Re-Blog: Everything Possible: On the Fluidity of Humanity (sermon)

In this post on Awake and Witness, Karen Johnston offers a picture of how we can be there for one another, even when confronted with defiant reactions (either from others or from ourselves).

As the mother of children who first react to uncomfortable or confusing situations with defiance (and who have been misunderstood and at times mistreated because of this), Karen’s bus stop story particularly touched me.

Her post describes the kind of patience and compassion towards which I strive in my personal interactions, and which I hope my children—and everyone—will receive when they go out into the world.

Morning Routine

My alarm vibrates at 5:30 a.m., working its way into my dream as a bug or a weird dance beat or something wrong with my car. I wake up long enough to turn it off and think, “I’ll just sleep until my spouse wakes up. I need more sleep anyway.”

At about 6:00 a.m., I get out of bed and head to the bathroom where I weigh myself, put on my workout clothes, and re-braid my hair if it’s too loose to stay up while I exercise.

In the kitchen I fill my water glass, leaving some drips in the bottom of the sink for the cat. I take my thyroid meds and then walk blearily downstairs.

While the computer boots up, I scoop the litter boxes, sweep the floor, empty the dehumidifier reservoir, refill the cat’s water dish, and wash my hands. On mornings when I sleep in later, my spouse has done everything but refill the water dish (and wash my hands).

I type in my password and put on my shoes while everything’s loading up.

I click the links in my Fitness Blender plan to bring up the day’s workouts, record my weight on the FitBit dashboard, then check e-mail and Facebook until I get so disgusted with my laziness that I make myself actually get up and exercise.

After forty to eighty minutes of jumping around the basement, I take off my shoes, log my workout, then hobble back upstairs.

I interrupt the children’s play to instruct them to start eating breakfast, then I go take a shower and get dressed for the day, making beds and stowing dirty clothes along the way.

Back in the kitchen, I once again tell the children to eat breakfast, then I put fruit in a bowl, a grain-free muffin on a plate, and decaf on to percolate. When everything is ready, I sit down at the table and eat my breakfast and drink my coffee while I do a NY Times crossword puzzle on the laptop. The kids know it’s time to do homeschool when they hear the little song that means I’ve finished the puzzle. (They get much more time to play on Fridays than they do on Mondays.)

Then we all brush our teeth and start our studies.

This is what I’ve done nearly every morning since October 2014, except Sundays, which is my exercise day off. On Sundays, I try to take a walk before breakfast in the time I otherwise do exercise videos, but that doesn’t always happen.

I don’t know how exactly this routine started. Ever since I started taking thyroid meds, I’ve had to do something for at least thirty minutes before breakfast, so things just naturally sneak into that space. For a while it was writing, then neighborhood walks. Now it’s exercise videos. Over the years, the ritual has just become more and more elaborate around this thirty-minute wait.

If I don’t do this routine, I end up in a very irritable mood. Even on vacation, I try to maintain some variation of the routine, for my sanity and for the benefit of everyone with whom I’m likely to come into contact. I’m kind of like David Banner in the late-1970’s Hulk TV show—“Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”—except that I take more personal responsibility for my moods.

And sometimes I don’t do the routine because I’ve woken up in a very irritable mood. Last week, the routine got derailed because I got pissed off at the Fitness Blender workout I was doing. I shut off the thing with twenty minutes to spare and stomped upstairs swearing about Daniel and Kelli.

My spouse stared wide-eyed and tried not to make any sudden movements. The kids just ignored me.

Although this routine’s been working well-ish for almost a year, lately I’ve found myself wanting to change things up a little. I have no idea what kind of change to make, so I’ll probably just flail about for a few weeks until I either fall into a new routine or become happy with the old one again.

How do you start your day? Do you have a morning ritual? If so, can I borrow some of it for myself?

Chance Meeting

I was about to yell, so I left the bedtime routine to my spouse.

I walked fast, oblivious. As my stress diminished, I began to notice things around me. Bats darted in the street lights. Two rabbits sat face to face in conversation.

