A way to embrace uncertainty

I spent the weekend at the annual Wisdom 2.0 Conference, which looks at the role of mindfulness in the digital age.

One of the most powerful sessions I attended was a breakout on discomfort as a path to innovation. Facilitator J. Miakoda Taylor had us each identify an issue at the edge of our comfort zone. Then, working in pairs, we asked questions of ourselves and each other using the following process:

  • Notice and name a physical sensation. (This gets us grounded, and out of our habitual mental grooves. Any sensation will work—mine was a chill in my back.)
  • Ask a question out loud about the challenging issue we’d selected, and resist the urge to answer it—just ask without the expectation of an answer.
  • Give the other person a turn to ask a question about the same issue, again without answering.
  • Feel the impact of the other person’s words.
  • Continue taking turns asking a question, each time tuning in to a physical sensation before speaking.

The issue I chose had to do with a complex project I’ve taken on that involves developing new skills. Some surprising and provocative questions bubbled up as I worked with my partner, such as “How does the team want to transform?”

Freed of the pressure to problem-solve, I could let those questions reverberate, inviting me to explore more deeply. I got the sense that continuing to ask questions, rather than provide answers, might be one of the most helpful contributions I can make in this new role.


The pleasure of putting away


“It’s time to take down the Christmas tree,” said my sister.

“I don’t want you to take away the tree!” cried my nine-year-old niece, and she fled the room.

My 12-year-old niece stayed in the living room to help her mom. Gently, they removed the ornaments one by one and placed them in the storage box.

We admired each ornament as it came down: the translucent globe from the art museum. The wooden angel floating on his belly. The mermaid with tiny shells glued to her fin.

“I made these in third grade,” said my niece of the foil disks painted with felt-tip marker, as I complimented her work. “This,” I said of a bejeweled sphere, “reminds me of the year I covered styrofoam balls with ribbons and hatpins back in junior high.”  “I still remember that star you cut from a pie plate for the top of the tree,” my sister told me.

I understand the nine-year-old’s reluctance to say goodbye to the tree. But she missed what turned out to be a fond hour of appreciation.

It’s easy to value beginnings and peak experiences. But sometimes endings can be just as sweet.


Check that critic!

I’m experimenting with a new way to manage the inner critic. (Happy to say it’s been more critic than doomsayer lately, but that nagging voice of doubt still saps my energy and efficiency.) I call this technique the Gremlin Checklist. It combines the best aspects of the split-screen technique and mental-habits labeling into one convenient package!

I made a one-page chart. Down one side, I’ve listed all the things the inner critic typically says when I’m doing creative work. I know what the themes are by now: “This piece of the project is impossible to fix.” “Someone might hate this.” “I’m too sleepy / hungry to concentrate right now.” “The tension is intolerable! I’m hurting my health and must distract myself!”… plus about a dozen more.

Down the other side of the page is a blank column. It’s for check marks. When I get stuck, I notice what I’m saying to myself that got me stuck, and I put a quick check mark next to that statement on the chart.

So it looks like this: Write write write (or Plan plan plan) … screeching halt … “Hm, OK, that sounds like ‘This is getting so complicated I can’t possibly organize it.’ CHECK!”  Write write write (or Plan plan plan) … gear-grinding … “Oh yeah, that’s ‘I must research this point intensively so I don’t look like an idiot. I’m off to the Internet!’ CHECK!”

The list of comments gives me distance and reminds me that, hey, I’ve heard this before, and my job isn’t to please the critic. As for the check marks, they give me a quick way to acknowledge the voice and get back to task. Without the check marks, I tend to drift, dwelling on the critical comments instead of trying things that would move the project forward.

Sometimes I use a couple of blank columns instead of just one, and put dates at the top of each column. It can be interesting to note where the checkmarks cluster on a given day.

I’m finding that the Gremlin Checklist works not just for writing, but also workshop development, or any type of project that involves a degree of focus and frustration.


Seriously, what’s the rush?

I’m typing this with a cast on my arm. I fell on the stairs a few weeks ago and broke a finger. I was carrying bags in both hands, and hurrying. Don’t hurry on the stairs!

On the injury spectrum, this one is trivial, and I appreciate the cast that’s helping those tiny bones knit back together. But the adjustment to temporary one-handedness is causing me to examine my propensity to lurch headfirst through life, often discontented with the pace of things.

The cast reminds me to be more careful on staircases and sidewalks. Yet I still have the urge—to name just one example—to speedwalk down the hallway in my home. What do I imagine I’ll gain by saving a few seconds in transit?

In bed, I can’t grab the covers when I turn over, the way I like to; grabbing doesn’t work with a cast on. I have to be much more deliberate and slow. This frustrates me—the covers should be where I want them, now!—and my frustration seems a bit misplaced. Isn’t bedtime a time for slowing down? Couldn’t adjusting the covers, calmly and gently, be a transition into sleep?

As I anticipate having the cast removed this week, I’m asking the revolutionary (for me) question: Is rushing ever a good idea? Despite my ingrained hurrying habit, I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when it would be.

How to be satisfied with a lot less chocolate

Break off a very small piece of chocolate.*

Wait… don’t eat it yet!… hold it at a distance and admire its looks. (Especially fun with an engraved bar, like the ones from Dick Taylor.)

Bring it to your nose and inhale.

Now you can put it in your mouth—and let it slowly melt on your tongue. Don’t chew. Ever.

What do you taste? Fruit? What kind—cherries…raisins…citrus?  Floral? Coffee? Smoke? Acidity, bitterness, sweetness? How does the taste change as the chocolate melts—does it get sweeter, more fruity? What’s the texture—buttery, chalky, crumbly?

Enjoy it as it melts away. (No chewing!) The pleasurable sensation will linger. You may not need to chase it with another piece.

You can get a chocolate bar to last for days this way.

Note: Thanks to Jasdeep and the SF Chocolate Meetup for walking 40 of us through the slow chocolate experience at tonight’s tasting.

*This works best with small-batch, artisanal-type chocolate—beans+sugar, no additives. (Mass-produced chocolate is designed for a quick hit, according to Jasdeep.)