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The best non-fiction book I read this year

I didn’t like the title or the cover. Heading into chapter two, I was still unsure if I had made a good choice.

But since it was mentioned in another excellent book, I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did.

It’s Mindsight, by Daniel J. Siegel, MD, and it’s one of those rare books that can truly teach you how to change your life.

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A powerful combination

The author is a psychiatrist who has written several books about the brain. In Mindsight, he weaves together neurobiology with psychotherapy to help us understand the physical underpinnings of our behavior. Here’s his definition:

“Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds. It helps us to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them…”

It sounds a lot like mindfulness taught by Buddhists and others for thousands of years. But what the author does beautifully is relate those concepts to the underlying mechanisms in the brain. His personal stories and those of his patients, sometimes funny and sometimes heart-wrenching, reveal how the lack of mindsight can harm us. Then, importantly, he shows how we can “focus the mind to change the brain,” and alter how we relate to the world and people in it.

“By developing the ability to focus our attention on our internal world, we can resculpt our neural pathways, stimulating the growth of areas of the brain that are crucial to mental health.”

There are many good books on mindfulness and psychotherapy and on the recently-discovered plasticity of the brain. Mindsight ties the ideas together in such a way that you can apply them to your own life.

I hope you enjoy it – and find it as useful – as much as I did.

The most difficult push-up ever

The most difficult push-up isn’t doing it one-handed or with weights on your back or anything like that.

For me, at least, the most difficult push-up is the first one. And understanding that first push-up is teaching me an important lesson about developing and maintaining a habit.

Let me explain.

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I always thought doing push-ups was a great exercise conceptually. They don’t take much time, and they can help you look and feel a bit better. Once in a great while, in a phase of exercise exuberance (“This time. I’m going to get really fit!”), I would do a few. But I never kept it up.

So after working on a wide range of other habits from eating to writing to learning piano, I figured I would attempt doing push-ups again. I even put them on my progress chart. (That’s where I track all sorts of behaviors – things I want to do more or less of – so I’m more mindful of them.)

But push-ups? I went over 100 days without a single one. Every day I would look at that progress chart and stare at a row of blank space, day after day, week after week, month after month. Every day I would think, “I really should do push-ups.”

So what was the problem? I discovered the answer when I came across this Life Pro Tip on reddit.com:

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The advice is a variation of what I tell other people all the time: “Shrink the change.” (I even use an exercise metaphor – “touch the treadmill.”) I just needed to take my own advice.

The idea is that, when you’re facing resistance related to a particular goal, you shrink that goal until you take the fear out of it and actually do it. Then let the power of the progress principle start to work for you.

When I used to think of push-ups, I would conjure up all sorts of negative thoughts: the discomfort of the last and most difficult one, perhaps, or how I wasn’t in as good a physical condition as I would like.

The Life Pro Tip helped me shrink the change and bypass those thoughts. “Just 15! I could do that!”

The next day, I picked a specific time (right before shaving) and, without thinking too much about it, I got on the floor and did something I hadn’t been able to do for many months. That first day, I was able to do 20 push-ups. I was pleasantly surprised, and I took great pleasure in ticking the box on my progress chart.

Yesterday, I did 43 push-ups. But I still think of 15 as my goal. Because the first one is still the hardest for me. If and when the habit becomes more deeply-ingrained, I won’t have to think about it so much, and I may set a different target.

What about you? What goal have you been resisting? How could you shrink the change so you could “do your first push-up” and start making progress towards something you care about?

“The homeless problem”

I live in New York City, and “the homeless problem” is a phrase I’ve heard a lot in my life. When I was growing up, you could pass the homeless practically anywhere throughout your day. As the city experienced a kind of renaissance, it seemed they almost disappeared. Now it’s a problem again.

When you think about “the homeless problem,” what comes to mind?

A short experiment

Here’s a thought exercise to make it a bit more real. Imagine you’re walking in a beautiful park in your neighborhood early one morning. The sun is out. The grass is bright green and freshly cut. There are neatly landscaped areas full of flowers. You’re happy just to be walking in such a nice place.

Then you notice someone sleeping on the lawn. You’ve seen that person before, in the same brown sweatshirt and pants. You notice another person you’ve seen before too, laying their head on overstuffed bags. You realize they’re homeless, and they’ve slept overnight in the park.

What are you feeling? What are your next thoughts?

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My walk in the park

This is more than a mental exercise for me. It’s something I do almost every morning as I take a walk around Battery Park City.

My own, almost instinctive reaction is irritation, as if their presence and unfortunate circumstances are ruining my view. (“They shouldn’t be here. They should be in a shelter or something.”) Though the park is public, these particular people are somehow infringing on my space.

Other feelings include disgust (“She wears those same clothes every day!”) and powerlessness (“I wish there was a better system.”) and even shame (“I’ve never done anything to help.”)

