A while ago, I wrote this poem about grief. I just came across it and found that it still feels true, so I wanted to share. As Mary Oliver wrote, "Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on..." We're in this together.
I have a sense of the types of practices that help me. And yet there are times when I find it really hard to keep consistency. The very times when I MOST need these practices in my life, the times when I am MOST in need of the peace, grounding, and strength that they give me, are the times when it feels like like I have no time or energy to do them. I had the thought that I would like to see what it feels like to live in my optimum state. What would it feel like to be taking care of my mind, body, and spirit in ways that are healthy and beneficial...and sustainable?
I am drawn to (driven to?) productivity, as many of us are. It comes through our culture, this emphasis on doing, doing, doing. It feels good then, to be productive and to accomplish a lot in a day. It feels gratifying, as if all of this doing means something. If I dig way down deep, achieving seems to mean that I am enough-- good enough, hardworking enough. At the same time, this can feel like a kind of tyranny-- that I MUST accomplish a lot, and if not, it could mean that I failed in some way. But what if I’m tired? What if I’m not feeling well?
I just realized anew that I don't have any more grandparents. When I was young, I had six: all four parents of my parents, plus my maternal great-grandparents. Now none. And worse, my dad is gone. There's this whole swath, this whole foundational support, gone. And so much history resting on my mom's precious shoulders. I have to believe that their love goes on. I feel it sometimes. I'm not sure if they would understand or approve of everything about my life, but they loved me, and I don't think anything could've made them stop. Especially my dad-- one of my biggest fans and greatest loves. A never-ceasing source of support, positivity, and compassion.
I feel their love, and I feel the loss of them, as much as I let myself. Trying to let it all in: the loss and the love, the bitter and the sweet. If there is to be healing and growth, it's in being with what is here, and offering compassion to myself. Sending so much compassion to all others who are grieving or in pain in this moment.
Allow By Danna Faulds
There is no controlling life. Try corralling a lightning bolt, containing a tornado. Dam a stream and it will create a new channel. Resist, and the tide will sweep you off your feet. Allow, and grace will carry you to higher ground. The only safety lies in letting it all in – the wild and the weak; fear, fantasies, failures and success. When loss rips off the doors of the heart, or sadness veils your vision with despair, practice becomes simply bearing the truth. In the choice to let go of your known way of being, the whole world is revealed to your new eyes.
Have you ever been given a gift that you had to grow into? When I was younger, we all got bicycles on year for Christmas. This was a big deal because before this, we all rode rather ancient Schwinns-- awesome bikes, for sure, but heavy and not so exciting for a girl who loved pink and purple and new. My little sister got a hot pink and purple bike that seemed just about perfect for me. I got a a classy pastel pink and gray ten-speed with curled handlebars and hand brakes, and with the seat at its lowest, it was just a bit too big for me. I get it-- with growing children, you need to get them gifts that they will grow into, that will last a while.
That bike scared me, though. Because the handles, brakes, and gears were all different, it was intimidating. It made me have to really think again about riding. And the feeling of being on it, with my feet just able to reach the pedals, was of being a little bit in danger all the time-- slightly out of control. And indeed, one of the first times I rode it, I just veered mysteriously off into a ditch.
I feel sometimes like I have been given a ten-speed again. Opportunities come my way that are just out my my comfort zone, that I need to really stretch to meet. My emotions go all over the place-- gratitude, fear, excitement, anxiety, overwhelm, and then the guilt of feeling negative feelings at all, when clearly opportunities are GOOD!
This is a time of vulnerability (as if there was ever a time of invulnerability!), where the edge seems very near, where capability and motivation are pushed outward to fill this new space. My work now is to grow, to let discomfort be here-- the necessary and utterly normal (yet still painful!) discomfort of stretching and growth.
In this time, I renew my sense of trust. I trust that I will be enough, that change and growth will occur, that things will work out, sometimes beyond my wildest imagining, and that all outcomes are workable. These things have never NOT been true for me.
