The optimist looks at the glass and calls it half full. The pessimist looks at the glass and calls it half empty. The appreciative person looks at the glass and calls it beautiful. We can always find that perspective from which we can understand, see, and contribute to the beauty of life. It may not be obvious, but it is always there. I invite you to join me on the quest.
It is ironic, but every time we have gotten onto a plane over the past two weeks, our landing has been preceded by serious tropical storms. First, there was Typhoon Mirinae in southeast Asia. It arrived in Manila just three hours after we landed. As the typhoon passed over the South China Sea, on its way to Vietnam, it weakened to a tropical storm but still managed to devastate many areas to the north of Ho Chi Minh City just prior to our arrival. Between the Philippines and Viet Nam, some 150 people were killed by the storm.
One week later, we returned home to southeast Virginia just as the remnants of Hurricane Ida were stirring the pot with more winds and rains of destruction. Our landing in Richmond had the lowest cloud ceiling and visibility of them all. A slow-moving nor’easter, with wind gusts up to 75 miles an hour, brought near-record storm surges to low-lying areas, downed trees, and widespread power outages. Our region was not as devastated by this storm as it was by Hurricane Isabel in 2003, but there has still been significant flooding and damages. I appreciate the pain and mourn the losses that many have suffered.
That is one more way appreciation works. It’s not just about celebrating the positive; it’s also about empathizing with the negative. It’s not about putting on rose-colored glasses, trying always to see the glass as half full. It’s rather about understanding life as it is, seeing its intrinsic beauty, and working to make it better. No matter what happens in life, from the best of times to the worst of times, we can always do those three things. Let’s take them each in turn.
Understanding Life As It Is. This may be the hardest and yet it is certainly the most important part of appreciation. What is really going on? Most of the time, to quote Ana’s Nin, “we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” In other words, we see what we expect to see, what we want to see, or what we have been primed to see. Most of the time, perception is projection. It is a mindless activity that happens routinely without much thought or conscious awareness. Like breathing, we just see.
Also like breathing, however, we can choose to see differently. I have written many times about the health-promoting effects of conscious breathing. When we shift our breathing from an unconscious, involuntary, autonomic reflex to a conscious, voluntary, somatic response, we change everything. When we choose to breathe slowly, deeply, and rhythmically, our blood pressure comes down, our heart rate lowers, our muscles relax, our stress levels decrease, and our energy levels increase.
These effects are not limited to moments of conscious breathing; they rather spill over throughout the day. Dr. Andrew Weil suggests that sixty seconds of slow, deep, and rhythmic breathing twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, are enough to generate lasting and measurable effects. When I mention this to people in my workshops, and train people in a simple, rhythmic breathing process, there are always reactions of surprise, interest, and curiosity. Few, however, actually shift their daily routine to incorporate such practices. Even two minutes a day can fall off the radar screen.
Conscious seeing works much the same way and can have many of the same benefits. In her book Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, psychologist Ellen Langer suggests that we can do this by looking for novelty. What can we see that is different from what we expect? Langer tells the story of going over to a friend’s house for dinner and noticing that the fork, instead of being on the left side of the plate, as she expected, was on the right side of the plate along with the knife and spoon.
Langer was surprise by her strong reaction to this simple breach of conventionality. “This table isn’t set right,” she thought to herself. And then she thought again. “Who says the fork always goes to the left of the plate?” By noticing novelty, and her reactions to novelty, Langer was better able to see things as they are. She thereby avoided reaching routinely to left side of the plate, setting her fork down on that side, and she also avoided judging her friend for setting the table wrong. The process of conscious seeing changed everything.
That’s how appreciation works. It gets us to notice new things without reacting in evaluative ways. It makes us more open and receptive to the future as it emerges. It transforms mindless living into mindful living, with demonstrable health impacts in terms of stress and creativity.
Seeing Life’s Intrinsic Beauty. Langer had to let go of long-held assumptions and beliefs, taught to her by her mother, as to how a table was to be set in order to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of a table set in a different way. That was easy. The stakes were low and no one really cares. What about the victims of those tropical storms? What about the times when our own needs go unmet? Is it still possible then to see the intrinsic beauty of life? I would argue it is not only possible; it is essential.
