Transcending Domination: An Existential Meditation


The Will to Power: Seeking to Dominate and to Avoid Domination

Someone far wiser than me stated that one of the key factors explaining how we – human beings – show up is this one: the strong desire to dominate (others, circumstances) AND to avoid domination (by others, by circumstances).

This is just a different way of seeing/spelling out that which was central to the philosophy of living articulated by Nietzsche: The Will To Power exercised by all living organisms.

I say that this makes perfect sense given that we have been shaped – through the process of evolution – to survive and thrive under a broad range of contexts / circumstances.

Why Then Do We Allow Loved Ones – Playing Victim – To Dominate Us?

Given this Will to Power – seeking to dominate and avoid domination – how is it that we allow our loved ones to dominate us? Look, I get that when you and I were children we could not avoid being dominated by our parents, by our teachers, by anyone older/stronger than us. It is adults, us, that I do not understand.

I find it fascinating how easily we – adults -walk into the trap of being dominated by a loved one: friend, child, husband, mother/father… Further, I say there is no domination like being dominated by a loved one playing victim. Why? Because we do NOT see that we are being dominated by the one playing victim. AND, because we do NOT see that the other is playing victim. We are conditioned – mostly as a relic of Judeo-Christian religion – to treat weakness as virtue. And, crawl on our hands and knees serving those playing victim.

What is it that I am pointing at? Allow me to illustrate through a few examples.

Example 1: A friend who never turns up on the agreed upon time

A lifelong friend is one that always turned up late – no matter what was agreed, and how much forewarning he was given. So what did we do at university? We catered for him – all of us waiting for him to turn up so that we could go ahead with what we planned. He might be 5 minutes late. Equally he might be 50 minutes late. This behaviour continued past university, by when we all had responsible jobs that required us to be punctual.

One day I got it. By doing that which he was doing and getting us to buy into his game, he got to dominate us – play the game by his rules. It also happened to be the case that a group of us were leaving that Friday evening at 20:00 to go to Wales for a camping / walking weekend. So, I picked up the phone and said something like this, “We will leave exactly at 20:00. Exactly. Not one minute before, and not one minute later. So you are responsible for ensuring you turn up by 20:00 if you want a lift in the car. If you choose not to turn up on time then you are responsible for making your way to …” Then on the day itself, I sent him a reminder.

At 20:00 our friend had not turned up. One friend – Dave – did not want to do that which we all had agreed. He insisted on waiting till our friend turned up. As it was my car, I simply said, “I am a man of my word. So we are leaving now – right now. So you have a choice to come along. Or to wait for …. and then the both of you can make your way to …”. He came along. Our friend – the one who is always late – did make his way to our agreed destination. It took him pretty much the whole of the night to get there.

Here’s the lesson: since then he has never been late because he knows I mean what I say. And that I refuse to treat him as a child, or as some victim of life who is not capable of turning up on time.

Example 2: My Parents And Their Guilt Tripping

So my parents are from Azad Kashmir, a region administered by Pakistan. They, like all others from their culture / background, are masters of emotionally blackmailing their children.

Here is the situation. I have refused to have an arranged marriage. I have refused to arrange a marriage myself from the tribe they have chosen – their tribe. Actually, more like a social caste and tribe. They are not at all happy with this and do all manner of things to get me to do as they wish.

One day, I turn up to their home and announce, “I am getting married to French woman. She is white. She is not religious – and certainly not muslim…..The wedding is in France on….. and you are invited to come to the wedding.” Silence. Then, the emotional blackmail started.

“You have killed us. When the community finds out that you – our eldest- have married a white woman, and a non-muslim, a mountain of shame will fall upon us. We will die of shame. How can you do this to us after all we have done for you!!”

I had been down this road many times. And so I was prepared for it given that I had been studying existential philosophy as a hobby. So here is how I responded, “We all die. All of us – that is what we have in common If it is that shameful to you then go ahead and take your own lives now – right now. As for me, I have chosen to marry this woman on this date at this place. And that is exactly what I will be doing.”

