making sense or making meaning?

making meaning making sense
Is there a difference for you between making sense of something and making meaning?

For me, making sense is largely, though not completely, a cognitive process. It’s one that facilitates understanding. It is how I comprehend things in the world around me.

So, if I look at the picture above, I might deduce that this is a teddy bear, that this teddy bear looks soft. He is brown. I know that teddy bears are toys, that often children have them. I might make sense of this teddy bear as a child’s teddy bear. A bear that has been posed to cover his eyes. Equally I might understand that teddy bears can be adult gifts to reflect tenderness, affection, love. I might be curious about the teddy bear’s size, because I know bears come in many sizes, and without background in the picture to contextualise and offer perspective I have to surmise whether it is small or large.

Making sense in this way is how we exchange and gather knowledge about our world, how things work, how to use them, their purpose.

Meaning making and seeking meaning however are inherently human processes at the heart of our humanity. Making meaning facilitates significance. It bonds us to our purpose and sense of self and creates a richer, deeper connection than simply understanding, or making sense. It highlights patterns to aid with new learning, new connections and systemic thinking. It stirs our emotions. It connects us to our experience, our memories, our values, our personal story. In short, it makes us human.

So, for me, the bear picture might remind me of my own teddy bears from my childhood. I might connect to the memories of my own children and their lives now as young adults, way beyond the teddy bear years. I might notice the teddy bear makes me sad and I might recall other times I have been sad. It might equally remind me of happy times. It might remind me that I too sometimes hide. Or that I like a hug. It may bring back memories of parents, of childhood games, of key events in my human story.

In this way meaning making is important. It connects our world experiences, our interactions to people, to activities and to things with our own sense of self. It connects us to our memories, and to our personal story through a deeper somatic awareness. It is more impactful, but also more useful, in that it enables us to form both new and tangential connections, which offer new learning, new meaning and new possible futures.

I can be taught to understand the world around me, to make sense of it, but making meaning of it is a very personal experience.

Maybe it’s the same for you?

we walk differently in the rain

state physiology rain
It’s drizzling.

Earlier I walked from Aldgate to Tower Hill tube in the drizzle. I had an umbrella, but noticed the way I was walking was different to the way I might have walked in the sunshine.

My eyes were turned down, seeking slip hazards, puddles, potential splash zones. My shoulders were a little hunched and my elbows tucked in, a sort of self imposed protection posture, to keep the wind and rain out. I was partially hidden under my umbrella, peeking out on occasion to avoid human collisions in busy streets. My pace was more deliberate, seeking to minimise time in the rain.

I wonder to what extent we do this when our emotional and psychological state reflects drizzly? When we are feeling a little weather worn, when we are feeling the need to protect ourselves, when we are aware of potential external ‘attacks’ on our safety and well-being? Do we also shrink a little in posture, strike out with only occasional awareness of those around us, become more sensitive to personal trip hazards, take cover from the precipitation?

How consciously aware are we of our body language, its connection to our state?

How could we learn from paying more attention and being curious?

I don’t know, I’m in two minds…

in two minds
As human beings we live in two worlds.

Day to day we interact with the world around us. Work, colleagues, friends and family, engage with us both verbally and behaviourally. We move around in this world, sometimes using mechanical transport, sometimes walking, sometimes aided by lifts, staircases and sometimes running. We engage with inanimate objects, follow daily living routines, complete work tasks, go shopping, read, watch and play on technology…

Then there is the world of our mind and imagination. Here a parallel world exists where people, their actions and words carry an internal meaning and significance. It is a virtual reality that can appear and feel just as real. When it comes to your emotions the virtual world of your mind can often be more real. Our own behaviours and actions have thoughts and feelings attached. The objects we interact with and the movements we make around our world, draw or repel us, enthuse or frustrate us, support or hinder us, anger or please us; they too carry their own significance and meaning, inside our heads and bodies.

So, which world is real?
Which world impacts us more?
In which world does change happen?
Which world, when as we would wish it, offers happiness and fulfilment?

I’m in two minds. You?

Sculpture by Anthony Cragg

where are the confused people?

confused angry emotion
You know that exercise we do after conferences or meetings, where before we check out the facilitator says, “Let’s do a temperature check”. “Let’s go around the room. Everyone sum up how they are feeling in one word”.

