Multitasking, Distracted Therapists, and the Digital Carousel

multitasking3

I knew the world was in trouble when, about 25 years ago, I witnessed a psychiatrist talking on two telephones at once: one in each hand, held up to each of his two available ears. He was standing in a parking lot dodging cars all the while.

God help him if he had more hands, more ears, more phones.

His behavior is called multitasking and, trust me, you can’t divide your attention as well as you think. At least, unless you are among the 2.5% of the population some researchers believe are “supertaskers.”

Scientists report negative effects of multitasking on concentration, productivity, the way it tends to increase stress, and the addiction-like stimulation attached to computers and other digital devices. Some academicians tell us our brains are being rewired by dazzling digitals — our focus distracted by novel, but irrelevant information. Might a therapist’s rewired brain be less capable of listening to you?

Even for non-counselors, the effects of multitasking are serious: impatience, fatigue, and a fragmentation of lived-experience. Error rates go up, speed of performance goes down. You have created a traffic jam in your brain.

Think for a moment.

How many things do you concentrate on to the exclusion of everything else?

My guess is you do lots of activities while watching TV: listening to music (turning off the TV sound of a sporting event you only want to see), holding a conversation with your child or spouse, reading a magazine, etc.

This becomes so routine, so normalized, that we are unaware of how many duties we take on incompletely. We switch from one to another, hardly noticing. Time is spent reorienting ourselves as we move between tasks, slowing progress. By attempting to do more than one thing at a time, we increase the amount of time taken on all the jobs so targeted.

When was the last time you savored a single bite of food? You didn’t if you were involved in conversation. If you check your mail every time your phone pings and answer each ring, you will find not only compromised focus, but electronic seduction away from the people you love, the music that could move you, and the joy of witnessing your child’s first step.

Have you ever driven in a mindful way? Felt the vibration of the car, the tactile sensations produced by your body against the seat, the variegated sky ahead, the sounds of the other cars, the curious shapes and shadows on the highway, the slight alteration in position and muscle movement when you press on the brake? No music, no speaking, no day dreaming: you and the machine and the road, alone.

Do you really listen to your conversation partner? Focus on the tonal quality of his voice, his inflections, the transforming expression of his face, the way he uses his hands, the volume of sound he produces, when he takes his breath, and the emotional weight of his words? Or are you distracted by other sounds and sights, a sense of impatience; and the chatter going on inside your head wondering what to say next, when you need to get home, how soon you can eat, or the presentation you must make tomorrow?

512px-human_multitasking_spp_1772_logo

My job as a therapist was to attend to what patients said and didn’t say, to detect the tiniest quiver in the voice, the slight raising of an eyebrow, the hint of a tear coming to the eye, the crispness and energy of the gait, the bouncing of a knee. And, if I did this they were usually freer to be trusting and prone to validate their own feelings — think their words and emotions had value because another person thought so.

I brought intensity and concentration to be in-the-moment with my patient, mindful of everything related to him; not preoccupied, day dreaming, or worrying about someone else. If a therapist half-listens he should be paid half the fee.

Though I was not always successful, I tried to be an enemy of routine.

You would not and should not go to a therapist who does less than keep this kind of focus (with only occasional lapses). Why then fragment your own attention? By doing many things at once you sacrifice full engagement and satisfaction with any one of them.

I do understand, especially for moms, you don’t always have a choice. I do understand that attention to one thing is often a luxury. All the more then, we must slow down what we can control for as little or as much as it is, battling a world driving us to speed up.

I imagine you are reading this on a computer or phone. You own these. But might it be just the other way around? Might it be the computer (and other digital distractions) “own” you?

How would your life be different if you practiced being in-the-moment, attentive to what is present at that time and place — making a living-space in your head so you can really live — not plow through the day on an attention-rotating carousel: a mind-sucking, soul-deadening, endless haste over things that won’t matter to you in 10 minutes or 10 days or 10 years?

Starting is not hard. Take one bite of food. Savor for color, texture, the sensations on your tongue, the taste and aftertaste — slowly.

The news on the radio on TV or online will wait. If World War III starts you will know. The “Vice President in Charge of Looking Out the Window” will monitor the weather. The downloaded music can be accessed at another time. The incoming text message is almost certainly not urgent. The phone can be turned off.

Difficult choices are required. Some things must be cut from your life. The incoming stream of electronic flotsam can be consulted only after a longer stretch of time has elapsed: first 10 minutes, then 15, longer and longer. Mindfulness meditation, if you make it a practice, will improve focus and joy in the things you love. One task and only one task must be the only thing you take on for, say, 45 minutes before a break or switching attention.

A few years ago I saw the following cartoon: a middle-aged, long-married couple were sitting together. The husband was reading his newspaper while his wife talked. He spoke: “I’m sorry dear, but I was distracted and missed what your were saying. Can you repeat everything you’ve said since we got married?”

