It was a dull, grayish, wintry morning around 1990 when I knocked on the sixth grade classroom door to pick up Julio for a counseling session. As a staff psychologist on the school based team of the community mental health center I worked with grade school children at risk of being placed in special education. As we walked down the well-worn staircase of the seventy-year old school building in the south Bronx, I noticed the glum expression on Julio's face. When we arrived at the office situated off a landing of the staircase, I opened the door and asked Julio to click on the light. The switch was on the outside of the room next to the door. Julio, then, took a seat on the old wooden, straight-back chair, slouched and grunted, "Ugh .. this place is ugly too."
I replied, "I guess you're right. But, tell me, Julio, what else is ugly?"
Immediately, he shot back, "This city! Just look at it!"
"Well," I said to myself, "Let's keep this conversation going."
After sitting down in the other straight-back chair I asked, "Julio, what would you do, if you were the mayor of New York?"
Quick on the uptake he responded confidently, "I'd make it beautiful".
"And this room?" I probed.
"Fix it up. Make it look nice."
He was right about the room. It had been an old storage room for books with a decrepit, splintery wooden floor, flaky walls and one light bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling. It could easily have been a set for an interrogation room in an old spy movie.
We spent the rest of the session talking about beauty. Julio took the lead by first describing the ugliness of the city as he saw it. Then, we went on to explore what we would do to make the city and, also my office, beautiful.
My aim was to steer Julio's ideas about beauty and ugliness toward his own life. His poor academic performance was not an accurate measure of his ability but rather the result of a defeatist attitude.
"So, Julio," I inquired, "Do you think your life in school is beautiful?"
Casting his eyes toward the beat-up floor he said softly, "I think it is a little ugly".
"So what can we do to make your life and my office more beautiful?"
It was time to roll up our sleeves and to come up with practical ideas and a plan to make Julio's life at school beautiful.
"Julio," I said, "I'll make a deal with you. You help me to come up with some ideas to make this office beautiful, and I'll help you come up with some ideas to make your school life beautiful."
We struck a deal. Of course, the easy part was to renovate the office, which we did. Little by little Julio changed his attitude toward school-work, and shortly thereafter his performance improved.
It all began when Julio clicked on the light of beauty.
After the forty-five minute session with Julio I reflected on the various ways that we go about changing our lives for the better. One idea led to another that finally culminated in the question of what ultimately accounts for a successful, complete and meaningful life.
As with Julio the process of wonder and creative thinking starts when we click on the light of our intuition that illuminates our seminal ideals. Whether we feel trapped in a messy, painful situation or moving along rather smoothly in our routines, we know within the depths of our spirit that our lives could always be better. Elie Wiesel, the author of Night, describes his experiences as a twelve year old in a Nazi concentration camp. He claims that when contentment blinds ordinary people to the evil around them they fail at being human. I think that we have to agree with him. When we delude ourselves into feeling content because we have satisfied our minimum needs, we become inattentive to our higher aspirations.
Attentiveness is the switch that powers our intuition. If we develop the habit of paying attention to our innate feelings of hope for a better life, our intuition will illumine our ideals to show us what is possible. After that, it is up to us to do the practical work of making our world according to our ideals.
Like Julio who saw the ugliness of my office against the background of beauty, we will see the particular ideals of love, justice, courage, patience, power, or compassion that fit our circumstances. For example, if the alcoholic pays attention to his feelings of hope to escape the bottle, he will see the ideals of courage and perseverance that will motivate him to change. Or in the case of successful business people fighting off the temptation to rest on the oars of their accomplishments, their intuition will illumine their ideals of excellence and creativity.
What does the research tell us about human development?
The great American mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, pointed out that the findings of science in the end will accord with the critical common sense of humans.
