What my tennis coach taught me about change

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Can reading a blog help you stop the madness?

It can’t.

You can’t learn to play tennis by reading, either. You’ve got to play.

I took tennis lessons once. The coach asked me to show him my serve. I hit a few. I looked over and saw him shake his head. “We have a lot of work to do,” he said.

First, he had me put my racquet down and practice tossing the ball. He showed me what I was doing wrong. I was bending my elbow, causing the ball the ball to go behind me where I couldn’t hit it well. He showed me how to toss it right. “Keep that elbow straight,” he said. He watched me toss the ball until I did it correctly. “There,” he said. “Now toss it that way two thousand times, then it’ll be automatic.”

My tennis coach understood how to effect change. First, he had to break down the process of serving a tennis ball into parts small enough for me to focus. Just the toss. Then, he knew that to break old bad habits and create new ones it is necessary to repeat the new habit over and over again. How many times? I don’t know if two thousand times is the precise number necessary. Suffice it to say, it’s a lot.

So, if you take this process and apply it, not to serving a tennis ball, but to the way to handle madness, you can see there’s a lot of work to do. First, you must know what sanity is and compare it to what you’ve been doing. You have to know how to do it right to know what you’re doing wrong. Then you have to practice doing it right, over and over again, until it’s automatic.

Let’s say you’re an alcoholic. You’ve gone to AA and gotten a list of phone numbers of recovering people you can call whenever you feel like drinking. They’ll talk you out of it. So, what you got to do is to call them when you have what passes for a reason to drink. It’s a very simple operation, as simple as tossing a tennis ball while keeping your arm straight. If you call them once, you’ve achieved a small victory. If you call them two-thousand times, you’ve changed a bad habit into a good one. It may now be automatic.

It would take me about less than half an hour to toss a tennis ball correctly two-thousand times, thus creating a good habit quite easily. It’s not so easy when you train yourself to call your AA friends. You would have to have two-thousand urges to drink and two-thousand phone calls. That would take years. This is one reason why so many people relapse, so many people say change is impossible, and so many people give up. But, change is possible. It just takes persistence.

By the way, my tennis coach went on to show me other things I could use to improve my game, but what really stuck with me was how to perfect the toss. That was the only thing I learned from those tennis lessons. It turns out, that’s all I needed to learn so that I could beat the people I was likely to play. If I ever turn pro, I’ll have to see the tennis coach again to learn the right way to do other things. The same thing goes with learning to stop the madness. Very small changes, if they’re the right changes, can make a huge difference. But, you’ve got to play.


How to Get Out of Quicksand

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I was walking along the beach one day, having a nice vacation, when I stepped into quicksand. It wasn’t a deep pit like you see in the movies, the kind that can swallow a horse and rider, but it was quicksand, just the same. I soon was in up to my knees, just like in the movies. The more I struggled to pull my feet out, the more stuck I became.

Perhaps you’ve noticed by now that you get more entrenched in your issues the more you try to solve them; just like quicksand. You have a library of self-help books, have seen a score of therapists, attend groups, seminars, and yoga classes, you take medicine, and practice mindfulness. All this and you are still anxious. In fact, you’ve gone from being anxious to being anxious about being anxious. If your method of escaping is similar to my method of getting out of quicksand, you will get more stuck. You’re doing it wrong. Continue reading

The Talking Stick


Here’s another object in my office I want to tell you about.

It’s a Talking Stick.


No, the stick doesn’t talk. You do when you hold it.

The concept of the Talking Stick comes, I’ve been told, from an old Native American tradition. When the elders gathered in a teepee to talk about important matters, they would pass a Talking Stick around. Whoever had the stick had the right to speak. Everyone else listened.

There are characteristics about sticks that make them perfect for talking. A stick performs the same functions that words can. A stick can be used for support. It can point things out. It can be a weapon. Your words are the same way. Your words can also support, point things out, or be used as a weapon. When you are handed a Talking Stick, you are being trusted that you will use your words wisely.

My Talking Stick has some feathers on it. When you hold the stick and speak, the feathers will move, blown around by the wind your breath makes. Your words have effect. People can be stirred, affected, or blown over by your words.

I attached a small bag of stones to my Talking Stick. Stones that have been through my rock tumbler. The rock tumbler is my favorite metaphor for relationships. I wrote about it here.

The Talking Stick is best held so that the bottom end is resting on the ground. That’s to symbolize that the talker is grounded. He or she is connected to reality, that Earth upon which we all stand. However, the point only touches a very small piece of the Earth. The talker can only claim a small bit of reality, just the point he or she is trying to make at the moment.

I frequently use the Talking Stick in marriage counseling whenever the partners have something they need to learn from one another. When you use the Talking Stick properly, you get feedback; you can learn.

