Are Humans by Nature Compassionate or Competitive?

“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.” –Franklin D. Roosevelt

As the parent of an ice hockey player and a lacrosse player, I have often thought about the contrast in behavior between sports and what I normally encourage in my kids.  I have always encouraged them to share, but during the game, parents are yelling for them to “Fight for the puck!”  I have taught my boys to avoid violence, but during the game, it is “Push him out of bounds!” There is a different aspect of our human nature that comes out during sports which I have become curious about.  What is it about competition that changes behavior or are we by nature, competitive?

When I think about competition I think about ‘survival of the fittest.’  Only the best team will make it to the playoffs, so it is important to take down the opponent in order to win.  This led me to Charles Darwin, but I was surprised to learn that Darwin didn’t use that term at all!  In his book The Descent of Man, Darwin argued that sympathy is what leads a species.  Charles Darwin states, “In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”  He noted that sympathy, what we would call compassion or altruism today, is the highest moral virtue.  He predicted that our human evolution will be extending compassion to all people, animals and sentient beings.  He used as examples people who risked their own lives to save people they didn’t know.  Darwin wrote, “Looking at Man, as a Naturalist would at any other mammiferous animal, it may be concluded that he has parental, conjugal and social instincts…these instincts consist of a feeling of love or benevolence to the object in question…such active sympathy that the individual forgets itself, and aids and defends and acts for others at his own expense.” This doesn’t sound like sports at all!

Edward O. Wilson, expanded upon this in his book The Meaning of Human Existence.  Wilson states, “Within groups, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.”  He explained that when we are individually selfish, we try to beat out the competition within our group.  Eventually that weakens the group down to one person who is the ‘winner.’  He compared that to groups who effectively work together.  A group of people who aid and defend each other strengthens the entire group.  When a group of people who are altruists meets a group who is selfish, the group that functions as a team has an advantage.  It does go back to the saying, ‘There is no ‘I’ in team.’  We all need to work together to accomplish our goal.

While I am still working to reconcile the lack of altruism in the competition of sports teams, what I do know is that playing sports is an opportunity for my kids to work together as a team and to see the benefits of cooperation.  When they are encouraging each other on the team and working together they have a much better season.  Perhaps a sports team is a microcosm of our world.  What would happen if we all realized that the entire human race is on the same team?  By separating ourselves into small teams, whether it be by country, political affiliation, race or religion we are like the individuals that weaken a team by acting selfishly.  We are weakening ourselves by separating out and missing the opportunity for altruism towards mankind.  Maybe now is the time for us to evolve into Darwin’s ‘survival of the kindest’ idea.

Making Every Day Thanksgiving Day

“Gratitude is an opener of locked-up blessings.” – Marianne Williamson

I just love Thanksgiving.  It is a holiday focused on gratitude.  It is a day to appreciate the blessings in life and take notice of the abundance that surrounds us.  There is so much that we take for granted.  What would life be like if we lived everyday as a ‘Thanksgiving Day?’  I once heard Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, discuss the importance of gratitude.  He said to imagine the worst toothache pain you ever had.  Feel how uncomfortable it was and remember the intensity of the pain.  Now give thanks, there is no toothache today.  How easily we forget to be grateful for not having toothache pain once it is gone.  There is so much wisdom in his words.

In day to day life we get caught up in the drama, the rushing around, the responsibilities and the busyness that it is easy to forget to be grateful.  We forget that in this moment, we do have enough.  We are alive, so there is enough air to breath, food to digest and energy in our bodies.  Are we grateful for the bed that we slept in, the heat in the house or the food in the refrigerator?  Most of these things we take for granted until they aren’t there.  We take for granted that the lights will turn on when we flick the switch, but it is only when there is a power outage that we remember how grateful we are for the convenience of electricity.

Is it only when we are faced with an illness that we are grateful for our bodies?  When was the last time you were grateful to your heart for beating or your red blood cells for carrying oxygen?  What an amazing miracle our bodies are!  Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”  When we look at the world as though everything is a miracle, there is gratitude in everything.  Thanksgiving does not need to be a once a year holiday.  It can be lived daily.  Thich Nhat Hanh sums up beautifully what living in gratitude can be, “Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”

Are You a Human BEing?

“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”  Henry David Thoreau

Think for a minute about your daily routine.  How often during the day do you feel rushed or overwhelmed?  Is there a long ‘to do’ list that never seems to end?  A typical day for most people is filled from morning to night with activities and commitments.  When we compare our lives to those of our early ancestors, we have many modern conveniences that were intended to make life easier.  Instead of giving us more quiet time to reflect though, we seem to fill it up with more stressors.  We are bombarded with news and busyness without having time to simply relax and be still.  In his Conversations With God books, Neale Donald Walsch discusses how we call ourselves ‘human beings,’ but many of us rarely take time to ‘be’ with ourselves.  Instead, he says, we should be calling ourselves ‘human doings.’