Even though for a little while, I longed for my sister's small pink and purple bike, I rode my own bike, and despite my falls and my feeling of being out of control, I got the hang of it. And THEN! I was flying down the road on my ten-speed! Some gifts are worth the effort to grow into.
The way growth works for me is that an idea is sparked-- by an experience, an interaction, a problem-- and this idea or question becomes so interesting that I need to turn it over and over, like kneading dough. And like the dough, there are in-between times, when the question needs to rest and rise anew on its own. As I turn over this idea, I write about it, I ask my friends or family for their opinions, I do some internet research, I meditate on it. And slowly, in fits and starts, meaning grows, a satisfying plateau is reached that feels right. Rilke wrote:
“...I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear Sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
- from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (translation by M.D. Herter Norton)
So this "kneading the dough" feels very much like living the question, living along into the answer...or some part of an answer. For me, the interesting idea du jour is about boundaries and protection.
Some background: I have found over the course of my life that I am a pretty sensitive person, perhaps even a Highly Sensitive Person (that's a thing!). I know this because I have been told many times that I am sensitive or "too sensitive." And I know this because I feel deeply and am affected a lot by other people's words and moods. Often this is wonderful, because is has to do with having sensitivity to other people's needs and feelings, and being intuitive about what is required in certain situations. And often it feels terrible, as if I am walking out into the world each day with skin that is much too thin, being so easily affected, confused, and overwhelmed by what's around me.
As I think about this, I can see a pattern in my life where I have been very affected by other people. I have had intense friends, dynamic family members, co-workers with strong personalities, and while none of this is bad (these relationships have often been very rewarding), I see a pattern of myself suffering in these relationships. This suffering can feel like being overtaken, smothered, or continuously poked, and can lead to anxiety, panic, and resentment...and then, often to feelings of guilt and frustration-- "Why am I like this? Why are they like this? Why can't things be easier than this?!" In these times, it's easy for me to feel like I am a victim, like I'm being attacked. Because I feel attacked, it can be difficult to remember that most times, no one has any intention of hurting or overwhelming me. They are just being the way they are, and I'm being the way I am...and the combination of our default styles of behavior happens to be tough for me.
AND...I can't change other people. No matter what I think or how attractive that idea sounds, it isn't right and it isn't productive to try to change the way other people are. Soooooo, that leaves me! It is in my hands to reflect on and be curious about my own reactions and responses.
In my reading, in my kneading, I have often worked on being more assertive, on communicating my needs, on setting boundaries and saying no. All of these methods have helped. And at the same time, for me, there is sometimes a sense of rigidity around this-- like I am building a wall and guarding it tightly. It can be exhausting.
Recently I've become interested in the idea of taking time and intention to simply engage what I already know: that I am safe within myself, that I am integrated and whole just as I am...no matter what comes my way on purpose or inadvertently. I am usually not big on visualizations, but in reading about shielding meditations, I have found some ideas that speak to me. The concept of a shielding meditation is to imagine a protective shield, egg, or bubble around you. This shield is seamless and unbreakable. Its material allows love, empathy, understanding, and all good energies to pass through. Anything that is not for you and all negative energies glide harmlessly off its surface into the earth.
I'm sharing about this because I've used this visualization a few times now, and felt very positive effects. At first I felt a little guilty about this-- as if I was building protection against someone. But actually, it is simply for me, in support of me and my own energy. Rather than feeling this shield as a barrier between me and the person I'm interacting with, I walk into the situation feeling whole and safe already. This allows me to interact fully and warmly, without holding back for fear of being overtaken or attacked. It has me feeling self-assured so that there isn't a need for defensiveness. So this protection for me, this engaging of my own sense of agency and sufficiency, helps improve my relationships, rather than setting up a wall. "Good fences make good neighbors." Robert Frost might not agree, but that's ok. ;)
Here's how I've been using this: In my formal meditation practice, I have been leaning toward compassion for others and self-compassion. I've been doing this on my own mostly in the morning, or listening to guided meditations by Dr. Christopher Germer and Dr. Kristen Neff. Then, before I leave for a meeting or other interaction, or in the car when I'm parked, I spend a few minutes with a meditation that I wrote:
Breathing in and breathing out.
