Richard G. Petty, MD

Written By God’s Fingers

Hans Christian Andersen.jpg

“Every man’s life is a fairy tale, written by God’s fingers.”

–Hans Christian Andersen (Danish Author, 1805-1875)   

The Horse, The Farmer and Silver Linings

I was talking to someone who has recently had a series of apparent mishaps in his life. And yet every one of them has so far turned out to have a silver lining,

I made the point to him that if we do indeed live in a meaningful, purposeful Universe, then we also have to accept that we cannot always see the reasons why thing happen. Certainly some things may happen “by chance,” but most events that involve conscious thought cannot be explained away as “chance” or “coincidence.”

It reminded me of a story that has been told and retold around the world in different forms since the dawning of time. I like this version from China:

“There was a wise old farmer whose horse ran away. All the neighbors came to commiserate and say, “That’s bad.”

But the farmer said, “Perhaps.”

Then the next day, the horse came back with a whole herd of wild horses, and the neighbors all said, “That’s good.”

And the old farmer said, “Perhaps.”

The very next day the farmer’s son broke his leg trying to tame one of the wild horses and the neighbors said, “That’s bad.”

And the old farmer said, “Perhaps.”

Just after the son broke his leg, the army came through and drafted all the young men and took them off to war. But they left the farmer’s son because his leg was broken.

All the neighbors said, “That’s good” to which the wise old farmer simply said, “Perhaps.”

“But there is suffering in life, and there are defeats. No one can avoid them. But it’s better to lose some of the battles in the struggles for your dreams than to be defeated without ever knowing what you’re fighting for.”
–Paulo Coelho (Brazilian Writer, 1947-)

“Every human life had its pattern that had to be worked out slowly to its ultimate conclusion.”
–Irving Stone (American Writer, 1903-1989)

“Man has come here with a definite purpose. Life is not meant merely for eating drinking and procreating.”
–Sri Swami Sivananda (Indian Physician and Spiritual Teacher, 1887-1963)

“There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from.”
–Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (Swiss-born American Psychologist, 1926-2004)

“You cannot discover the purpose of life by asking someone else – the only way you’ll ever get the right answer is by asking yourself.”
–Terri Guillemets (American Writer, 1973-)

“You have a purpose only as long as you are not complete; until then, completeness, perfection, is the purpose. But when you are complete in yourself, fully integrated within and without, then you enjoy the Universe; you do not labor at it.”
–Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (Indian Spiritual Teacher and Exponent of Jnana Yoga and Advaita Doctrine, 1897-1981)

The Quest for Meaning

Yesterday I had the privilege of doing an interview with Michael Dresser on HealthRadio.Net. If you have not yet discovered them, I highly recommend the organization. I have put a link to them in the “Shared Visions” section on the left hand side of this blog. If you have any interest in health, there are a huge number of extremely interesting shows and free podcasts.

Having done radio and TV shows in around twenty countries, I can tell you that interviewers come in all shapes and sizes! Michael was very good: quick on the uptake and clearly committed to improving the welfare of his listeners. We did not agree on everything, but an interview where both people stroke each other, is not going to be much help to anyone!

Michael started by saying that the topic of Healing, Meaning and Purpose could easily have filled a three-hour show and he was right. After all, it took me 35 years to write that book. Well, getting it down on paper took eight weeks, but it had taken years of experiment and experience, and the input of thousands of people to get it right.

We decided to focus on meaning. A little tricky to do in 25 minutes, given that over a quarter of Healing, Meaning and Purpose is dedicated to the precise steps for discovering meaning in your life!

Michael expressed his concern about the large numbers of people who live without a feeling of meaning in their lives. And indeed there are huge numbers of people, particularly those who have lost their religious faith or who suffer from chronic illnesses, who find it very hard to find a sense of meaning in their lives.

Many reductionist writers and scientists don’t help when they tell us that we live in a dead, empty, meaningless Universe. They could not be more wrong!

Human beings are the consummate meaning generators in the Universe. Meaning provides context, and from context flows the real richness of life. Meaning fuels the alchemy that can transform an event into an experience. Parables and myths make deep meanings accessible.

The work of the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl has quite rightly become popular in recent years. He observed that people in concentration camps who had a reason to survive did so. He felt that it was important for people to commit to meaningful goals and values, and to be constantly aware of the meaning in all things. He also emphasized the importance of extending ourselves, to becoming more than we are now. This is one definition of the transpersonal or spiritual domain. Frankl saw mental health as deriving from ultimate meaning, or spiritual values.

The real meaning of freedom is the ability to choose how you will react in response to any situation. You choose the way to think about a problem; you establish your point of view and your way of behaving. It saddens me that so many people whom I see function “on automatic:” They live in a world of habitual responses. As long as you are concerned about what others think and say, you are responding and will never be free. You can be different. So why is it that for so many people life seems to have no meaning?

