Living a Passionate Life: An Interview with Gregg Levoy

Why did you write your newest book, Vital Signs: The Nature and Nurture of Passion?

Because it was a natural evolution from the book that preceded it, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, and because I’m just fascinated by how people manage to hold on to their vitality and life force against all the downward-pulling forces of life and culture.

In the Introduction to Vital Signs, you write that the book is geared towards “being in love with life” versus your first book, Callings, that addressed “doing what you love”. In what ways are the two the same thing? In what ways are they different?

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They’re similar in that doing what you love is among the active ingredients of being in love with life, and being in love with life is a mindset that lends itself to looking for ways to stay that way, and doing what you love is one of them.

As for distinctions between them, I look at the two books this way: Callings:Finding and Following an Authentic Life was more about finding a passion, and Vital Signs: The Nature and Nurture of Passion is more about living passionately. Developing the skill, the stance, of passion that can inform all arenas of your life, not just the vocational.

In your mind, can a failure to live a passionate life cause and/or contribute to true clinical depression? How so? Can you give us any examples?

I believe so, yes. For starters, if you’re not expressing your passion and vitality, whether in your work or love life, creative or spiritual life, then you’re probably suppressing it, or repressing it, or depressing it, which all mean the same thing: pushing it down. And whatever we refuse to express will either explode or implode, and I think depression is a form of imploding. Here’s an example from my own files:

I’m not generally prone to depression, but a couple of years ago I had a nasty bout of it. I was sleeping too much, feeling lazy, bored, disconnected from everything and everyone, lacking initiative but restless. I just felt profoundly off, and I couldn’t get to the bottom of it.

Until I had a dream of being chased by an enormous black dragon—the size of a T-rex with wings—and feeling like a rabbit who couldn’t find a hole to duck into.

I tried fighting off the dragon with a safety pin, and finally, out of sheer fright (and, I remember, a distinct sense of incredulousness that I wasn’t going to be rescued at the last second, like in the movies), I woke up. Literally woke up from the dream.

My interpretation of the dream was that the dragon was my writing. My real writing. Not the academic-style stuff I’d been doing a lot of at that point, but the freewriting practice I meant to be doing alongside it, and wasn’t. In a sense, I was playing it safe with all that cautious, academic writing—thus the absurdly inadequate safety-pin defense—when I should have been doing more passionate, intuitive writing.

But the dragon woke me up, literally and figuratively, and over the next few months I started doing my real writing again—and here’s the punch line: the boredom and depression lifted.

That experience reminded me how closely related depression and repression can be.

In your experience, what are some of the reasons people don’t follow their passions?

One reason is that people often put security before passion. There’s nothing wrong with security, but when it routinely takes precedence over your passion and aliveness, you’re courting disaster (a word that means “against one’s stars.”) I once heard it said that heroism/heroinism can be redefined for the modern age as the ability to tolerate paradox. To hold two seemingly contrary ideas/impulses/energies/beliefs inside you at the same time and still retain the ability to function. In this case, passion and security. Which don’t cancel each other out. They’re both true. We need both of them. And they both need to be brought to the bargaining table to hammer out a treaty that’s going to serve them both, rather than trying to stuff one or the other under the floorboards just to be rid of the tension.

Another reason involves the kinds of suppression and repression that are common to certain styles of parenting, schooling, gendering, bibling, and corporate enculturation, where you’re encouraged to leave maybe the best parts of you out in the parking lot when you punch in, like your emotional life, your personal life, even your spiritual life. I recently consulted with a woman who told me that when she was growing up, her parents sent her to her room for any displays of “negative emotions,” like tears, anger or frustration. That is, punished her. Banished her.

So it’s no surprise that at 40, after a lifetime of repressing half her emotional

repertoire, she’s feeling blocked from being her full powerful self, the one she’s going to need in order to be the healer she intuits herself to be. She quite rightly refers to her mission at 40 as “soul retrieval.”

What tips can you give our readers about how they can begin to follow their passions?