I am right here, supported by the earth underneath me, beloved by so many on earth and in my heart. I am enough, just as I am.
I sense now my shield of protection, a beautiful, seamless bubble that cannot be broken, within which I am safe.
I am safe.
Love can freely pass here, compassion and understanding, too.
Anything that is not for me cannot pass. Any damaging energy harmlessly glides off the surface of my shield and is neutralized by the earth.
I am safe and strong.
For me, this meditation is effective partly because it begins by bringing me into this space and time ("I am right here"), and reminds me of the bigger picture of support in my life, that I am not alone ("Beloved by so many"). I recorded this on my phone and I like to just close my eyes and let it play. It's definitely not a professional recording, but I want to share it here in case it's useful. I'm really excited about this new tool in my "happiness and wellbeing toolkit!"
Indeed, why not honor our own feelings? Why does it ever occur to us to doubt ourselves and question ourselves as much as we do?
I love and need this idea that it is our responsibility to be ourselves, listen to ourselves, and trust ourselves. No one will do this for us, yet sometimes it feels like it should be someone else's job. Sometimes we want to entrust the care of ourselves to our friends, our family, our spouse-- surely they love us enough to anticipate our needs, consider our unspoken needs before their own, right? If this thought process sounds very familiar, then disappointment might feel familiar as well. No matter how caring our loved ones might be, it is our responsibility to believe in ourselves, to speak for ourselves, to advocate for ourselves, and to identify and implement all that we need in order to be comfortable and happy in our world.
Thomas Merton gave us this remarkable brain bender which ends up making a whole lot of sense. "Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself, and if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already have surpassed myself."
May we accept and trust ourselves fully today.
I heard someone say recently, “Hard is different than bad.” I really love this distinction-- it helps somehow. When I am in a challenging time, sometimes I do a check-in with my needs. First, I’ll write down a few of the best moments that I can remember over the last few days. Then I’ll start with one of these moments and write a few adjectives of how I was feeling in that moment (some ideas here). Then I take a look at this Needs Inventory and start figuring out which basic needs that this moment was addressing. This can also be done with the worst moments, determining which needs were not being met.
So, as an example, here is one experience that I looked at: I had been biking home and saw a vivid pink and purple sunset. My feelings as I biked along were blissful, joyful, meditative, awed, grateful, and content. Some of the needs being met were physical wellbeing, peace, meaning, autonomy, beauty, and fun. All of this in a 10 minutes bike-ride on the way home from doing something else!
Doing this inventory, writing, and considering can lead to all kinds of interesting reflections. For me, the last time I did this, even though I was in the midst of a lot of challenge and busyness, it pointed out that there is happiness and fulfillment in my life. I also saw in another moment that I find a lot of meaning, beauty, peace, creativity, and autonomy in my work-- so it’s worth doing even though it’s sometimes difficult.
I can tell myself over and over “this is a tough week,” and label the whole things as bad, even though it was composed of quite a few lovely moments, tons of pleasant and neutral moments, and only a handful of actually unpleasant events. Most of the hard moments were rumination, turning over the past or the future in my head or judging or feeling aversion. Of course, the hard moments are still real-- there is still pain and sometimes suffering, but all is not lost; all will be well-- some important needs are being met!
Looking at the worst moments also helped me to think carefully about the upcoming week and try to figure out how to meet more of my needs. If peace, beauty, and freedom are needed, then I need to get myself out in nature for at least a little bit. And that leads to another fun idea-- that maybe when we don’t have much time, we can think about finding activities that meet a whole lot of needs at once, rather than just one or two. So if you’re going to hang out with a friend (connection, meaning, authenticity), you might as go for a walk together in nature and add beauty, air, and physical wellbeing to the list!
