Bertie gets ticked off…

On the far away eastern coast of a vast continent, and not far from a small abandoned village situated alongside a rough-looking beach, there lived a small-for-his-age rhino named Bertie. 

Although Bertie was now in his middle years, (rhinos live until their mid-50’s),  because of his smallish size, he was often mistaken for being younger than he actually was. For this reason, the other creatures he encountered around the beach would speak to Bertie as if he were a child. They would freely interrupt him, correct him and sometimes shake their heads and tell Bertie that he was wrong, mistaken or just naive.

This made Bertie very upset. Why couldn’t they just listen to him without having to make him wrong? What made them think that they knew everything, anyway?

Bertie’s encounters with the other creatures always ended poorly. In his preteen years, he had gotten into really dreadful physical fights that looked terrifying.

As Bertie entered his 20’s and 30’s, he continued to have difficult encounters with the other creatures that ended in angry conflict.  However, instead of the scary physical fighting of his younger years, Bertie would shoot them an angry look and lower his head with its diminutive horn in what he hoped was an aggressive manner, and he spat out hurtful words at them, intended to make the other creatures back off.

Over the last year or so, Bertie had simply been abruptly leaving interactions with the other creatures as soon as they started expressing opinions different than his own. Bertie would become intensely silent, squint his little eyes tightly and just shut down. But inside, he burned with a fiery rage, feeling like he might explode. It didn’t help that Bertie’s hide was infested with ticks, (a common condition for rhinos), which made him feel very uncomfortable. With his hide in this condition, it didn’t take much to make Bertie angry.

Over the past month, Bertie had stopped interacting with the other creatures altogether. It was too predictable and painful to realize that other creatures had their own opinions and attitudes and they weren’t going to listen to him. Better to just be alone, thought Bertie.

Rhinos, as a whole, don’t spend time with other rhinos. Bertie had never had any rhinos friends with whom he could talk, and for that reason, he had been feeling very lonely. Lonely, isolated, misunderstood and not listened to by the other creatures. He felt miserable inside, and because of the ticks, outside, as well.

One day, as Bertie was plodding along in his clumsy and deliberate way along the beach, snuffing around for some vegetation, a Tickbird suddenly swooped down and landed on Bertie’s back. This startled Bertie. He jerked around in an awkward bucking-like way, sand from the beach splaying everywhere. The bird remained gracefully atop Bertie’s back during all these gyrations, emitting a tuneful whistle and a churring sound at some of the stronger twists and kicks of the rhino beneath him. After a short time, Bertie felt tired from all the jumping and kicking, and he came to a stop.

Bertie’s eyesight was quite poor, something that all rhinos have in common. The Tickbird stood on Bertie’s back, whistling and churring. Bertie twisted his smaller-than-average neck around, but he  couldn’t get even a fuzzy look at his unexpected visitor. The Tickbird continued whistling as it busily strutted back and forth on Bertie’s back.

Bertie’s mind suddenly started filling with dark and angry thoughts. How dare this creature walk all over me? How disrespectful other creatures are! Bertie stood trembling and tense, (still huffing and puffing a little), aware of the anger building up within him.

Just as he was getting ready to erupt with anger, Bertie suddenly felt a gentle pecking and plucking sensation on his back. The Tickbird, munching on a tick from Bertie’s hide started talking with his beak full, garbling out an enthusiastic appreciation for the tick dinner he was enjoying. The Tickbird’s voice was so cheerful and lighthearted.

Bertie paused for a moment. What was going on here? This was the first time he could recall another creature speaking in a positive, appreciative and lighthearted way.

The Tickbird introduced himself as ‘Ox’,  short for Oxpecker. Bertie, who had always been a little embarrassed by his nickname, told Ox that his full name was Bertrand, but that Ox could call him Bertie, as that was what everyone else had called him. Ox sang out that Bertrand was a splendid name, and began whistling and churring “Bertrand, Bertrand,” over and over again in such a cheerful manner. Bertie felt an involuntary small smile begin to form on his lips.

The sun was starting to go down. Bertie trudged through the rough, sandy beach towards the shelter of some trees near the abandoned village to settle down for the night. Perched on Bertie’s back, Ox kept chattering away, telling Bertie colorful stories about all the places and experiences Ox had experienced during his travels.

