The Story of Play Doh

In the movie How Do You Know, there’s a scene in which the guy buys the girl a tub of Play Doh. He tells her the story of Play Doh (how it was a failure as a wallpaper cleaner, but then was successfully re-marketed as a children’s toy) and says, “We are all just one small adjustment from making our lives work.”

And though the movie itself isn’t necessarily that profound, that one line has stuck with me since I first heard it. That one line speaks volumes, and it applies to much more than romantic relationships. It really seems to me like a commentary on perspective.

Sometimes our perspective is the biggest thing stopping us from seeing all the good that surrounds us, and using that vision as a springboard to greater success. Being attached to only one perspective is extremely limiting.

There’s a story I once read in which a man walks down a village street. Persons on one side of the street comment on his striking red hat, while those on the other side argue that his hat is blue. Each faction insists on the correct-ness of its interpretation. It’s only when the man turns around and walks back the other way that it becomes clear the hat is half red, half blue.

In a similar story, several people wearing blindfolds each try to explain what an elephant looks like. One describes the trunk, while the other describes the tail. An argument ensues over what type of creature the elephant really is, and who is more correct.

Of course, what these stories are meant to illustrate is the idea that perspective is limited, and that the same object (the same situation or challenge) looks very different when we approach it in a new way. Also, that we make fools of ourselves when we argue right-ness of our own viewpoints or wrong-ness of another’s perspective.

All this is to say that relinquishing attachment to our perspectives, to our stories, is an important step toward building better relationships and creating success. Sometimes it means crossing the street to see challenges or situations in our lives from another angle. Other times it means taking off the blindfold to see the big picture.

It’s worth asking ourselves where many of our deeply held opinions, viewpoints, and beliefs originated, because we may find that the source is a limited perspective. Now, this doesn’t mean abandoning all of our beliefs and principles, but rather approaching them with a greater understanding of where they come from. And, it gives us the opportunity to examine which of those beliefs are working for us, and which others might require some fine-tuning.

The Importance of Self-Care

Self-care, or Self-renewal as Stephen Covey calls it in The 7 Habits, is one of the most important and least practiced habits for success. Self-care often ends up on the bottom of a long to-do list, especially for those of us who are busy and goal-oriented.

Covey tells a little story of a man so busy working to cut down a tree that he doesn’t want to stop to sharpen the saw. It might sound funny, but Covey makes a good point. He asks the question, are you too busy driving the car to stop and get gas? So many of us are worried that if we stop working, for even a moment, our goals will be further away. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll even get a little bit lazy.

Covey suggests one hour a day as a minimal commitment to self-renewal. I have to agree. That single hour can do so much to make you more productive during the rest of your work than you might think. Now, this doesn’t mean spending an hour watching tv before bed. It means spending a hour doing whatever feeds you. It could be listening to beautiful music, reading an inspiring book, taking a walk outdoors, practicing meditation, attending a yoga class, or engaging in sports, to name just a few examples.

Self-renewal can be physical, mental, or spiritual, as the examples illustrate. And ideally your weekly self-care time should include all 3 components.

One of my fellow massage therapists has a sign in her office that reads, “When life takes it out of you, massage puts it back.” Now, you can easily fill in the blank any number of ways… with something specific that fills you with renewed energy and commitment.

When life takes it out of you, ________ puts it back. Now, brainstorm a list of words that fill in the blank, and start scheduling an hour each day, just for you.

Hopes and Dreams, Part III

Stephen Covey, the author of The Seven Habits, defines a habit as “the overlapping of knowledge, skill, and attitude.” This means knowing what to do, how to do it, and why you are doing it. He makes an excellent point that functions as an extension of the discussion of hopes and dreams. Making hopes and dreams a reality hinges on the process of personal growth: developing real habits that will lead us in  the direction we truly want to go. In the process of personal growth Covey identifies 3 stages: dependence, independence, and inter-dependence.

Those in the first stage, dependence, play “the blame game.” They hold other people responsible for their circumstances or failures. The important thing to realize here is that establishing blame, or holding someone responsible, does nothing to actually resolve an issue. It’s like walking past trash on the ground, having seen someone someone throw it there carelessly. Then running after that other person, in the hope of shaming or berating him/her into some other action. In the meantime, there’s still garbage everywhere, and simply putting the garbage in the bin would solve the immediate problem and enhance the surroundings for all who pass by.

I will never forget the moment when someone I respect very much asked me, when I was complaining bitterly about an issue of great importance to me, and explaining how I held someone else responsible for my pain, “Do you want to be right? Or do you want to be happy?”

Now, of course there’s certain satisfaction that comes with the feeling of being right, of holding the moral high ground, so to speak. But it’s a very limited perspective. And a need to make other people “wrong” can be incredibly damaging to relationships. Now, this doesn’t mean we need to martyr ourselves by giving up our principles or making ourselves wrong. It just means that establishing blame and holding other people responsible won’t get us very far at all.

