The noted psychologist George Pransky has been a friend, inspiration, and mentor to me since I first came across his work in 2007. One of my favorite “George stories” is from the 1970’s when he and his wife Linda first went up to Salt Spring Island in Canada to hear an enlightened Scottish welder named Sydney Banks speak to a small group of people who had come to the island from around the world.
George and Linda had heard difficult to believe stories about the rapid and sometimes dramatic shifts in the mental health of people who heard Syd speak, but conversations with some of the ‘regulars’ in the audience began to confirm the stories in their own minds.
The talk was brief and Syd was far more low-key than charismatic, but he and Linda were nonetheless impressed. To his delight, they were invited to meet Syd after the talk, and Syd had multiple questions for George about the nature of his work. But when George told Syd about taking clients back into the past to re-experience their trauma and get at the causes underneath it, Syd seemed horrified.
“That sounds truly painful,” Syd said.
“Well it is,” George said, “but the idea is that in re-experiencing the pain and suffering of the past, it heals it.”
“Does it work?” asked Syd.
George’s heart sank at the question as his honest answer was “not really”, but his response was a defensive one.
“Well, Syd, what would you do with a client who had been through terrible things in their past and was suffering?”
Syd thought for a few moments.
“I’m not a psychologist, George, but I suppose I would share with them what I’ve seen for myself that makes my life a happy one in spite of what I’ve been through and experienced.”
George’s heart sank even further as he knew he wasn’t remotely happy in his own life, but he hid those thoughts in another question.
“Some of my colleagues aren’t all that happy, Syd. What would you recommend to them?”
“Well,” Syd said thoughtfully, “I’d say that maybe they weren’t really qualified to help people yet. After all, with the best will in the world I can’t give someone a dollar if I’ve only got a quarter in my pocket. You can only give away what you have.”
While George and Linda left that encounter somewhat flustered, George had an insight on the trip home from the island that changed his life (and work) forever.
At first, when people try to answer a question like “what makes your life a happy one?”, people either struggle to answer or point to positive life circumstances. But when I prompt them to look a bit deeper, they often recognize insights they’ve had at various points in their life that were “game changers”, where nothing on the outside really changed but everything was different after than before.
While I would encourage you to treat this question as a prompt for your own personal inquiry and reflection, here are a few of the things I’ve seen over the years that make my life a happy one – a truly lovely thing to be able to say and mean after a childhood filled with depression, suicidal ideation, and chronic worry…
Settling down is both the path and the destination.
I remember sitting in my office one day and being overcome with a burst of apparently random joy. In the afterglow of my “mind-gasm”, I reflected on the beautiful feelings that seemed to come with the settling down of my thoughts.
In that moment it became obvious to me that pretty much anything I had done to make my life better over the years, from trying to make more money to regular exercise to learning to meditate, all had the same desired end result – more peace of mind and everything that came with it. The beauty of realizing this, at least for me, is that knowing that a quiet mind is both the path and the destination has enabled me to experience it more of the time with less and less effort.
Reality is a lot more fluid than we think it is
For most of my life I’ve been fascinated by subjectivity – how it is that two people can have completely different experiences of the exact same set of circumstances. The game changing insight for me was when I realized that the mind works more like a projector than a camera – that is to say that many of the things I think of as “fixed circumstances” turn out to be as fluid and thought-created as the nature of thought itself,
Here’s how I wrote about it in The Inside-Out Revolution:
You’re in an art studio filled with painters standing at their easels. Although you can’t see it from where you’re standing, they’re all looking in the direction of a small platform in the center of the room and painting what they see.
As you walk around the studio, you notice small and sometimes vast discrepancies between what people are painting on their canvases. Arguments break out in parts of the room as to whether or not the model for the painting is more one color than another, taller or shorter, uglier or more beautiful than rendered.
You begin to become curious about what it is that everyone’s painting, so you make your way to the center of the room and discover to your surprise that there’s absolutely nothing there. The emptiness of the center is palpable.
Suddenly, you realize the reason why everyone’s painting a different picture isn’t down to their point of view, where their easel happens to be placed, or even to a matter of personal interpretation. It’s because what they are ‘viewing’ is only a projection of their own thoughts.
The best things happen when I’m in over my head.
As a life-long “fraidy-cat”, it’s always been somewhat surprising to me how drawn I am to take on things that seem beyond me. Logically, the best way to deal with fear would be to shrink our lives down to a more manageable size. Yet throughout my life I’ve always noticed that the best things happen to, for, and through me when I put myself on the spot and in the spotlight.
Whether it’s facing a blank page, a crisis at work, an upset human, or a full auditorium, I am almost always surprised and inevitably delighted by what comes to and through me in the face of things that my logical mind thinks are beyond me. This capacity of the mind to create fresh thinking and innovative solutions “from scratch” in every moment is one of the true joys in life, and is why my hope for humanity remains undiminished in the face of each new crisis that seems to emerge at times on a nearly daily basis.
In the words of the great 20th century philosopher Winnie the Pooh:
“You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
With all my love,