When needs are violated or frustrated, whether by natural disasters or human actions, it is tempting to react with outrage and righteous indignation. There is certainly a time and place for that. But if we stop there, we add to our stress, lower our energy, and limit our options. As Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth makes the whole world blind and toothless.” Seeing only life’s extrinsic ugliness, of which there are abundant examples, destroys the soul and tears the fabric of human relationships. Seeing life’s intrinsic beauty, creates the soul and repairs the fabric of human relationships. Simply put, it makes life better.
One way to do that, as taught to me by Robert Gonzales, a certified Nonviolent Communication trainer with the Prescott Center for Nonviolent Communication, is to focus on what it looks and feels like when life is at its very best. We can hold a mental picture of that image, sense its positive value, appreciate the associated feelings, and immerse our awareness in the goodness of needs being met. When this happens, we not only see life’s intrinsic beauty, we also introduce that energy into our relationships with self and others.
Those who survive the worst of deprivations, humiliations, afflictions, and subjugations often report how they won the mental game by holding on to life’s intrinsic beauty. I remember hearing the story of a POW who survived solitary confinement by teaching himself how to play piano through visualization. Imagining the keys on the keyboard, he went through the motions, both mentally and with his fingers, of practicing scales and playing different songs. Over time, he came to appreciate the beauty of music, and of what it meant to his soul, even though no music was actually being played.
If that can be done in solitary confinement, we can embrace the beauty of life in just about any situation. It’s always possible to move from an awareness of deficit to an awareness of sufficiency or even abundance. When life is not as we would like, we can focus on the needs that are important to us and celebrate the ways in which they give us life. That beauty is always there; recognizing that beauty is always possible and always enhances life.
Working To Make Life Better. In addition to enhancing our attitude and internal resources, understanding life and seeing its beauty also unleashes the energy to make life even more beautiful. Beauty begets beauty in a radiating spiral of possibility. When we focus on the ugliness of life, we can end up hopeless, broken, passive, compliant, and conventional. When we connect with the beauty of life, however, we generate hope, wholeness, activity, choice, and creativity. Those are the energies we need to make life better.
I know how those energies have worked for me in my own life. My most passionate commitments have never come from guilt, shame, desperation, or fear. They have rather come from a place of joy. In college I was passionately involved with the Appalachia Service Project. In Chicago I was passionately involved with community renewal. In Columbus I was passionately involved with historic restoration. As a coach, I am passionately involved with my clients’ success.
On a much smaller scale, I can get passionately involved with just about any interest that makes a life-enriching contribution. Mowing the lawn? Why not! Running a marathon with my kids. Sure! Fixing a computer problem for my wife? Before she wakes up in the morning! Whenever I see how something will make life better, whether for myself or others, and whenever I connect the dots between who I am, what I know, and what might be done I am usually the first one to raise my hand, to get involved, and to do what I can.
It feels good to live in this way, to engage with all life has to offer. It feels good to celebrate the beauty of life, even in the midst of storms, losses, and unmet needs. When we do this, when we understand life as it is and see its intrinsic goodness, life takes on new dimensions and we experience new depths of meaning and purpose. Our way in the world becomes a contribution and we ourselves become a reflection of life’s beauty.
Coaching Inquiries: How do you understand life? Is the glass half full, half empty, or beautiful? How can the appreciation of beauty enhance your relationship to life? How can you make even more of a contribution? How can you come from a place of abundance and joy? Who can join you on the quest?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.
What a gift reading this week’s Provision, Work Your Attitude! I finally got to read it tonight. I came home today exhausted from a day of trying to stay positive and appreciative despite some who can’t or don’t or won’t. It may not all be within my control but you remind me to be and show my appreciativeness regardless. Thanks for continuing to share your wisdom and encouragement through the weekly Provisions. I just wanted you to know • I really appreciate you!
It’s hard to keep up with you, you are in so many places, doing so many things! It is now almost the end of a year since we did some coaching together and I continue to grow personally and professionally. Thanks. I wish you well on your journey and continue to read Provisions with interest.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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