For starters, it might be useful to begin identifying where you lose it. Where it leaks out of your life. Which routines, relationships, involvements or beliefs drain your energies, and which ones revitalize them. Maybe it’s a job that sucks the life out of you, or a relationship in which you feel like a ghost of your full vital self, or your eager, capable mind being put in dull circumstances, or any involvement that’s literally de-meaning. Lacking in any sense of meaning or purpose.

Maybe it’s socializing out of guilt or obligation, driving in rush hour traffic when you don’t have to, television, letting yourself be trapped by talkaholics, or doing your own taxes rather than farming it out.

Secondly, it’s important to understand that passion can be cultivated.

Turned on as well as turned off. It’s not one from the “either you’ve got it or you don’t” department. And cultivating it happens most readily at the level of the gesture and the moment, not the 5-year plan or the extreme makeover. Though even at the micro-level, action is ultimately required. Especially spontaneous action. The equation is: ready, fire, aim.

I was sitting around with some friends one evening recently when one of them said, “You know what the problem is? We’re not outrageous enough.” When I asked him what he would do if he were to be more outrageous, he thought for a moment, then reached up and swept his hair from middle-parted and slicked back to side-parted with a cowlick dangling from his forehead—instantly transforming him from Richard to Ricardo. And he said, “I’d come into work like this.”

The point is: start with the subtlest impulse to express yourself and act on your passions, and build from there. Begin identifying little moments of choice that lead you either toward or away from your sense of aliveness.

I think it’s important to distinguish, also, between healthy and unhealthy passion. In other words, there’s a difference between being called and being driven, and not all passions should be acted on. There’s something called harmonious passion (flexible persistence toward an activity and more of a flow state) and obsessive passion (persistence at any cost, the passion controlling you rather than the other way around, and self-esteem and identity all wrapped up in performance).

There’s also primary and secondary motivation. Doing something for it’s own sake—for the charge or challenge of it—and doing something for a payoff (whether money, power, sex, fame, or attention).

And there’s a pretty simple test to determine which one is in the driver’s seat: when the payoffs dry up, do you still do the work? Are your passions still intact?

Gregg Levoy  is the author of Vital Signs: The Nature and Nurture of Passion, and Callings: Finding an Authentic Life – rated among the “Top 20 Career Publications” by the Workforce Information Group and a text in various graduate programs in Management and Organizational Leadership.

He is a lecturer and seminar-leader in the business, educational, governmental, faith-based and human-potential arenas, and has keynoted and presented workshops at The Smithsonian Institution, the EPA, Microsoft, and Amerian Express, to name a few.  He is also a frequent media guest on ABC, CNN, NPR, PBS, and others.

 

 

Is Depression Dark Night of the Soul?

In Catholic circles, there’s something known as the “dark night of the soul,” a type of despair known to have afflicted Mother Teresa.  But is this experience the same thing as clinical depression?  Do they share anything in common?  Read the Blog

Watching Geese

It’s almost the end of October. I look out my back window and can see the wild geese that gather again in the pond in my back yard this time of the year. It’s a way station before they fly off to warmers climes.

Canada Goose

People with depression feel less than – less than good, less than successful, less than a loving spouse or parent. Too often, they feel poverty in their souls. In their heads, they chew on thoughts that if they were only “better” people or more “successful,” they wouldn’t be suffering so much or could overcome depression.

It’s as if they’re to blame for their depression and any self-compassion is as absent as rain in the desert.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

You don’t have to prove – over and over and over again – – to yourself or others – – that you’re worthy to walk this sweet earth and enjoy a sense of wholeness. You don’t need to beg others for their approval because God, however you define him or her, is always announcing in the natural world on fire with colors and portents of change at this time of the year, your intimate belonging in this world.