After this event, I was never subjected to emotional blackmail from my parents. They never played victim with me and thus put me in the role of either persecutor or rescuer. I taught them that I had seen through and transcended their game of emotional blackmail.

Example 3: My Son Who Experiences Anxiety & Depression

To cut a long story short, my son turned up to Switzerland. And after ten minutes started complaining about this or that. This I am used to and have learnt to accommodate. Then he went several steps beyond that to be critical of me, and my life choices. And beyond that to be truly bitter and put me down. That was all within the first 3 hours of his arrival. This attitude and behaviour continued to the next day, and the next day.

Then it hit me. I have brought this upon myself by accepting his story about himself: I am a victim of life – particularly of anxiety and depression so I cannot be/do/have this and that. And, you – my father or mother – must do x, y, z for me because you love me. Not doing x, y,z is proof that you are bad parents! Loving parents do whatever it takes to make their children happy.

So, I found the right time and place to say this: “You are faced with 2 choices: continue on the path you have chosen – this one of bitterness and condemnation – and then I must ask you to leave my home and go back to the UK on your due date.. Or you can give this sh*t up, be responsible adult that you can be, and treat me respectfully. In which case you can extend your stay – as you want to do – and I will pay for the costs of changing your ticket. Choose.”

Yesterday, we had a fantastic day together. I am clear that was because my son gave up playing victim. Instead, he showed up as responsible and fun loving adult. He helped guide me in driving my car on certain sections of road the were simply too tight to get it wrong. He helped his sister – words and actions – when he noticed that she was struggling. When we got back he cooked chicken without being asked.

In Conclusion: Avoid Domination by Not Being a Willing Participant in the Drama Created by The One Playing Victim

If our loved ones are to grow – including our children – then it is essential that our conduct towards them is that of, “You are whole complete and perfect as you are and are not. Now go live and create yourself and the life that you yearn for or which calls you.”

What do I mean by “You are whole complete perfect”? I mean that if children are born normally, have normal cognitive functioning, and healthy emotional upbringing, then they have the capacities to deal with life – to make the most of opportunities, and to navigate the challenges that come up – by the time they are adults.

Given this, our stance toward them should be one that says “You have what it takes including becoming that which you need to become, and learning that which you need to learn – to deal with life effectively.”

I wish to conclude by saying something some will find contentious. Having studied anxiety and depression from various perspectives including the Existentialist perspective, I choose to see/act from the following interpretation:

1-Some – relatively – few people who are depressed are so primarily because of some impairment in the machinery itself. Therefore, they need medical intervention e.g. mood dampening / killing drugs.

2-Most are choosing or have chosen to depress themselves – even if this has been done without conscious forethought. How so? By envisaging and living into either a dark or hopeless future. And, have learnt that by playing the victim (of life, of depression etc) they can get away with less being asked of them and more (time, attention, love ..) given to them than say their siblings.

3-Each normal adult has the capacity to own his life and to deal with whatever life brings him/her. And, my job as a parent, as a spouse, as a friend, as a team leader or work colleague, is to relate to each and every adult from this stand. That includes demanding that each of us confronts our freedom, our death, and our responsibility to make our choices and deal with the consequences.

Yes, I will help you. And, I will help you to the extent that you own your life – including your challenges. What I will not do is to allow you to put the burden of ownership on to my back! For to do that is to steal the very core of what makes us human – our freedom: to own / shape our lives as we see fit.

If you have made it this far then I thank you for the listening it takes to listen to my speaking. For I do not speak of the trivial, nor do I speak in every day terms. Wishing you the very best. Until the next time……

Loss & Grieving: An Existential Meditation


I dedicate this conversation to Simone Ansaldi and Teresa Zelmanovits

Loss & Grieving: No Escaping Loss! Grieving is Optional

Loss is an existential fact. Which is to say no adult human being escapes loss: losing some person, losing some relationship/s, losing some pet, losing some thing/s, losing some place/s, losing some job/s, losing some future….