It is difficult for many people to take time to just be.  We tend to equate how productive our day was with how much we got accomplished.  This is not to say that taking action and doing things is not important, but equally important is time to take care of ourselves.  Many of my clients struggle to give themselves quiet time to just be still.  For some, there is a sense of guilt that comes when they ‘waste’ time in meditation or quiet reflection.  For others, there is a fear of being alone with themselves.  The busyness is a distraction from having to face the demons they have avoided.

To become a ‘human being’ we need to find time to be still.  That ‘being’ time may be meditation or quiet reflection.  It may be walking in nature or painting a picture.  It is time to unplug from our busy lives and to reconnect with our essence.  Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  When we detach from doingness, we connect to beingness.  If it is difficult to take time to be, this is an area to be explored.  Is it a priority?  If it is something that is being avoided, where does the guilt or fear come from?  Seek support to explore this if necessary.  Instead of avoiding that shadow, face it and go into it.   How would your life change if you took time to truly be a human BEing?

The Problem with Labels Part 2

“Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.” –Thich Nhat Hanh

Last week I introduced the first part of the problem with labels, that by giving something a label it automatically becomes separate.   Noticing that something is separate is not a problem, but when we lose sight of the interconnectedness of everything on this planet it becomes a problem.  When we forget the fact that we are interdependent on others and our environment, we make choices that don’t sustain us.  We get so caught up in the labels of separation that we forget we are more than labels.

So, this brings us to the second problem, who are we without the labels?  During sessions with clients I will sometimes ask them to imagine a basket with their name on.  We then visualize taking all of the labels off themselves and placing them into the basket.  We list the labels one by one as they are removed.  When they have taken off the labels I ask them what is left?  Almost every client tells me that there is nothing left.  They don’t know who they are without the labels.

This is the void that I feel many people have in life.  They have forgotten who they are at the core.  Our authentic self is the pure essence of our being, but it is covered over with so many labels that we forget.  To help some of my clients get to know who is under the labels, I ask them to visualize themselves as a newborn baby.  They don’t yet have language to describe the world, so all they can do is feel who they are. I discuss the senses that they begin to feel.  It may be comfort or love, it could also be hunger.   Without language to label these things it is just an experience.  I then ask them to keep those senses aware as they begin to visualize growing up.  Without putting labels on themselves I ask them to remember when they felt the most alive.  We discuss what that aliveness is for them, when they felt connected to something or someone.  Under all of the labels we have for ourselves, there is an awareness that remains.  It may feel like love, peace, or light.

Getting reconnected with our essence, our authentic self, is what I believe we are all meant to experience during our brief time on this planet.  Some people find that connection in meditation, prayer, nature or in loving a pet.  We can only find it when we remove the labels and judgements for a moment and become fully present with who we truly are.  That sense of aliveness, love or light is who we are without the labels.  We see the world and our connection to it when we take off the labels and become fully present.  What would your world look like if you took some time every day to remove the labels?


The Problem with Labels: Part 1

“You look beyond the veil of form and separation. This is the realization of oneness. This is love.” –Eckhart Tolle

Who are you?  It is a simple question that we often ask without much thought.  We usually answer the question with a list of labels.  I’m a mother, daughter, sister, counselor, or Pennsylvanian.   We use labels to describe our physical characteristics, economic status, and aspects of our personality.  All of these labels help us to categorize and define ourselves.  Our brains love order and predictability.  The labels provide neat boxes for the brain to store information.  This in and of itself is not a bad thing, but there are two issues with using labels to describe ourselves.  The first issue is separation, which will be explored here.  The second issue, which is the difficulty in removing labels, will be discussed next week.

When we label something, it is defined as separate from all other things that do not share the same label.  From the time we are young, we are taught to label everything in our world.  A child beginning to speak will start with labels for objects; ball, banana, mom, or dad.   Having a label automatically defines it as a separate object.  Once we have a label for something we can objectify it.  The bird is separate from the tree, the drumstick is separate from the drum and you are separate from me.  Labeling things as separate is not a problem, but it becomes a problem when we fail to remember how interconnected everything really is.  What happens if we separate a plant from water or sunlight?  The plant can’t survive without either, so is the plant really a separate object?  What happened to the water or sunlight when it was absorbed into the plant?  Do we still consider the water separate when it is in the plant?  Under a microscope, we can still see the water molecules, but we don’t usually refer to a plant as water.  We as people are dependent on plants for food.  People could not live without plants, so are we separate?  By utilizing labels, we put nice borders around things, but when we really begin to think about it, we are all very interconnected and dependent on each other and the environment in order to survive.  Labels, and the separation that comes with the labels, blinds us to the interconnectedness that we experience here on Earth.   We are truly an interdependent part of a larger system.  We don’t think much about the system, because generally we see ourselves as separate from the system.  It is an illusion that has led us to make some damaging choices.