Really.

The logo is called Human multitasking DFG Priority Program Logo as created by Sppteam. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This essay is a revision of one I posted some years ago.

An Easy Exercise in Happiness #1

Preziosi_-_Turkish_Street_SceneWe are programmed to be vigilant: to think ahead, to anticipate problems, to correct our errors. “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

Unfortunately, all this planning to avoid going wrong and retrospective analysis of where we went wrong can make it harder to be happy. Today, I’ll give you one thing to do that will be fun, won’t cost you anything, and is repeatable as often as you like.

I’ll talk about a city walk where most of us are intent on our destination and want to arrive promptly. We focus on what we are going to do later or troubled about some other problem. Instead, be alive to the walk — the people, the sidewalk, the architecture — the tops of buildings you rarely view. Be alive to the sounds, the birds singing, the trees rustling and moving.

Remember when you were a kid and you witnessed the movement of clouds, entranced for minutes at a time? Be a kid again. Be amazed again.

Do you recollect when you were a child in the back seat with adults in the front? Recall watching the cars go by, the trucks go by, and the train crossings. Remember counting the Buicks or the box cars? Recall getting dizzy looking at the passing train?

Remember deciding to count just one kind, one make, or one color of automobile? Remember how easy it was to make life into a game?

What will you see on your walk? What will you be mindful of? What will you notice?

Look, really look!

Look with fresh eyes!

Let the game begin!

Different bags, hats, accents.

People carrying things, carrying themselves.

Pants.

The gyros, hot dog, and bakery scents.

The wide, the narrow; the tall, the short.

Bottoms.

The high heels, the low heels, the flats, and the sneakers.

The covered up and the uncovered.

Facial hair.

The mini-skirts and the maxi-dresses.

The muscular and the thin, the shapely and the ship-shape.

Street musicians.

The round and the right-angled.

The ones looking at the jets or listening to electronics or talking to their neighbor.

Bouncing bosoms.

Phones.

The loping, the slouched, the upright, and the just right.

The smiling, the laughing, the sad, and the studious.

Colors and patterns.

The shirts (with their ties) or school names or favorite team logos.

Snatches of conversation.

The beautiful and all the in-betweens, and not quites, and almosts.

Cologne and aftershave.

Street noises; even the screech of the trains.

The hurried and the evenly paced.

The things omnipresent, but never seen.

The lightly dressed and the rightly dressed.

The blind, the sighted, and the bespectacled.

Beggars.

Skin: the yellow, the white, the caramel colored, the deep brown, the black, the sunburned.

Canes and metal walkers; the walkers walking with walkers.

Shorts.

The men holding hands, the women holding hands, the babies being held or pushed, the men and women holding hands, the parents holding hands with their children.

People making speed and men making time.

The warm and the cold, the hot and the cool.

Bicyclists.

The carefree, the careworn, the careless.

Hair styles, hair blowing, hair color, and the hairless.

The cigar smoke, the sewer steam, the cigarette smell.

The light and the dark and the blank expressions.

The faded, the fading but still fabulous.

Legs.

The kids, the teens. The no-timers and the old-timers.

The frail, the fraught, the frowning, and the robust.

WELCOME TO THE WALKING SHOW! WELCOME TO THE FESTIVAL OF LIFE!

Here is an entertainment without an admission fee: a new show every day, every minute, every night. No reruns, no DVDs, no downloads — one time only and gone. This constellation of faces and bodies, of sun and clouds, of moving cars and trucks disappears as soon as you stop to think.

Don’t think or you’ll miss the array; miss the “hurrah” in the array.

The kaleidoscope is only there if you notice. The fragrances are only special if you don’t preoccupy yourself with all the junk in your head. All the people are only special if you make them so.

This pattern of sounds will never be repeated. A new symphony every second.

The pattern of light and shadow will never be seen again. No one, not even someone walking beside you will experience the spectacle exactly as you do. Your perception is unique.

The faces on the people will never be the same, not even tomorrow when they are a day older.

Get out of your mind ahead. Get out of your mind behind.

Live in the moment.

If you do, prepare to be dazzled. Cover the internal mirrors looking back at you to enjoy what is outside, not the tempest inside.

Don’t judge what you see, don’t reflect, just observe.

DO IT!

The top image is a 19th century Turkish street scene painted by Amedeo Preziosi. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Multitasking: You Are Missing More Than You Think

H A R M O N I C A   F R A N K

I knew the world was in trouble about 20 years ago when I watched a psychiatrist (yes, a psychiatrist) talking on two telephones at once, one in each hand, held up to each of his two available ears.

God help him if he had more hands and more ears and more phones.

Its called multitasking and, trust me, you can’t do it as well as you think. At least, unless you are in the smaller than 3% of the population that some researchers believe are “supertaskers.”