Given that loss is an existential fact, how can one go about dealing with loss? A good place to start is accepting the loss! Which is my way of saying: accept the loss, expect a punch (or two, or three..) so powerful that it leaves you on the floor: physically – lack of appetite, lack of energy; emotionally – sadness, melancholy, even misery; cognitively – hard to concentrate, to think straight; and even at the level of spirit – your inner core wobbles.

Acceptance of loss and the punch – physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual – is a good place to start. It is not the place to rest. From acceptance, it is necessary to grieve: to feel, actually feel, the intense sorrow and allow the tears (in the heart, in the soul) to flow outwards so that there is moisture in your eyes, and your cheeks, and perhaps some sorrowful howling too.

If this was a conversation from a psychological perspective then I would end this conversation by giving you some coping strategies like connect with your friends, go out and keep engaged in the world, plan a vacation or something nice. It’s from an existential perspective – so lets move forward on the existential path.

Being Human: The Existential Perspective

Facticity, and Transcendence lie at the very core of the Existential perspective on human existence. There is no escaping facticity – therefore one has to accept and deal with it. There is no escaping Transcendence and we do just about anything/everything to escape from it.

Facticity is simply that which is so. For example, I am a man living in Central Switzerland. The cut in my thumb is infected and not healing – so I take antibiotics. I work as a management consultant. I have three children. And I am grieving the loss of an important and beautiful relationship. That relationship had allowed me to invent an uplifting present and future. With the loss of this relationship, my present is filled with sorrow and my future is kind of empty.

Transcendence is simply that which goes with being a fully functioning adult. I am not my circumstances. I am not a rock – stuck with that which I am and no ability to change. No, I am a human being gifted with imagination, freedom/choice, and responsibility. I can imagine another uplifting new future – one without this amazing/wonderful person and this magical relationship in it. I can imagine myself as different man to that which I am today. And, I can then choose: who I wish to become, and which future I wish to live into and from. Finally, I am responsible for the choices I make. And, I am responsible for the actions I take (or do not take) to become that which I have chosen to become, and to create the future that I have chosen to live into and from.

Transcendence: Take This Powerful Stand

You will not find this anywhere in any existential literature. Why? Because I am the source of it, as in I invented this. And, I can tell you that it is one hundred percent in alignment with the Existential perspective. I invite you to show up (attitude) and travel (decisions, actions) from the following stand:

“I am a match for whatever Life brings my way – the opportunities, the obstacles, the joys, the sorrows……. I am a match for ALL of it!”

What is a stand? It is a declaration, it is a declaration that has impact – it has fundamental impact on who you are and how you live. Example, when the priest announces “I now declare you man and wife.” Another example, USA – Declaration of Independence. That which follows these declarations is so fundamentally different to that which was so before this declaration is made AND lived – the lived part is essential.

Notice, the stand/declaration creates the reality! Yes, one takes and lives the stand if it were already a reality. And in the very taking and living of this stand one creates that reality.

Transcendence: You Cannot Ask a More Powerful Question Than This One

You will not find this question in any existential literature either. Why? Because I am the source of it – as in I invented this too. Why did I invent it? Because I found myself dealing with immense sorrow and needed a way out of it – a powerful way. A way that allowed me to create an uplifting future. Ready for The Question? Here it is:

What does this OPEN UP for me – for me and my life?”

By “this” in the sentence, I refer to my loss – because when one loses something (say a furniture, or a friend, a country, a way of life) then space automatically is created for the new (furniture, new friend/s, country, way of life…).

Notice how this question moves the frame from the present in terms of loss/grief to the future – creating an uplifting future. Allow me to share an example, when my relationship/marriage of 27 years came to an end this is the question I sat with. Sitting with this question allowed me to imagine/create a future living outside of the UK – in some attractive country in Europe. Six months after the end of that relationship, I arrived in Switzerland and started a new life. Sixteen months later, I find that I love this life – everyday it occurs to me that I live in paradise.

Summing Up: If You Are Dealing With Loss and Find Yourself Grieving Then I Invite You To Take This Path

Loss is that which always and necessarily comes with human existence. There is no escaping it. A good start in dealing with loss is to grieve – to feel the intense sorrow. To be ok with the intense sorrow – as in let it come, and to simply experience it – without clinging to it, without pushing it away, without wallowing in it. Just experiencing it.