Bertie, half-listening to Ox, could feel the tenseness leaving his body and he noticed that the dark and difficult thoughts from earlier were drifting away, too. Bertie yawned and awkwardly plopped down on the ground while Ox continued from one story to the next.

Shortly, (Bertie was not sure if he was half-awake or half-asleep), he could hear Ox telling a story about rhinos who lived in floodplains and grasslands, and yet others who lived in swamps and rainforests, but Ox had never heard of rhinos that lived on beaches. Bertie fell asleep, snoring gently.

As Bertie slumbered, he had a dream. In the dream, Bertie was living in grasslands that stretched as far as you could see. (Of course, that wouldn’t be very far for Bertie with his poor vision! Bertie nearly woke himself up laughing at his little joke). On the grasslands, the sun shone down, intensely hot, but not unpleasantly so.

On the grasslands, there were none of the other creatures from the beach, there were just other rhinos, like him. Bertie tried talking with one of the rhinos, who was quite young, and yet quite large, too. The young rhino started to disagree with Bertie about whatever they were talking about. Bertie expected to become angry, but for some reason, he didn’t.

In the dream, Bertie dimly began to realize that everyone has a different view of the world. If everyone has a different view of the world, then of course they are going to disagree with others. They literally see things differently. Everyone grows up with different thoughts, beliefs and attitudes. Everyone has unique experiences. They grow up accepting ideas about what is possible or not possible for them, based on the opinions of others who seemed to know what they are talking about.

All this time, Bertie had thought that others were disagreeing with him to provoke him when what was really happening was that others were seeing the world differently from Bertie and everyone else. Bertie realized that the thoughts, feelings and opinions of others belonged to them, and not to him. He didn’t have to react to or become defensive toward something that didn’t belong to him! How freeing this was! Still deep in his dream, Bertie felt this new understanding spreading to every fiber of his being. 

When Bertie awoke, the sun was just starting to rise over the distant edge of the ocean. Ox was still asleep on Bertie’s back, his belly full of ticks. The morning was cool. Bertie realized that his thick hide felt so much better now that many of the ticks had been removed. Bertie made himself laugh, “I don’t have to painfully hide anymore!”

Bert realized that he had been ticked for a long, long time. He recalled his dream, and he knew deep down that he wouldn’t be surprised anymore that the other creatures didn’t see things the same way he did. He actually looked forward to his interactions with the other creatures, knowing that what the other creatures thought of Bertie didn’t define Bertie at all. Their opinions and negative comments belonged to them, not to Bertie.

All Bertie had to do was remember that he could just let the other creatures be the way they were, because that’s how they were anyway! That felt so good. What a relief! He didn’t have to take on or push back against what they were thinking or saying, because all of that belonged to them, and not him.

Just then, Bertie realized that something was arising within him that he hadn’t felt in a long, long time: a quiet peace and joy. Shortly, Ox woke up, stretched and started chattering in his cheerful way. A new day had begun.

Prescription for Inner Peace

Rx:  For You                            Date: Today

Directions: Take in this thought in for 5 minutes, three times a day

“Today, I allow myself to slow down to the speed of life. Breathing in, I contact the present moment. Breathing out, I relax my mind and body. I begin to see the value of living my life in this present moment, instead of speeding up my mind with thoughts and images about the future or clogging it up with thoughts and memories from the past.”

What happens when I am actually living in my life as it is happening rather than thinking about my life from the past or in the future?

Act As If…

In the early 1900’s, the German philosopher Hans Vaihinger wrote, Die Philosophie des als Ob, or The Philosophy of As-If. He proposed that people can never really know the reality of things and therefore they create systems of thought and then act as if those thoughts match reality.

Vaihinger pointed to the study of science at the time and observed that no one had seen protons, electrons or electromagnetic waves, but scientists pretended as if they existed, and in doing so, they were able to create newer, higher order assumptions about the underlying reality of the world.

In the years that followed, psychologists such as George Kelly, Alfred Adler, Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow (Positive Psychology) and the developer of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) Albert Ellis,  as well as Aaron Beck who developed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), all continued, in part, using this principle of as-if in developing psychological theories aimed at helping people function more fully.

Most of us navigate through our daily life using an as-if philosophy of some kind, even if we are unaware of it. We make assumptions about the world around us. When I leave the house in the morning, I act as if I am going to arrive at my office, work with patients, go home, have dinner and spend some time with my wife.