For the most part, scientists have looked at the negative effects of multitasking on concentration and focus, the way it tends to increase stress, and the addiction-like stimulation that attaches to computers and other digital devices. Is it a wonder that so many children are diagnosed with attentional problems? Some researchers suggest that their brains (and ours) are increasingly being rewired to the point of having our concentration drawn away from its original target by novel, but irrelevant information and other distractions.

The result? Impatience, fatigue, and a fragmentation of lived experience.

Think about it.

How many things do you really concentrate on to the exclusion of just about everything else?

My guess is, for example, that you do lots of things while watching TV: listening to music (sometimes turning off the TV sound of a sporting event you only want to see), holding a conversation with your child or spouse, reading a magazine, eating, text messaging someone, etc.

This becomes so routine, so normalized, that we are not particularly aware of how many things we take-on simultaneously and the fact that none of them capture our full attention. Later, if asked to recall what we did, we just might have some trouble. And a person who really wants to talk with us while we are preoccupied with all the other things I mentioned, will find himself frustrated or, at least partially, ignored.

When was the last time that you really savored a single bite of food? If you were heavily involved in conversation or on the computer you probably didn’t.

When was the last time that you really drove your car in a mindful way? Felt the vibration of the car on the road, the tactile sensations produced by your body against the seat and your hands on the steering wheel, the variegated sky ahead, the differing sounds of the other cars, the changing shapes and shadows on the highway, the slight alteration in position and muscle movement when you pressed on the brake? No radio, no CDs, no texting or talking on the phone, no conversation of any kind, no day dreaming; just you and the machine and the highway.

When was the last time you listened, really listened and watched your conversation partner? Focused intently on the tonal quality of his voice, his inflections, the changing expression of his face, the way he used his hands, the volume of sound he produced, when he took his breath, not to mention what he was saying? Or were you distracted by other sights and sounds, your own sense of impatience; and the chatter going on inside your own head wondering what to say next, when you needed to get home, how soon you could eat, or the presentation you had to make the next day.

Is it time to slow down? I know, you might feel that you can’t. But is multitasking really making you more productive? Is it enhancing the quality of your life? Or, to paraphrase Wordsworth’s comment long before the computer-age: “Getting and spending (and surfing), we lay waste our powers.”

As a therapist it is essential for me to pay attention to what my patients say and don’t say, how they look and how they move; small changes in their facial expression, tone of voice, and mood; the hint of a tear coming to their eyes, the crispness and energy of their gait. And, if I do this, they will usually be freer to be open and trusting; and more prone to validate their own feelings — think of their words and emotions as having value, because someone else does.

I must bring my own intensity and focus, be in-the-moment with my patient, mindful of everything related to him; and certainly not preoccupied, day dreaming, thinking about my next meal, worrying about some other patient, or texting another individual while I half-listen to the person sitting across from me.

Although not always perfectly successful, I try to be an enemy of routine.

You would not and should not go to a therapist who does less than keep this kind of focus. So why would you live so as to fragment your own focus by doing so many things at once that almost nothing fully engages you and produces your own personal life satisfaction?

I imagine that you are reading this on a computer that you own. But might it not be just the other way around? Might it be that the computer (and other digital distractions) “own” you?

What would your life be like if you practiced, more and more, being in-the-moment, attentive to just what is present at that time and place — making a living-space for yourself so that you can really live — not just plow through the day in its attention-absorbing, mind-sucking, soul-deadening, endless haste over things that won’t matter to you in 10 minutes or 10 days or 10 years?

You can start so simply. Just one bite of food, savored for color, texture, the sensations on your tongue, the taste and aftertaste — slowly.

The news on the radio or TV or AOL will wait. The “Vice President in Charge of Looking Out the Window” will take care of the weather. The CD or downloaded music can be accessed at another time. The incoming text message is almost certainly not that urgent. The phone can be turned off.

We hear lots about traffic accidents caused by ADHD teenagers, who are driving, texting, talking to the person in the passenger seat, combing their hair, putting on nail polish, listening to the radio, and conversing on their cell phone, all at once.

Why would one want to be an only marginally less distracted, fragmented (and dangerous) version of that person? Out of touch with the world and oneself?

A few years ago I saw a cartoon that looked something like this: a middle-aged couple, obviously married for many years, were sitting together. The husband was trying to read his newspaper and watch TV while his wife talked. Then the husband spoke: “I’m sorry dear, but I was distracted and missed what your were saying. Can you repeat everything you’ve said since we got married?”

Really.

The above image is of “Harmonica Frank” Floyd, who is seen playing two harmonicas, one using his nose and one using his mouth. He also was reportedly able to play the harmonica and sing simultaneously. Today we would call Frank a “supertasker.”

