Tight Shoes and Personal Growth

I think I’ve corrected some erroneous assumptions I’d made about vulnerability:

1) Not all discomfort is a sign of vulnerability.

2) Discomfort itself is not necessarily a sign that I’m on the right path, but sitting with the discomfort before making a change can help me figure out what change to make.

Shoes

It’s like if my shoes are too tight. I can choose to sit with the discomfort of the shoes, but that won’t likely lead to future growth (except maybe corns). The discomfort is just a sign that something’s off with the fit of my shoes.

More difficult to tell are those situations that are emotionally uncomfortable. I “retired” from providing mother-to-mother breastfeeding support about a year ago because I got to the point where I would get a call or lead a meeting and end up feeling like I had fallen far short of how I wanted to act in those situations. At the time, I attributed this to social anxiety or some personal failing, but yesterday showed me that this might not be true, or at least might not be the whole story. Read More

Still More Grocery Store Lessons: Who Deserves Compassion?

I’ve written about my realization that feeling a sense of scarcity and like the world owes me something is a choice and that I can choose to feel differently. I’ve written about how much better showing compassion feels than feeling annoyed does. Now I come to the third thought that’s been percolating since my grocery store trip the other day:

Who deserves compassion? Read More

More Lessons in Compassion at the Grocery Store

I mentioned in yesterday’s post a recent trip to the grocery store, but I only told the middle of the story. Here’s how it began:

So, we’d managed to make it to the checkout line with only a few more items than were on the list and with me still on speaking terms with both of my children. I pushed my cart up to the conveyor belt as best I could and began unloading groceries. My son was enthusiastic about helping that day but is too short to reach into the cart with his three-year-old arms, so I would hand him an item and he would put it up on the belt while I rushed to put up five more items before he toddled back to the cart for something else.

I had just handed him a box of instant oatmeal and turned back to grab a few more things when I heard the man in the next line over say, “Oh, no,” in a grave voice. I turned to see my son sprawled on the floor holding his ear, the man bent over him saying, “Oh my God. I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault. I’m so sorry.” Read More

Grocery Shopping: Lessons in Compassion

At the grocery store the other day, I was struggling to hold a crying three-year-old with one arm while using the other to put my groceries on the conveyor belt when I noticed that there was a man standing there impatient that I was holding up the line (and partially blocking the way to the adjacent line between my body and my child’s body and my cart). I felt irritated that he didn’t even ask me outright to move, much less offer to speed things up by helping me with those last few items. He just stood there with obvious impatience. In my annoyance, I imagined that the man saw me as just a stranger holding up the line because she can’t handle the kids she probably shouldn’t have had in the first place.

Then it dawned on me: I don’t have to feel this way. Read More

Playing “Appalachian Trail Thru Hiker” At Home

English: Vector map of the Appalachian Trail. ...

As I tucked the blankets around my daughter tonight, I asked, “Honey, are you going to sleep with that hat on?”

She had pulled a stocking cap down over her ears.

“Yes,” she answered. “It’s like I’m camping on the Appalachian Trail. Is it okay if I wear my gloves, too?”

I paused. She was gazing up at me, waiting for my answer.

“Yes, you may wear your gloves,” I said. Then I gave her a kiss and turned out the light.

As I left the room, she asked me to turn on the ceiling fan. So it would be more like camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

I really hope she can sustain this level of enthusiasm for the next 10 years or so. Or at least long enough that we can save on heating costs this winter.

Related Articles:

My Midlife Crisis, Ahead of Schedule

It’s possible I’m going through a midlife crisis.

I’m only 35, but I’ve always been precocious.

There’s this sense that I’ve missed my chance to do something grand, something a little bit crazy. Sure, I gave birth to my son in my dining room and that was amazing and transformative, but it was just a few hours. (Well, it was 27 hours, but who’s counting?) I want more of that kind of thing, but without adding children to my family. I want the challenge and the reward, I want the intangible benefits of testing myself nearly to breaking and coming through the other side changed.

Shenandoah National Park, June 1994

From the moment I heard about the Appalachian Trail when I was 13 years old, I wanted to hike it. I hiked bits and pieces in Shenandoah National Forest as a teenager. I went on one very memorable day-hike with some friends at the end of our senior year of high school. We hiked the Stony Man Trail in Skyland where it converged with the AT. I think we hiked maybe 5 miles and took salad as our trail food. The views were incredible.

A year or so later, I hiked the same section with my future husband. From the ledge, we watched a thunderstorm rolling in. On the next ledge up the trail, the storm engulfed us. My husband loved it. He stood there with his arms outstretched as the lightning flashed around him. When I finally got him to stop trying to be the highest point in a thunderstorm, we ran down the mountain, the backs of our necks and our bare legs pelted by hail most of the way.

Long Trail/AT, Gifford Woods State Forest, Vermont, September 2012

This weekend, my husband, the kids, and I hiked a wee tiny section of the Appalachian Trail as it ran through Gifford Woods State Forest in Vermont. We—the grownups, the 7-year-old, and the 3-year-old—hiked a steep, rocky, one-mile section out and back from the park visitors center.

I spent our return hike calculating distances and paces, trying to figure out a way, however unrealistic, that the kids and I could thru-hike (or at least section hike) the AT now.

Last night I watched the movie, Trek: a Journey on the Appalachian Trail, which is about a group of hikers who completed their thru-hike in October 2001. The film gave a more in-depth look at the hiking life than any other AT movie I’ve seen, including an exploration of the emotional aspects of the hike. There was a lot of discussion about how the hike and the hiker’s perception of it shifted as they got farther along on the trail and farther from the off-trail life back home.