Then by a fence corner stood a large shape. I stopped. It raised its head.

A deer. A big deer. It saw me and tensed.

Antlers, three or four points on each side.

“Buck,” I thought, and he pivoted, bounded, disappeared into the woods.

I stood on the sidewalk, gaping at the spot where he’d just stood.

Running Lessons

I recently bought new running shoes. I knew mine were old because I had no memory of buying shoes after we moved from North Carolina, and we did that in late 2003. But then I looked under the tongue and saw that my shoes had, in fact, been manufactured in October 2002.

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I had been wearing—and trying to run in—nearly thirteen-year-old running shoes.

As my daughter noted, “Those shoes are older than me, Mommy!”

So, I bought new running shoes from a very competent salesman who I suspect was closer in age to my shoes than he was to my own age.

These new running shoes feel like a miracle.

Oh, my! The cushioning! The support!

I love to run in them, and so I’ve been running in them two or three times a week just because I love to run in them and because running in them means that I’m not responsible to anyone else for a half-hour or more at a stretch (I’m mapping longer and longer runs every time I go out).

In all of this running, I’ve noticed a curious thing. Our neighborhood is hilly, and when I’m running on a flat stretch or a slight decline, I think, “Man! I could run forever! I am so fit!” And when I’m running on an incline, I think, “Oh, no! I am so out of shape! Why am I even running right now?”

It feels harder to run uphill, so I must be less fit. It feels easier to run a little downhill (although not a lot downhill), so I must be more fit.

Of course, whether the road goes uphill or down does not at all influence my level of fitness, but that’s the first place my brain goes: it judges me based on external circumstances.

I wonder when else I’ve judged myself based on external factors, and because it’s what I do 24 hours a day, my thoughts inevitably turn to parenting.

I think about the time I was leading a La Leche League meeting about Gentle Guidance, and my three-year-old simply would not mind me at all. She was a holy terror, in fact, and although I was hugely pregnant—which is the only way I know how to be pregnant—I cut myself no slack. If I couldn’t get her to mind, I was apparently not qualified to speak about Gentle Guidance.

I think about the multiple times—the most recent just this morning—when my homeschooling session with my son has involved him refusing to even try to subtract nine from any other number and then bursting into tears and my barely avoiding (and sometimes not at all avoiding) yelling at him, because for Pete’s sake, I know he knows this. Why isn’t he even trying? And because I’m nearly yelling or actually yelling I think, “I totally suck at this. Why am I homeschooling my kids? What made me think I was qualified to do this?”

But now I’m thinking that each of these instances—and many others like them—are the parenting equivalent to running uphill. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I wonder if I’ll make it. But how difficult it feels at that moment has practically no relation to how fit I am to do it.

Because today at Trader Joe’s, two women went out of their way to tell me how delightful my children are and how clearly they love one another and what a great job I’m doing.

Because yesterday when we were having dinner, my son declared to all assembled that he LOVES math, and when we were doing his facts practice sheet today—subtracting nines—he said, “I’m flying through these like they’re nothing!”

Those are the downhill moments, and they say just as much about how fit I am as a parent as the uphill moments, but they’re a heck of a lot more encouraging.

Back in my La Leche League days, I had a co-leader whose mantra was, “Never quit on your worst day.” I’ve heard many criticisms of this idea, but it continues to work for me. If things aren’t working, they won’t work on our best day. But even if we have a horrible day, that doesn’t mean things aren’t working overall. It just means we’re having a horrible day. Things may well work just fine tomorrow, but I’ll never find that out if I quit on the worst day.

So, although I’m years past my La Leche League days, I still take this lesson to heart. It keeps me running up those hills, smiling all the way at that voice that tries to convince me that because it’s difficult, I shouldn’t be doing it.

When do you hear that voice that tells you to throw in the towel because you’re just not good enough? Do you listen to the voice, or do you laugh at it and keep on keeping on?