Every day that I walk by the park and feel those feelings, I am disappointed in myself.

When the homeless problem comes up in conversation with friends, the most common reaction is to blame our mayor. Certainly, we see more homeless people on the streets than we did under the previous mayor. One of us may say something about how “the shelters should be better.” But the truth is I have no idea about the state of the shelters. Nor do I know about this mayor’s policies or how they might affect those who are homeless.

In fact, it usually doesn’t feel like we’re talking about people at all. It’s more like the sanitation department’s budget has been cut and we’re upset the streets aren’t as clean as they used to be. We’re looking for someone to blame.

A starting point

Recently, I read something that might help me change my habits and give me a way out of my daily discomfort and disappointment.

In Taking the Leap, Pema Chödrön writes about how our desire to avoid certain feelings can lead us to shut down, and how in shielding ourselves we lose the chance to be open to new possibilities, to grow. One of the examples she used was particularly familiar.

“There are panhandlers that we rush by because their predicament makes us uncomfortable…

Our usual process is…an internal conversation about how another person is the source of our discomfort…all because we don’t want to go near the unpleasantness of what we’re feeling. This is a very ancient habit. It’s allows our natural warmth to be so obscured that people like you and me who have the capacity for empathy and understanding that we can harm each other. When we hate those who activate our fears or insecurities, those who bring up unwanted feelings, and see them as the sole cause of our discomfort, then we dehumanize them, belittle them, and abuse them.”

That’s how a person I’m walking by isn’t a person, but a problem.

In Comfortable with Uncertainty, she writes that a place to start is to practice developing compassion. Not to feel sorry for someone, but simply at first to pause. To recognize their suffering. To let yourself feel what you’re feeling and be open to what they might be feeling. To acknowledge just how easily your positions might have been reversed. Compassion is “a relationship between equals…Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

You start by being mindful of your almost instinctive urge to shut down.

“Right at this point we can recognize that we are closing, allow a gap, and leave room for change to happen…It can become daily practice to humanize the people that we pass on the street.”

I don’t know what I can do to solve “the problem” or to make a difference. But I know I can change my thinking, that I can relate to these people as people. Maybe that’s what makes the next step possible. Maybe that changes everything.

When good habits fall apart

All it took was a few weeks of business travel for me to throw my good habits out the window. I ate and drank too much. I slept less. It felt like there was no time for exercise or meditation or writing in my journal.

I came home a few pounds heavier, and even weeks after my return, it seemed I had abandoned the good practices I had taken so long to develop.

Oops.

Although this was upsetting, it was also fascinating. One element of what I do for a living is to help people develop new habits and a new mindset. I see how difficult it is for people to establish and maintain almost any habit. So experiencing my own relapse provided me with an opportunity to experience how to fix it.

Falling off the wagon

Crash Of The Radio Flyer by Gene Ritchhart

The habit checklist

As I was studying habit change, I found that much of the research tends to point to the same findings. One book, Coach Yourself, compiled the advice into a simple list that I first wrote about on January, 2014.

“This short list summarizes the basic approach towards changing anything in your life.

  1. Take small steps towards your goals
  2. Set some realistic, achievable goals
  3. Structure your life to help you attain your goals
  4. Allow yourself to fail sometimes without turning it into a catastrophe
  5. Look at the areas where you’re successful
  6. Reward yourself for your successes
  7. Focus on your achievements
  8. Enlist the support of friends
  9. Chart your progress
  10. Picture the way you’d like life to be

Where my previous attempts at change failed, it was because I attempted too big a change too quickly, overreacted to my failures, lacked peer support, or missed some other element on this simple list.”

The road to recovery

So as my good habits were falling apart, I simply consulted the habit checklist. Here are the things that helped me get back on track.

First off, number 4: “Allow yourself to fail sometimes without turning it into a catastrophe.” Seeing how common it is to relapse to old ways, I didn’t make a big deal of it. Rather than waste energy berating myself for something quite normal, I focused on taking steps to fix it.

Then on to number 3: “Structure your life to help you attain your goals.” If I wanted to drink less, then I should keep less wine in the house. If I wanted to exercise more, I should schedule when and where I would do it. Shaping my environment in simple ways made future decisions much easier.

I still needed to act, though, and that’s where my favorite, number 1, came in. “Take small steps towards your goals.” I first wrote about “touching the treadmill” in 2013, when I realized that the most powerful principle in developing a new habit is the progress principle. A small step towards your goal gives you a sense of your control, leads to increased motivation, and empowers you to keep going. So rather than setting a goal of  “doing everything I used to do,” I simply aimed to do things once as a way to get started.

Having taken a few steps, it was checklist item number 9 that helped me be mindful of my habits each day: “Chart your progress.” Ben Franklin talked about his “resolutions chart” in his famous autobiography, and I wrote about “How this one simple chart made me happier in 6 weeks” a few years ago.

