Does One Bad Apple Really Spoil the Whole Bunch?

I’m currently fascinated by Bad Apples. Bad Apples the metaphor for people, not so much the fruit. But of course there are corollaries. So the first question at hand is, “does one bad apple really spoil the whole bunch? For fruit, the answer is yes. Because ethylene. But what about people? From my experience, the answer is also a resounding yes. But don’t take my word for it. Check out this University of Washington study overview, which defined Bad Apples as “negative people as those who don’t do their fair share of work, who are chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable, or who bully or attack others.” They found that Bad Apples elicited coping mechanisms in other employees such as “denial, social withdrawal, anger, anxiety and fear.”

I know, I know, this is not really new. The saying exists for a reason. However, it does set the stage for some further inquiries I’ve been making around Bad Apples. So stay tuned for the Bad Apple series as we explore Bad Apples in Sports, how to deal with Bad Apples in your circles, and how to avoid becoming a Bad Apple.

From Middle America to Zen Buddhism

In an earlier post I offered to explain how a middle-class kid from conservative and deeply Christian Southern Ohio wound up nosing around a Japanese “non-religious” tradition and how Zen might help you be a little happier. Since I’m all about truth in advertising, here goes.

Seeds planted:

As I look back, Zen and meditation piqued my interest waaaaay back.

Kung Fu, Grasshopper

Perhaps like most Western boys in the 70’s, I developed a fascination with martial arts. I loved Bruce Lee and I loved the show Kung Fu with David Carradine. I saw “the Grasshopper” working on his skills and learning from his master. The show Kung Fu helped me realize that the martial art was about more than just kicking butt. There was a mental discipline that was needed to be a “master” and mediation and mindfulness was a big part of it. And then you kick butt.

Phil Jackson

I was also big fan of the Michael Jordan era Chicago Bulls. When Phil Jackson came on board as head coach, the team went from great to legendary. Sports-casting was entering the hyper-journalism cycle at that time. I gobbled up the program that talked about Phil’s Zen practice and how it influenced him and the early 90’s Bulls’ success. I was further intrigued.

Non-Western Religions and Philosophies

When I got my Bachelor’s degree as an adult learner at Otterbein College (now University), I was introduced into the liberal arts. My original degree in college is a technical degree, so we spent very little time on literature and philosophy. Its a good thing too, as I had just about zero interest in the liberal arts when I was just out of high school. If it isn’t going to help me make money immediately, you can keep it. As an adult learner with a family, I was much more open to the experience. My time at Otterbein changed my life for the better, but I’ll trim this point down to one class.

As an elective, I took Non-Western Religions and Philosophies. I learned two important concepts. First, I learned about monism – which is essentially the concept that God flows through – or IS – everything rather than the Western theistic notion that God is separate but interested in our world. Think “The Force” in Star Wars, because let’s be honest, the Eastern philosophies are where George Lucas got the concept. Second, I learned that in the Far East, people don’t generally think about “religions” or philosophies as exclusive. One could subscribe to Shinto and Confucianism and Buddhism all at the same time with no problem. These concepts opened new possibilities to me. I felt that I could investigate without stepping on the toes of my deeply conservative, Protestant upbringing.

Time of turmoil:

My career was taking off

I definitely started my career with humble beginnings. But at about the 10 year mark in 2007, it was starting to take off. I had gone back to college as a working professional and the experience expanded my horizons. I was taking on growth roles at work and my salary was growing at the same time. In ~2010 I landed a corporate leadership role that put me in the running for an executive position. I was completely out of my comfort zone. I was trying to get things done while not making a misstep. I was hyper-aware of my new surroundings at the executive leadership level and was hyper-sensitive to any and all feedback. Each day was a roller-coaster ride of emotion. In 2012, I landed my first executive role, but the turmoil in my head didn’t stop. I had finally “made it;” but now more than ever, I walked on egg shells because I felt that any mistake would set me back and betray the firm’s faith in me.

My marriage was falling apart

My success at work was making my wife at the time more and more uncomfortable. She and I had come from very humble beginnings in the blue collar heartland of America. The more I grew professionally, the more she put pressure on me to reaffirm my love for her. From about 2007 to 2010, we fell into this terrible pattern where she would find or invent and offense and then put the burden of proof on me to resolve her complaint. It was obsessive. It went on week in and week out. She was satisfied with the argument and apology cycle, but on the whole something else was deeply wrong and I was at my wit’s end.

I asked for more permanent solutions over the years: couples therapy, individual therapy, classes, books, whatever; all to no avail. Her standing position was, “No one is ever going to look into my head.” In June 2010, I had had enough and I told her I was separating. In separation, we did some couples and individual therapy, but it was too far gone.