Try taking a few minutes to do this writing and reflection task while drinking your morning coffee, and let me know if you learn anything interesting about yourself!
Right now I am taking a practicum in teaching the well-known "Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction" (MBSR) course. Part of the course materials is the book "A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook," written by Elisha Goldstein and my excellent practicum teacher, Bob Stahl. In the introduction of the book, there are some prompts to write about. Today I reflected on these prompts, and I wanted to share them with you. "What's going on in your life that led you to purchase this workbook?"
Well, of course I bought this book because it's part of the requirement for the practicum. But I take this question to mean, "What's going on in your life that makes you seek out mindfulness?"
So...mainly anxiety. Anxiety and anger, and what sometimes feels like uncontrollable irritation and impatience. And an almost constant feeling of not being good enough-- self-judgment.
In truth, I want all of these feelings to just disappear. That would feel like freedom. But I know enough to know that this is not possible. I've also read enough to understand that maybe it isn't even desirable to get rid of these mind-states...because...they teach me...stuff...? As you can see, I'm not quite convinced of this deep down. I sort of get it, but I still want these things to disappear.
While I have been learning about and practicing mindfulness for about 6 years, it is still very hard for me to "just be" instead of doing, doing, thinking, evaluating, strategizing. Just being with negative emotions and mind states, accepting what IS...this is what I want to practice.
I suppose that I want to suffer less. My fear and anxiety and judgement are so pervasive and so uncomfortable. I'd really like to learn more about how to work with this. These things get in the way of me letting my own light shine, of being authentically me in so many situations that would really benefit from my whole presence.
It's hard for me to share these things. Because of pride and because I teach mindfulness and meditation, the face I want to show to the world is of a person who is calm, content, and centered, who has things together. This is sometimes true, but all that I wrote above is also true. Perhaps it's true for you, too, and that's why I am sharing it. This, all of this and more, is ok. It may not be comfortable, and it may not be our preference, but it is authentic, it is normal, and it is ok. We can continue to learn how to work with what is here.
On Sunday I went swimming in the Monterey Bay with my open-water swim group. I went out with a couple of friends and as we swam, I noticed the water was moving more usual. There was a bit of a swell, something I haven't experienced for a while, and it was making me a little uncomfortable. That feeling, paired with a knowledge that I was sore from a hike the day before and not feeling 100%, made me decided to turn around after a third of a mile, cutting my swim a bit short. My two companions wanted to swim further, so I started back solo. A low-grade anxiety started in as I swam-- nervousness about being alone, about current, about sharks, even hyperaware of a strand of kelp in the murky distance looking like who-knows-what. The feeling of anxiousness would swell and recede, swell and recede, mixed with thoughts about the sweet sunshine, the sunlight on the ripples of the water.
Today marks one year since my dad died. Since my dad died, I have been much more anxious in the water, much more apt to skip a swim, but lately I've been coming more regularly. Out there in the water on Sunday, I thought of a story that my mom told me on the phone last week. When they were first married, before I was born, my dad took my mom on a hike. The hike ended up being much longer than at least my mom expected, with patches of steep climbs. My mom had felt like giving up, but my dad helped her through, even carrying her on his back at the end.
Not so long after thinking about that, I saw a school anchovies swimming underneath me-- thousands, ten of thousands (millions?) of them. I was amazed and thrilled to be swimming with them, and this feeling, too, lasted for a few moments. Then every ocean documentary that I've ever seen flashed through my head and I imagined SOMETHING bursting up through the school in search of food-- a lunge-feeding humpback, a dreaded Great White, even a harbor seal-- careening up for a mouthful of anchovies and ending up with a mouthful of me.
I began to "swim fast," which is actually just thrashing more, to try to swim away from this beautiful food-source. Stroke after stroke, and still the carpet of anchovies underneath me continued. Stroke after stroke, on and on, and finally there were no more anchovies, and I was well within my familiar cove.
