How would you rate…?

Therapist: On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your average day.

Me: 5

Therapist: Why’s that?

Me: Because that’s how averages work.

This is an important point – that to be happy, to have self-esteem and personal integrity in life and work, we all have to be “above average” but that’s not how “average” works.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since listening to compassion researcher Kristen Neff PhD make this exact point on the Hidden Brain Podcast. She asks the host, our beloved Shankar Vedantam, how he would feel if she said his podcast was average, and he replied, as we all would, “Terribly hurt.”

I have worked most of my life in the arts and academics, which admittedly is filled with extraordinary and exceptionally talented, beautiful and intelligent people. Perhaps, it’s true that many of the people I know are above average by some measures – artistic success, fame, academic contributions, beauty – but overall, even for these people, when life experiences are summed, most of us have more similarities than differences.

I wrote this, but then I thought, the beauty, not the devil, is in the details. And the extraordinary, or at least the interesting story, might be found in our uniqueness – even for those of us whose life stories are a bit smaller. Living ordinary moments as if I am on a great adventure filled with the miraculous is an ongoing practice for me, and definitely increases my happiness rating from 5 to more like an 8 or 9.

Still, I wonder about the suffering I experience when I hold the belief that I, and everything I create, must be exceptional. Daily, I struggle with the contradictions between basic goodness, good enough, and the desire to beat the crowd – forgetting that the bell curve does not allow all of us to occupy the far right tail.

And, who do we imagine the average people are? Let’s be honest about coastal elite bias. And why do we not think that we might not fall somewhere in the middle like the other 68% of the population? After all, surely, most of us with above average educations have taken statistics.

On Savoring

Every once in a while, I listen to a podcast that hits me at the right moment with important knowledge. Usually, it’s stuff that I already know, but it’s phrased in a way that feels fresh, important and relatable. I can effortlessly take it in and put it to practice. This two-part series on Savoring, on Hidden Brain, was one of those.

Everyone knows that the mind is a sticky magnet for troubles and silky Teflon to pleasures. There are clear survival benefits to paying attention to what might go wrong, but the tax on daily happiness is high when that is all you know to do.

This is relevant to the study of Alexander Technique. A student commented, “Pain is the great motivator. I would never practice if pain did not prompt me.” But sometimes, all we focus on is the pain. We forget to notice the threads and thrums of not-wrong. Finding effortlessness might be as much a matter of tapping into existing currents of ease as banishing the effort.

Banishing any part of the self often does no good. Buddha invited the demon Mara to tea. In Richard Schwartz’, “No Bad Parts,” which is a lay person’s primer on Internal Family Systems Therapy, we are guided to open a dialogue with all the parts of ourselves that we revile and exile.

Using “No Bad Parts” as a writing prompt, I’ve met my Sad Sack personae. This part fears satisfaction, because the status quo might, in fact be complacency. But always seeking more – while in theory admirable, has led to an inner whine of complaining anxiety – which sometimes seeps out in ways I’m not proud off. But after dialoging with Sad Sack, I see that internal mauve voice is not a vice but a very young part, hoping against all hope, that I might grow up to be an artist, or at least an interesting person.

Seeing all this, has led to an urgent but easy practice of extracting pleasure from the dailies. The art in life does not always come from dissatisfaction, but who can forget Martha Graham’s queer divine dissatisfaction? That’s also here all the time in true and powerful urgency. Gratitude gets more of a bite when we consider impermanence, and how wrong things can go. That can be enough to spur deep appreciation for everything that is not wrong.

My beautiful cats are so silky and healthy, but just 9 months ago, Suki was recovering from emergency surgery and might have died. I rejoice in their soft furry selves. Oh kitties, how I love you.

The days when the air quality is perfect and I can breathe deep fresh lungful’s with no fear. It’s all so good.

That my body lets me dance, rather marvelously often…so good.

The authors of the podcast write:
“Sorrows have a way of finding us, no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Joys, on the other hand, are often harder to notice and appreciate. This week, we continue our conversation with psychologist Fred Bryant about the science of savoring, and how to make the most of the good things in our lives.”

I encourage you to take a listen.