Courage

One February in North Carolina, in the corporate-employee days of my early 20’s, I got an e-mail from my coworker, Tee. It was about a week before our monthly gathering to celebrate the birthdays in the department, and I had just finished printing out the transparencies for the Jeopardy! game I’d made up for the occasion. Some months we played Family Feud with answers gleaned from surveys I sent to the department, some months it was Let’s Make a Deal, but this month, like most months, it was Jeopardy!
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Organic Gratitude

I’ve not had much luck with gratitude practices. Picking out things to be grateful about feels either forced or redundant, and I end up feeling like an ass when I still feel miserable even in the face of so many blessings in my life. Focusing on the good in a situation or in a moment just highlights the gap between what I expect or desire and the reality. It engages my logical mind to step in with its focus on identifying problems and proposing solutions. And that’s a problem.

I really like my logical mind. It serves me well in many, many situations. It helps me figure out whether to go to the grocery store or the post office first, which math curriculum I should try for my kids, and how many layers of clothing I should wear if it’s -6°F out (trick question; I don’t go out when it’s -6°F). But when my logical brain approaches the problem of my feeling down and sets to work identifying why this might be, the common element is always me. I’m the problem, says my logical mind.

This doesn’t foster feelings of gratitude, and you can imagine what it does to my mood.

Instead, I’ve found that I do better when I ask my logical mind to step aside and let my body and awareness take over so I can just be present for whatever the moment brings.

But my logical mind is tenacious. When it gets its teeth into something, it does not let go without a fight, even if it’s clear it’s losing. So, how do I ask it to step aside?

For me, it helps to shift my awareness from my brain to my body. For example, when I’m feeling anxious, my stomach feels queasy. Because I’m not good with throwing up, feeling queasy triggers more anxiety, which triggers more queasiness, which makes me more anxious. When I was a kid, my mom would say, “Count to ten,” or “Take three breaths.” These are good suggestions, but for me, they just serve as distractions. The underlying anxiety is still steaming away, driving that feedback loop.

To stop the feedback loop, I’ve learned to check in with my body. Sometimes I’m too anxious to bring my awareness directly to my stomach, so mostly I start with more distant body parts. I bring my awareness to my toes and how they feel in my socks, against the bottoms of my shoes, or if I’m barefoot, I feel the air across my skin. Or I bring my awareness to the space between my eyebrows or the space between my neck and my shoulders. If I have time, I do a full-on body scan meditation. (Usually I don’t have time.)

The key is not to think about what my body is feeling; that defeats the purpose. Rather I just bring awareness to the sensations in my toes or my face or my shoulders or my stomach without attaching any sort of judgment or evaluation to the sensations. This doesn’t change the sensations themselves, but it gets me out of my logical mind, which stops the anxiety feedback loop and helps me calm down a bit.

Another way I engage with my body is through motion. This morning I attended a dancing meditation. We began by learning the steps and hearing the lyrics of the songs read aloud to us, which both engaged the logical mind. Then the music began and as we listened and moved through the sequence of steps, I was able to let go of thinking and let my body do the driving. It was a moving experience, both literally and figuratively, and it not only calmed and centered me, but helped all of us in the room feel closer and more compassionate with one another.

At home, I’ll exercise or dance and sing with my kids or go for a walk. All of these work, but I found the dancing meditation to be much more effective and powerful than my solo endeavors.

I’m not always able to remember to bring my awareness to my body before my mind gets going too fast to stop, but when I can remember, when I can be present without judgment, I find that calm, compassion, and gratitude follow organically.

Who Am I?

“Who am I?” I asked myself again and again during the weekend meditation retreat I attended in August.

It was the first time I had been away from my five-year-old son overnight. For two nights I slept in a twin bed in a single dorm room, alone for the first time in nearly a decade.

“Who am I without my children; without my husband?”

For a whole weekend, I had no responsibilities except showing up for my one-hour daily “yogi job” shift, washing dinner dishes or chopping vegetables. With everyone else, I listened to the bells telling us where to go and when, and followed the sound. We were encouraged to seek refuge in the buddha, the dharma, the sangha. I’d been seeking refuge but not in any of those things. For a whole weekend, I was not defined by what I spent my time doing.