I want to be very clear here. I genuinely believe that my wife at the time felt completely cornered by her emotions. I genuinely believe that she was doing what she thought was right to “save our marriage,” even though the jeopardy was in her head. The bitter irony is that for me, the cycle of chaos ruined our marriage. I also want to be clear that I take responsibility for my part in the downfall of the marriage. I simply did not have the tools to overcome the problem at the time.

Panic Attacks

Over the course of my promotion and simultaneous separation and divorce, I was under immense pressure. In 2010, my kids were 14 (son) and 10 (daughter). The 14-year-old had seen enough to know what was going on, but the 10-year-old was not ready for the change at home. At 10, kids see the world as categorically right or wrong. I had made the decision to separate the family and that, along with some encouragement from my estranged wife, made me dead wrong. Additionally, my estranged wife had enlisted the help of friends and family in the case against me, the family destroyer. Financially, I was operating at a $100 per month loss in order to keep the kids in their home and keep them in their sports activities. At the same time, I believed I needed to walk a tight-rope at work and I perceived winds gusting when they were probably at most a light breeze. Oh and then let’s further complicate things. While going through the divorce, I started dating – and that is absolutely another story.

All of this turmoil culminated into what I thought at the time was a heart attack. I was sitting in my office at work and I got this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It raised up through my chest in through my esophagus and into my teeth. My chest hurt. My head hurt. It hurt to breath deeply and even worse to swallow. But like a good hillbilly, I didn’t go to the hospital. Instead, I took to the internet and realized I was having a panic attack. It was the first of many. I needed to do something about the stress in my life or I was in for some real trouble.

Meditation:

Journaling

This being the age of internet problem-solving, I spent a lot of time researching stress-relief techniques. I started journaling, which I would argue is a form of meditation. I found it was extremely helpful in getting my thoughts and concerns – whether they were work, family, or otherwise – out of the swirl in my head. I wrote and wrote. I wrote during lunch. I wrote in the evening. I got it all out. I weighed my relationship and whether or not I wanted to remain part of it. I wrote about my new environment at work and what I thought the perceived the issues were. The more I wrote, the more it helped. I never shared the writing with anyone, but the process helped me put everything into context. As I settled my mind with the journaling process, I began to look for what was next. I kept reading books and doing research. I came across various meditation techniques and eventually settled on Zazen.

Zazen

Zazen is an extremely simple meditation practice. Sit down, shut up, and stare at the wall for a period of time. Yep, that’s about it. Nothing special. And yet it is. I actually learned Zazen from reading several different books and doing a lot of online research. Most notably, I was influenced by Brad Warner and his fantastic little book titled Hardcore Zen. I’ve always been a “pull yourself up by your own boot-straps” kind of a person. I’ve also never been afraid to chart my own course. Brad’s brand of punk rocker Zen Buddhism really speaks to me. Through this simple practice of sitting, I have continued my personal development in profound ways.

Zazen in Action

Fast forward to 2016. About 6 months into my practice of sitting Zazen for 10-20 minutes a day, I was going through a bumpy patch in my new job. On of my coworkers was creating some challenges for me by making some half-truth negative claims about my work. I was really upset about it. I was about 2 years into my new job and I was enjoying some great success. I was being talked about by senior management as a contender for another executive position at this new company and in the midst of it, I was having to defend my integrity because of this person’s comments.

While this was going on, I was doing one of my routine Zazen sessions. I put on the timer, put the pillow down, and had a seat with an erect spine. I breathed normally and stared at a blank 3 foot section of my bedroom wall. A few minutes into my session, the wall in front of me started to “swirl.” For the simple fact that I’m trying to wrap up this post, I won’t get into everything that I “saw.” But the most important thing that I did “see” was that my coworker and I were the same person. It was a lot like watching a child gain awareness that the image in the mirror is hers and that she can control it. But my experience was like being the child and seeing it from a third person’s perspective at the same time. I was watching myself look into the mirror and seeing my coworker. When I talked, she talked. When I put my hand on my face, hers followed suit. It was in that moment that I will tell you rightfully and honestly that all the baggage I had been carrying about this situation melted away on the spot.

I realized that I had been in this person’s exact same spot a few years before and I had acted almost identically to how she was acting now. I instantly understood my coworker. I also knew that in the long run, my performance would stand up to the scrutiny because I honestly was doing the work that was being recognized. From that point on, I handled the coworker and similar situations with more poise. The beauty of that development is that it essentially sealed the deal for my promotion, which I’m happy to report happened about 6 months later.

In Closing:

I hope this post has intrigued you. I hope this post has explained briefly but clearly my background with Zen Buddhism and some of the benefits that I’ve experienced. However, I’m always happy to answer any questions you might have. Please post in the comments section or email me directly at quixotegoes@gmail.com if I can be of service in any way.