And that is NOT enough. If you wish to move past it and create an uplifting future and allow that future to lift you up on to your feet and pull you forward to that future then:

1-Take the following stand: “I am a match for whatever Life brings my way – the opportunities, the obstacles, the joys, the sorrows……. I am a match for ALL of it!”

AND

2-Ask yourself as in seriously sit with this one powerful question: What does this OPEN UP for me – for me and my life?”

If you have gotten this far then I thank you for your listening for it takes something to hear my speaking. I wish you a good/great day. Until the next time….

Hurt: An Existential Meditation


I dedicate this conversation, as it is deeply important one, to Teresa Zelmanovits. She is a person of deep humanity and considerable insight into the human condition. And, the source of this conversation.

“Don’t Fuck Up!”

Stephen Margarito, a friend, is fond of saying “DON’T fuck up!!” Is such a stand – way of showing up and travelling in the journey of life – possible? Let’s say for the sake of argument you (or I) are perfect – we never ever fuck up. Does this mean that you (or I) will lead a perfect life – a life without hurt, a life with only happiness?

I say “No!” Get real, you (and I) are going to get hurt. Hurt is a certainty for every human that has walked, does walk, ever will walk on this Earth. Why? Because, you (and I, and every other person) is a being-in-the-world-with-others.

As a being-in-the-world-with-others my existence is intricately tied to that of this world, and to that of others. Take others, if one’s life partner fucks up then one is impacted. If those who act as teachers to one’s children fuck up then one is affected. If one’s employer fucks up then there are likely to be redundancies and one is affected. Now, let’s take the World. Covid-19 broke out and how many have been affected?

The Existentialist Perspective: Fucking Up and Hurt Are Intrinsic to Human Existence, There is No Escape

One (you, I, the other) will fuck up. There will be consequences for the one that fucked up and others. And where there are fuck-ups there is likely to be hurt – not always, but likely. Hurt, you know as in “I hurt!” When I say “hurt” I am not pointing at pain. When I sliced my thumb open, there was blood everywhere, and pain was present. Even today, some 3 weeks later pain in my thumb is present.

By “hurt” I point at emotional hurt as in when one feels hurt. Example, your loved one leaves you, or dies. Beyond the emotional there is a deeper hurt. Of what do I speak? Of the hurt in one’s soul – in one’s very being. Example, you really really wanted to be say a dancer yet you became a lawyer because that is what your father or mother did. Or you did not seize the moment to pursue the only that truly mattered to you – the one that lit up your very soul and left it dancing joyously.

What Matters Is How One Deals With Hurt

Hurt is an existential fact: everyone of us will experience hurt. It’s what we do with this hurt that matters. Put differently and more powerfully: it’s how we choose to use hurt that makes all the difference.

What are the standard (playing small) options in relation to hurt?

1-One can withdraw from life – into one’s shell so that one does not allow the other, or the world, to inflict more hurt. Some go one better, they withdraw, comfortable in that withdrawal, they stay there for a lifetime.

2-One can play victim – feel sorry for oneself, look/demand sympathy from others, one can go further and expect others to drop what they are doing and looking after me, the victim of life. By playing victim one can inflict one’s hurt onto others – almost always on those who are closest to us, those who love us. Why? Because they are the only ones willing to accept the injury and almost always the domination; the victim gets to dominate by playing weak and demanding loved one look after him/her. Failure to play this game leads the victim to ambush loved ones with guilt as in “If you loved me…..” Often the victim does not even need to do this, cultural upbringing already conditions one to feel guilty if one does not do their all for loved ones who are down.

3-One can burn with resentment, anger, even rage. These will lead to the corresponding actions For example, where one resents another, distance, blame, and critiscism of the other/s follows. I call this “inflicting death by a thousand cuts.” Anger can lead to lashing out at the other/s. Whether that is the abusive tongue or the abusive hands.

What Are The Playing BIG, useful, Options in relation to hurt?