The African Dip: Thoughts on Passive-Aggressiveness, Powerlessness, and Acceptance

The  Flying Turns

My dad occasionally took me to a legendary Chicago amusement park called Riverview when I was a little boy. I was dazzled by the roller coasters, the “Waterbug” ride, and something called the “Rotor.” The latter required you to enter a circular room which spun on a central axis until the velocity and centrifugal force were sufficient to pin you against the wall, just as the floor dropped away.

But, as small as I was, it is a sideshow called The Dip that I remember most vividly. Today I’d like to use this politically incorrect carnival attraction as a spring-board to a few thoughts on the expression of indirect anger that sometimes is called “passive-aggressive,” as well as a therapeutic approach to setting aside the temporary upsets that are a part of any life.

Black men in cages. That is what “The Dip” involved.

Unbelievable, perhaps, as we think about it in 2010. Each man sat on a stool inside the cage. In front of the cage, off to the side a bit,  stood a small circular metal target that was attached in some fashion to the stool, perhaps electronically, but more likely mechanically.

For less than a dollar, you could purchase three balls to throw at the target, one at a time. If you struck the target solidly, the stool on which the man sat collapsed, and he dropped into a pool of water underneath the cage. You might have seen similar “dunk tanks” at various fund-raising events, often giving students the chance to dunk their teachers.

Harmless fun? Not so in the case of a black man doing the sitting and a white man trying to knock him off his seat.

This sideshow was once reportedly called, “Dunk the N****r,” later “The African Dip,” and finally “The Dip.” It was eventually shut down by a combination of Negro outrage and the increasing disgust of white people to the offensiveness of its implicit racism.

The black men were in a relatively powerless situation — almost literally, “sitting ducks.” But, they did what the situation allowed to them to do so as to unsettle, tease, and otherwise disrupt the white pitcher’s aim. The Negroes were careful not to say anything too frankly insulting, lest they stir up the racism (and potential for less veiled violence) that was at the heart of the event.

But they would and could get away with belittling their adversaries athletic skill or throwing ability in a way that was amusing. If their comments distracted the opposition at all — got them to laugh (or the crowd to laugh at them) — or caused a break in the hurler’s concentration, the chance of staying on the seat improved a bit.

According to Chuck Wlodarczyk in his book Riverview: Gone But Not Forgotten, the caged men’s banter could include comments about one’s appearance: “If you were heavy, they’d call you ‘meatball.’ If you were thin, they might have called you ‘toothpick.’ If you were with a girl, they might have said ‘Hey fella, that ain’t the same girl you were with yesterday!'”

You don’t have to be a black man in a cage to have some experience at expressing anger indirectly. We’ve all done it. It takes many forms: talking behind someone’s back and mocking that person, being sarcastic, complaining to a co-worker’s superior rather than to the offender’s face, neglecting tasks you have been assigned unfairly, and procrastinating. These passive-aggressive words or acts are rarely very satisfying. The anger doesn’t dissipate; the grudging discontent usually continues; nothing positive happens.

The sense of powerlessness and lack of control that the passive-aggressive individual experiences can come to dominate that person’s emotional life, rather than allowing him to put effort into changing the power dynamic or to remove himself from a position of weakness.

Unfortunately, for some of those who feel powerless and injured, even a passive-aggressive action seems impossible. Consequently, they take a more uniformly passive role. They defer to others, try to avoid giving offense, act meekly, and position themselves under the radar. All that does, however, is give them second class status, just as it informs bullies that they are easy targets.

Someone in this situation, who repeatedly feels mistreated but isn’t able to take on those who inflict the injuries directly, needs to ask himself a few questions. Why do I put up with it? What am I afraid of? Am I really as powerless as I feel? Am I perhaps over reacting? What would happen if I were more direct? Is there any way to get out of the situation I am in?

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), which aims to quell and counter irrational thoughts, is often helpful in dealing with a lack of self-assertion and the fear that is usually associated with it. Equally, it gives you practice (sometimes using role-playing within the therapy session) in a gradually ascending hierarchy of challenging situations that require an assertive response.

Some CBT therapists, much like ancient Stoic philosophers, employ an “acceptance-based” psychotherapy and integrate this Zen-like element into their treatment. Why, they might ask you, do you so value the minor indignities of daily life and of opinions and behavior of boorish persons? Is it really a good idea to spend the limited time of your life being upset over gossip about, a tardy repairman, or a fender-bender accident you didn’t cause — things that will be of no significance in a week, a month, a year?

Put differently, there will always be injustice, and some of it must simply be accepted as the nature of life and of living. Not every fight is worth fighting about, not every slight is intended. If your skin is so thin that you are regularly being upset by people, perhaps you are valuing the approval and opinions of others too much.