They’re asking because we’ve just been told something and we might be having an emotional reaction to it.

How many synonyms are there for thoughtful?
Reflective, pensive, contemplative, pondering …

How many synonyms are there for open minded?
Curious, wondering, intrigued, anticipating …

These are neutral. We can’t be challenged on them. They’re to be expected almost. We’ve just been told some new information, something is changing, why wouldn’t we be thinking about this new information and why wouldn’t we be open to what we’re being told is to be the new reality anyway?

I wonder though…

Where are the confused people?
Where are the angry people?
Where are the scared people?
Where are the resentful people?
Where are the lost people?

Our language for emotions in organisations is woefully lacking and our ability to connect with and honour our personal truth, in such a public forum, is so hard to reach.

Pain is a feeling. Yet feelings can be painful.

pain and hurt
I’m in pain.

A sleepless night. A trapped nerve in my shoulder.

It’s hard to concentrate and hard not to. I can’t think and I can’t sleep. The pain is my focus.

Physical pain can do that. But so can emotional pain.

Feelings can dominate your very being. Consume you. Just as much as physical hurt.

I have painkillers now for my shoulder. They should soon help the physical pain. Chemicals in tablet form that I acquired from the local pharmacy. Even though I’m in a fairly remote location, I can get help with physical pain.

Emotional pain is harder to treat.

Yet just as debilitating.
Maybe more so.
Harder to get help.
Harder to cure.

Don’t hurt me…

Sometimes we interact with people and feel hurt, anger, pain, frustration following their action or words.

Sometimes we keep that emotion inside, but sometimes we throw it out with a statement such as…

“You hurt me when you did that…”
“He really makes me angry when he says that…”
“When she says that, it really annoys me…”
“You upset me when you don’t…”

The notion that one human being has the power to create a powerful emotion in another, by saying or not saying something, by doing or not doing something is intriguing. A dark art.

In reality of course, as receivers, we do it to ourselves.  It is our interpretation, our meaning making that generates the hurt, the anger, the pain.  It is our internal sense of ourselves that allows the action, inaction or words to generate the feeling. Our own beliefs or values.

Maybe the better response would be…

“I allow what you do to hurt me”
“I take his words and I use them to create a sense of anger within me”
“I convert her words into a feeling of annoyance within me”
“I interpret your inaction in a way that enables me to generate feelings of upset within me”

Owning the feeling we have, the feeling we generate, gives us power and choice. To no longer blame or attribute the emotion to someone else, but to say this is mine allows us to change it.

if you could shop for emotions, what would you get more of?

emotions shopping
I need to shop for food today. Saturday isn’t a normal shopping day for us – too many people in the aisles. The aimless people. I’m a list shopper. Odd really as I never make lists for anything else. The list has to be in the right order for the route I will march purposefully along with my trolley. It provides a structure. I’ll deviate from it, of course… the list. I like deviating from a plan. In fact I don’t plan normally either – too much structure.

Anyhow, it occurred to me, what if I could shop for emotions? What would be on my list? What do I want more of and what do I have enough of in the cupboard?

Do I want more joy? More caring? More trust? More serenity? Do I need a little more sadness? A big pot of empathy? Do I need to refill my anger? Maybe I would like to take some lonely back to the shop?

Am I baking a relationship cake and need some extra courage? Some more selfishness, a little daring, some strong, rather than medium fun, a big box of compassion, a soupcon of adventurousness and a large tin of hurt?

Maybe I’m about to change role and I need to stock up on thrilled, thoughtful and excited, buy a refill pack of embarrassed, but also purchase some ashamed and not good enough seasoning?

Or maybe I’m being forced to change role and need some hope, a little vindictiveness and a splash of inadequate to go with the large supply I have at home of feeling used?

What would be on your emotions shopping list?

the hidden value of sadness

How can sadness be useful?

When we are sad we seem to be somehow diminished. Absorbed with the source of our sadness. Distracted. Unable to function fully in that moment; emotionally and mentally disabled. Our emotions drive our behaviour and our physiology – sadness may well lead to crying, a desire to be alone and to be introspective.

I’ve just seen the film Inside Out from Pixar. What a delicious film! Pixar at their best. Go see it.