The main reasons for this sorry state of affairs are disconnection, separation and alienation on the one hand, and being reactive rather than reflective. This can be disconnection and separation from ourselves, from each other, from the world, from understanding our place in the world or from our Higher Self. If we react out of habit and assumption we can really fail to smell the roses. The problem of meaninglessness was never so serious when everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to be doing and they had a clear set of duties and responsibilities.

For many of us our life story has become garbled and inconsistent. Sometimes the simple act of re-writing our life stories can help enormously. In the CDs and the last book I talk a lot about how to do that.

In recent years many people have started talking about “Diseases of Meaning,” a term that was, I think, first introduced by my old friend Kim Jobst.

Most of us think of health and disease as a dichotomy, as two sharply different states. But in reality, health and disease are part of a duality of healthy functioning. As with the other dualities that we have looked at, each contains the other, each is necessary for the other, and each gives rise to the other. Disease is a healthy response of an organism striving to maintain its equilibrium in the face of disruptive forces, like negative thoughts, unbalanced relationships, environmental toxins, poor nutrition, and so on. Disease can initiate a process of transformation; it has meaning. And instead of being brought low by a feeling of powerlessness, this realization can help people become stronger, to live more fully and with more understanding. This way of looking at disease can be applied to any of the chronic illnesses, and even to environmental problems like community violence. Understanding a disease for what it is can be empowering, and even transformative.

Sometimes people who feel meaningless do need professional help and there are forms of therapy designed to help us find meaning. And sometimes the sense of meaninglessness is actually a symptom of an illness such as depression.

But for people who just need to clarify and feel the meaning in their lives there are sets of techniques that we have been using for over twenty years. Here are a few that are all rooted in empirical scientific studies:

  • Writing and re-writing your own life story
  • Questioning your assumptions about life and about relationships
  • Using a brief pause before reacting to anything that happens to you
  • Creating meaning through making decisions about your life
  • Developing a sense of coherence
  • Forming and strengthening relationships
  • Techniques for giving people a glimpse of a transcendent reality
  • Developing a legacy

It turns out that Michael Dresser and I had another thing in common. He also eradicated a very serious illness using an early form of Integrated Medicine. For both of us, the experience was highly meaningful and gave us a new and sharper focus: to show other people how to care for themselves and their families and how to enhance the quality of their lives.

We are both walking the talk.

“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”
–Carl G. Jung (Swiss Psychologist and Psychiatrist, 1875-1961)

“Deep within himself man seeks meaning for his life, and tries to fulfill himself in accordance with that meaning.”
–Viktor Frankl (Austrian Psychiatrist, 1905-1997)

“When we understand that man is the only animal who must create meaning, who must open a wedge into neutral nature, we already understand the essence of love. Love is the problem of an animal who must find life, create a dialogue with nature in order to experience his own being.”
–Ernest Becker (Canadian Cultural Anthropologist and Interdisciplinary Thinker, 1925-1974)

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
–Morrie Schwartz (American Educator and the subject of the book Tuesdays With Morrie, 1916-1995

“Any important disease whose causality is murky, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance.”
–Susan Sontag (American Essayist, 1933-2004)

“What truly gives life meaning is to work with the light and for the light, without worrying about pleasing or displeasing others.”
–Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov (Bulgarian Spiritual Master, 1900-1986)

50 Tools for Better Writing

After decades as passive consumers we are becoming a community of writers.

I read quite a lot and I have found some excellent writing on the Internet.

I’d like to give a plug to the Poynter Institute. Though designed to help journalists, they give our loads of excellent advice that we can all use.

Roy Peter Clark from the Institute has posted 50 tools that can help you when you do any kinds of writing.

Alhtough each of us wiull find some more useful than others, I hope that you will find many of them to be valuable and interesting.

