Sunday, June 20, 2010

How to Use the Right Brain and the Left Brain in a Crisis

I am not one to go for the fire and brimstone thing, but this past week in American history has been something. 100 million gallons of oil in the ocean and counting, Obama goes to the Gulf while lightning strikes the ship with the containment cap, shutting it down for another week. Hayward squirms on the hot seat of a congressional hearing, while our politicians blow a lot of steam that goes nowhere. Its hard to wrap our mind's around the magnitude of it all. However, a most interesting moment came during the hearings when a shrimp fisherwoman barged in with oil stained hands and demanded criminal action.

Seeing her made me feel so much better in a strange sort of way. She had an oil streaked face, disheveled hair, and dripping hands. She was mad -- outraged, and she was not afraid to show it, even if it got her arrested. It was almost iconic, and reminded me of old tribe's women who would rub themselves with ashes to manage their grief, or Native women who would trill their anguish to the world. It fulfilled a more primal side of how we instinctively want to react in a crisis.

Many of us everyday folk sometimes feel like life is hemorrhaging out of control, and are struggling to manage all the emotions with logic and reason -- with less than satisfactory results. Maybe you are out of a job, hate your job, battling a divorce, an illness, or struggling with your kids. Often life hits us with something we did not expect, and we have absolutely no idea how to solve the problem, or what to do next. Maybe it is time to call in the right brain.

In a crisis, the left brain only knows how to come up with strategies and options. Sort of like the role President Obama is playing -- he is a left-brained master of keeping his cool and plodding a path of resolution. Yet his poll numbers have dropped -- why? Because we all need to acknowledge the emotional side of the crisis in order to move on. We also need the raging woman with wild hair and blackened fingers to satisfy the right brain of imagery, emotion and ritual.

I have several friends in their late 30's and 40's that are battling breast cancer. It is like an oil leak within the body -- going out of control, destroying everything in sight, and the methods to treat are still crude and scary. In a similar way, the first line of attack is left-brained: get the medical team lined up, assemble the tests, go before the tumor board and come up with a treatment plan. Yet, this also does not ultimately cut it, and we long for some sort of sublime experience to take us out of our bodies and into a more luminous place.

What to do in a crisis of the inner or outer world? Cry a lot, get your mind wrapped around it -- and fight. The boundaries of the inner and the outer world are more transparent than we know. I have found that teaching retreats and workshops which manage overwhelming challenges in life often requires accessing the right brain now and then. The left brain is in charge of being mad, blaming, getting facts, creating lists and making plans. This is a normal reaction, and the TV has been filled with endless examples of our left brain attempts to handle what is unimaginable.

However, the right brain operates on a different level. It wants to pray, meditate, draw, create something or experience a ritual to help gain perspective. A crisis is an assault to all of our senses -- whether it is an external environmental crisis like the Gulf, or an inner crisis like cancer. When the world does not make sense, sometimes we have to access other resources.

In my last post, I interviewed leadership consultant and author Margaret Wheatley, about the power and importance of Perseverance- and recommended a tonglen style meditation of breathing in the horrifying black tar of the gulf into our bodies, and breathing out light, clean and fresh water instead. Many struggled with this right brain approach to a crisis -- this is a waste of time! The left brain demands more concrete actions, like writing letters and yelling at the TV.

I think both strategies are necessary. When a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer, she put her executive trained brain into action and knew every detail of what her treatment would involve. However, what made the greatest impact on her was a special ritual her friends created for her; making a plaster cast of her chest before her double mastectomy that was painted with special words, prayers and images. She was sung to, held, and encircled in a way that harkened back another time.

It made a difference. She was filled with love and hope in a way no chemo treatment could even begin to touch. Rituals can be any sort of experience that is more symbolic than logical. It engages the heart over the head -- the right brain over the left. Rituals and interactive experiences with other people are often so powerful; it moves the head into a different mindset, fills us with grounded clarity and lifts our hearts.

Many have created special ceremonies and rituals for the Gulf spill. Altars have been cropping up in the sand, special healing circles and vigils. Check out Hands Across the Sands- an international ritual set up for June 26th for any group on any beach, to join at 11am and at noon to simply gather together, join hands and pray for an end to offshore drilling and resolution in the Gulf.

Is it going to put a cap on the oil? Not anymore than the time wasted clicking pictures on Capitol Hill of politicians battling for sound byte air time. American's need time to digest the magnitude of this tragedy, to be able to take it in, understand the impact and have a clear mind to make fundamental changes in the future. And, taking time to acknowledge the unseen world, to keen, to create, to come together -- remains fundamental to our very nature.