“Who am I without my roles: wife, mother, daughter, friend, homeschooler?”

We maintained noble silence, refraining from talking, reading, writing, nonverbal communication, and eye contact until Sunday afternoon. I sat silent in a room with 96 other silent people. I walked the grounds with 96 other silent walkers, silently greeting the same holly leaf every time I returned to the hedge. Pacing slowly across the lawn and back, we looked like disoriented zombies.

“Who am I without my voice?”

I sat in hour after hour of meditation, feeling my presence in the breath tickling the back of my throat, in the movement of my digestive tract. In spite of the pain burning along my spine, I fell asleep sitting up. I had moments-long dreams, strange visions that seemed strangely real, and caught myself before falling over. The breeze from the window raised goosebumps along the left side of my body.

Here I am, I thought. But—

“Who am I?”

In my room, a familiar face looked back at me from the mirror above my sink.

“Who are you?” she asked.

I had no answer.

And that was okay.

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The post that helped me actually go to my retreat after I’d signed up for it:

Harbinger of Spring

The bluebird enjoys the preeminence of being the first bit of color that cheers our northern landscape. The other birds that arrive about the same time–the sparrow, the robin, the phoebe-bird–are clad in neutral tints, gray, brown, or russet; but the bluebird brings one of the primary hues and the divinest of them all.

– John Burroughs, Wake Robin, first published in 1871

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Three male eastern bluebirds outside our window at the beginning of yesterday’s snow storm.

As long as there are bluebirds, there will be miracles and a way to find happiness.

– Shirl Brunnel, I Hear Bluebirds, 1988

The Power of Empathy

I was in an empathy practice group in California.

That totally sounds like something that would happen in California, doesn’t it? We sat around with our healing crystals, munching sprouted sunflower seeds and spirulina and practiced being empathetic with one another.

Not quite. There were two Burmese cats who would go from lap to lap for affection throughout the meeting, but raw foods and crystals rarely made an appearance. It is true, though, that we were all committed to the practice of Nonviolent Communication (now often called Compassionate Communication).

Each week, one person would tell about something that was bothering her, and the rest of us would go around the circle, taking turns listening deeply to what the person had to say, and reflecting back their needs and emotions.

No analysis, no judgment, no problem-solving, just reflecting feelings and needs. We said things like, “You feel sad because your need for connection wasn’t met,” or “You feel ecstatic because your needs for recognition and appreciation were met.” If we lapsed into analysis or sympathy, the facilitator brought us back to feelings and needs.

It sounds a little mechanical and a lot silly when I write it out like that, but it was incredibly powerful just to feel heard. It was way outside my comfort zone to interact like this, but I came back week after week because I felt entranced by the power of merely listening and reflecting.

I’ve tried to incorporate this kind of listening into my regular interactions, but it’s so hard not to slip into analysis or judgment (even judgment in favor of the person speaking) or “at least…” distancing language. Outside of the empathy group, the language of reflecting feelings and needs seems extra corny, so I’ve had to get creative. Most times I just let it be part of my internal process while I’m listening, but I’ve used the technique in discussions with friends and in group settings when discussions were getting heated.

Like when I was at a mothers meeting in which there was an escalating disagreement about how covered a woman should be if she’s nursing in public. One mom was voicing a dissenting opinion to that of the rest of the vocal part of the group. I could tell that she wasn’t feeling heard because she’d repeated the same point three or four times,  getting more and more visibly upset with each repetition. So, I went into empathetic listening mode, and just said, “It sounds like you feel very strongly about women covering up when they nurse in public.”

And that was it. The conversation proceeded, but that increasing heat was gone. Even though that was my purpose in saying it, I was shocked that it actually worked.

No matter how many times I’ve seen empathetic listening in action, it always astounds me how well it works, even when I’m the recipient of the empathy. Just this morning, I mentioned in an e-mail to a friend that I had been up much of the night with a vomiting child, and she said, “I know how exhausting it is to be up with a sick kiddo.”