That swim seems to me like a miniature model of life. Anxiety crescendos and decrescendos; joy alights and then flies away. Grief goes on and on; overtaking me for a time and then lying low. Those anchovies are still out there somewhere in the ocean; sometimes they're all I can see, and sometimes the water is clear. Things come and then they go. As I rode my little scooter home from the swim, the sun shone on my salty arms and the breeze fluttered my clothes. I felt light.
Today on this anniversary, I feel heavy. I feel the weight of the last year hanging on me. I remember my dad with joy and with deep sorrow, and I still feel anger and dismay that he is gone. An ocean of feelings, beautiful and terrible. Like the tides, things come and then they go.
It’s been quite a while since I have written here. For me, writing is thinking, and I often feel that if I am not writing I am not processing my thoughts and my life on as deep a level. Writing is like pulling on a piece of yarn that’s sticking out of a tangled mess-- I start to see where things are caught up, I pause to figure out the situation, and little by little, some clarity appears. Without the writing, it can feel like I am just pushing the ball of yarn around, moving around it. So while it is certainly ok that I haven’t written lately, I’d prefer to have a more regular writing practice. So here I am. My schedule has been so packed lately, and I have been doing well just to keep stretching and meditating a few minutes a day. When I quit my big full-time job, it meant taking on multiple smaller jobs, and this was new for me-- each day is different, and lately most days are just a bit too full. Teaching, taking an online class, pet-sitting, coordination/administration… all separate pieces.
I have to say first of all that I am grateful, because I am. When I sit back and think of it, I am so grateful to myself for quitting my job when I understood that it was not the right fit for me. It was a scary decision, but I did it! And then I am so grateful for all of the other things that have popped up for me to do, the opportunities that people gave me-- it is a blessing to be busy, especially when I was afraid that I would just be happy and very poor. :)
I’m grateful for change and the opportunity to experiment with my habits and my work. As the summer ends, my situation is changing. Some jobs are ending; some new jobs and trainings are beginning. I have the opportunity to set up my schedule for the next few months in a way that will work better for me. I’ve learned a couple of things from the last few months:
Don’t say yes to everything out of fear that I will not have enough. If I say yes to every work opportunity because I’m scared of not having enough money, I risk not having enough time and peace of mind to function sustainably. I need to carefully consider each option against my goals and needs, and trust my gut when it’s time to say no.
Carve out care-giving time for myself. For me, this means taking care of my mind by meditating and writing, and taking care of my body by doing yoga and being active outside. Those are the basics, and there is not really an exception to this like, “except when I’m really busy.” When I’m really busy, it is even more important to take care of myself. I’ve often heard the quote, “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes everyday-- unless you're too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” While I haven’t managed to sit for an hour lately, I am definitely learning that when I am busy with work it is tempting to let everything else fall by the wayside, yet that’s actually the worst thing for me.
Know myself. It is often small things that make a difference, and knowing more about my preferences helps me to be happier. I can do the exact same activities, but if they are sequenced poorly for my work-style and personality, it can make things feel unmanageable. For example, do I want to get up and out of the house early every day or should some days start a little more slowly? Do I need to pack some days very full in order to have one weekday at home? If I have one day at home, what do I want to do with it, and will I really do that?
With all this in mind, I am crafting my schedule carefully. There are engagements that are set and unchangeable, and other elements that I can schedule carefully to make this work for me. I am scheduling in specific time for writing, time for studying and working on my online class. I am scheduling large blocks of work time for myself, and I now know that I need to have specific tasks on my agenda so that I will actually use those blocks of time.
I know that not everyone is a freelancer or a part-timer, or whatever I am right now-- someone who has a bunch of small jobs and tasks that they can experiment with. But I’m pretty sure that we all have at least tiny choices that we can make in order to make things feel a little better, a little healthier and more sustainable, even more joyful! What are those things for you?
How much of our life is spent on attachment? On wanting good things to stay? On holding tightly? On wanting what is good not to end? I posted recently about swallows on the lake near my apartment. These swallows are one of my joys in life. They are active much of the day, but especially in the evening, when they dive and swoop about catching insects in the air and just above the surface of the water.