According to the United Nations World Population Prospectus report, about 151,600 people die each day in the world. Each day. Wow. Each day, 150,000+ people don’t go about the routine activities of their daily life, because for them, life is over.

The ancient Stoic philosophers are reported to have had a daily reflection practice of ‘momento mori,’ translated, ‘remember death.’ By remembering we are mortal, we become aware of the preciousness of being alive. We can begin to see the actionable wisdom in Marcus Aurelius’ exhortation,”Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” It is interesting to me that he didn’t say feel good, or think good. He said, be good. Act as if you were good.

We may start to see the value of acting as-if this might be our last day, (it’s hard to argue with the data of the World Population Prospectus report). In doing so, we give ourselves the gift of contacting the present moment, of being aware of being alive in the only moment there is…this moment. We might give ourselves over to the possibility of living a vital and engaged life right now, not at some point in the future when all the stars align and all our problems are resolved. We might begin a practice of rising in the morning and realize, “I’m still alive!” and this realization can rejuvenate us. We stop waiting and start living. We are able to say ‘yes’ to what matters and ‘no’ to what doesn’t.  In the words of the German poet Christian Furchtegott Gellert, “Live as you will wish to have lived when you are dying.”

William James, the father of American psychology, said, “If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.” This, too, is a helpful idea. William James, it might be noted, comes from the other direction. Rather than creating a system of thought (beliefs, attitudes, etc.) to act upon, he says start acting as if you have a quality and you’ll develop it and have it as part of who you are. Action first, feeling second. Embracing this idea, we can reflect on our life as it is right now and consider in what direction we want to grow. We may notice people who exhibit a quality we admire, something that has some resonance for us. We might experiment with modeling their behavior, acting as if  we had that quality, and notice what happens next.

William James went on to say, “Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind. By regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.” In other words, the more I continue to act as if I have a quality, the more I start to have the feeling of it. I can cultivate courage in myself by acting as if I were already courageous. What would that look like? How would I be behaving? I could become more peaceful and calm by acting as if I were an unperturbed person. What behaviors might other people see me doing? Instead of trying to make myself feel a certain way, I act in a certain way, which in turn ‘alters the attitudes of the mind.’

Most everyone has heard, “Fake it ’til you make it.” This is an aphorism that expresses the same principle. Unfortunately, many people associate ‘fake’ with being inauthentic. Nobody wants to be more inauthentic than they already are! Same with ‘pretending to…’ We don’t want to be perceived of as being inauthentic, or worse, a fool by pretending our way through something. We may get caught up with insecure thinking that we are putting on airs, or coming across as a wannabe. We hear ‘fake it ’til you make it,’ and we immediately move in the other direction, and in doing so, stay stuck. Maybe looking at what the aphorisms are pointing to, examing the underlying intent, is worth consideration.

After I graduated medical school and started my residency training in a hospital setting, I would hear, “Doctor…can I ask you something?” I would look around until I realized the person was actually addressing me. Like many people, it took awhile for me to integrate an expanded identity. I would catch myself occasionally glancing down at my name embroidered on my long white doctor coat and see my name followed by MD, and I’d feel sort of disoriented. Yes, I had worked long and hard to learn and put into action the health promoting principles of being a doctor, so why did it feel not quite real? Through time, (and many overnight calls), the more I acted like a doctor, the more comfortable I became with the feeling and experience of being a doctor. As you might guess, I still look to the doctors I admire and continue the daily work of cultivating the qualities they possess by acting as if I already had those qualities.

How about you? Is there a yearning within you to be more, or do more? Do you spend time worrying if you are good enough? Are you waiting for things to get better? If we were able to wave a magic wand and all of the things you consider to be a problem in your life vanished, how would you be living your life? What kind of actions would you be taking? How would you be relating to other people and situations? What kind of person would you be?

Let’s join with the philosophers and psychologists throughout the ages who encouraged us to act as-if you already had the life you really wanted.

Starting today, act as if you matter. Get up in the morning and act as if you are, in the words of Marcus Aurelius, good. Bring yourself back into the present moment as often as you can today, and every day you wake up alive, and act as if you were committed to living each and every moment of this one precious life you have.

Here’s an interesting science based example of the Act As If principle from Harvard’s Amy Cuddy:

What do you think about this Act As If principle? Have you ever had the experience of not knowing how to do something, but acted as if you could, and you did? Have you ever acted as if you were strong, even when you felt maybe a little shaky inside? What happened? What more might be possible for you if you decided to act as-if?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below! Act as if you might inspire someone with your example!