The next time you look at a person, become aware of the labels that come to mind.  Which ones are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad?’  Notice how the judgement of the label creates a sense of togetherness or separation.    When it is separation, are there connections that can be made?

Next week I will explore what happens when we begin removing the labels.

Does Your Life Reflect Your Values?

“When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.” –Roy E. Disney

It is easy to say that something matters to us, but when we objectively look at our day, does the way we spend our time reflect what we say we value?  There are many that say exercise or self-care is important, but is it the first thing that gets cut out of our busy schedule?  If our family is important, are we spending quality time talking with our children- without distractions?  With all of the phones and technology it is easy to spend time together without ever making eye contact.  Our devices are great tools, but we also need the balance of having real conversation, with time spent both talking and listening to each other.  Research has shown time and again that it is the quality of the time that we spend with each other, which is more important than the quantity of time.  Is adequate time spent on activities that promote family togetherness, if that is a value?

One of the things that I notice is that many people are not clear on what their values are.  It is hard to say we are in alignment with our values when we are not even sure what it is that we value.  Take some time to make a list of just two or three values that are the most important, then begin to notice throughout the day which activities are in alignment with those values and which are not.  Is there balance?  What is one thing you can do today that is in alignment with your values?  What would your life look like if you spent just a few minutes each day doing that activity?  In the busyness of our world it is easy to lose sight of what we value.  Getting clear on what our values are and living from those values has the power to change the way we live.  Are you ready?

Maybe Yes, Maybe No

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.”  John Maxwell

We think we know what we want.  We have our sights set on a goal and we know what needs to happen to make it.  Unfortunately, life doesn’t always cooperate with our plans.  Instead of success, we experience ‘failure.’  These so called ‘failures’ are often anything but a failure.  I recently heard an old story which puts this into perspective.

There was once a poor peasant who lived in China with his son.  Their most prized possession was their horse.   One day the boy left the gate open and the horse ran away.  Everyone from the village told the man how terrible it was that his horse escaped.  The man simply responded, ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’  Two days later the horse returned and there were six wild horses who followed him.  The villagers all exclaimed how wonderful it was that the horse returned.  The man again responded, ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’  Several days later the boy was taming one of the wild horses and he was thrown off, injuring his leg.  The villagers told the man how terrible it was.  Again, the man responded, ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’  Several days later the Emperor’s army came through their village, taking all the young men to fight in the war.  Because the boy was injured he was not taken.  The villagers returned to tell him how wonderful it was that his boy was spared, to which the man responded, ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’

This story is a wonderful illustration of letting go of attachment to an outcome.  The wise man knew that what looked like a ‘failure’ could turn out to be a blessing and what appeared to be just what he wanted, could in fact turn out to be trouble.

Life is filled with ups and downs, blessings and disasters.  While it is important to set goals and take action, sometimes life has other plans.  Going with what is and letting go of our attachment to how life is supposed to be, is a blessing.  Is this experience what you wanted? Maybe yes, maybe no….

Where is Happiness?

“We search for happiness everywhere, but we are like Tolstoy’s fabled beggar who spent his life sitting on a pot of gold, under him the whole time. Your treasure–your perfection–is within you already. But to claim it, you must leave the buy commotion of the mind and abandon the desires of the ego and enter into the silence of the heart.” — Elizabeth Gilbert

One of the comments I hear repeatedly in sessions is that people just want to be happy.  While it seems like a simple request it is elusive for many.  Why is happiness so hard to find?  I believe that people aren’t looking in the right place.  They spend their time searching for something to bring them happiness.  Our media has sold us on the belief that we need their product in order to be happy.  We can only smile when we have a Coke in our hand or when we are eating a Big Mac.  Contrary to what most people believe, getting the perfect job, finding a soulmate, or moving into the dream house are not things that will bring happiness.  There are plenty of people who have those things and are still miserable. 