“What happened is I became mindful of my happiness. Put together, all the resolutions on my chart made for a powerful shift in what I did and how I thought. Instead of thinking of happiness as something I would find, it has become a state I am actively trying to create. In a few minutes each day, the chart reminds me of what I need to do to maintain balance in my life and, when I’m out of balance, what adjustments I might make the following day. I gradually became happier after a few weeks.”

I also wrote that “I might maintain a resolutions chart for the rest of my life, just like Ben Franklin,” and indeed I’ve maintained a chart each week since then.

What’s right for me may be wildly different than what’s right for you. The path you take will also be different. But for most of us the secrets of developing and maintaining the habits that make us happy can be found in a simple checklist.

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p.s. Speaking of habits, I’ll be taking time off from writing this Saturday blog and focus more on writing the second edition of Working Out Loud. My next post here will be on September 10th.

Will my weekly writing habit “fall apart” as a result? It’s possible but unlikely. Writing is now like being a vegetarian, more deeply wired into who I am and what I do. While I was on the business trip that undid my other practices, I was able to write and stay meatless without much thinking at all.

See you in September. 🙂

Growing up racist

The contradictions are what confused me, seeing how people could be nice and hateful at the same time. It started with my own father.

I was born in The Bronx, in an all-Italian section between Pelham Bay and Throggs Neck. That’s my house in the photo, where I spent hours in the 1970s playing stoop ball in the summer.

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When I was six years old, we were doing a class project about Martin Luther King. This was before there was a national holiday for him in the US. I had to cut out pictures from the paper, and I showed one to my father. He looked at it, cursed, and tore it up. Confused and upset, I went to my mother. “He’s angry,” she said. It seems he was remembering his brother, who died in an accident in the army and was forgotten. The attention on Martin Luther King’s sacrifice seemed unjust to him.

Growing up, I was surrounded most by older kids. I remember playing basketball at the local park, when one of them spotted a black teenager walking on the street outside. They screamed at him and chased him, telling him to get out and never come back. They were celebrating when they returned, and talked directly to us about “cleaning up the neighborhood.” “We keep the older ones out,” they said. “It’s your job to chase the younger ones.”

I learned just how serious people were about keeping our neighborhood “clean” when we awoke to sirens one summer. The house two doors down was on fire. People were talking about it the next day, trying to find out what happened, and heard the fire was set on purpose. “They were going to sell the house to black people.”

One particular memory haunts me. I was walking with a small group on Tremont Avenue to get pizza. We noticed a young black kid about my age, maybe twelve years old, riding his bike. One of the older kids took a chain that he carried with him and threw it at the bike, where it caught in the back wheel. The kid fell in the middle of the street. Our group yelled at him, and he scrambled to pick up his bike and race off.

I remember thinking that his bike was just like mine, that he was a kid, just like me. I felt ashamed and afraid, but I didn’t say or do anything.

These memories are surfacing now as I see the same contradictions in people forty years later. I’m not suggesting I’m better than my father, or better than the people I grew up with. It’s just that racism has been part of my experience and has shaped me. Somehow, we all took solace in finding an enemy.

One important thing I learned, something that gives me hope, is that the enemy we picked had to be people we didn’t know. Growing up, we were taught to hate Puerto Ricans, too, until a lovely Puerto Rican family moved in and we became close friends. Fairly quickly, we no longer thought of them as Puerto Rican, but as individuals. I still remember their names. 

We were also outraged at people who didn’t speak English, yet we honored my grandmother, who had come from Salerno on a boat in the early 1900s, and spoke only Italian for the rest of her long life. What was seen as a disrespectful lack of assimilation by an enemy was viewed as respecting tradition when done by people we knew. Women, too, could be the enemy. It was almost a game to mistreat women, yet men would go to extreme lengths to protect the purity and honor of their sister or girlfriend. It was common to have the word “Mother” as a tattoo on your arm. My father had one.

Identifying racism in other people is easy, but am I doing anything to change it? If the incident with the little boy on a bike happened today, would I stand up to the aggressors, or just shake my head in silent disapproval?

I’m sure I have conjured up my own enemies in my head, whether it’s people of a certain race or a certain political party. Them and the people who support them. There is no shortage of potential enemies. Railing against them may provide some comfort or validation, but it also makes me angry and afraid. It’s a trap. 

Just last night, I came across this passage in a book that talks about exactly this. It’s aptly titled, No Time to Lose

“We’re so preoccupied with our own comfort and security that we don’t give much thought to what others might be going through. While justifying our own prejudice and anger, we fear and denounce those qualities in others. We don’t want ourselves or those we care about to suffer, yet we condone revenge on our foes.”

That same book offers a way out of the trap. It’s the unending practice of empathy and compassion. To stop the cycle of hate and fear, we need to get to know them better, till they become us. It’s difficult and uncomfortable, but the alternatives are much, much worse.