The film charts the development of Riley, a little girl from Minnesota. Her emotions, portrayed as little characters in her head, ‘operate’ Riley. Together joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust shape new memories and apply her existing memories, including her core memories, to inform her choices. These core memories from childhood create and reinforce her ‘islands of personality’. The film beautifully shows the importance of emotions. The cognitive brain is to all intents and purposes absent, and Riley’s actions and behaviours are driven by a cocktail of her emotions and her memories.

Our emotions, the meaning associated to them and our instant responses when they are triggered are worthy of exploration and portrayal in this way. They are a fundamental part of our humanity.

There is growing psychological and neurological evidence linking emotions, especially the core emotions of fear, anger and disgust to the limbic system and particularly the Amygdala, a small almond shaped part of the brain, at the brain’s core. Here we seem to hard code situations warranting the emotion and its associated meaning. Research for example shows that damage here can impact our ability to recognise angry or fearful expressions in others, and recent studies have started to show problems with social and emotional judgement. Evolutionarily speaking, this part of our brain is old, preceded only by our ‘reptilian’ brain which controls breathing, heart rate etc. These brain systems are designed to run on auto-pilot. It’s no good having to think to breathe, or having to think whether to run away or freeze when faced with danger. There is growing evidence that the limbic system has a role to play in our other emotions too.

The way Pixar capture these complexities and portray them in a touching, yet amusing film is testimony to their art. The metaphor the film uses to suggest the make-up of our personalities as islands, shaped by our core memories from an early age, is a useful reminder of the impact early life experience has, encoding much of our world map – who we are, how the world works, how we fit in that world, what is right and wrong, what is important to us etc.

For me though I took one key insight from this wonderful piece.

The hidden value of sadness.

Sadness allows us to access deeper older memories. Without sadness we are somehow less human. Sadness provides connection and love just as much as happiness and joy do. It also tells us about loss. Sadness tells us about meaning and what matters to us. Sadness can provide real learning. It can help you be more resourceful, as well as less. The key with sadness is balance – balancing sadness with other emotions, as demonstrated in the film.

The next time you are sad, embrace that sadness and the learning it brings. Thank your body for speaking to you so clearly.

what is your baseline state, where you live your life?

What is your baseline state? Where do you live most of the time?

Do you live in a state of worry, or a state of restlessness, or a state of trying (to be better, good enough…)? Do you know your baseline state?

You’re probably aware when your state changes. We change state all the time. You’ve probably experienced a state change when you’re hungry or tired – it may be harder to concentrate, perhaps you’re a little irritable? Our state impacts our behaviour, our ability and also our choices.

Changing state is unique to our individual humanness. Take moving from asleep to awake. When I awake, it’s like a gradual wave of consciousness. Often my mind becomes active almost immediately, but my body, particularly my eyes often need longer – fifteen to twenty minutes sometimes. It’s as if in that initial awake state I am focused internally and not yet ready to engage with the world. For others, waking is like a switch – mind, body, emotions ready to go, almost instantly. Be curious about your version of a state.

A state involves thoughts, feeling and physiology – bodily clues exist as well as emotional and mental ones. Posture may change. There may be a rise in heart rate, shallower breathing, churning stomach or hunched shoulders.

States are often associated with our environment, what’s going on around us and what we feel, think and do in response. We’ve all experienced a euphoria or joy when something good happens, or a sudden moment of panic when something scary or bad occurs.

States, thinking, physiology, feelings are all interconnected. Each impacting on each other. Like a five-a-side football team these four play in formation with environment. One moves, makes a run in one direction, the others move in response. Constant momentum, like a roller coaster loop – twisting, rising, falling without end.

We attempt to control this wild ride, primarily through thinking. Yet four other parts are on the ride too.

Change your environment, your state changes, your feelings shift, your thinking alters. We’ve all walked in the fresh air to clear our heads. Experiment. Sometimes your environment or physiology are easier to alter. Do you run, so that your head clears, so that the endless thoughts subside? This is changing your state.

In this way, our state isn’t just the result of our thinking or emotions. It can also change them.

So, what’s your baseline state? The state you are in when the other four players aren’t moving position on the pitch? If your baseline state is anxious, or striving, or hurried, or confused, or afraid, or something else that isn’t working for you, change it.

Live your life in a state that works for you. That way when you’re blown off course, you know where you want to get back to.