone.
5. Acknowledging a problem might cost us something (money, a relationship, reputation, peace in the house).
6. Maybe if we wait long enough, the problem will go away by itself.

Meanwhile the elephant is taking up a great deal of space. It trumpets loudly, it eats a lot, it's creating a mess, and there's always the possibility that it could get loose, run rampant, and stomp or smother us to death. This elephant feeds, not on peanuts, but on fear. Eventually, it may grow so large that we can no longer pretend it's not in the way.

That's a good thing...because the best way to handle an elephant in the living room is not by ignoring it. If it won't leave by itself (and trust me, it won't as long as there's something for it to feed upon), it's far more effective to recognize the elephant as an elephant and proceed from there.

The elephant is no larger, wilder, or all-consuming than our thoughts about it.

©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.

March 18, 2008

Enter At Your Own Risk!

I just couldn't resist!
Create your own "safety" sign here.

©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.

March 12, 2008

Message from a Living Man

"Experience is what you get when you don't get what you wanted." I don't know who said it, but the Carnegie-Mellon professor, Dr. Randy Pausch, who is dying of pancreatic cancer, quotes it as one of his favorites in the video below. His experiences of not getting what he wanted seem to be very positive.

My father died of pancreatic cancer 18 years ago. My memory of what he went through isn't remotely like Pausch's report. My dad lasted five months after diagnosis, which is a long time for this kind of cancer; in those days, the prognosis was two months. He wanted very much to live, and he tried to make the best of it, even driving his car until two weeks before he died; but he didn't have physical strength, and the side effects of the chemo treatments that shrank his tumor and bought him some time were very debilitating. My mother and I watched him go from a robust working man, with a zest for life and a raunchy sense of humor, to someone frail, spirit broken and looking much older than his 69 years, who spent his final months in pain.

Looking at Pausch, it appears they've made incredible strides in the treatment of pancreatic cancer since then. Pancreatic cancer is still a death sentence, yet one can't help but see that this man's fabulous attitude and courage are healing. Watching him certainly is healing to me.

Many years ago, I visited a friend on her deathbed at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, a hospice. She'd had breast cancer, received invasive treatment for it, yet eventually the disease spread to her bones and throughout her body. When she first got the diagnosis, she did everything she could to keep working, and to take care of her health, even taking on a controversial regimen of organic food, gallons of carrot juice, coffee enemas, and handfuls of supplements. It was time consuming, prohibitively expensive (really beyond her means), sometimes painful and exhausting, but she handled it all with good humor...and this was a woman who was not known for her good humor in the best of times. She also made time to do some things she'd always wanted to do, which included traveling to Europe, and attending the kalachakra initiation with the Dalai Lama in New York.

Everyone at Calvary seemed happy and pain-free (they keep the patients on pain-killers); not a bad way to go. I walked around the place and everyone who was conscious had a wide-eyed expression of peace like Ramana Maharshi. The hospital made sure these folks lived full lives until their last; they offered art classes, "museum walks" (consisting of wheeling the beds around the building to look at a fine collection of donated artwork), hair stylists, concerts, any movie they wanted right in their rooms. Friends and families are allowed and even encouraged to come spend the night with patients in their rooms, read to them, sing with them, and bring them their favorite foods if they still have an appetite.

My friend described her "slumber party" the night before; she and her best friend had shared their preferred brand of vanilla bean ice cream (I brought her some more), seen a first-run movie, and enjoyed lots of laughs. "We had a wonderful time," my friend gushed; a wonderful time on her deathbed. She passed away a week later.

It's easier to "love what is" when all is going well in our world. What about those of us with problems, like a terminal illness, that are not going to go away? It may not be easy, but it is indeed possible to live well in the meantime, as this happy professor illustrates. Unless he's a ridiculously good actor, Pausch seems to be one of those people for whom all is going well—even or perhaps especially with a virulent and painful form of cancer—as he lives his life one day at a time, with gratitude for all that has been good and for all that continues to be good.

