Saturday, June 2, 2012

Many people are familiar with Plato's allegory of the cave. Men (prisoners) face a cave wall, unable to turn around, with a fire burning behind them. Between the fire and the men is a walkway, along which puppeteers carrying objects pass. All the men know of the world are the shapes and shadows that are cast upon the wall. The shadows constitute the basis of reality for the men. Imagine attempting to discern the world from such a vantage point. How would the words that are selected and the language that is used further define what is real? A shadow of a book is not the same as the book itself. And what would happen if one of the men was to become free, and make his way to daylight? Would he experience madness as he experiences the objects themselves as opposed to their apparitions?

As previous entries have discussed, our use of language determines our reality, evokes emotion, and helps to motivate--or demotivate--us.  Words transport us to different worlds. Words can describe our experiences, but they are not the experiences themselves. The map is not the territory.

Writers take advantage of the fluidity of experience and the worlds that are created by words. How frequently have you read a book and then later viewed a movie based on the book? How often did the movie measure up to the written word? If it did, how did that happen? Was it because the images stayed close to the descriptions in the written word? If it didn't, was it because the images that you formed when you read the book were superior to the adaptation of the movie into film?

In any form of communication, we assume that the listener, reader, or reviewer interprets the message in the manner that we intend. But experience, culture, mood, and the relationship between the communicator and the recipient will cast their own shadows.


Saturday, March 24, 2012


In the last blog entry we talked about habits and how language shapes our behavior as well as our responses to the behavior of others. Today's discussion focuses on patterns of behavior.

Routines can be important parts of our day as well as health maintenance activities (HMA). Do you take a multivitamin regularly? If you do, chances are that you are most consistent in doing so when you follow an established pattern. And you may make it easier to alert yourself to the HMA by establishing cues.

For example, if you routinely brew a cup of coffee each morning, keeping a bottle of vitamins next to the coffee maker is a sure cue for taking your daily vitamin. Have you had the experience of putting  your vitamins in a different location, say, when you ran out and had to buy a new bottle. If, the next morning, you brewed your coffee and there is no vitamin bottle sitting there, you might forget to take one. Cues help to prime the memory pump.

If you put a note pad on the night table by your bed, you will be more apt to jot down creative ideas than if the paper and pen are in a different room. If you use your computer for both creative tasks as well as other activities such as online shopping, reading the daily news headlines, checking sports scores, or listening to music, firing up the computer might provide distractions that keep the creative efforts at bay. The use of cues such as post-it notes, or "to do" lists, can help to maintain focus and creative output.

Pattern interruptions can also help to decrease the likelihood of continuing negative patterns. Take smoking, for example. Although this would take a little effort to set up, the pay off may make it worthwhile. If a person kept cigarettes in one place but a lighter in a far away place (such as a different floor in a house, under the bed, etc.), breaking the chain of having cigarette and lighter together and requiring more effort to engage the habit may decrease the frequency of the behavior.

In many cases, all it takes is one alteration to the routine, plus or minus, to help create a healthy change, whether with HMA's or creative endeavors.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Routines, habits, and patterns

As winter makes its way past (and we all hope that it occurs sooner rather than later), we have a pretty good sense, now, of how the new year is shaping up. Changes related to resolutions that we made may have begun to occur, while some other ambitions fell by the wayside. That tends to happen with behavioral goals. Inertia is easier to support than activity. Someone joked that while hard work may eventually win the day, procrastination has an immediate payoff. It's hard to beat that kind of reinforcement sometimes!

You've probably noticed that our language has a variety of ways of referencing an event or an activity. For example, take doing one thing day in and day out. Is it a habit or routine? Is it a pattern? Or perhaps the same behavior might be associated with a pejorative referent--a rut. Any behavior can be spun to reflect a positive, neutral, or negative tone. And we may then end up reacting to the descriptor that we used rather than to the behavior itself. 

If we listen to someone who goes on and on about a distressing subject, the expression may be characterized as a rant. Ranting and raving are associated with lunatics, and that image is less than supportive. What if the emotional expression was called "venting," instead? Blowing off steam. The boiler analogy is a bit more favorable. Or if we walk away thinking, "he really needed to get that off his chest," well, then there is a whole different connotation involved. It sounds more supportive!

Exercise, fulfillment of creative endeavors, behavior change for health reasons, all of these things and more require initial steps to be taken, reinforced, and supported to continue. Few people would call daily exercise or going one more day without smoking as a rut. Positive routines. Good stuff! 