For those who ask “Why me?” those same therapists might say, “Why not you — you are alive, aren’t you, so you are subject to all the same things that can affect any other person.” And, as the Stoic philosophers and Zen practitioners would tell us, if we can accept this vulnerability as part and parcel of living, thereby assigning it less meaning and taking it less personally, our lives will be more satisfying — less fraught with anguish, anger, and hurt.

This is not to say that society should have tolerated the indignity and racism of “The Dip.” There are times when the indirect, but pointed wit of the caged men is the best course of action; and, many occasions when the force of your personality must be brought to bear by confronting injustice. But some combination of directness in taking on unfairness and forbearance in accepting things — in allowing oneself not to sweat the small stuff — tends to produce as good a result as life will allow.

Of course, you have to figure out what the small stuff is and what other things really do matter to you.

Meditation is usually a part of the treatment that enables you to stay in the moment, and let go of your attachment to passing feelings and thoughts, worries and regrets, and anticipations and fears. To be preoccupied with just such temporary upsets causes you not to be able to fully experience what is going on in the present and determine what is really of importance in your life.

By encouraging and training you in meditation, the counselor  is attempting to give you a method that will help you to achieve a state of psychological enlightenment that (without using words) helps you to distinguish the transitory aggravations, disappointments, worries and anxieties of life from whatever matters the most to you, so that you can put your effort into the things that have the greatest value in your life.

Some final questions:

  1. Do you often find yourself fighting over things others consider to be small?
  2. Do you frequently feel put-upon but are capable only of a passive-aggressive response?
  3. Do you (too easily and too often) assume a fetal position with others (metaphorically speaking), who come to think of you as an easy target and treat you badly (in part) because they know you will not stand up for yourself?

If you have answered any of these questions in the affirmative, you might benefit from asking a couple of other questions:

  1. What does this mode of living cost me?
  2. Am I willing to do the work necessary to change?

If the cost is substantial and you are eager to change, then a therapist can be of assistance. Only then will you be ready to get out of the cage, real or not, in which you find yourself.

The image above is the Flying Turns, a toboggan-style ride that was one of the many attractions that made Riverview Park famous.

What Happens in Psychotherapy?

What does psychotherapy do and how does it do that? Good questions, and even some therapists might have a hard time answering them. Of course, some of the goals are obvious: reduce depression, have better relationships, eliminate anxiety, enjoy your life more, and stop worrying. But what are the elements that get you there? I’ll give you a sense of some of the factors that permit those goals to be achieved.

1. Trust. Many people entering treatment have trust issues: they trust too easily or not at all, usually the latter. Trust will start with the relationship between you and the therapist. Simple things: does he listen? Does he understand? Does he seem interested and dedicated? Is he dependable? Does he care? If the answers to these questions are “yes,” then it will be a bit easier to begin to trust others. The experience of a benign relationship with one person can open you to the possibility that this experience can be achieved elsewhere in your life.

2. Validation. Many people coming into psychotherapy having been told that they should “get over it,” that they “shouldn’t feel that way,” that they shouldn’t complain or “whine;” or having been ignored, dismissed, or criticized too often when trying to express themselves. Some folks believe feelings are unimportant; others might state that it is not “masculine” to feel too much, and so forth. As a result, many new patients have so buried their feelings that they are alienated from themselves and don’t know whether it is appropriate to think or feel as they do. A good therapist creates a safe place for talking about such things (trust again), and gives the person a sense that there is value in what they feel and think. Over time, this action, by itself, can help improve self esteem and reduce sadness and alienation.

3. Grieving. If one has not had supportive relationships (with people who are both trustworthy and validating), the sense of loss or absence contributes to sadness, and sometimes to depression. The relationship with the therapist allows you to express the emotions related to loss (both sadness and anger) to someone who listens patiently and shows concern. As you process those feelings of loss, your sadness should gradually diminish. The therapist serves as a witness and again, as someone who validates your pain. Grieving in isolation too often contributes to the feeling of disconnection and alienation from the world. Grieving with someone who cares reconnects you to one of the things that can be good in life: human contact.

4. Learning new things. Any good therapist needs to provide some guidance and tools that enable change. This might come in the form of helping you learn and practice new social skills (including acting these skills out with the therapist), assisting you in changing how you think (cognitive restructuring) that helps you reduce self-defeating thoughts, training in how to be assertive (again with role playing in the therapy session), or meditation.

5. A change in perspective. A good therapist will provide you with new ways of thinking about the world and about your life. Since he can see you from the outside, he is more likely to see you in a way that you cannot see yourself.

6. Facing things, not avoiding things. We all practice avoidance some of the time, and some of the time it is a useful thing. Unfortunately, many of us practice it all too much. We distract ourselves from pain and avoid challenging situations. We can use food, TV, shopping, sex, drugs, alcohol, the internet, and computer games to get us away from whatever it is we can’t handle. We worry about problems rather than coming up with a plan of action and taking them on. We don’t ask out the pretty girl for fear of rejection, or say “no” to people who want to befriend us for the same reason. We stay at a “dead-end” job because of our insecurities. And, of course, unhappiness is the result.