Links of 50 Writing Tool

  1. Writing Tool #1: Branch to the Right
  2. Writing Tool #2: Use Strong Verbs
  3. Writing Tool #3: Beware of Adverbs
  4. Writing Tool #4: Period As a Stop Sign
  5. Writing Tool #5: Observe Word Territory
  6. Writing Tool #6: Play with Words
  7. Writing Tool #7: Dig for the Concrete and Specific
  8. Writing Tool #8: Seek Original Images
  9. Writing Tool #9: Prefer Simple to Technical
  10. Writing Tool #10: Recognize Your Story’s Roots
  11. Writing Tool #11 Back Off or Show Off
  12. Writing Tool #12: Control the Pace
  13. Writing Tool #13: Show and Tell
  14. Writing Tool #14: Interesting Names
  15. Writing Tool #15: Reveal Character Traits
  16. Writing Tool #16: Odd and Interesting Things
  17. Writing Tool #17: The Number of Elements
  18. Writing Tool #18: Internal Cliffhangers
  19. Writing Tool #19: Tune Your Voice
  20. Writing Tool #20: Narrative Opportunities
  21. Writing Tool #21: Quotes and Dialogue
  22. Writing Tool #22: Get Ready
  23. Writing Tool #23: Place Gold Coins Along the Path
  24. Writing Tool #24: Name the Big Parts
  25. Writing Tool #25: Repeat
  26. Writing Tool #26: Fear Not the Long Sentence
  27. Writing Tool #27: Riffing for Originality
  28. Writing Tool #28: Writing Cinematically
  29. Writing Tool #29: Report for Scenes
  30. Writing Tool #30: Write Endings to Lock the Box
  31. Writing Tool #31: Parallel Lines
  32. Writing Tool #32: Let It Flow
  33. Writing Tool #33: Rehearsal
  34. Writing Tool #34: Cut Big, Then Small
  35. Writing Tool #35: Use Punctuation
  36. Writing Tool #36: Write A Mission Statement for Your Story
  37. Writing Tool #37: Long Projects
  38. Writing Tool #38: Polish Your Jewels
  39. Writing Tool #39: The Voice of Verbs
  40. Writing Tool #40: The Broken Line
  41. Writing Tool #41: X-Ray Reading
  42. Writing Tool #42: Paragraphs
  43. Writing Tool #43: Self-criticism
  44. Writing Tool #44: Save String
  45. Writing Tool #45: Foreshadow
  46. Writing Tool #46: Storytellers, Start Your Engines
  47. Writing Tool #47: Collaboration
  48. Writing Tool #48: Create An Editing Support Group
  49. Writing Tool #49: Learn from Criticism
  50. Writing Tool #50: The Writing Process

The Omnipresent Ohrwurm: Ten Secrets for Having an Idea Remembered

Last month I wrote something about a phenomenon that I’m sure that you’ve experienced: having a tune get stuck in your head. James Kellaris has used the term “Ohrwurm” to describe this phenomenon.

I made brief mention of the way in which research into the ohrwurm may inform other fields, such as addictions.

The other big topic that may be illuminated by the ohrwurm phenomenon is the way that ideas, trends and fashions gain traction.

Some successes are created: you may or may not like Madonna or Britney Spears, but both of them are talented. The question is this: why did they first make it? In some senses both had the right set of talents be molded into a highly successful products. People in the music business saw their potential and that both were just right for the market of the time. Thousands of similarly gifted people just never had the opportunity to be made into stars.

Some successes are the results of memes. I’m speaking here about memes with a little “M,” to differentiate them from the Memes of spiral dynamics. Ideas, fashions and trends spread through society like the measles.

But are there any characteristics of psychological or social ohrwurms? What is it about some ideas, concepts or products that just have a great big hook that makes them not just memorable but irresistible?

People have been asking that question for years, but now it begins to look as if we might be getting close to generating some sensible answers based not on market research or focus groups, but on neuroscience.

A book called Made to Stick will be coming out in the New Year and identifies some of the characteristics of ideas that become popular and stick in people’s minds. The authors’ have come up with:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional Story

I’m sure that they are on to something.

But I think that there is more.

In the original piece about the ohrwurm I mentioned three characteristics of a tune that gets stuck in our heads:

  • Simple
  • Incongruous
  • Repetitive

The same principles and a few more are crucial in getting a message to resonate:

  1. Simplicity: It’s much easier to believe that the motivators of human behavior are pain and pleasure, or that Men are from Mars and Women from Venus, than getting into the messy realities of human motivations and interpersonal relationships
  2. Clarity: The simple idea must be expressed in a cogent and incisive way
  3. Incongruity: This is essential: we know that the brain is hardwired to respond to novelty. Yet despite being incongruous, the odd, strange, unexpected idea must afterwards fit into the rest of our knowledge and beliefs about the world. We can only take so much incongruity!
  4. Repetition: Few ideas – whether true or false – are embraced and adopted if they are only heard once
  5. Emotional resonance: You are unlikely to be interested in or remember something that has no emotional meaning for you
  6. Integrity: The idea or concept must have internal consistency
  7. Believability: The idea needs to come from a trustworthy source
  8. Consonant: The idea or concept needs to resonate with your own core beliefs or core values
  9. Practical: Most people need to be able to see simple, concrete actions that they can take
  10. Beneficial: There is a sliver of self-interest within all of us: something else that is hardwired. Unless we can see that we will derive some benefit from an idea, it is unlikely to have much traction

Now I am going to let you in on a secret. I do a lot of public speaking and I could not work out why my talks, lectures and speeches seemed to be so popular.

One day a friend from Canada told me that he had also been mystified by my popularity as a speaker. Then he told me that he had discovered my secret: I am a storyteller. It took me a while to grasp what he was saying, but then I realized that it was true. Whether presenting research data, ways to improve your life or an inspirational speech I constantly tell stories. And so does every other good speaker that I know. And the keys to telling good stories?

They are these ten points.

Try them out for yourself and see what you think.

“A man’s success in business today turns upon his power of getting people to believe he has something that they want.”
–Gerald Stanley Lee (American Professor, Writer and Lecturer, 1862-1944)

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