Poet Mary Oliver captures this so beautifully in her poem Wild Geese:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Christianity Can’t Replace My Zoloft

From Time Magazine, Brandan Robertson writes, “The fact that my depression and anxiety didn’t go away when Jesus “came into my heart” and the reality that I had to be medicated to live a normal life made me feel like a second-class Christian.”  Read the Article

It’s The Thought That Matters: Depression’s Distorted Thinking

I was talking with my best friend, Steve, over some spicy noodles at our favorite Thai restaurant last week. We’ve been chums for the past 17 years.  He’s a Political Science professor at the University at Buffalo here in town. 

steve

Steve’s grey beard and glasses make him look like a long-lost relative of Sigmund Freud.  Our lunchtime talks are always illuminating and, frequently, laugh-filled.  Steve has never suffered from depression. So he’s always curious about my experiences with it.  During our chat, I talked about some hard-won wisdom. 

brain thinking

I have listened to hundreds of people over the years tell me their story about how they experience depression and how it’s affected their lives. Over and over again, these folks have told me how poorly they think of themselves and how crummy they believe the world really is.  What strikes me most about their revelations is their lack of perspective. They are ironclad in their self-condemnations and negative distortions of reality.

COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS

Depression expert, Aaron Beck, Ph.D. developed a theory about cognitive distortions and depression.  Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true.  These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions – telling themselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep them feeling bad about themselves.  See which distortions you employ when depressed:

All-Or-Nothing Thinking: You see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never- ending pattern of defeat.

Mental Filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.

Disqualifying the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.

Jumping to Conclusions: You make a negative interpretation though there are no definite facts that convincingly support conclusion. Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and you don’t bother to check this out. The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.

Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”

Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

Should Statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration and resentment.

Labeling and Mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: “He’s a goddamn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.

Self-Worth: You make an arbitrary decision that in order to accept yourself as worthy, okay, or to simply, feel good about your- self, you have to perform in a certain way; usually most or all the time.

CHANGING YOUR MIND

Okay, then.  What’s the antidote?  How can you possibly change the way you view yourself and the world?  Here are some ideas:

1.         Identify Cognitive Distortions

We need to create a list of our troublesome thoughts and examine them later for matches with a list of cognitive distortions. An examination of our cognitive distortions allows us to see which distortions we prefer. Additionally, this process will allow us to think about our problem or predicament in more natural and realistic ways.       

2. Examine the Evidence.

A thorough examination of an experience allows us to identify the basis for our distorted thoughts. If we are quite self-critical, then, we should identify a number of experiences and situations where we had success.

3. Double Standard Method.

An alternative to “self-talk” that is harsh and demeaning is to talk to ourselves in the same compassionate and caring way that we would talk with a friend in a similar situation.

4. Thinking in Shades of Gray.

Instead of thinking about our problem or predicament in an either-or polarity, evaluate things on a scale of 0-100. When a plan or goal is not fully realized, think about and evaluate the experience as a partial success, again, on a scale of 0-100.

5. Survey Method.

We need to seek the opinions of others regarding whether our thoughts and attitudes are realistic. If we believe that our anxiety about an upcoming event is unwarranted, check with a few trusted friends or relatives.

6. Definitions.

What does it mean to define ourselves as “inferior,” “a loser,” “a fool,” or “abnormal.” An examination of these and other global labels likely will reveal that they more closely represent specific behaviors, or an identifiable behavior pattern instead of the total person.

7. Re-attribution.

Often, we automatically blame ourselves for the problems and predicaments we experience. Identify external factors and other individuals that contributed to the problem. Regardless of the degree of responsibility we assume, our energy is best utilized in the pursuit of resolutions to problems or identifying ways to cope with predicaments.

8. Cost-Benefit Analysis.

It is helpful to list the advantages and disadvantages of feelings, thoughts, or behaviors. A cost-benefit analysis will help us to ascertain what we are gaining from feeling bad, distorted thinking, and inappropriate behavior.

The best place to learn to challenge your thinking is with a skilled Cognitive-Behavioral therapist.  It’s much harder to try to do this by yourself because you can’t see the forest because of the trees. 

Copyright, Daniel T. Lukasik, 2014

 

 

Breaking Bad Habits: You Can Do It

From The Washington Post, a story about Richard O’Connor, Ph.D.’s latest book, Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior.  Read the News

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