1-One uses hurt to connect with one’s fellow human beings – recognising our mutuality, our shared human existence and condition. By connecting thus one opens the gate to compassion – for the other/s who are just like me hurting in some manner.

2-One goes into the hurt to enquire, to learn – about oneself, about the other/s, about the world. Example, one seeks to understand why it is that one’s spouse is emotionally distant or cutting. What is going on here? What burdens/scars does the spouse carry that lead to his/her behaviour? How am I being, and/or what is it that I am doing, that contributes and perhaps is even the source of my spouse being distant or cutting? At the end of the learning process one is almost always in a much more powerful place in relation to the hurt. And often the hurt is gone, at the very minimum it is diminished. Example, I see how my recent way of showing up and travelling in life (say being impatient and critical or just plain indifferent to him/her) has awakened the spouse’s scars and fears. And led to the spouse’s emotional distance or cutting remarks. S/he hurts me because I, unknowingly, hurt him/her.

3-One uses hurt constructively on the journey of becoming. As the Existential philosophers point out a human being is, alway and forever, a being and a becoming: for one always has the freedom to choose to become other than what one is today. So, having approached the hurt through the mode of enquiry / learning (option 2) one can act: to change oneself; to influence others; and/or to make a change in the world. Taking the example of the distant cutting spouse, I go up to my spouse and apologise – really apologise for my behaviour and the impact of my behaviour on him/her. And in this very act a new possibility, a new future, is created: one of connection, harmony, intimacy.

Summing Up

No human being, who lives a normal human life, can escape fucking-up and that which often comes with it: hurt. Playing BIG, involves choosing the path less travelled: expecting hurt, accepting hurt, looking into hurt to enquire and learn about myself, about others, about the world. And, then using this learning to take action – action that heals me, heals the other, and ideally heals the world.

If you have gotten this far then I thank you for your listening for I know that my speaking is not easy to hear. And, I wish you the very best. Until the next time…..

It’s Not What Happens To You, It’s What You Do With What Happens To You


If there is one statement that is the core of the existentialist philosophy it is this one from a relatively unknown and under- appreciated existential philosopher: Jose Ortega y Gasset.

Existence as Seen By Existential Philosophers

Take a moment to read it. I mean really read it. Does it not capture and thus bring one to the awareness of what it is to be human? Freedom. Choice. Responsibility. And, importantly the intermingling between the three such that they are so intricately connected that they can never be separated. Though language and our feeble minds do exactly that: trick us into thinking that they are separate entities.

Today I bleed and that bleeding is occurring at the level of the deepest Self. That is what is so. And, I must generate powerful/sound answers to two existential questions:

1-The dimension of being: Who do I chose to be in the face of this bleeding; and

2-The dimension of doing: In which manner do I chose to show up and travel in the world – the shared world of human existence?

Today, I choose to use the pain that comes with the bleeding to reflect on existence. And put something of value into the world in the hope that others may find some benefit from it. So allow me to tell a personal story.

What Happened?

Village on the outskirts of Mirpur city. Mother farms, father works in England. One day there is a new brood of baby chicks in the enclosure in our ‘garden’. I am around 3 to 4 year of age. So excited, I keep looking at them. I name the chicks. Mother feeds and waters the chicks. I pester mother, along the lines of let me look after them, they are my chicks! She shows me what needs to be done. And trusts me to do it. For days I do what I have been told to do.

One day, I don’t do what I am supposed to do. Why? Because I am keen to go play in the fields with friends. I am out all day in the fields. It is a hot day. I come home and go immediately to the enclosure housing the baby chicks. Almost all are dead. I am distraught. I cannot understand why they are dead, I left them food before I went to play.

Eventually, Mother comes home after her day of farming. I race up to her and drag her to the enclosure. I show her the baby chicks. And, ask her why they died? Mother says because you didn’t leave them any water for the whole day. And, they need water especially on these hot days.

That is what happened in the real world, the world on the outside – the one that we co-create and abide in/from. A handful of baby chicks died of thirst in a nowhere place. This whole event in itself having zero significance to the world in which we live.

