Common Sense or Fear? Our choice.


Every time we get new information, we have a choice what to make of it. That choice has nothing to do with the information. It has to do with whether we understand how we bring our own thinking to life as reality. We don’t choose the first thought that comes to mind. But every subsequent related thought and what we make of it is strictly up to us.

fork in road

The more deeply we understand our own spiritual nature, that we are generating our life experience by bringing thoughts to mind and then taking them more or less seriously, the more easily we make common sense choices.

Example:  I am walking my dog as usual and I see another person, also walking a dog, fall down. This is not something I expected, nor is it something I can simply not allow into my mind. So I am at a crossroads. My next thought could be anything. It could be to rush up to help the person; to stay away in case that person is contagious;  to stand there and shout for help; to turn my back on the situation and figure someone else will come along — and so on. That next thought sets a direction. If my first thought was to rush up to help, my next thought might be caution. Or my next thought might be the checklist I know to determine if the person is having a stroke. Or my next thought might be to secure my dog so she would not interfere with the other dog while I was trying to help. And so on. On the other hand, if my first thought was to turn my back, my next thought might be the formation of a justification for turning away, or it might be to decide the person probably tripped and got right up and I spared him embarrassment, or it might be regret for being uncaring, and so on.

We don’t break our thinking down this way, but that’s how it works. We take in information and then we create our own thoughts about it. We do not act on the information; we act on our own thoughts about it. The direction our thoughts go has a lot to do with our knowledge of what is going on in our minds, and the depth of our own recognition that when the train of thought is leading to anxiety, self-doubt, fear or darkness, we can change direction. The types of thoughts that continue to come to mind are defined by the state of mind in which we are thinking. If we are calm and confident, we’ll continue to think of increasingly constructive things. If we are stressed and fearful, we’ll think of increasingly less constructive things. If we don’t like the feeling state our thinking is leading us through, we can change our our minds.

There is one and only one reason for thoughts of anxiety breeding thoughts of fear breeding thoughts of panic breeding hysteria. That reason is upsetting thoughts taken increasingly seriously. For those who understand that their rising levels of tension are being produced by their own thinking, not by events or circumstances, this doesn’t happen. They know they have a choice, and one choice is to pause, let the flow of negative thoughts pass and allow their minds to quiet. A whole different quality of thinking will arise from a calmer state of mind. Vivid examples of this choice arose in my life this past week.

First, I watched in astonishment as the U.S. whipped itself into a state of panic over the Ebola virus because one case occurred in a man from Liberia, where the virus is rampant, and infected at least two nurses in exactly the way we understand this virus spreads, through direct contact with bodily fluids of a sick person. There is a lot to learn about how we manage health care institutions and how we train health care providers from this case, but there is no reason to extrapolate that everyone in the US is now in imminent danger. But somehow, within days, response escalated into reaction, which escalated into over-reaction, which escalated into national blaming and widespread panic. The increasingly dire thinking about what could happen has spread like wildfire. It doesn’t matter how it started. It spread because people simply are not aware of what they are doing with their own thinking. The first fearful thought brings a little tension, and opens the door to increasingly fearful thoughts and more tension and the race is on. Once people have worked themselves into a frenzy of concern, all common sense is out the window. Unless we know that we have the power to turn it around, our thinking can run wild.

Second, I received the news that one of my dear friends, Dr. Jamie Shumway, had succumbed to ALS after six years of decline. Jamie was a colleague at West Virginia University School of Medicine. He really saw for himself the profound meaning and import of the message of hope I and my colleagues were working to impart: we create our own reality by using the gift of thought to enliven our consciousness of what we perceive as real. When I first met Jamie, he was an irrepressible outdoorsman. He white-water kayaked. He hiked. He fished, He snowshoed. He skied. He was in love with high energy activity. Some years later, he had heart surgery and he had to give up many of his strenuous undertakings. Did he mourn that loss? No, he decided to take piano lessons, and spent hours quietly practicing and coming to appreciate music. He even took part in a recital with a group of youngsters who were taking lessons from the same teacher! He got a huge kick out of that. Just as I was leaving WVU to move to Florida, he began having unexplained weakness in his legs. He served with great grace and wit as the moderator for the beautiful farewell party given for me and my colleague Dr. Bill Pettit, even as he leaned heavily on a podium because he had discovered that he couldn’t stand for very long without support. At that time, he was having neurological tests.