This may be one of those videos that everyone but me has seen already. In case you haven't yet, I hope you'll enjoy it and find healing in it. If he can do it, we can too.

©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.

March 10, 2008

Peace AND Balance

Cats and dogs don't get along; and put a rat in front of a cat, and the cat sees lunch. Right?

Well, there's always an exception, and here's the exception.

I grew up with pets, and while the cats and dogs got along great, I never trusted the cats around the hamsters; they used to lick the little critters through the bars of the hamster cage. My mother said the cats were being affectionate; since our cats were mousers, I insisted they were sampling the merchandise. I would have continued to insist to this day, had I not met the resident pet rabbit and cat at a retreat house several years ago; an unlikely couple, they appeared to be in love.

Anyway, it seems that "natural enemies" don't have to be, and I like to think that peaceful co-existence is possible, as is a more balanced viewpoint. :)

©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.

March 7, 2008

What Does Perfection Look Like?

Check out Pamela Slim's blog, Cubicle Nation, which, as a solopreneur, I read regularly. She writes beautifully about a video that's been making the rounds, of two graceful and athletic young Chinese dancers with missing limbs.

Here's a clip of some amazingly agile break-dancers:

If you've watched the critically acclaimed documentary film Murderball, about the wheelchair sport "quad rugby," after awhile you probably didn't see these guys as "handicapped." I wouldn't want to be in a boxing ring with any of those cutthroats!

Age. Weight. Physical ability. Looks. What is a disability? What is not perfect? Perfection is inherent; we notice or not.

©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.

March 4, 2008

Why I'm Not In a Hurry

I once heard Katie say that she'd love to do a workshop or school where everyone worked on the same belief for the entire time. I wonder who would sign up for that. Imagine: nine days delving deeply into "My husband should," "My kids shouldn't," "I want the world to..." "My body is..."

Actually, it could be really interesting. I experience benefit in slowing down inquiry, even if I never get past the first statement on my worksheet. (Anything left will surely keep.)

I've identified some of the most common pitfalls of doing The Work quickly. This is good for facilitators to notice as well, as we may inadvertantly be rushing our clients, thinking we have to get everything done! (Or undone, as it were.)

1. "Yeah, but..."
It's really easy for me to rationalize if I answer the four questions quickly. The answers are off the top of my head, not considered, not especially deep, so there's a rush to justify as well. (My friend and co-presenter, Nonviolent Communication trainer Christine King calls it the "Yeahbut Rabbit," which reproduces at the speed of light!). When you rationalize, it's not wrong, it's just that you stop inquiry. So if it's inquiry you want, slowing down is good.

2. Backtracking
Say I've rushed through question three, "How do you react when you think this thought?" Now it's time for question four, "Who would you be without this thought?" I've no idea, truly, because I haven't spent that "quality time" with the previous question. I may lose my place because I'm starting to see more ways I react with the thought. Good to notice!

So if this happens to you, you may want to try taking more time answering question three: get really still, make it a meditation. If you're being facilitated by someone, invoke "client's rights" and ask your facilitator to wait in the silence with you; you'll let them know when you're ready for the next question.

3. Playing the Glad Game
When you answer question four ("Who would you be without that thought?"), do you sound like Pollyanna, automatically looking for something to be happy about? Do you go into superficial rapture? I call it the "I would be love, I would be peace, I would be joy" answer. I won't let myself get away with that one, because it doesn't stick around for long...and if I hear a client doing it, I ask for specificity. I mean, it's a nice start, as are affirmations...and a lovely message for kids...but who among us ever read this children's classic and became the Lao Tzu of our third grade class, especially when we didn't get our way?

"I would be love, peace, and joy" while the stock market swallows up my retirement fund? I'm not that detached. Closer to my truth is, I would have some perspective, call my broker and rationally look at my options, see what I have now rather than look at what I used to have and mourn for it. Security being a myth, a balanced mind in the moment is what I want, more than the ephemeral pleasure of a portfolio that's behaving the way I want it to (though I'm certainly not knocking that; sure was nice while it lasted!)