My Wife is a Zen Master

We’ve been doing a lot of travel lately. Since March, we’ve been to Ireland, Montreal, New York City, we ran a 150 mile relay race in Southern Ohio, and last weekend, we went to New Orleans. At first, I expected to write some travel-related posts about these trips, but as you might imagine, home life has kept me pretty busy in between. I mean, we have to work during the week to foot the bill for this Instagram lifestyle. Honestly, we’re a bit tired. We wouldn’t have chosen to do all of that travel in such a short period of time, but several of the trips were not really our plan. In fact, almost all of these trips were to celebrate birthdays of other people. We’re all for celebrating other people. But with so much travel and none of it really specific to our plans, I can get knocked off my game.

During the trip to New Orleans, we met several other couples to help one of my wife’s college friends celebrate her 40th birthday. We casually knew most people involved, but this wasn’t exactly a close-knit group for us. How bad can it be? We’re flexible and congenial and can get along with most anyone. Well… at least my wife can. I on the other hand, seem to invite controversy. When I talk to people about my past and the amount of arguments, threats of physical harm, and actual fist fights I’ve been sucked into, people are astonished. In fact, I wrote a whole other post – nearly 2000 words – about this topic but I have opted to scrap it because it sounded like a bit of a sob story. I’m not one for that. But suffice it to say, if a street bum is going to pick out someone from a group of 10 people and start messing with them, it is going to be me. I know, because I’ve seen it happen. Repeatedly.

OK, we get it, you seem to have a tractor beam for aggressive-types; so what’s this bit about your wife being a Zen Master? I’ll get there. So let’s say the trip to NOLA was not without its controversy. I actually handled it in stride during the trip. I took the grief I was given and offered myself up for a bit more. In the midst of the grief-handling, my daughter called me while crying because her car had broken down on a fairly busy community road. She and I worked together to sort it all out, and the bill was going to be in the $1200 range. I’ll come back to this in a minute. So, fast forward to Monday and people at work asked me how my trip went. I started giving one person some of the details about the grief I got and he was aghast. He said, “if that was me, I probably would have ditched the group and gone to the Jazz Fest on my own.” While I was rehashing the story, my Mom sent me a text. Over this same weekend, she took a break from the move into her new condominium, went to a casino for a couple of hours and won $1200 on the slots. I congratulated her good fortune but thought a bit more about it. I sent my wife the following text, “I spent the weekend as a social pariah and it cost me $1200 on our daughter’s car. My Mom played the slots for a few minutes this weekend and won $1200. She is definitely living righter than me.” I was mostly being funny, but many a true word is spoken in jest. My recap of the weekend to some of my co-workers had set the wheels of self-pity in motion.

At first, the Zen Master who is my wife played my comment down as funny. But then she said that I wasn’t a social pariah. What? You were there! I was incredulous. I began to recount to my wife the events of the weekend as if she hadn’t experienced them first hand. How could she say that I was not the outcast? She let me moan on for a bit all the while saying “OK” and “Sure.” If a man wants to dig a hole, there’s no point in standing in his way I guess. After I had more or less exhausted my digging, she hit me with this: “I don’t know why you’re upset now. You’re a nonconformist and you’re fine with the attention that it brings. I thought we had a nice weekend together.” She was right of course. We had a great breakfast at a lovely little French cafe. We had an incredible dinner at an Italian restaurant. We hung out together at a rooftop bar while the sun set. The weather was perfect. We held hands and walked around the French Quarter. I was down there for her, and here I was picking at the tiny dark spots on an otherwise amazing weekend. I let it go.

That evening, I was re-reading Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, and about 10 minutes into my reading, the following passage hit me squarely between the eyes:

We try so hard to preserve the very thing that’s making us miserable. We cling hard to our pain because we mistakenly think that that pain is who we really are. We define ourselves by what we don’t like or we define ourselves by what we like. Either way we miss the truth. We harbor some inexplicable fear that if we start to enjoy everything about life without picking and choosing we might cease to exist.

– Hardcore Zen, Kindle Edition; location 2089

So my wife is now doling out the same advice as an ordained Zen Master. That psychology degree is starting to pay off. All joking aside, this is one of the multitudinous reasons why I profess my undying love for this woman. She makes me a better person.

If you’re wondering, I was able to simply let go of the “pain” I was holding onto. While my wife triggered my letting go, it is my study of Zen Buddhism and practice of Zazen that has helped me to shorten the the cycle of letting go. I’ll focus an upcoming post on how a middle-class kid from conservative and deeply Christian Southern Ohio wound up nosing around a Japanese “non-religious” tradition and how it might help you be a little happier. But until then, let’s make with the questions from this post… 

How does your significant other make you a better person?

Are you holding on to some pain that feels like it defines you? What might letting go of that pain look like?