Just imagine them in the golden hour as the sun is going down, chasing each other around and over the lake. They move quickly and are so agile in flight that they can dive and shift directions in an instant, which is part of what makes them so fascinating to watch. If you stand on one of the bridges over the lake, the swallows come in so close flying over, under, and along the bridge. This makes it easier to actually see them, and the little birds are just beautiful! Elegant forked tails, orange-y bellies, deep sparkling blue backs. As near as I can tell, there are two or three types: barn swallows, cliff swallows, and maybe tree swallows, but I’m a very amateur birdwatcher, so there could be other species that I can’t identify.
I love to walk around the lake and pause frequently to watch the swallows doing acrobatics in the golden beams. It is so idyllic and so beautiful that I want more and more. I want to see the birds more closely; I want to capture it-- not capture a bird, but the whole scene and the whole feeling of it-- the light, the gentle breeze, the smell of lake, and the graceful flight. I have tried on many occasions to do so-- using binoculars to try to watch the birds up close (they are much too fast for this to work), making a video on my phone (somehow they are as small as specks and not at all impressive), and taking photo upon photo of nothing much, since they fly quickly past the frame as I tap, tap, tap.
I wonder about this urge to keep, hold, capture. I don’t want to demonize it-- sometimes the urge is simply to be able to share the moment and the beauty with others. Taking photos of things can seem distracting, but it sometimes is another form of mindfulness-- taking note of a flower, coming in close to it, catching it in just the right light. But at the same time, I can see how attachment robs some of the joy from a moment. The moment that I turn from, “oh how lovely as I watch these amazing creatures!” to “jeez, why are they so fast, why can’t I capture what I’m seeing?!” is a moment that makes a tight, swallow-like dive from joy and wonder to annoyance and disappointment.
Does anyone else know this swoop away from joy? How about, “Oh how peaceful to be camping!” and immediately after, “We need to do this more regularly. What’s wrong with us that we love to camp and haven’t done it in a year?!” Or “The weekend was so relaxing!” and then “Why can’t we have just one more day?!” Basically, “I have got something precious!” followed by “More! I want more of it, and I don’t want it to end!” Reduce it like that, and it seems childish, like a kid who doesn’t want to go to bed.
I want to observe this instinct in me, with the hope of not always moving so quickly to attachment. To see my joy swinging in midair and to simply watch it, to note it and appreciate it, perhaps even appreciate it more for the knowledge that it cannot be held down. I’ve decided that from now on, the swallows are flying just for me (and whoever else happens to be there in the flesh). I’ll stand still in wonder, nothing more. This is a precious occurrence, and no more will I turn wonder to disappointment through attachment...at least where swallows are concerned.
This weekend we saw “Inside Out,” the new Pixar movie that’s kind of about a child who has to move across the country with her family, but really about emotions, memories, and personality. Most of the film is spent in the “headquarters” of the mind, where personified emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust work (and fight) together to run the show. While it is a children’s film that makes heavy use of personification and metaphor, much of the film’s presentation of the workings of the mind is based in actual research. There are so many interesting topics that are touched on in this film, and I imagine that I’ll be watching it again in the near future to glean more meaning. But my favorite concept of the film is the main one: that each actual event and happening in life is processed through a certain lens or perspective, and that there is no “true” perspective-- there is simply the perspective that is selected at that time.
When I talk about mindfulness, especially as a short introduction, I often mention ‘reaction versus response.’ Our habitual way of acting (especially under stress) is in quick reactions. For example, in daily life, if someone tells me what to do, I often quickly snap back that I’ll do what I want, thanks. This is one of my default reactions-- when I perceive that someone is trying to control me, Anger takes over and I try to assert my own control.