What Did I Do With What Happened?

There is another world, right? It’s the inner domain – and this personal and unique for each and every one of us. What went on here, in my inner domain? In this domain, what matters is the stories we tell ourselves. And, the decisions we make. So what did I tell myself:

So and so (I cannot remember the names of the chicks, and I do remember naming each of the dead baby chicks) died because I failed to take care of them properly.

I knew that I had to give them feed and water every day before I did anything else. And, I have been doing that. Today, I didn’t because I didn’t want to miss out on playing with my friends.

Because of this – my behaviour – so and so died.

This will never happen again. Never! I will take care of those that I am responsible for. Always!

Decision: The Past I Put Into The Future

In making this decision – “This will never happen again. Never! I will take care of those that I am responsible for. Always!” – I put the past into the future. What do I mean by that?

I mean that I made an existential choice. A choice to BE responsible. And, a choice to show up and operate as a person who on taking on a responsibility does that which needs to be done to honor that responsibility. And, this choice was made on the basis of some pain/decision coming from the past.

Existential choices are non-trivial, they shape our lives. Why? Whilst the choice is made by one individual (in this case me) it impacted and continues to impact anyone that shares the local (work, social, personal) world with me.

How Has This Existential Choice Shaped My Life?

1-I think long and hard before becoming responsible for someone, or something. Example, when my girlfriend told me that she was pregnant. I didn’t give her any answer immediately – which is what she was looking for. Instead, I sat with that for the whole evening and night. By morning time, I had made my choice: to BE a father, a good father, to the unborn child. And, secondary to support both the mother and the child. Specifically, the family would always come first, and then if there was something left then I would use that for me: time, energy, money etc.

2-If those who I care and am responsible for are not prospering (happy, healthy) then automatically I assume that I am the source of that: I did something I shouldn’t have done, or I failed to do something that I should have. See the link with the past? Whilst this can have negative effects, it also has its positive side: the fact that I do not just assume that it is has nothing to do with me and carry on regardless of the suffering of the other that matters to me. I care enough to find out if I am the cause. And, even if I am not, then in the enquiring I am likely to learn what is the real cause. Thus putting myself in a better position to help a loved one.

How Has This Existential Choice Impacted Others?

Each of my three children know (mind, heart, soul) that I have done everything humanly possible for them – for their well-being (health) and their flourishing (dreams, self-expression etc). Further, they know they are loved by me – totally and unconditionally. And, that I am proud of who they are and who they are becoming. Finally, they know that I am here for them, totally, to the end of my days.

How did it work out for the mother of these children? Not that well in some domains. Why? One reason is if something was not working in her life and/or she was unhappy. I jumped to conclusion – it’s my fault – and got busy doing. Usually the wrong thing. To the extent that she learned to tell me something like “It’s not your fault, and I don’t need you to do anything. I need you to let me deal with this on my own. And/or just to listen to me.” On the other hand, it worked out rather well in a bunch of other domains. She was allowed total freedom. She has never been without money. She was supported in pursuing her dream of becoming a Counsellor and that is who she is and does….

I Bleed. Why Am I Bleeding?

I created myself through a number of existential choices. The first, and arguably the most important, in terms of determining my being and doing is that choice I have described and explained here.

One of the aspects that I am most proud of myself, and as such a source of inner power and self-esteem, is this aspect: accepting responsibility and being the person who is necessary to discharge that responsibility! Put differently:

1-My word is my bond. Ergo, you can accept my word and so no need to draw up and sign a contract.

2-Honouring my word as myself. Ergo, in honouring my word I honour myself (irrespective of what the world says about it). And in honouring myself I preserve or elevate my self-esteem: the esteem I have for myself. And, with a full tank of self-esteem there is nothing that I do not see myself as a match for. Everything that I am arises from my esteem for myself.

Now imagine, if someone truly important comes along and says words to the effect: “You are damaged goods. You made that choice as a child….It no longer serves you. I really think you should go and see a good therapist.”