It’s possible to argue that the person who threw the trash on the ground needs to be educated, or taken to task for the behavior, etc. While I don’t dismiss this, I think an important principle applies here, which Covey would call a paradigm shift. (This idea is present is many different philosophies. Yogi Bhajan would call it a principle of the Aquarian Age.) “Everyone you meet comes from some great battle.”

Covey tells the story of a man riding the subway whose children were misbehaving. When asked by a fellow passenger to control his children, the man shared that they had just come from the hospital and their mother had died.

Yogi Bhajan would say “Recognize that the other person is you.” In other words, be willing to look past the surface differences in order to “understand with compassion.” Even though you may not know the whole story, it’s important to realize that there’s more to any behavior or action than meets the eye.

Healing the Wounds of Love

In our world today, relationships end. Even marriages end. All too often. And then, even though we might not have initially thought it possible, we enter into a new relationship after a period of healing and renewal. In Kundalini Yoga there is a meditation for Healing the Wounds of Love that utilizes the Shabd Hazaray from the Sikh holy book, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. A sadhana for this meditation would be 11 recitations per day for 40 days.

If we don’t take the time to heal, we take the wounds of the past into our future relationships. Those hopes, fears, and projections can be a hindrance in a new relationship. They can cause us to over-react to the issues that will inevitably arise in any relationship. They can cause us to mis-understand things another person says – and in the worst cases they prevent us from really hearing that person altogether.

If we can begin a new relationship with a clean slate we give it the best chance of succeeding. It takes time to heal old wounds, and a focused intention to unravel the complexities of past experiences in order to avoid the trap of seeing people as merely good or bad – or of viewing our relationship experiences in terms of polarities.

By developing a process orientation, we can view our relationships in terms of the lessons we have learned and the ways in which we have grown. Beyond that, by developing skills for conflict resolution that go beyond win-lose or compromise, we can use our creative abilities to cooperatively birth new and better solutions to conflicts without polarizing differing perspectives on issues of importance.

On Letting Go

In the Bhagavad Gita, it says that we are entitled to our work but not the fruits of our labors. This means that it’s unwise to be attached to outcomes or results. Sometimes we fail, despite our best efforts. In other words, if we take an action with a specific outcome in mind, and then that outcome does not occur, we may feel that we have failed, and then attach to the failure all of the emotional baggage that culturally goes with it. As an alternative, the Gita teaches non-attachment.

In our culture, we’re not encouraged to let go. We’re encouraged to strive. To master our circumstances. To never give up. Now, I’m not advocating giving up, but there is a difference between giving up and letting go. Letting go is a surrender, not a defeat. Letting go is a mindset that says, “I’ve done all that I can do, and I feel good about my role.” It’s not outcome-oriented.

Attachment to achievement is one of the factors that leads to burn-out so often in the service-oriented professions. I think of the teachers and counselors and other people I know in the helping professions, and I see many of them who care so much that they are drained by the lack of results. It can be hard to remember that everyone has free will. And that, even given opportunities to change, some people have not aligned themselves or harnessed the necessary elements to create that change.

There’s nothing wrong with desiring certain outcomes in life, or working toward goals. But if we become so invested in the achievement of a particular goal or attached to a certain outcome that we make the process and the experience (the journey) less important, that’s when we create additional suffering for ourselves (and often others, as well).

Recommended Reading: The Little Book of Letting Go, by Hugh Prather

Photo by Virginia Olson © 2012

Desire: Riding the Horse

The energy of desire is incredibly powerful. When we desire something (or someone, for that matter) in our lives, it can consume us. I’ve heard desire described as a horse, in the sense that it’s a very powerful tool if utilized correctly (like most things). In dealing with our desire, it’s wise to be riding the horse. If the horse runs wild, stampeding, that can be extremely dangerous and destructive. If we’re riding the horse, we acknowledge its power, interact with it, and direct it.

The Buddhists would say that desire is insatiable. As soon as we satisfy one want, we manufacture another. This leads us down a path of self-indulgence and selfishness and, ultimately, does little or nothing to alleviate unhappiness. Rather, it seems to breed more unhappiness.

At the other extreme is denial or suppression of desire. This is also a less than helpful approach. Suppressed desires tend to reveal themselves in inappropriate and unhealthy ways.

All this is to say that dealing with desire effectively is a matter of striking a delicate balance.

One of my favorite Vedanta teachers, Swami Bodhananda, distinguishes between binding and non-binding desires. For example, those items at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy would be non-binding desires. Food, clothing, shelter, and safety (meeting basic needs) fall into the category of non-binding desires. Binding desires may be along the lines of, say, a desire for caviar twice a week, or 3,000 square feet of living space. Distinguishing between needs and wants in our culture can be difficult, especially since a virtually continuous barrage of advertising strives to create new needs on an ongoing basis.

Because of the almost endless onslaught of media, it’s worthwhile to pay attention to where your information is coming from, and to limit that flow of information when possible. In other words, to balance input with processing and take time to reflect on your true priorities as part of living a life that more fully reflects your values.