4. Making Tough Turnarounds Even Tougher
"I do want my 'ex' to get the house? No way!" Your answer would have to be "no way" if you're looking to The Work for a quick fix, or if you're afraid that if you look at this turnaround, you'll lose something. We're just taking a look. Take it slow; how might it be a good thing if she gets the house? One little way? (The house needs work, and I don't have to sink more money into it.) Then two, perhaps. (We get to keep it in the family, for the kids.) Then, perhaps, three (I've been wanting to move to the city, here's my chance), or more. If you take your time and look at the turnarounds, it doesn't mean that she's going to get the house; it only means that the worst thing may not actually be so terrible. It could mean you have less fear and resentment. If there's nothing to fear, how would you show up at the attorney's office as you do what you know to do?

For a particularly moving example of taking time to be with the turnarounds, watch this video; If this gentleman is still living, maybe he's taking care of his cancer with less fear of something terrible happening; that's how I'd want to approach it myself. I saw him do this piece in person last year, and I was just blown away by his willingness to be with one of the toughest turnarounds I've ever heard.

©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.

March 3, 2008

"First, Do No Harm"

The thought, "I can do harm" has, from time to time, made me second guess myself, hold myself back, avoid others. The belief, "They can do harm" keeps me in judgment, separate, afraid. I've questioned these thoughts a lot, which creates some peace around the subject; and in no way does this keep me from doing what I can to reduce harm, or being an advocate for that which appears to do a lot of good. I'm all for activism that arises out of clarity rather than fear and anger; it's no good if I am in fact doing harm in the name of stamping out harm! (Case in point: some people who call themselves animal rights activists recently invaded the home of a UC Santa Cruz biomedical researcher's home, and have made other threats.)

So I hope you will join me in supporting the Do No Harm - um, I don't know what to call it: movement? Awareness? Club? It costs nothing to do so; they won't even take a monetary donation. In fact, the site states, "if you think you're a member, you're a member. If you think you're not a member, you're an honorary member." Gotta love it!

The site will list you as a co-author of their message, should you agree to it, and they'll gladly send you some nice free stuff to distribute—bumper stickers, buttons, decals, wrist bands and the like—with the message, "Do No Harm."

It occurs to me that there is no way to do absolutely no harm. I don't sweep the ground before I walk on it; who knows how many little plants and insects I've crushed? I'm sure that some, if not most of the textiles and furniture in my home were made under poor working conditions. I'm typing this on a keyboard with plastic components, likely not recycled, and the computer itself sends out rays which may be harmful.

This doesn't mean we (I) can't be more conscious; to at least be aware of how we can reduce, if not entirely eliminate, doing harm, even that which is inadvertent.

It's actually quite easy to reduce the amount of harm we do: for instance, by not buying water in plastic bottles (I read recently that 70% of water bottles go to landfill, even with recycling); by stopping to breathe and calm down before lashing out at our children; by not creating toxicity in our own bodies with foods that have chemical additives; by walking, biking, carpooling, or taking public transportation when possible, in order to reduce our carbon footprint; by eating lower on the food chain; by trying to purchase goods from companies with demonstrable commitment to their employees and to the environment.

With a little education ("When we know better, we do better." —Maya Angelou), a little awareness, and a little effort, we can do a lot less harm. "Do No Harm;" I can't think of a better way to capsulize the life I would like to live. I know I can be doing a lot more personally to reduce harm, and I am grateful for the reminder.

©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.

March 1, 2008

Saturday Night Silliness


Facili-tater (noun): One who asks a client four questions while supine on a couch, clutching a remote in one hand and a bag of chips in the other.

Cli-ant (noun): Social insect of the Formicidae family that questions its stressful beliefs. "It's too crowded in this anthill; can I absolutely know it's true?"