Then came the news, ALS. For the next several years, Jamie did every single thing he could do within his increasing limitations. He moved from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair, but he kept on  going to WVU sports events, going down to the dock to fish, attending parties and events. He continued to work as long as he possibly could. After he retired, he continued to teach, his huge smile quickly helping students forget his voice was strained and his movements very small as he negotiated his motorized wheelchair with the last of his strength. He spent his final months working with a collaborator to finish a book about his life. He died at home. All along the way, he never talked about what he couldn’t do; he reveled in what he still could do, and made the most of it. Even in his last years, many of us had lively conversations with him about the things he had always enjoyed talking about.

He could have spiraled into fearful thinking and regret and recrimination and anger. Certainly, some terminally ill patients facing a long, slow, irreversible decline do that. But he knew how to use his thinking to keep his bearings. He knew how to ignore fear. He knew how to live in the present moment in gratitude for what he had, without wasting precious time stewing about what he didn’t have. He put his energy into ordinary, common sense thinking about making the most of life.

Those who have followed their thinking into a state of agitation about Ebola are not wrong or bad. They are innocently unaware of the simple logic underlying life. We are making up our own interpretations of what is happening and living through them as though they were reality. Jamie knew and felt the power in that. It is a power we all have.

Sydney Banks says it beautifully here:


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Who do you trust?

The wonderful thing about knowledge is it is not absolute. Throughout a life of learning, we think one thing is true, and then we learn more, see more, understand more — and we change our thinking. Again and again. When I was little, I thought there was a man in the moon. By the time I was in 4th grade, I knew that the moon was a hunk of space dust and rock and that the “man” was an accident of its geography. By the time I was in college, I knew a lot about how moons and  planets and stars and galaxies were formed, and about gravity that held astronomincal systems together. By the time I was a young woman teaching in college, I  saw a little spacecraft land on the moon and men from earth walk upon its barren surface, and describe the experience, and I knew a whole other dimension of the moon. By now, I know the moon is an untapped resource of various minerals and even possibly water that eventually could lead to competition on earth among those who wish to exploit it.  Who knows what I may learn about it before I die?

The point is, nothing we think we know is the final possibillity. Our life is all about allowing one set of assumptions to fade as another comes into form, and then letting those fade — and so on and so on. There’s no end to what more we could yet see and understand about anything.

OK, you’re thinking, that’s all pretty obvious. What’s your point?

My point is, yes, that’s obvious. Except when it isn’t.  I am noticing it isn’t obvious to people that just because they think something about themselves, it doesn’t make it true. In the past several weeks, I’ve started seeing individual clients for mental health mentoring. They generally are people I’ve never met until the day of their first appointment, and the common thread for all of them is that they’re suffering psychologically in one way or another and they want relief. Many of them have a lot of experience with the mental health system — over time they have seen a number of professionals. They have learned a lot about mental illness, and it has not occurred to them to ask what that has to do with mental health. So I sometimes find myself in a kind of dance. The clients want to talk in great detail about the past and all that has gone wrong to contribute to their suffering and how many previous professionals have assured them they are doomed to suffer. I want to talk about the present, and what insight might do for them to take the sting out of all of that and set them free.

Here’s a typical example of that dance:

Client: My Mother was abusive to me; I had a horrible childhood. Nothing I ever did was good enough. She pushed me away from things I loved to do to force me to do things I hated. She was trying to make me over in her image;. she never saw me as a person. Let me tell you some of the stuff I went through…

Me: Let’s just stipulate that you did not enjoy your childhood. How old are you now? And where is your mother?