A therapist can assist you in identifying the patterns of avoidance, help you to gradually become able to tolerate anxiety (by use of such things as cognitive restructuring, role playing or meditation) and give you tasks that gradually increase in difficulty so that you reduce avoidance and begin to take action that works.

7. Acceptance. By acceptance I am referring to acceptance of the nature of life and the discomfort that comes with living; acceptance of the fact that being open to life allows you to experience satisfaction and joy, but also opens you to pain; and awareness of the temporary nature of most of that discomfort. The more that you take life on its terms, the less you will be trapped by it.

Remember playing with the Chinese Finger Puzzle as a kid, the cylindrical woven structure made of bamboo, open at both ends? You put your two index fingers into it, but when you pulled hard to get your fingers out, you became more stuck. Only by releasing the tension and moving your fingers toward the center of the device, did it collapse and no longer held you tight. Life is a lot like that to the extent that we must stop engaging in behaviors that only make us more “stuck.”Acceptance allows you to free yourself, at least somewhat, from what is distressing about life.

8. Valued Action. If you are caught in the struggle with your emotions, or focused on avoidance of pain, what is good in life will be hard to achieve. Therapy can help you to think about the life you would like to lead, the life that is consistent with your values, and help to relieve you of the habits that keep you so wound-up that you don’t have time to think about what it is you would really like to do, and what it is that would lead you to a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. What is your true self? Therapy can help you find out and encourage that person to exist in the world.

The description I’ve given you is based, in part, on my experience in life and training, especially training in such therapeutic approaches as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based behavior therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Other therapists may have a different view of what is important and how to help you get to the point that your life is more satisfying and less fraught with depression, anxiety, or chronic relationship problems. But here, at least, I hope that I have given you some sense of direction and some reason to be hopeful about the possibility of change in your life.

The Meaning of Life is…

Thoughtful people since the beginning of time have looked for the answer to the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life? But recently I’ve begun to wonder whether perhaps it is the wrong question. The existentialists have long suggested that it is our job, each of us, to find our own meaning. But even if you believe in the idea that we must take responsibility for the one life that we have and view it as a creative act, to make what we can of it, I’m still not convinced that the question is the best one available.

What then might be a better question? The question I’m thinking of is, what are the meanings of a life, the purposes to which one puts that life? In other words, the meaning of a life, its target or goal, would be viewed as a changeable and changing thing, not just different from one individual to another as the existentialists suggest, but different depending upon the moment that the question is asked of any single life. It might be one thing when you are 15 and quite another when you are 50, still another at 75.

But first let us consider very briefly the answers to the original question, what is the meaning of life? One could go on at length about the various “isms: hedonism, stoicism, and so forth. I will not do this. Others know more about them and have already discussed them at great length. Still, one must give a nod in the direction of the meaning of life being the simple biological fact of procreation, continuing the human race. The religious might argue that the will of God for each individual as the meaning for that particular person, along with doing honor to God’s law. Then there are those who believe that life is intended to increase one’s understanding and knowledge, or to have the maximal amount of pleasure, or to perfect oneself by fulfilling your innate talents and capacities, or to make the world a better place than you found it, or quite simply to love in a deep and abiding fashion.

But, my current thought is that there is no single meaning for all persons, but changing meanings as we grow up and age. Early-on, the meaning of our lives is perhaps to be found in discovering what we can do, who we are, and mastering the extraordinary number of things any little person has to learn just to get out the door and off to school. Not far into the process one must determine how to relate to people, how to honor yourself without disrespecting others, figuring out where you stand in the pecking order of athletic, intellectual, and social competition. Discovering one’s vocation must be on the list, since most of us take so much meaning from what we do for a living, be it as a captain of industry, a scholar, a salesperson, or parent. All the better if what we do for a living provides a sense of fulfillment, creativity, acknowledgment, accomplishment, and growth.

Meaning is to be found in a life-partner too, in love, in family, in raising a child, and in risking your heart. And over time, friendships, especially if they are life-long, have great value and define us as people and as members of a tiny group of two or more friends or part of a community, pulling-together to do something worthwhile.

In war-time, loyalty, comradeship, and courage take special meaning; even to the point that, a few years before World War II, the Japanese government proclaimed loyalty as essential to the national morality. And, in the war itself, the idea of behaving honorably in the face of certain death, never allowing himself to be captured, guided the Japanese soldier and gave meaning to his service. Emperor, country, and comrades counted for a lot; even the importance of family sometimes diminished in the heat of battle, by comparison, when it was necessary to steel one self against the terror of combat.