Ton-arounds (pl. noun): Result of believing that the one with the most reversals wins, whether they make sense or not: "'I want my sister to shut up.' Okay, the opposite is 'I don't want my sister to shut up.' That's truer. I want her to do what she does if it makes her happy; I can just put in some ear plugs or go into the other room...and I like it when she talks sometimes, I have heard her say some interesting things...also someone might really need to hear what she has to say, even if it's not me...and it's possible that if she held it in she'd spontaneously combust. I can come up with a dozen more examples...well, okay, I'll do the next one: 'I want myself to shut up.' Gee, I can't find that one, except...maybe sometime later I will want to shut up, even if I don't now. Oh, and I want to stop talking in my sleep, for sure, since it disturbs my wife. 'I want my thinking to shut up.' Yeah, because my thinking thinks it knows what's right, and it keeps on thinking and it doesn't shut up; and it doesn't let me talk, and it doesn't let others talk, it just yammers on and on and on, you know? That's only one example, is that okay? 'I want my sister to let it out.' Well, her skirts are really short and it's cold out now, so I want her to let out the hems so that she'll be covered up more, that way she might feel warmer...and also the spontaneous combustion thing would be messy...and I believe people have the right to express themselves whether I want to hear it nor not. Oh, and 'My sister wants me to shut up.' Yeah, one time when we were kids she 'shooshed' me in church; also she hates it when I sing in the shower, and she thinks there are some things about her last relationship that I shouldn't tell her husband. Wait, I have another, two more...."

Inkwirey (noun, obsolete): The Work via telegram.


Two thoughts started to enter a bar, but the bouncer stopped them at the door and said, "Sorry, we don't serve thoughts here." So they turned around and took themselves home.


Q: Why did the lumberjack fill out a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet?
A: Because he had an axe to grind.


The Work in Alphabet Land (with apologies to Abbott and Costello):

Letter A: Who would you be without that thought?
Letter C: B.
Letter A: That's right, "be." Who would you be...
Letter C: I heard you. B.
Letter A: (Pause.) (Longer pause.) Um...would you like to answer this question?
Letter C: Yes. B.
Letter A: The Work stops working when you don't answer the questions.
Letter C: I did answer it!
Letter A: (To self under breath) Ask the questions...hold the space for the wrong answers... (To C) All righty then, perhaps I didn't make myself clear. Let's try that again. Who would you be without that thought?
Letter C: B.
Letter A: Yes, "be."
Letter C: Exactly!
Letter A: Ohhhhkay, whatever. Now turn the thought around. "B won't join me..."
Letter C: B will join me. We're two peas ina pod. There's nothing we can do to be separate. That's what I keep trying to tell you!
Letter A: When did you try to tell me that?
Letter C: Hey, that's not one of the subquestions!
Letter A: You're absolutely right, it isn't, and this is not working.
Letter C: It would, if you'd only listen.
Letter A: I understand your frustration. (To self) All too well. (To C) So...would you like a cup of tea?
Letter C: I'd love one, later, after we finish doing The Work.
Letter A: We're finished.
Letter C: I'm not finished.
Letter A: You didn't answer question four, so there's really no point in continuing...
Letter C: I said, "B."
Letter A: That's right, "Be." Who would you be...
Letter C: B!
Letter T: Did someone ask for T?
Letter A: Thank goodness you're here. Yes, have you got any?
Letter T: Got any what?
Letter A: Tea!
Letter T: I heard you, that's why I came. What do you need?
Letters A and C: Tea! We need tea!
Letter T: I'm here, hellooooo! So what can I do for you?
Letter A: Nothing. Forget it. Just forget it. (Leaves.)
Letter C: Wow, she's so impatient. You wouldn't believe what just happened.
Letter T: You seem upset. Wanna do the work on A?
Letter C: Eh?
Letter T: Yes, A. I mean, I'm available if you want to....Wait just a moment, someone's at the door. Who is it?
Letter B: It is I!
Letter C: Hmm. Sounds an awful lot like B to me...



©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.