Client: I’m 30 and my mother has been dead for five years. But she did a number on me…

Me: That was in the past. What about now? You’re a grown up with a life of your own and she is no longer in this world. How is she hurting you NOW?

Client: My last therapist told me it would take years to recover from all that abuse, if I ever did. It scarred me for lifsad cliente.

Me: What if that’s not true?

Client: It would be great if that’s not true, but that’s ridiculous! Of course it’s true! Counselors have been telling me that for years. I’ve read a lot of books about childhood abuse and what it does to people.

Me: Experts told everyone in Europe that the earth was flat for years, too. But it turned out it wasn’t.

Client: That’s different. That was a long time ago. People are smarter now.

Me: So you’re suggesting that all expert opinion you hear now is true? What about when experts disagree? What if you’ve only heard from a tiny sample of “experts” and there are lots of people in the world who would tell you different things?

Client: OK. So maybe I’m not really scarred for my whole life. Then explain to me why I’ve been suffering all these years and when it’s going to stop. If it was going to get better, wouldn’t it be getting better by now?

Me: That has more to do with your understanding than with “it”.

Client:  What do you mean by “understanding”?

Me: In all your life — and please stop and really reflect on this before you leap to answer it — in all your life, have you never had even one moment where you knew, deep down, that you were OK, that you were stronger than your circumstances? Where something occurred to you that lifted you out of some situation, even briefly?

Client: Well, yes, but my counselor told me that was just Denial. That I needed to work out my problems, not set them aside.

Me: What did you make of that?

Client: I was sad about it because I was hoping maybe it was a turning point, but I don’t have any training in mental health, so I had to assume he was right. And as we kept talking, I felt bad again, so he was proven right.

Me: What if I could explain that whole scenario to you in a simple way that helped you to see that you really know a lot, innately, about your mental health — we all do — and you might have to reconsider who to trust when it comes to your own good feelings?

At that point, the door cracks open to explain how we use our life energy to create thoughts or entertain the thoughts we’ve adopted and then experience them as reality. In this client’s case, she did not know that she was holding her “scars” in place with a long history of thinking, talking, complaining and feeling bitter and sad about her childhood. She had no understanding of the inside-out logic of thinking — that we use our energy to create thinking and ruminate about it and try to figure it out, with no recognition of the link between that thinking and how bad we continue to feel. Once we start to understand how thinking works, we can allow thoughts that bring our feeling state down to pass, and think again. And that’s how we learn. We can trust our own wisdom, not the experts, to learn about ourselves.

Consider this. It’s all too easy to adopt ideas from people who are supposed to know a lot, without any consideration of our own intuition about those ideas. If something occurs to us in a moment of quiet and it feels uplifting, could that be a prelude to learning something new? Why are we so quick to doubt, then abandon, our own wisdom and insight?

I love how Sydney Banks put it:

“There is an enormous difference between finding your own inner wisdom and adopting someone else’s beliefs. If you take on someone else’s belief to replace a belief of your own, you may experience a temporary placebo effect, but you have not found a lasting answer. However, if you replace an old belief with a realization from your own inner wisdom, the effect and results are superior and permanent.” The Missing Link, pp. 92-93.










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The Depression Fairy is Imaginary

depression fairyDespite the protests of several of my clients recently, I must insist  there is no Depression Fairy who randomly visits us and sprinkles dreadful thoughts in our minds. Oh, I know she seems very real, and powerful, and quick to alight out of nowhere. But she is imaginary, as are her close friends, like the Anxiety Fairy and the Anger Fairy.

As much as that might be good news, for many people who have struggled with Depression for decades, it is initially distressing news.  What’s wrong, then, if there’s no invisible outside force causing depression?  For people who are depressed, believing they just can’t help it  because it “happens” to them and they have to do the best they can to forge on anyway  becomes a kind of familiar comfort. They look at cheerful, energetic people as either lucky or out of touch with “real” life. They become resigned to existence in the gray spectrum: colorless, unemotional, exhausting in its grim monotony. They feel helpless and hopeless.