Common sense tells us that there is a good, better and best in human development. We know from our own observations that we are simultaneously trying to satisfy our basic physical needs, to function effectively in our roles and, in all of this, to make our ideals such as, love, excellence and integrity come true. Outstanding developmental and personality psychologists such as, Erik Erickson and Gordon Allport concur that an articulated philosophy of life, that is, a personal creed inspired by our ideals is indispensable for living a complete life.
From the inception of our lives we participate in the creative process of ordering our behaviors according to our seminal ideals. Infants, the cognitive psychologists tell us, exhibit mental activities that indicate an intuitive ability to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. All this adds up to the common sense conclusion that we are creative beings well equipped from birth to make our lives the incarnations of our inherent ideals.
Just as artists harmonize colors and shapes on canvass according to their vision of beauty, so also we artfully order our thoughts, emotions and actions to shape our hearts and bodies according to our ideals. Who does not want to be a loving person, a just person, a magnanimous person, a loyal person, a truthful person, a courageous person, and on and on we could go.
Over time we are conditioned by the institutions of society to abandon our sense of wonder, curiosity and novelty in favor of the more "practical" attitudes of thinking that serve our fundamental biological and psychological needs. But, we will make an enormous blunder in our quest for a complete life, if we dismiss philosophical reflection as an impractical exercise.
Common sense tells us that we are participants in an expanding universe that is becoming more complex and beautiful. It would make little sense to believe that all this energy is being expended to create a wondrous universe but has left me to be a fleeting spectator or temporary leech consumed with satisfying only my biological and psychological needs. Intuitively, we know that living a full life means to participate freely and mindfully in the creation of life.
How do we create our lives in the light of our ideals?
The Vision Circles Program breaks down the creative process into four elements put in the form of questions.
Circle One: What is the situation that concerns me?
Eg. Why am I bored in my work?
Why is this relationship so painful?
Why am I so down on myself?
Circle Two: What is my response to my situation?
Eg. Why am I so anxious when I think about doing something to change this relationship?
Why are my actions to change this relationship so unproductive?
Why is my thinking so confused about this relationship?
Why aren't my expectations realized?
Circle Three: What is so important to me, that is, my ideals, in this situation?
Eg. What do I want to experience in this relationship? (Love, honesty, intimacy)
What do I want to experience in my work?? (Achievement, excellence)
Circle Four: What tendencies or attitudes am I in the habit of experiencing toward my situation?
Eg. Am I usually confused and disoriented like a dodo when faced with a problem?
Am I usually angry and rebellious when faced with a difficult problem?
Am I usually logical and controlled when faced with a problem?
Am I usually in touch with my ideals when trying to solve a problem?
Am I usually free and confident in my thinking when faced with a problem?
Am I usually open to new ideas and change when faced with a problem?
The OSCAR method in the Vision Circles Program will strengthen:
- your rational tendencies of ordering and getting control of your life
- your supra-rational tendencies of seeing your situation in the light of your ideals and of thinking freely and creatively to discover practical ideas to realize your ideals.
The aim of the program is to change 'what-is', the unacceptable situation in Circle One, to 'what-could-be', the ideal in Circle Three, by discovering the practical and effective ideas to apply to Circle Two.
The following are the major beliefs that form the creed of the Vision Circles Program:
Life is movement. We are either moving ahead or drifting aimlessly toward self-destruction.
Ideals are innate sources of light that give direction to our lives.
Our minds are not empty buckets that are filled up with experiences.
We are not defined by our genes and/or culture; we work with them to make our world.
Our minds are dynamic sources of energy with a built in compass called intuition that works from childhood on.
We are self-organizing beings, that is, we organize our personalities from the inside out.
Our minds write the program, that is, the personal creed for creating our world.
Life is a creative process of shaping our relationships, our careers, our families, our communities, and ourselves according to our ideals.
Ideals are not pictures of the way that we and the world should be; they are lights illuminating our creative minds about the way we and our world could be.
Becoming good at anything requires that we learn and practice fundamental behaviors; we need to sweat the small stuff to become excellent.