Huff Po readers: how do you engage your "right brain" in a crisis? What sort of rituals or experiences have you used that had a powerful impact on you? Love to hear your comments here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

How to Balance Social Networking with a Social Life

What's the definition of a friend these days? Who do you consider to be your 'friends?" Are they the people you work with, grew up with, see around town, work out at the gym, and meet for lunch -- or are they the folks you chat with on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn?

Our traditional social lives, coupled with modern social networking, is the new standard -- and it's here to stay. How do we balance the expanding possibilities for social connections in a way that is healthy and nourishing, instead of draining and overwhelming? Most modern adults are connected to hundreds of people each month from varied interactions, and the average Facebook user has nearly 150 friends. Astounding, isn't it?

I treasure having a solid community of friends I see in my daily life, as a true lifeline of grounding and support. I have also found the friends I connect with via blogging, emails and social networking fill another wonderful place of social fulfillment never imagined a decade ago. The rise of the internet has become a "living symbol" of global connection, as Llewelyn Vaughn-Lee wrote.

I have come to believe that the Internet and other modes of global communication are not just tools to help us communicate and access information, but also have a symbolic function. They are dynamic images of a global interconnectedness and oneness that belong to life. As symbols they convey a deeper meaning and purpose than their surface function. But in order to access this dimension we have to have the appropriate attitude of receptivity.


I see our traditional relations (the inner) and our networked relations (the outer) to be a new "Tree of Life." Think of a large living tree as a symbol of yourself and your modern, multi-layered social life. The trunk of the tree is you -- maybe you are a slim and lovely Aspen, a strong and sturdy Maple, or a gently bending Willow. What variety describes you best? The ground below you is your home and your community. Is your soil well nourished and watered, or is it dry and cracked? Are you planted in a welcoming place, or are you struggling to survive?

Imagine the roots underneath to be the friends and family you consider near and dear to your heart -- those whom you rely on to get through daily life, or can't wait to see on vacations and holidays. The branches that soar above you are the people you touch more peripherally through social networking, collegial relations and so on. There are endless opportunities to extend new shoots into the sun and find interesting or like-minded people to connect.

Many of the 40 plus crowd have had a slower, more mixed feeling about extending any branches at all. Change does not come as easy to us old Redwoods, who prefer to keep those roots nourished -- and let the branches remain dormant, as in winter time. Many of the younger crowd has begun utilizing the power of global sites to develop vast numbers of friends that boggle the imagination. Their branches have blossomed so far and wide as to create a canopy of leaves, rich with the excitement of new growth.

One cannot fully survive without the other. While many lament the superficiality of social networking, it is a part of the culture, and once resistance is lowered, the possibilities of enhancing your life are very real. For others, the enchantment of new growth can overtake the commitment to maintaining the foundation. All tweets on new branches, and no contact with the ground makes for a very unbalanced life!

In the next two blogs, I will explore both ends of this new "Tree of Life." Next week we will celebrate "tried and true" rooted friendships, and in the following I will highlight those who have had success in social networking relations.

If you were to draw a picture of your tree, what would it look like? How healthy is the trunk (you)? What do your roots or inner relations look like; are they healthy and interconnected or thin, meager and craving some organic fertilizer? How about your branches of outer relations. Do you have any? What do they look like? Are you unfolding new leaves in the sun and perhaps bearing the fruit of new possiblilities?

If your tree is all roots and no branches, it is time to let your fingers do the walking and upgrade your social software. Reach out to others by leaving comments on blogs that you like, set up a Facebook page and watch old friends find you, or join a cause that allows you to connect to others of like mind. The rewards are fairly instant, and fun!

Extending new branches and leaves exclusively can ultimately backfire as well. Imagine a tree with all branches and no roots. What do we have? A tumbleweed comes to my mind -- out of balance and drifting in the wind. Social networking can quickly become an obsession. Remembering and tending your roots is the quickest way to come back to balance.

Untold studies show our deepest feelings of happiness and contentment are linked to the people we have in our life. Let's celebrate them all. Write at least one note today to someone in your inner root system, and to one person in your outer branches, to extend your gratitude for their presence in your life.

And, let's hear it! What does your tree look like? How do you balance your inner and outer social lives? Love to hear your comments, and we can continue on Facebook as well. I am looking for homegrown friend stories for next week, and social success stories for the week after. Thanks!

Perseverance in the Gulf: a Test of Our Soul's Endurance

It is beyond imagination. Millions of gallons of crude continue to spew uncontrollably from the bowels of the Earth, fingering their way to shore with the force of Voldemort. Some say until August, some until Christmas, others fear for a decade. How can we possibly wrap our minds around such a thing? How do we carry on? Close your eyes and imagine floating in water filled with tar balls and shiny black goop -- as far as the eye can see. It is almost unbearable.

The way we respond to this disaster is a reflection upon us all. Right now, everyone has tar in their eyes, with an insane focus on blame, righteous anger and money. One high ranking British official told local Brits who receive a majority of their pensions from British Petroleum, "When you think of all that oil spilling into the Gulf, think of it as your retirement dollars."