I had a client tell me recently that she hardly gotten out of bed at all for three months. She just couldn’t. I asked if there was ever even once in that time when she did, when she got up and got dressed and did something anyway. There was. Her cat got very sick and she rallied to take the cat to the vet. I asked her what she thought it was that  gave her the energy to move then. She said, “I love that cat. I couldn’t bear to see her suffer. I had to stop thinking about myself and take care of her.”

That is a profound statement about the source, and the relief, for depression. Over the years, so many people have told me similar stories. They had never stopped to reflect on the significance of their brief interludes of sufficient energy to do something. Yet in every case, their little surges of energy started with a compelling thought that interrupted a relentless torrent of self-concern and turned their mind elsewhere. They reconnected with life beyond their self-absorption, even if briefly. I do not use “self-absorption” judgmentally. It is the very definition of depression: a focus on one’s own internal stresses, fears, terrors, insecurities to the exclusion of all else.

Whether they realize it or not, they can turn their own thinking elsewhere, and often they do. Without understanding of the power to do that, though, it doesn’t register as meaningful. It just seems to them that every once in a while they manage to feel a little stronger, a little better, a little more engaged in something. But, as one of my clients put it, “I know it won’t last.”

That thought alone — “It won’t last” — triggers the downward spiral back to depression. But it’s nothing more than a habitual thought. The power to slip down into the cave again does not belong to those words, but to the life we give them. We always get to be right because our thinking comes to life via our consciousness and creates a temporary reality, no matter what it is. Just knowing that — knowing for sure that we are the thinkers creating from within our own minds the reality we see — is the antidote to depression. We don’t have to “clean up” our thinking or replace bleak thoughts with bright ones, or do anything at all with the thoughts we’ve already formed. As soon as we have the realization that the power of thought does not reside in the content of what we bring to mind, but in ourselves, who continually make it up from nothing, we let upsetting thoughts pass and keep on allowing new thoughts to come to mind. Understanding how thought works naturally results in letting go of thoughts that aren’t helpful and are taking us down. No one wants to feel bad; without seeing that the feeling is a byproduct of the thoughts we are innocently creating, though, it doesn’t seem like we have a choice.  We come out of the shadows of our own thinking as soon as we own our power to think.

As a colleague of mine often says, “The power of a thought lasts as long as you think it, and not a moment longer.” There’s no Depression Fairy sprinkling us with her yucky fairy dust. We chart our own course via the thinking we do; we can change direction at any time. We made up the Depression Fairy, too. Isn’t the human imagination amazing?

“Hate, jealousy, insecurity. phobias and feelings of depression are all compounds of negative thoughts.

All feelings derive and become alive, whether negative or positive, from the power of Thought. …

Even if you disagree with what I say, it’s your thought.”

                                                                                                           Sydney Banks, The Missing Link, pp. 24-25













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Smarter? or Wiser?

I’ve been involved in many situations where leaders were smarter than most of the people they were trying to influence, but were oblivious to the fact they were no wiser. That doesn’t  work out very well. Being “the smartest person in the room” creates an opportunity for the leader to find the humility that enters hand-in-hand with wisdom.

First of all, wisdom is the great equalizer.  All human beings have access to wisdom; no one person is innately wiser than another. It’s always possible to sort people out by “smartness”, but when it comes to wisdom, it can arise in an insight, at any moment, from anyone. When groups are working optimally, there’s huge respect for that, and a true willingness to listen for it and appreciate it, no matter the source.

Catching on to the difference between smartness and wisdom is a hallmark of the “Aha!” moments that strike people coming to understand how our understanding of life arises from the inside-out. It isn’t “learned,” it is realized from deep within our own capacity. People who used to be voluble —  quick to answer and first to speak — become quiet and reflective as they look within for deeper answers. They are much less excited by the content of their analytical thinking. They are much more patient to await insights and simple common sense. They appreciate silence, the rich quiet that precedes fresh ideas, and enjoy it — rather than disrupting it with hasty reactions to questions or issues.