Whoever starts off with the stick gets to speak first, but, but just as the stick can only point to once place at a time, you can only make one point at a time. You can’t go on and on and on and expect that your partner can absorb it all, must less show comprehension, and respond to everything at once. Keep it short and concise.

Once you’ve made your point, your partner has to earn the right to speak by demonstrating that he has understood what you have just said.

Your partner should paraphrase the point you just made, not parrot. It’s possible to mindlessly repeat what you’ve just said without understanding it. Paraphrasing is harder. Paraphrasing requires that he put into his own words the gist of what you were trying to say. He should paraphrase everything you just said when you had the stick. If you asked him a direct question, he should paraphrase the question before answering it. That’s so he can prove to you and to himself that he understands the question he’s answering. Otherwise, he could be answering a question you didn’t even have. What good is that?

When you are satisfied that your partner comprehends the point you made, then you give him the stick. Even if he doesn’t agree, you can be satisfied that he gets it. He knows where you are coming from.

If you’re not satisfied that he understands, you have to make your point again, in a different way. Maybe he wasn’t listening. Maybe he distorted what you were trying to say. Maybe you weren’t explaining things well. Maybe you two have a variance over the meanings of words. In any case, aren’t you glad you asked him to paraphrase? If you hadn’t, then you might have gone on in a confused manner.

When he gets the stick, be prepared; you will have to paraphrase when he is done.

My Talking Stick has a lot of spiritual medicine from hundreds of people talking with it over a quarter of a century. You’ll have to make an appointment if you want to use it. If you can’t make an appointment, it’s easy enough to make your own. However, you would have to provide your own spiritual medicine.

The Fly

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I have an object in my office, nailed to the wall, it looks like this:


“What is this object?” I ask.

Most people would say it’s a fly.

“OK, why do I have a fly nailed to my wall?”

“It must be a joke,” most say. “Fly on the Wall, get it?”

“Is it really a fly?”

“Of course; well, it might be some other kind of bug.”

If I take the object down, put it on a table, and let people examine it, they still say it’s a fly. This is funny because of all the things it could be, it is definitely not a fly. It’s actually a brass object, made to look like something.

If they open it up, it looks like this:


“Now, what is this object?”

It becomes evident that it could be an ashtray. But most people struggle with this awareness because they had already categorized the object as a fly.

“Why would a person have an ashtray?”

“They’d need an ashtray if they smoked, but I guess you don’t, or you used to, so now you don’t need an ashtray, so you put it up on the wall as a joke.”

They’re right, it is a joke. It’s also an object lesson I use sometimes to point out the difference between the thing in itself and the labels and stories we attach to them. Often, the label is so persuasive that we totally forget what it is in itself, just as people will persist in calling it a fly even after I point out that it’s only a piece of brass made to look like one.

We are very quick to attach labels and stories, not only to brass objects, but to everything else, including people, including ourselves. But, because we are so quick, we are often wrong, or incomplete.

There are many powerful myths and psychological processes that get in the way of seeing things the way they are. It pays to not be so attached to labels and stories. It’s important to always go back to the thing in itself and to be open to seeing it in a new way.

Missing Out

Old PostsBritish psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, must have had enough of writing about life as we actually live it. He’s the author of On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored; Flirtation, etc. Now, he’s come out with a book that explores the life we have not lived, the effect of what we believe could’ve been. In the process of examining our fantasies, he illuminates reality.
The book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, is written in non-technical language, but don’t attempt the book if you’re not up on Shakespeare. He relies far too much on the Bard’s tragic heroes to provide us with examples.

Let me attempt to summarize his main points without resorting to King Lear. Continue reading

Why You Should Observe Advent Even If You Don’t Do Christmas

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You know what Christmas looks like. Busy malls, colorful lights, the ubiquitous Santas. You know what it sounds like: jingle bells, jolly music, ho ho ho. You know what you’re supposed to do: attend parties, kiss under the mistletoe, go mad buying things no one needs. You know what it’s supposed to feel like: generosity, warm fuzziness, wonder, enchantment, and excitement. Christmas has the distinctive smell of pine needles and ham dinner. You know when it’s supposed to occur; before Halloween is definitely too soon. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you know all about Christmas. Getting what you want is like Christmas to you.

You may think you know all about Christmas, but you may not realize that you’re missing a whole ‘nother holiday between Thanksgiving and December twenty-fifth. No, I don’t mean Black Friday. You’re missing Advent.

You think you know about Advent, do you? There’re the candles and the little paper houses where you open a new door every day. You’ve been there and done that; it’s not your thing. But, I bet you never thought about the true meaning of Advent, just like the true meaning of Christmas is often hidden under mounds of discarded wrapping paper.

Advent is about waiting. Continue reading