Under less severe circumstances, learning is something that gives purpose as we work to understand ourselves and the human condition, as well as particular things about the world. Later on in life, for many people comes a certain generosity of spirit, a desire to help those who are coming after us, to lend a hand. And the shortness of time contributes to intensity of feeling, making the beauty of the earth, a smile, a song, an act of kindness, or an embrace all the more touching because we know that before too long, the sweetness of life will no longer be ours to savor.

Having taken all this time on the question I’ve raised, I think there is danger in spending too much time on trying to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life? If one has learned anything from life itself, it is that the time is precious and waiting in contemplation for a revelation of what we should do risks squandering the time we have. But most of us are comforted by a sense of direction, and one should try to determine what is of value, and to conform one’s behavior to what is important and worthy of effort and time. Indeed, mindfulness and commitment-based psychotherapies work very hard to encourage the person to become detached from things that are not important, and instead to focus him on his values and how to “live” them.

There is worth, then, in simply knowing that the clock is ticking and that the day is short; but only if that knowledge creates a sense of urgency in you and the desire to make the most of the time.

As John Donne wrote so long ago:

“Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”

Signs of Maturity: What Does It Mean to “Grow Up?”

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“Oh, grow up!” Is there anyone who didn’t hear some version of this humiliating admonition as a kid? Often voiced by another kid, or some chronologically mature person who probably needed to “grow up” himself.

Still, it does raise an important question: what does it mean to grow up? What qualities are present in those people we respect for their maturity?

Although it may not be very humble to do so, let’s start with the quality of humility. And its important to remember that humility is not identical to a lack confidence. Rather, it involves the recognition that in the big picture of the universe, you are a very, very small part. That is to say, unless your name is one that ranks with Einstein or Beethoven, virtually no one will know your name in a hundred years.

As Goethe put it, “Names are like sound and smoke.” They disappear that easily. Humbling indeed. You probably aren’t as important as you think you are.

Which means, of course, that your problems, at least most of them, aren’t that important either. The ability to recognize that most problems are transitory and only temporarily bothersome is another sign of maturity. Now, I’m not talking about brain cancer here, but the more garden-variety ups and downs of life. It sometimes helps weather them to realize that you will care little if anything about those difficulties in five years or even five months.

No, as the saying goes, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s all small stuff.” Or, at least most of it.

Another important quality of being a grown-up, I think, is to have a balance between your head and your heart. We all know people who are way out of balance — those who claim to be imperturbably logical like the Mr. Spock-type Vulcans from Star Trek and others who come apart at the smallest disappointment or frustration, letting their emotions whip them around like a passenger on a “tilt-a-whirl” amusement park ride.

Emotions are there for a reason; the pain of them needs to be attended to, lest you leave your hand on the stove’s burner because nature didn’t inform you to remove that hand. Equally, your head is required to have good judgment and learn from experience, to be cool under fire, and to forge ahead in spite of fear.

In other words, balance is a sign of maturity. Balance of head and heart, work and play, action and contemplation, passion and repose. Socrates said that one should be grateful to old-age that the passions rule us less. But do not live a life without passion, especially when you are young enough to enjoy it! He also said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And so maturity requires some thought about your life, where you’ve been and where you are going, why you have done what you’ve done, what worked and what didn’t, and what lies ahead. It requires an unflinching look in the mirror and the intention to improve.

That means, of course, that being a “grown-up” demands that one has learned something from experience and continues to learn more as experience unfolds. My friend Henry Fogel has said, “I like to make new mistakes!” Meaning, naturally, that there is no point in repeating the same old ones.

Another friend, Rich Adelstein, once told me that he thought that if he were able to figure out the solutions to his then-current problems (he was 50 at the time), he believed that he could simply keep living in the same fashion, using the same solutions to confront whatever was ahead of him. But, he rightly realized, that there would be new problems requiring new solutions, and that the version of himself that faced those new problems would be older and different, and therefore might see things quite a bit differently than the 50-year-old version.

This is an example of maturity, along with a signpost to some of its characteristics, including the need to change, the ability and willingness to be flexible, and the awareness that learning along the way is required. Rich was able to change, and to change his mind about the need to change.

What other qualities might be present in the mature, “grown-up” person? Confidence and the capacity for self-assertion, certainly; the ability to laugh, and to laugh at yourself, not at the expense of others; to take risks and do things that might be hard or embarrassing or scary or frustrating until you master them; to be independent in thought and deed, not to follow the crowd or require a caretaker or someone to make decisions for you; and of course, the capacity for intimacy and love, knowing all the while that embracing others makes you vulnerable to loss.

An additional aspect of wisdom that is usually related to age is having a sense of what is worth fighting for and what is not. There are more than enough battles worth joining in this imperfect world, but one cannot take on all of them without battling 24 hours a day, an exhausting and impossible prospect. And so, maturity requires sufficient knowledge of oneself and the world to make decisions about standing fast or standing aside; holding to principle or being willing to compromise. And accepting that sometimes we will be defeated.