Let me give you a few  examples. I once worked for a company that was always looking for small ways to improve the flow of work and save money. They had “experts” walking around to “figure out” what instructions they could give here and there across the company. Someone new in leadership came up with the notion that the people who actually DO things every day probably have better ideas than anyone else how to do them better, quicker or more easily. So they put little boxes with pads of “tipsheets” around hallways, elevators, meeting areas labelled TIPS (Thrifty Ideas Produce Savings) and offered small incentives for the TIPS of the month. Just as anticipated, the boxes started filling up with small, helpful ideas that would really make a difference. They had found the source of wisdom about the work.

Here’s another example. 

DominateA consulting firm that was once a client of mine was operated by extremely smart, highly educated people who constantly competed to offer the “best” answers. When they tried to work together to strategize about their own company, it was a nightmare. Everyone wanted to be “right” and “smart” and everyone tried to dominate the meetings. No one listened, at all, to anyone else. To attend their discussions was like listening to a symphony where every section of the orchestra was playing from a totally different score and there was no conductor. One of them said to me early on, with disdain: “Screw wisdom! Wisdom is for hippies and sissies. We’re playing in the big leagues. With the smart people.” Well, that was before they started losing money. Then wisdom began to look a little more appealing. When they finally agreed to a retreat and reluctantly calmed down, they started to realize that their arrogance was coming directly from their own insecurity. (Insecurity drives ego and urgency to prove oneself right.) Things changed quickly. Within a year, everything turned around: They were learning from each other’s experiences, learning from their own work, enjoying their company’s meetings and the shared challenges of looking to the future. One person couldn’t abide the quiet and good will and left the group, but the others found themselves happier and more successful, quietly confident that they were operating from strength, not raw power. 

Does all this mean there’s no reason to be smart or get educated? Of course not. My colleague Bill Pettit often quotes Albert Einstein in this regard, saying, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift; the rational mind its faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Wisdom points to the knowledge we need, guiding us to use our intellect in less personal, more constructive ways. We think in service to the task at hand, not in service to our own self-importance. We paint the big picture, not a self-portrait, when we act and speak. We listen to others from the stance of “not knowing,” rather than thinking our way through others’ talking to come up with something to shoot them down or sound smarter. We are tuned into other’s (and our own) feelings, and nurture warm feelings and security, while overlooking bad feelings and insecurity that will pass if we don’t feed them.

It’s a huge relief to not know, and feel no pressure to have to know. The irony is that as soon as we quiet our minds enough to enter the unknown, all the answers flow into that space, gracefully.












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Enough said

One of the effects of quick and easy electronic communication is that anyone can say anything to thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people with a few quick clicks and a press of the “send” button, without even a moment’s pause. We’ve lost the value of allowing time and space for reflection to frame and produce our comments.

Who asks themselves these questions any more: Do I need to say this? Is this valuable? Is this the best way to say it? Is this what I really want to say? Is this clear and concise? Could this inadvertently bring hurt or harm to someone else? Is this true? Does anyone even care about this? Sometimes it feels like the whole world of interpersonal communications is set to either “knee-jerk” or  “stream of consciousness”  — unedited, unconsidered, unending.

Long before the advent of the internet, when we still wrote our first drafts in longhand and pecked out the final manuscript on a manual typewriter, when we still developed readable penmanship to write and mail letters to friends and family, I was trained as an English major to care deeply about the written and spoken word. Then I was trained as a journalist to know that any sentence that is incorrect or easily misconstrued could destroy my credibility or lead to lawsuit.  So I have always had a predisposition to exercise some care about my words.

Even so, looking back to my life before and after I came to understand the way the human mind works to create reality, I can see a huge change in the frequency, intensity and quality of my communications. Having learned to reflect, I find I have less and less need to say a lot, and I care more and more about what I do say. I find that a sudden urge to write or say a lot, in detail, with fervor, about anything feels symptomatic, rather than important, to me (not that I never do it anyway). By “symptomatic” I mean it lets me know my mind is racing, and I’m losing the capacity to reflect and speak from insight and wisdom, not from habit and reaction. It’s certainly not that I’m especially insightful or wise. We’re all the same. Everyone, abbubblessolutely everyone, on the planet has access to insights and wisdom beyond their habitual thinking. We don’t always take advantage of that access; some people have lost touch with it. But it’s there for us all, always.