At the level at which most of us operate – that which Heidegger referred to as the “they life”- this is perfectly understandable. Perfectly understandable. In that world this statement is a statement of care even love.

Trouble is I don’t operate at that level. I operate at an existential level. At that level this choice (and it’s consequences) is who I freely chose to be. I LIKE that I am a person who goes full out to care for those who matter to me, and those I find myself responsible for. I VALUE and RESPECT myself for being the person you can count on to play full out to honour his word: to himself, to you, to others, to the world.

I do not see this as a defect. Nor do I see myself as one who is defective. And, my deepest self bleeds because someone who truly matters to me, see me as defective. Defective enough to warrant therapy so he can be fixed. To see me this way is NOT to see me. That is the cut that bleeds my deep Self.

Summing It Up

The World does it best to cripple us: to strip us of our self-confidence, self-esteem, self–worth. That is just so – you will see this if you look deeply enough. And, falling in the concept “The World” fall those who are closest to us: our fathers, our mothers, teachers, those in the workplace etc.

I refuse to collude in diminishing myself. I have chosen myself and I continue to choose/own the existential choices I have made. If “authentic” means anything important, then authenticity is exactly this:

1-Creating oneself through one’s existential choices; and

2-Showing up and operating in accordance with who one has chosen to be in the face of the ‘resistance’ the world presents to this choice.

And, I urge you not to collude with anyone that seeks to diminish you: who you chose to be, your dreams, your tastes, your priorities, your natural self-expression….

If you are still here then I thank you for the generosity it takes to listen to my speaking. Wishing you the best. Until the next conversation.

Play BIG: Exercise Choice And Control – No Matter The Circumstances


Recently, I have experienced life as difficult and troublesome. The temptation is to feel sorry for myself, to sink into apathy, to make excuses. So this conversation as much for me as it is for you.  Let’s begin.

I have in mind a man whose accomplishments include:

  1. becoming a respected ornithologist;
  2. making important contributions to avian pathology;
  3. running a successful business;
  4. publishing a successful book (Diseases of Canaries), ten years later publishing an updated edition (Stroud’s Digest On The Diseases of Birds);
  5. gaining respect and some level of sympathy among ornithologists and farmers;
  6. writing two manuscriptsBobbie, an autobiography, and Looking Outward: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons; and
  7. studying French near the end of his life.

Now, here is my request: please paint me a picture of this man – what kind of education did he have, where did he live, who did he live with, what were his circumstances, what was the style of his life?

Let’s listen to Ellen J. Langer, Professor of psychology (bolding mine):

Even the most apparently fixed and certain situations can become subject to control if viewed mindfully. The Birdman of Alcatraz was sentenced to life in prison with no hope of reprieve. All the world was cut off from him; one empty, grim day followed the next, as he stared at the flock of birds flying outside his window. One morning a crippled sparrow happened into his cell, and he nursed it back to health. The bird was no longer just a bird; for him it was a particular sparrow. Other prisoners, guards, visitors started giving him birds and he learned more and more about them. Soon he had a veritable aviary in his cell. He became a distinguished authority on bird diseases, noticing more and more about these creatures, and developing more and more expertise. Everything he did was self-taught and original.

Instead of living a dull, stale existence in a cell for forty odd years, the Birdman of Alcatraz found that boredom can be just another construct of the mind, no more certain than freedom. There is always something new to notice. And he turned what might have been an absolute hell into, at least, a fascinating mindful purgatory.

– Mindfulness (choice and control in every day life), Ellen J. Langer

It occurs to me that when I am feeling sorry for myself, it behoves me to get present to that which is so for every human being: existential freedom. Freedom to chose how I show up and travel in life – no matter the circumstances.  Talking about circumstances, the Birdman of Alcatraz spent the last 54 years (of 73 years) of his life in prison. And of these 54 years he spent 42 of them in solitary confinement! Compared to him, I find my life to veritable heaven – and there are no excuses for not exercising choice and control over the course of my life. Including and importantly, the attitude/stand that I take in life.

And finally, it is worth getting present to the circumstance, being, and accomplishments of Jean-Dominique Bauby.