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Which Way Are You Going?

In the rapid pace of life, full of obligations and responsibilities, too often it is possible to get to the end of the day and wonder if there was any real forward progress towards the things that matter in our lives.

In those brief moments when we get a chance to reflect on our life and on what truly matters to us, we might hurriedly make a few desperate whispered promises to ourselves to start doing those things that we know we want to do, but never quite seem to get started on. We sigh. Then we get into bed, go to sleep, and wake up, only to press the repeat button again the following morning. Busy, active, productive, making a difference…you bet. Then arrive home, have some dinner, watch some news and try to shrug off that nagging feeling that we’re doing it again…we didn’t take action on those things that have value, meaning and purpose outside of the obligations and responsibilities we have agreed to.

Each day in my office, I meet patients who are seemingly unaware of the incredible resilience they have demonstrated in the face of great challenges. They somehow keep finding a way to keep going during such rough times. They are full of anxiety, stress or depression. Together, we talk and listen to each other and get more clarity about where they want to be going with their life, get clearer on what they want to stand for and be about during this relatively brief life they have on the planet. We talk about possible first steps, small experiments, having some willingness to take action. I see some hope in their eyes and body language, perhaps some optimism. I quietly reflect that everything we talked about applies to me as well as them, and in that way, we have something in common called the human condition.

It can be a such a surprise when we begin to see that how we are feeling at any given moment and what actions we are able to take in the present moment are really two very different things. We’ve grown up in a world where everyone agrees that if I could feel more motivated, I could start doing those actions which are in alignment with my freely chosen values. If I just felt better about myself, I could start getting out and making some friends or take some risks to start doing something that really matters to me. However, waiting for the right thought or feeling could take a long, long time. It often does, primarily because we keep struggling against those unhelpful and at times painful thoughts and feelings and in doing so, we keep them in place.

When we begin to see for ourselves that we have far more control over what actions we take (our behavior) in any given moment than we have control over what thoughts and feelings arise from moment to moment. We start to realize the futility of waiting to feel more confident, stronger, calmer or whatever feeling we think we need to feel before we are able to get into action to bring to life the values we hold as important. We wake up to the nonstop delivery of old, worn out limited thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, perceptions that we have carried around our whole life, narrative and stories that are not facts, but sure seem like it when we are caught up in them.

We can innocently and unwittingly spend a great deal of time and effort each day trying to control our feelings, trying to not have the experience we are obviously having. We start taking all kinds of action to get rid of anxiety or depression or insecurity or self-doubt. For some people, this will come in the form of distraction, the endless scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. For others, the next episode of a Netflix series is already in the process of cueing up and, oh well, might as well see what happens. Still others may try to get rid of their difficult thoughts and feelings by drinking alcohol, smoking some weed or taking some pills, as well as engaging in the endless, countless other ways that humans do to try to not feel the way they do.

It would be wonderful if taking those kind of actions actually worked, and we permanently got rid of those difficult thoughts and feelings. However, for most people, the realization that they may have gotten some very brief respite from aversive feelings, (by viewing an infinite array of curated images of everybody else having a wonderful life on Facebook or Instagram, or getting buzzed, or staring mindlessly at the TV),  is followed by another deep dive into the very thing they were trying to get rid of: difficult thoughts and feelings. Except now it’s worse, because the realization that they are not living the life they want for themselves is pulling them down deeper into the vortex. 

Doing things that take us in the direction away from the life we want to live will never take us toward the life we really want. The good news is that none of that moving away behavior is all that wrong or bad, but it does come at the cost of not taking action on those things that do matter to us, independent of how we are feeling in the moment. Each moment offers the opportunity to choose again. The past is over, the future is not yet here. We only have this very moment, every moment of our life.

In this present moment, what can I do (regardless of how I am feeling) that would be in the direction of bringing to life those values I hold as important, independent of the good opinion of other people? What is the function of this behavior I am doing? Is it helping me move in the direction of the life I really want, or is taking me farther away?

What kind of person do you want to be? What really matters to you? Who matters to you? Are the actions you are doing right now in service of what matters most to you, or is your present moment behavior an attempt to get away from difficult thoughts and feelings? Every moment of every day, we are at the crossroads of moving towards or away from living the life we really want for ourselves. Which way are you going?

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