We recognize that access by the feeling of a quiet mind. A mind at ease generates responsive ideas that are right for the moment, and nothing more. A mind at ease produces a graceful flow of ideas with plenty of space between, reflective space to allow fresh thoughts to form, like bubbles rising to the surface. A mind at ease listens without thought, taking in what others are saying and allowing it to have its own impact, without rushing to produce an answer. A mind at ease allows small thoughts to pass, unwritten and unsaid, while larger thoughts are rising. A mind at ease is comfortable in silence and clear in communication.

What generates a quiet mind and appreciation for it? We don’t have to do or fix anything to find our own quietude. It is our natural state. We just look to live in a quiet state of mind, to enjoy our lives as they unfold, simply realizing that original, constructive, creative thoughts are the natural gift that is our birthright to thrive and survive. Insight, wisdom and common sense come through us readily when we allow our minds to work in harmony with life, knowing that ideas will arise and create our experience of reality. Once a reality appears, it is. As thoughts flow, each passes, and something else is. A quiet mind does not entertain extraneous thought about the dynamic course of reality. It is.

Enough said.

Why facts don’t matter

Last week among my Facebook and Twitter friends across the U.S., commentary exploded after the Portable and Affordable Health Care Act (detractors call it “Obamacare”) was declared Constitutional and thus the law of the land. Those who were delighted to see that millions of uninsured Americans would be able to get insurance and receive health care cheered and shared their enthusiasm. Those who were devastated to see that millions of uninsured Americans would have no choice but to have  insurance or pay a penalty jeered and shared their dismay. And then they started talking to each other, and the feverish venom began to spew.

Those who love the law have their reasons, based on one set of facts. Those who hate the law have their reasons, based on a different set of facts. Flinging their reasons and facts at each other with ever-increasing force and anger created such hateful exchanges and obscene name-calling that many people just stayed away from the social media discussion for a few days to let things settle.

It was a perfect storm of bad will, complete with torrential rains of hyperbole, crashing waves of distortion and piercing thunderbolts of  moral indignation. It was a perfect example of why disagreements are never resolved with “facts”. Even though I sincerely wish that more people in this debate would actually be able to look at the neutral facts of the case before spouting off about it, I know that in the state of mind my country is in, it wouldn’t change anything. Facts don’t matter.

“Facts don’t matter?!?”, I can hear some people thinking. What do you mean? If information doesn’t matter, what the heck does matter? How can we make progress without information?

It’s a conundrum. When we are fearful and insecure, we cling to familiar thinking and cannot reflect or accommodate anything new. Anything we don’t already think or know does not penetrate the walls we build around our familiar thoughts. When we are at peace and secure, new information is interesting, but the goal is to transcend all current thinking through reflection to arrive at higher common ground. Facts don’t matter in a state of fear and insecurity because anything new is threatening. Facts don’t matter in a state of peace and security because they are simply ideas that pass through our minds on the journey towards ever more evolutionary ideas.

Looking at the state of mind of a whole culture, a whole nation, it isn’t difficult to understand why people find it so difficult to get along. We are living in low mood times, characterized by all the negative feelings and defensiveness associated with insecurity. No one in a position of leadership is addressing the prevailing state of mind. Instead, we are all continually hammered with more facts, more information, more misinformation, more to think about. That is not the cure; it is the symptom of rampant insecurity. It fuels the fires of anguish and hopelessness.

The cure is peace of mind.  Our state of mind matters. Peace of mind matters.

Here’s a brief chat about that.

In the words of Sydney Banks

“The consciousness of humankind must be elevated. Only then, when the spiritual and physical realities are united, will we find the power and intelligence to guide us through life. Wisdom cleans the channels of your mind and brings sanity into your life. You must find it for yourself.”                                                                                  

The Missing Link, p. 134