And I started crying.

Just having someone be with me—even remotely—and reflect my unspoken feeling of exhaustion brought such a powerful feeling of relief. The tension of the previous night relaxed, and the tears just flowed with that relief.

I’ve not done as much intentionally empathetic listening lately as I used to. It takes so much energy and is so incredibly hard to step back and just reflect without adding anything else, without making the story about me, sharing what’s happened to me, offering my solutions and opinions. But I’m so glad that this friend reminded me of the power of empathy. I really must make a point of using it again because it works. Even outside of California.

Below is an animation of Brené Brown’s explanation of the difference between empathy and sympathy. I don’t like that it pokes fun at people who, despite their good intentions, engage in practices that distance them from others rather than foster connection, but otherwise, it’s a pretty good explanation.

Guest Post: This I Believe

My friend Linda always has something to say that simply and deeply speaks to my heart, so I was thrilled when she agreed to guest post on Imperfect Happiness this week. I hope you find her words as powerful as I do. If you do, please let her know in the comments.

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My husband and I married when we were both in our forties, and as we say in Texas, it wasn’t our first rodeo. We invited our families to participate, and when the minister asked: “Who gives this man?” we laughed out loud when Rad’s family loudly—and in unison—proclaimed: “We do. As is. No returns.”100_3035

I’m a Virgo, born under a new moon when Mercury was in retrograde. (I have no idea what any of that means.) I’m left-handed and an introvert. I have a strong family history of heart disease. I’m 5 feet 8 inches tall and have green eyes and used to be a brunette. I tend to be anxious and sometimes suffer from agoraphobia and panic disorder. I was labeled “too sensitive” as a child because I cared and felt deeply. I used to think I had to be perfect to be loved. I’m often in physical pain. I’m a decent, kind and caring person. I have a good sense of humor, and have always had a strong sense of justice. And I have an endless list of likes and dislikes.

I did not make myself up. I am a product of genetics, culture, society, my family, and every single experience I’ve ever had, including my interactions with all of you. I am an extraordinarily ordinary human, always changing, evolving.

Here I am: as is.

This isn’t a theological reflection but it is a deeply spiritual one for me. After participating in a mindfulness program a few years ago, I began the practice of moment-to-moment awareness – well, at least some of the time.

As I practiced this present moment awareness, I noticed there was a constant litany going on in my head. “Why did you say that?” “You should be ashamed for thinking THAT.” “I can’t believe you’re so clumsy.” “You forgot again?” “Yikes, look at that jiggly belly!”

A few months ago I was invited to add the practice of accepting myself as is to my daily meditation. “May I accept myself as I am,” I say silently to myself. In the beginning I would often sit with tears running down my face; I sometimes still do.

As is.

I can stop trying so hard. I can stop worrying about what other people think. I can relax. I can try new things and not be perfect. I can say: “no, that’s not for me.” I can be happy now, not when.

The wonderful thing about this practice is that it’s about possibility and intention. I might not always accept myself as is, but I want to; it’s difficult when I’m feeling shame or fear or anger or pain. I love the story from the mindfulness teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, who tells of a woman, who when asked how she’s doing always answers: I couldn’t be better. Isn’t it true, Sylvia says, if we could be better, wouldn’t we?

When I accept myself as is, I’m better able to discern those things that I might be able to change. For example, I might still feel angry with the driver who just scared me to death when he turned left in front of me, but I don’t have to simultaneously honk, shout obscenities, and make obscene gestures. And I can also notice those things that I want to change, and try as I might, I will never change. I will likely always be prone to anxiety and startle easily. I flush beet red with shame when I make a mistake and hate admitting that I’m wrong. I will likely always have back pain.

A fortuitous by-product of this practice of self-compassion is that I find myself being even more compassionate and accepting of others just as they are, right here and right now.

So this is what I believe: I am an extraordinarily ordinary human, always changing, always evolving, and by practicing self-compassion, I am better able to love and accept myself and others.

Here I am: as is.

May we all accept ourselves as is, no returns.