BP and the State of Florida spent $25 million dollars last week on ads convincing tourists "Florida's beaches are clear." They intend to pull the ads by this week, as they know the oil will reach the shore -- and they want to have "truth in advertising."

We are surrounded with a smoke and mirrors campaign no one wants to hear, and retribution dominates these critical moments of clear thinking and action. The frenzy of "Drill baby drill" has transformed to "Sue baby sue." Something is terribly wrong with our priorities, and with corporate leadership. Everyday folks are weeping with despair, and feel totally powerless.

One of my great heroes in the field of leadership consulting is Margaret Wheatley, author of best selling Leadership and the New Sciences, professor, and co-founder of the Berkana Institute. Her newest book, Perseverance, has arrived at a fortuitous moment when all of us are wondering how we are going to persevere through one more disaster -- economic, natural, or man-made. It is potent, allegorical and healing in a way only Wheatley can manage.

Ironically, part of the inspiration came from a letter written by a CEO friend who lives on the Gulf coast, and was there during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Her note to Wheatley simply said, "Every day I make a conscious choice not to give up."

That note was written before the oil spill.

I asked Wheatley what her friend has to say now. Shortly after the rig exploded in early May; Wheatley did receive a follow-up note so powerful it sent chills up my spine:
"Game over. For the shrimp and fishing industry, game over forever. For Louisiana wetlands- game over. For Cajun culture- game over. All Systems Fail."

The pain and suffering of the oil spill is preoccupying both our minds, and Wheatley is deeply concerned. She commented, "This is in our face as a nation, and we are in a moment of true impotence."


The first step to perseverance is recognition. Her book opens with, "We have never been here before in terms of the global nature of our predicament -- yet we have been here before. Humans have had to struggle with harsh times many times over; and you too, like all humans, have overcome difficult times. Now it's our turn to be the ones who step forward, who engage in the small actions that can, over time, grow into meaningful change."

Perseverance offers reflections on topics like righteous anger, blame and abandoning success, as well as hopeful aspects like steadfastness and joy. I asked Wheatley which passage best reflects the crisis in the Gulf, and she quietly yet firmly replied: "Lost".

"When we are overwhelmed and confused, our brains barely function. We reach for the old maps, the routine responses, what worked in the past. This is a predictable response, yet also suicidal. If we keep grasping for things to look familiar, and frantically try and fit new problems into old ways of thinking, we will continue to wander lost, and eventually collapse from our own confusion."


Whether it is getting out of a bad relationship, changing a corporate system, or facing the greatest natural disaster in our history, the only way to get out of "Lost" is to know the old ways don't work. "We have to abandon our anger," Wheatley said. "The calls for justice aren't getting anywhere -- besides destroying us as a nation." By recognizing we are lost, we can see new territory, and grasp the depth of what we don't know, so scientists of the world can sit and think together."

Even though no one has the faintest idea how to plug that gushing, subterranean arterial hemorrhage -- we have been here before. We have survived horrors and devastation, by strengthening our relationships with one another. The locals on the Gulf need to be recognized, heard, and given help. Those who can self-organize represent the true steadfast qualities of perseverance. The power of a community emerges out of necessity.

Wayne Landry, parish council president in St. Bernard Parish, and other leaders from parishes and counties in Louisiana and Mississippi have organized their own response, called the "coastal zone authority for recovery." Others are sending money, visiting troubled areas, and sending in thousands of suggestions to BP for clever ways to stop the bleed. It is a start.

How do we, Huff Po readers, persevere through all this? Wheatley warns, "We have pierced into Mother Earth's core, and maybe we can learn enough from all this for it to become a moment to evolve, rather than collapse."

This is a wake-up call. A chance for all of us to choose who we want to be. Let's get out of anger and blame, and recognize our crude oil addiction has got to stop. Let's learn something. "Perseverance is seemingly a journey without end. We become patient because we have to. Every day we have to make a choice. Will we give up or will we keep going?

Here is a very powerful meditation tool to help focus on the Gulf, and find ways to persevere. It is called a Tonglen Meditation, found in books by Pema Chodron. Sit, relax and get an image of the Gulf. Breathe in the image of endless oil polluting the Gulf, and breathed out light until it is clean and clear once again. Tonglen is an intensely powerful meditation that can be very hard to do, yet is so healing.

Ed and Deb Shapiro also suggested meditating while repeating the mantra, "May all beings be free from suffering and the conditions that cause suffering."

We can persevere. We have to. If you would like to share a comment, please do so, as our relationships help us all to persevere, and our conversations are of great importance.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Women Need Mentors: How to Find One or Create One in Your Life

Ever had a professional mentor before? If you are a woman, I bet the answer is no. In the professional world, change is more than inevitable these days -- it is standard fare, and many women are trying to figure out a new way to make a living doing what they love. Wouldn't it be easier if someone could help guide you along the way?