If I have been practicing mindfulness, however, I may (not always, but sometimes!) get a moment’s pause to select a response instead of reacting. In this moment of pause and awareness, I may realize that the person “trying to control me” is actually trying to give me a helpful suggestion. I may realize that they have a point. While Anger might be my default reaction in this situation, it is not always the most helpful. This is something that I have known, thought about, and tried to practice for years now, but “Inside Out” gave me a dynamic visual picture of it, of hot-headed little Anger leaping up and saying, “I’ve got this one, I know just what to do! We yell now!”
Yesterday I sat on the patio in the evening. It was a relatively neutral moment with nothing much happening externally. But in my head, Sadness was looking around for something to do. “Shall we think about how the weekend has begun, which sort of means it’s nearly over and you haven’t used it well? Shall we think about being 35 and having no children? Shall we think about the fact that we spent a lot of time working on this patio space and will have to move and leave it behind at some point?” Sadness is just full of great ideas for rumination!
At that moment, Mindfulness woke up in me-- that thing outside of Sadness. Mindfulness said, “Weird! This feels kind of extreme-- why is there so much sadness right now? Does Sadness have to be in control of this moment? What if Joy were in charge? What would she say?” Well, Joy was just glad to be sitting on the patio of an evening. Joy enjoyed the evening light and the fact that it was, after all, the weekend. Just by taking a moment to examine my perspective, I had the space to see that there were any number of possible responses to that moment, and Joy was just as valid (and much more pleasant!) than Sadness.
This is not at all to say that Joy should always be in control and that Sadness should never be in control. Sadness is at times an appropriate and helpful emotion, and this is my other favorite concept in the film. When we push down Sadness and try to block her out of the control room, things do not go well for long. In the months after my dad’s death, I have learned that if I don’t go through periods of sadness, if I run and hide from it or create distractions when I begin to feel it, it goes deep inside me and takes up residence in my neck and shoulders. There it festers and creates actual physical pain.
I suppose that sometimes in my grief, I get too comfortable with Sadness at the helm. She stays in control until times like that on the patio when I suddenly realize that Sadness might not be the best driver in this particular situation. We all have our default reactions, and what I am discovering is that for me, Sadness, Anger, and Fear tend to get a lot more driving time than Joy. At this point, Joy is the runt of the litter, and she needs to be fed and encouraged to get in there and take the helm. For me, mindfulness is a gift that’s helping me to notice times to make a choice and let Joy win.
When I have free time, it can feel like a burden to ask myself what I want to do or what I should do. I sometimes bring judgement into it, about what would be the BEST use of time, the MOST fun, or the most productive... And then if I can't decide, I'll just play around on my phone for a long time without even realizing that it means I have decided to do something after all...just not something that feels good So I have lately started to ask myself: what is required? What does my current state call for? And sometimes: what would show the most love to myself? It is always something different: my body might be hurting, and gentle yoga is called for. Maybe a snack is required. Perhaps my head feels jumbled, and writing would be just the ticket.
I can't exactly say why this phrasing works so much better for me, but it does. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe I can point to why it feels better. To ask what I should do next encourages me to use my brain and my judgement to think about what activities are valuable or desirable. But to ask what is required encourages me to be mindful of myself, inside and out. It asks me to scan the state of my mind and body and figure out my actions based on what I need at the moment.
I've been consciously doing this for a couple of weeks and each time I've asked the question, a quick and easy answer has come to mind. Today, though, it took me a little bit to figure it out. Despite the fact that Sunday is still the weekend and I'm as free as a bird, despite the fact that my Monday is looking to be very low-key, despite the fact the the sun is shining...there is some anxiety and sadness mixed into my feeling-potpourri today. I feel a bit down and on edge. I don't want these emotions. I want uncomplicated joy and peace, and maybe a little curiosity.
So first, I thought, "What is required?" None of the "activities" that I thought of really sounded appetizing or effective in terms of addressing these unwanted emotions. As I thought about it more, I realized yet again that the point is not to get rid of negative or inconvenient emotions. The answer is not to write or run or eat or whatever and get rid of the negative emotions. Sometimes what is required is just to be with the emotions. So that's what I am doing now-- being with, turning toward my emotions, even though they aren't pretty. Yes, I will do other things, too, but not as an antidote to having unwanted feelings. The feelings can stay as long as they need to.