So, yes, being a grown-up means accepting the world on its terms: that loss and disappointment, in causes and in people, are an inevitable part of  life, and that to defend too strongly against them deprives you of the most important and precious things that life has to offer: the thrill and camaraderie of fighting the good fight; and at a more personal level, love, closeness, tenderness, and the acceptance and affection that can only come from unguardedness. To live as if your heart has never been broken and never can be, then, shows both maturity and courage.

Responsibility-taking is another part of being mature, admitting that “yes, it was I who made the mistake.” We all heard the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree a long time ago, and it is entirely about responsibility-taking and honesty. And, as that reference might suggest, honesty is no small part of the “grown-up” life. As the sages say, it simplifies life enormously to be honest. Too many people justify their dishonesty by claiming that they are trying to spare someone else’s feelings. Don’t be deceived. Usually it is much more self-serving than that.

Back to humility, where we started. Part of being mature is having the humility to realize that you too might, “but for the grace of God,” be in someone else’s less advantageous spot, and that therefore they should be judged less harshly for whatever they have done or whatever has happened to them, or perhaps not judged at all.

Maturity means cherishing the quiet moments as much as the thrills. And, most definitely, it means living in the moment, mindful of everything, trying not to get caught up in hoping it were different (even though you might well be justified in doing so); allowing yourself to stay centered where you are in time, rather than to be looking back or forward while the irreplaceable, unrepeatable instant of your life passes by.

Look back too much and you will be caught in the sadness of  time-past and unfulfilled longings and regrets, while missing what is possible in the present. Similarly, living in the future tends to generate anxiety in anticipation of what may come, and deprives you of the same present moment that passes by those who are looking back at yesterday.

Accepting and liking oneself is a part of being a grown-up. Not that you don’t need to or want to change, but to appreciate what is good about yourself and to accept some of the inevitable limitations to which all of us are prone. Not to avoid self-improvement, but to avoid self-denigration.

To be a grown-up means living a principled life, one with a commitment to certain values, and to put those values to work, not just in words, but in deeds. As the AA crowd likes to say, “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.” And those principles, those values, must be informed by the fact that we are all mortal, all in-transit, but that the planet and the human race are here (we hope) for the long haul. We are “just visiting” as the Monopoly board reminds us when we land on a certain space. The game will outlast us and so will life on this planet, if we don’t mess it up.

In putting those commitments to work, we must actually do work. Freud was right when he pointed to love and work as the essential organizing forces in any life. If you are mature, unless you are aged or infirm, there is work to be done. Life is made more interesting and engaging by doing it, too. The mature person is not simply a spectator in the game of life.

At least one other quality should be mentioned in this pantheon of qualities in the house of maturity: gratitude. Appreciation of what you do have and appreciation of simple things: a beautiful day, the affection of your children, the ability to do things, a touching song or story, and good friends — all the stuff of life that is too easily dismissed.

Let the last words on the subject of being a grown-up (and much more) go to Adlai Stevenson II, in his 1954 speech at the senior class dinner of his Alma Mater, Princeton University. These 55-year-old words spoken by the 54-year-old Stevenson are as appropriate now as then:

…What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws — all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages — are as well-known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.

What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions — a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love — the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men; and perhaps, too, a little faith, and a little reverence for things you cannot see…

To my way of thinking it is not the years in your life but the life in your years that count in the long run. You’ll have more fun, you’ll do more and you’ll get more, you’ll give more satisfaction the more you know, the more you have worked, and the more you have lived. For yours is a great adventure at a stirring time in the annals of men.

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On the subject of maturity, you may find this of related interest: Youth vs. Experience and Maturity: Who Has the Edge?

You may be interested in this topic, as well: Maturity: Ten Steps To Get You There.

The top image is Mevlevi Dervishes Perform, created by K?vanc and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. According to the Wikimedia site, the Mevlevi Order is a Sufi order founded in 1273 in Konya, Turkey. “They are also known as the Whirling Dervishes due to their famous practice of whirling as a form of dhikr (remembrance of Allah).”

“Dervish is a term for an initiate of the Sufi Path… The Dervishes perform their dhikr in the form of a dance and music ceremony called the sema. The sema represents a mystical journey of man’s spiritual ascent through mind and love to ‘Perfect(ion).’ Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth and arrives at the ‘Perfect.’ He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity (hence my use of the picture for this essay) and a greater perfection, so as to love and be of service to the whole of creation.”

The bottom photo is the work of shioshvilli and apparently depicts Whirling Dervishes performing the sema ceremony at the Sirkeci Railway Station in Istanbul, Turkey on June 10, 2006. It is also sourced from Wikimedia Commons.