Happiness is something that we all have.  If you are able to bring happiness and joy to others it is because you have it within you.  We can only give what we already have.  The problem is that we are often good at giving happiness, but are blocked to receiving it.  It is like we are only ever able to exhale without being able to inhale.  It just doesn’t work.  What we need is to be able to complete the circuit.  We need to open ourselves up to receive the joy and experience the happiness that is already ours.  Happiness is our default programming, our natural state of being.  Our thoughts, worries and ruminations are like a wedge that is driven down, cutting off the return flow of happiness.  As long as we are stuck in our head we are not able to feel our natural happiness.   When we take time for ourselves, when we slow down and enjoy the smell of the flowers or look in awe at the night sky, we open up the flow.  We can also become curious about what the blocks in our lives are.  Working to understand and push through the pain of the blocks allows them to dissolve and returns us to the natural state of happiness and joy that is our birthright.  Are you ready to look at the blocks to happiness and open up to joy?

Where is your baseline?

“If you don’t change your beliefs, your life will be like this forever. Is that good news?” –W. Somerset Maugham

We all have our own way of being in this world.  Some people are optimistic and ‘happy go lucky,’ while others are pessimistic and constantly waiting for the next stroke of bad luck to hit.  We all fall somewhere on that continuum and that is our baseline experience of the world.  It is our default internal programming that keeps us stable in life.   When we are on our baseline, life feels ‘normal’ or routine.  When events happen, they sometimes throw us off our baseline.  We can tell when things are off.  We either have a feeling of being down, below our baseline, or things are going well and we are above our baseline.  Resiliency is often discussed as being able to get back to ‘normal,’ or baseline after an event occurs.

While getting back to baseline is comfortable, this doesn’t always serve us.  I often use an example of someone who has been living in poverty their whole life and they suddenly win the lottery or inherit a fortune.  Many times, these people spend the money in excess and find themselves right back at their poverty baseline.  It doesn’t have to be that way though.  If they are able to raise their baseline and see themselves as a wealthy individual who respects the money they have, they can budget and invest to remain wealthy.

In order to raise our baseline, we need to see ourselves differently.  This comes from doing the work of self-compassion and forgiveness.  It comes from questioning our beliefs about who we are and what we want in our lives.  Working in the addictions field, I frequently see people who start doing well once they get clean.  For a period of time, things seem to be improving and changing.  Then suddenly something happens which causes them to relapse.  While they tell me that they have bad luck, what I often see is self-sabotaging behaviors.  Their baseline beliefs about who they are have not caught up with the changes that are happening in their lives.  They often feel unworthy of good things happening, or feel that they need to be punished for choices they made.  While intellectually they want the good, their underlying beliefs are stuck on seeing themselves as ‘broken’ or ‘dirty’ because of what they did.  Their baseline beliefs are still low, so their behaviors bring them right back to baseline.

In order to grow, our baseline beliefs about ourselves need to change.  When we go through a difficult period, many people emerge stronger than before.  This is referred to as post-traumatic growth.  The baseline of how they see themselves shifts during the low point and they have more confidence and awareness once they get through.  When we go through joyful times our baseline can raise as well.  Knowing that we are deserving of the good and worthy of the blessings allows our baseline to float up and become our new normal.  The key to growth is recognizing our baseline and questioning the beliefs that hold the baseline down.  What are your baseline beliefs?

The difference between ‘why’ and ‘what’

“”Why?” is the most useless question in the universe. The only question with any meaning is “What?” Asking “Why is this happening?” can only disempower you. Asking “What do I want to make of this?” does exactly the opposite. Here is a great secret: the Why of anything is to produce the What of everything.” — Neale Donald Walsch

One of the favorite questions of every curious child is ‘why?’  When my son was going through the ‘why?’ stage I remember how frustrating it was to come up with answers to some of his questions.  While some answers were easy to explain, really thinking about why things happen is often baffling.  There are times when asking ‘why’ can be helpful.  There are cause/effect relationships.  By understanding how two objects or events are interrelated we can learn and grow.  Once we learn why, we can make predictions and better control our environment.  The problem is, many questions in life do not have a satisfying answer to ‘why.’

When we begin to ask questions like; ‘Why do some people have lives filled with suffering and hardship while others have it easy?’ or ‘Why do some people die so young?’ or ‘Why doesn’t God bring peace to our planet?’ or even ‘Why didn’t I get the dream job I was applying for?’ there are no simple explanations for ‘why?’  These are the big life questions that defy simple answers to ‘why?’  When people get stuck in the ‘why’ questions it becomes disempowering.  It begins to feel like we are the victim of life and are powerless to control everything.  Then the big question becomes, ‘Why even try?’

There is another question that is more powerful.  Instead of focusing on why, instead ask, ‘What do I want to make of this?’  The shift from ‘Why is this happening?’ to ‘What can I do about it?’ creates a different energy in the question.  ‘Why’ is passive, ‘What’ is active.  When we ask what we want to make of a situation, we have a choice.  We have the power to define how we handle every situation.  Asking ‘what’ instead of ‘why’ takes no more effort, but it can create different results.  What will you do with this information?