Oftentimes since my dad died, I have reflected that I feel like I am not the same person anymore. Something is different-- all things are different. Maybe instead of being multiple things, it’s one significant change, like putting on a set of glasses with terribly strange lenses that you can never take off. Everything looks different now.
The other day while I was meditating, I had that thought-- I want to be that person again. I want her back, that more-naive girl who had a dad, who had always had both of her wonderful parents. All of her perceived (rather untested) strength. Innocence and ignorance. For all her half-hearted searching, she was barely scratching the surface, yet perceiving it as depth. Like a girl up to her neck in water, thinking it deep, but just ahead of her is a drop-off into the fathomless ocean. Girl, you have no idea.
And this time, for the first time, I thought, No, I can’t have that old me back. That’s water under the bridge now. I can create the new Katie in any way I want, but I can’t have the old one back.”
It was a heartbreaking thought-- that loss of myself on top of the loss of my dad-- but it was also a releasing thought, the final closing of a door and at the same time, a fleeting glimpse of the uncharted land through a new window. A ringing of a bell.
And now, now and then, I am turning this over in my head. Who is this new person that I want to be? What creative, active, and self-loving habits does she have? She’s a person who listens to herself and stays open and vulnerable, yet protective of her precious self as well. She also takes refuge in the parts of herself that are still constant, that will never change.
Yes, there is still sadness and loss here. That does not stop good from happening. Destruction does not prevent future creation; it makes creation unavoidable, if we are to go on.
I recently listened to the audiobook of "10% Happier" by Dan Harris at the recommendation of a colleague. As I did dishes, cooked, and puttered around the house, I listened to the 7+ hours of the book and I really liked it. It is approachable and funny, and it gives a good introduction to mindfulness, refreshingly from the perspective of a person who never thought they would be into such things as meditation, retreats, etc. A lot of the book is about Harris' career in news, setting the stage for his exploration of mindfulness, and some of the best gems come at the end of the book-- all the way through the epilogue. Somewhere near the end of the book, Harris mentions that self-compassion meditation has been linked to greater success in weight loss and in cessation of smoking. This finding is very interesting to me, and self compassion in general has been a particular focus of mine this year, so I decided to find out more about it.
One study found that combining weight loss with self compassion led to greater overall weight loss in soldiers-- greater than even pairing with "regular" meditation. This article also compiles a lot of great information on the subject and discusses probably the most common obstacle to self compassion: the fear of becoming self indulgent.
I definitely have this fear, whether pertaining to weight loss, working hard, or working on any goals. I am exploring this question of being compassionate and yet not indulgent, of having intention and discipline without going overboard into an unsustainable over-drive. Balance.
Inspired by the research and by my own wish for more self love and less judgement, I am doing self compassion meditation. With just a little searching, I found this set of guided meditations that I'm liking very much so far. It feels comforting and nourishing to practice compassion for myself in this way...and it feels pretty novel!
Recently I received a book of poems by Mary Oliver, “Thirst” in the mail from a friend. It is a small book which can be quickly gulped down, and then later savored. Gulping down poetry is not necessarily the best way to take it in...it’s more for sipping. But the poem that stood out to me on first reading is “When I Am Among the Trees.” In the poem, Oliver explains so beautifully how her time with trees lets her feel their gladness, lets her hear their voices telling her about a graceful approach to living.
From what these trees say, it seems easy to be a tree, blissfully easy. Stand and take in the light, sway your branches in the wind. Shine. I wonder if it is easy. Perhaps none of it is easy, but they make it look effortless and beautiful because of their grace and experience in being trees for so long.
I’ve got to say, I am finding it hard to go easy, and hard to shine. Like Oliver, “I am so distant from the hope of myself.” Coincidentally, I have not been among the trees in quite a long time...perhaps its time for the trees to save me, too.