Here are some common challenges that would benefit from mentoring:

  • "I want to start a new business, but I don't know what to do, how do I get started?"


  • "I need to make a career move, but I feel guilty leaving my job and afraid I won't get anything else. How do I ever get ahead?"


  • "I want to learn other aspects of my business, but no one is teaching me the skills I need to transfer to another department. I don't want to be stuck here forever."


  • "How do I achieve balance between a promotion and the needs of my family?"


Women are way behind in developing and utilizing mentors, said Mary Stutts, senior vice president of Elan Pharmaceuticals, and author of the newly released The Missing Mentor, an excellent book featuring multiple professionals sharing tips to succeed. Stutts stresses women today are left on their own to navigate the pitfalls of balancing marriage, home, family and personal ambition.

"Many women are not only holding their jobs, but also managing the soccer games, birthday parties, laundry and grocery shopping. They just do not have the time to spend coaching another woman to move up the ranks."


A college graduate can expect to change jobs 14 times in their career, yet most do not create any sort of plan of how they want to organize their acquisition of skills, when to take strategic risks, and when the time is right to seek promotions or a new position elsewhere.

"Women need to create a development plan to gain experience, and be deliberate about each step of the way. Even in executive positions, very few women have any sort of development plan and that is scary" said Stutts.

Stutts knew many of her early jobs were not going to make her the money she wanted, so she kept moving, until she ended up in health care and communications. She has helped manage multi-billion dollar companies, while still finding time to be a mom, and actively mentor other women. A foster child from the age of five, Stutts is acutely aware of how important it is to help support other women.

"I think anyone can be 'cream of the crop,' and I personally hate that term," Stutts admitted. "Most women just need encouragement more than anything else."
Stutts offered valuable advice for women at various stages of life:

Women just starting out in careers: Be patient! Understand you can't do it all at once, and don't be afraid to share your ideas. Even if they don't implement them, it shows initiative.

Women in Management or senior level positions: Take some risks! Don't resist change and evaluate your situation -- have you learned all the skills your job has to offer? Be willing advance your career if it has become routine.

Women Trying to Get Back into the Workforce: Be creative! Get some experience under your belt however you can. Even taking an entry level job to get your foot in the door or volunteer. Be willing to do what it takes to prove yourself and show you can add value.

Kathleen Heinrich is another high level professional in the medical and academic fields, and also discovered any sort of mentorship for women was practically non-existent. "If mentoring is the fast track to professional success, what happens when you don't have a mentor?" she wondered. After serving as a professor for many years, she became a consultant working with nurses, and wrote the book, "A Nurse's Guide to Presenting and Publishing: Dare to Share."

"Women essentially have to mentor one another," said Heinrich. "I realized successful scholars surrounded themselves with a circle of peer-mentors." Heinrich developed a program for "peer mentoring" that includes a sophisticated and comprehensive set of agreements to help individuals come together in a strategic manner, and develop a working relationship to build each other's success.

"Unlike the one-way giving in traditional mentoring, peer mentoring relationships are give-and-take partnerships that benefit all involved," described Heinrich.

If you would like to experiment with a "peer mentoring" relationship, think of someone who has complimentary skills to yours. Maybe you are good at graphic design, but need help with strategic planning, and have a friend who has been an entrepreneur, but needs to recreate her promotional materials. Make an agreement to meet for an hour and discuss the "four agreements of peer mentoring" developed by Heinrich:

  1. What is your wish list-- what do you want to accomplish?


  2. What are your fears and concerns? Maybe you have a hidden hesitation that needs to be aired.


  3. Create a contract-- how often will you meet and for how long? This is NOT lightweight socializing!


  4. Create a Covenant-- how do you want to be treated? Often the fears and concerns can be covered by the covenant.


Here's an example: Judy and Anne both want to further their business projects, and wish to peer mentor each other. Each come prepared with what they are working on, and what they need help with. In their fears and concerns; Judy is worried she will not stay focused, and Anne is afraid she will take over the conversations. They decide to meet for 6 weeks, once per week for two hours. One hour is for Judy and one hour is for Anne. Their covenant is that Anne will gently help keep Judy focused by reviewing what they talked about before she starts, and Anne will agree not to be offended if Judy points out she is dominating the conversation.

I have tried Heinrich's peer mentoring system, and it is elegant yet incredibly powerful. Essentially you are bartering your skills with another person for free! The relationships end up being very intensive and intimate at the same time. Give it a try with a friend or colleague and let me know what happens! Do you have any good stories about the power of mentoring? Leave a comment below and pass around Twitter and Facebook for a broader conversation if you like.