But what if the new behavior has not yet become engrained, or maybe not even yet initiated. What if the old habits, the inertia, the ruts, are difficult to overcome? Starting with a new sense of perspective might be helpful. What if we called the old habit not a rut, but maybe a drainage ditch? Or, maybe a pothole? Potholes can certainly be more easily overcome than ruts! Or, what if we step aside from the topographical descriptions altogether and consider that perhaps there have been some barriers that have prevented change?

A barrier could be a mountain, in which case we are no better off than when we felt stuck in a rut. But what if the barrier was a sawhorse? Or a gate with a latch that simply needs to be lifted and then the gate freely opens? What if the barrier is a toddler's bicycle on the path? We can deal with that!

Change is assisted by language. Language can help us feel stuck or can help free us. A good place to start is with awareness of our language. Millions of these ideas, images, and thoughts go through our minds, and they take on an automaticity. It's hard to challenge what we can't recognize and sometimes we have to slow things down so we can catch the words that we use. Two strategies come to mind.

First, write things down. This could be stream of consciousness thinking without organization, or it could be more systematic, like a diary or a journal. Or it could be stopping at random points during the day and doing a mental check in...what am I thinking right now? Jot a few thoughts on a memo pad. 

Second, enlist the help of a good listener. Tell him or her what it is that you intend to do, and ask him or her to help catch perceptions that aren't quite so favorable, looking for those key words like rut, raving, crazy, and so on. Words that address the barriers that seem to be out there. Consider asking the person not to help fix the wording, but only to point them out when they arise, as you have asked.

See if there are different emotions that are associated with different words, different descriptors, and different perspectives. They help set the tone for the more healthy behaviors.

Next time: dealing with patterns.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A New Year! On the edge of past and future

Welcome to 2012! It has arrived and already consumed a week of January.

Everyone knows about the phenomenon of new year's resolutions. For many of us, those are the things that we half-heartedly mention in passing but then really don't do anything about. For some others, though, resolutions are serious business.

Why is that, you ask? Human beings find it difficult to live in the moment. Partly that appears to be due to the fact that we have such large and active brains. We seek stimulation, even when we are learning from all the newspaper articles and magazine series and self-help books that it is extremely helpful to be mindful. To let ourselves pay attention to what is, right now.

Chances are that as you have begun to read these words, your mind, without even having been invited, has formed a variety of associations, some of which tickled memories that you may have allowed to unfold, and then those memories became the focus. Or, possibly, your mind moved ahead to the resolutions that you might yet make and how those could work for you, or you might have imagined engaging in one of the tasks that was added to your resolution list.

It seems that as much as we are creatures of habit, as homo sapiens we can be pretty distracted, too. Do you multi-task? Do you find it helpful (or even possible)? Or does doing three things roughly at the same time lead to one or two or maybe all of the tasks either not being completed or completed with reduced efficiency or quality? Chances are, you may multi-task better if you operate from a master list, such as a to do list. That helps to ensure that things that you believed to be important don't fall off the radar. And there is always a sense of accomplishment in checking things off of a list, or, if you feel more bold, scratch right through the words with vigor and triumph!

But...where was I? (Kidding!) Our ability to look back and remember or look ahead and imagine can be great strengths. They can also be obstacles. For example, if you are a creative sort, like a writer or a musician, and you are learning a new piece of music that is difficult, or if you are writing a new short story or novel and you find yourself with a wee bit of writer's block (or, potentially much worse, writer's acre), you might pause, put down your pen or harmonica, and just kind of settle in and think back to times when you leaped creative hurdles and found success. Voila! You are using positive memories and motivation and as part of a road map for what you might do next.

As a writer or musician, you might also pause, reflect, and imagine a point in the near future where you explore and expand the imagery of success. Picturing and feeling yourself getting beyond the present difficulty and into whatever the next step might be. Success!

Conversely, if you are a writer or musician and you find yourself remembering failures or creative endeavors that never found fruition (wouldn't it be nice to locate a town somewhere called Fruition, so periodically you could driver there, and, well, you know), and the result is more like "I can't do this. I'll never be able to do this." Despair. Or you could find yourself imagining the results of not learning the music or writing the story or novel. Nothing you touch will ever find success (another town we might want to look up). Anxiety.

Clearly, looking to the past and imagining the future are double edges on our swords. Being mindful of these pathways may be a first step in guiding creative change.

Next post: Routine, habit, or pattern?