To be or… To BE? The Power of Labels

Studying foreign languages has been one of my more fruitful pursuits. Unlike many Americans my age, I was exposed to formal instruction in Spanish in the third grade through a pilot academic program. If I’m honest, I didn’t love it at the time. I kept thinking, “I’ll never use this.” Since that time I’ve formally and self-studied Spanish and French on and off for 30+ years. Studies have found that knowing more than one language offers a host of benefits, including improved decision-making and resistance to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a novice with both languages. But I dutifully practice a little each day. Recently, I found this fascinating and eloquent summary comparing the two “be” verbs in Spanish. Yep, two. It turns out you can be something and you can BE something.

Ser versus Estar

The following is an article excerpt from Duolingo. I truncated it to illustrate my point, but I would encourage anyone interested in practicing a foreign language to check out Duolingo. It’s a fantastic, free tool that has an excellent online community.

One of the hardest things to learn about Spanish is the distinction between the verbs “ser” and “estar,” since in English they both mean “to be.”

“Ser” refers to what something is, while estar refers more to what something does. For example, “estoy enfermo” would mean “I am being sick” or “I am currently sick.” On the other hand “soy enfermo” translates to something closer to “I am a sick person” or “I am sickly.” Below are more examples:

Estar
                                                                        Ser

Estoy feliz = I am currently happy                        Soy feliz = I am happy by nature

Estoy cansada = I am currently tired                   Soy cansada = I am a tired person

Él está callado = He is being quiet                        Él es callado = He is introverted

You can think of “ser” as being equivalent to “equals.” Alternatively, you can think of “estar” as refering to a temporary condition, while “ser” frequently refers to a permanent condition. 

I love that there is a differentiation between the current state and the permanent condition. Like most languages, English only has one be verb. “I am happy,” could mean “I’m a happy person” or “I’m happy at the moment.” Spanish is so much more efficient in the distinction. But the real reason I’m excited about this distinction is because it makes me think about the words we use to describe our feelings and ourselves.

The Impact of Labels

Recognition and naming a feeling or behavior is a great way to begin the problem-solving process to overcome it. The practice is rooted in Buddhist traditions and has been proven effective in psychological studies. However, as in the Spanish separation of estar and ser, there must be a key differentiation between giving something a current state name and allowing it to slip into a permanent label. For instance, saying that we are “anxious about public speaking” can go from an acknowledgement of an emotional reaction to a labeled pattern of, “I am always anxious about public speaking.” The labeled pattern can then become quite limiting. “Oh no, I don’t speak in public; I’m far too anxious.”

I routinely fell into this labeling trap in my early adulthood. I’ll avoid the labeling details here, but I had much more fixed political views at 21 than I do at 43. I used to think silly thoughts like, “I can’t eat that or drive that car or shop in that store because I’m a [insert label].” As I have aged, I am happy to say that I have repeatedly challenged my labels. I’ll take running as a fairly innocuous example. I used to carry the moniker, “I am not a runner.” I would joke that I only ran if being chased or if I was being punished in sports (Coach: Take a lap, Gregory.). I eventually challenged the label that I was “not a runner.” In my early 30’s, I got back into recreational soccer. I started running to become more competitive in my league. A funny thing happened. I began to recognize running as a meditative and restorative force in addition to a pretty good way to build some midfield running capacity. Slowly, I dropped the label “I am not a runner” and started to accept that just maybe I am.

Interestingly, I have found that I can take it too far. I will readily admit that I’m a self-improvement junkie. Is that a label, Gregory? Take a lap! As I take in new information and accept new interests into my life, these new labels can also become burdensome. Over time, I started to describe myself as a runner. Last year, “I am a runner” became “I’m a marathon runner.” That meant that I upped my weekly running totals to 6 days and as many as 60 miles. I began to transfer my current state into a label. It gave way to things like, “I can’t go out to dinner because I’d miss my training run; and I can’t do that because I’m a marathon runner!” Granted, some of this was driven by necessity. I had specific marathons that I had signed up for and I’m not the kind of athlete that I can just show up and knock out 26 miles. But I think the message comes through. Labels can be limiting on both fronts. Labels can inhibit our development and they can box us into requirements.

As I grow, I’m trying to embrace estar in lieu of ser. I want to think about who I am currently without falling prey to the permanence of a label. Clearly, there are things that are woven into the fabric of my being. I stand for justice, equality, liberty, motherhood, and apple pie. And FC Barcelona… but I digress. Take a lap! As I’m getting older, I have fewer free moments and I don’t have time to paint myself into corners. I need to evaluate my labels from time to time and discard what isn’t serving me.

As I close, I’ll leave you with a couple of questions.

What are your labels? 

Are they limiting your progress or promoting a happier, healthier life? 

Is it possible to transition those limiting labels into current state assessments that have room for change?