The film included the “how did you get on the trail?” stories of several hikers. Many of them boiled down to, “If not now, when?” One hiker, a man with the trail name “Sheriff,” talked about how he’d thought for years about hiking the AT. Then one night he had a dream. In it, a guy pulled up next to him in a pickup truck loaded with camping gear.

“Going camping?” Sheriff asked. The man answered that no, he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail.

“I’ve always thought about doing that,” said Sheriff.

“Well, why don’t you come along?” the man asked.

And when he woke up, Sheriff started planning his trip.

I worry that I’ve been handed opportunities to do something bold multiple times in my life, and I’ve let them pass by unheeded.

I was at loose ends after college, and that may well have been a good time to go hiking, but I was deeply in debt with student loans and the credit card I’d used to buy food my last year of college. I compromised and worked at a conference resort south of Lake Tahoe for a season, which was awesome, but I was 20 and too self-conscious to allow myself to embrace the experience.

I picked up a backpacking book in a used book store in Asheville, North Carolina, in the late 90’s. The Backpacking Woman, it was called, by Lynn Thomas. It was written before the availability of tech fabrics and chances are the 20-year-old advice was fairly outdated, but it made long-distance hiking seem doable and fanned the AT flame in me. My husband was in grad school at the time, and I said, “Hey! When you’re done with grad school and have a post-doc lined up, we should take some extra time and hike the AT!” But when the time came, he was nervous about taking the time off and I let that be my excuse to give in to my own fears and doubts, and we made a bee-line from North Carolina to California, only stopping to sleep (and accidentally find a beer fest in Salt Lake City).

When my husband got laid off last year, I saw another opportunity to do something bold. With two young children in tow, I wasn’t really thinking that the AT would be a reasonable option, but the idea of selling everything and living in an RV took hold. (I’ve had an infatuation with RVs ever since kindergarten when the neighbors across the street bought a behemoth motor home and we neighborhood kids got to tour through it.) I thought it was the perfect solution. We knew we would have to move anyway. We could sell our stuff, sell our house, downsize into an RV and stretch the severance package even longer than we could in Salt Lake City. We’d be ready to move anywhere the right job presented itself, and in the meantime, we could travel the country. We could drive to Alaska if we wanted to, so long as the gas money held out and we were near enough to an airport that my husband could fly to interviews.

But we didn’t do that either.

And now here I am in the suburbs of Boston with a mortgage on a split-level home that’s bigger than I need or want in a neighborhood a sidewalk-less 2.5 miles from an inconsequential downtown that’s just barely walkable during the best weather (and just about impassable during the winter), watching movies about Appalachian Trail thru-hikers or dreaming of living in an RV with no fixed address.

This weekend, I listened to an interview with Tom Hayden, founder of Students for a Democratic Society, on the “To the Best of Our Knowledge.” He talked about how it was easier to be a radical and an activist in the 60’s than it is today because it was easier to step out of and back into the mainstream.

I could drop out of the university and nothing would happen. I could go to jail in Mississippi, nothing would happen. I could return, pay my hundred bucks and get back in. This is a treadmill that today’s students are on that we didn’t face. We thought our life, you know, the future, was a treadmill, the grey flannel suit and all that, but nothing compared to the pressure on this generation of students.

The treadmill image resonates with me, but I feel more like I’m caged. The door is open, but the cage offers protection and security, and that keeps me inside. I reassure myself that once the kids are older, I’ll step out of the cage. Once we retire. Once…I don’t even know what. But with all of the opportunities that I’ve already let pass me by, with all of the times when leaving the cage would have been relatively easy, will I really be ready to jump even when those future chances present themselves?

I know it’s not the right time for me to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (Is there ever a “best” time to hike 2,168 miles?). My kids are great hikers, but they couldn’t carry much gear. The best we could do would be some short backpacking trips and even that would be a stretch, and it would be too great a sacrifice to be away from them for 5-6 months so I could do the trail without them.

But I want to do something big. I want to do something meaningful and life-expanding, and I want to do it now while I’m still young enough to have more adventures afterward and so I can be an inspiration to my children when they’re young and before my knees give out.

I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, it’s big. It’s something that would cause people to say to me, “Man, you are totally crazy for doing that.” I want it to be something scary but exciting, something that I know is right in my heart, but that I still question. Like homeschooling or homebirth, but bigger.

Maybe it would suffice to give myself and the kids a long-term training plan for a thru-hike, get us all in shape for a long-distance hike by taking day hikes of increasing length until we’re ready to move on to backpacking trips. With enough experience and conditioning, we might be ready to thru-hike before I turn fifty.

Or maybe I can talk my husband into the lightweight-travel-trailer lifestyle after all. It would help if I could tackle one of my other deferred “bold plans” and become a working, money-earning writer.

That is, if I can avoid being paralyzed by fear for long enough to accomplish any of these things.

Maybe I should just listen to the messages the college radio station has been trying to send me:

Struggles with Self-Compassion

Trifolium repens ?

Trifolium repens ? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My sister finds four-leaf clovers.

I can search a patch of clover for an hour and not find a four-leaf clover, and my sister can walk up and, without hesitation, just pluck one from right next to my knee. She’s always done this.

A week ago, I was pretty convinced that self-compassion was not for me.

The first couple of days I did the self-compassion journaling (see Self Compassion: How Thinking About Bad Experiences Can Make You Happier and More Compassionate), I loved it. I felt blissful and calm during the day and fell asleep easily at night. After about a week, though, that began to change. Each evening, I would write about how I’d snapped at the kids that day or yelled at my husband. I wrote down my feelings and it was always frustrated, angry, scared. Every night: frustrated, angry, scared. Scared, frustrated, angry. Angry, scared frustrated. Finally I got to the point where the worst part of my day was journaling about the worst part of my day.

One of my least favorite questions is, “How does that make you feel?” For one thing, nothing can make me feel one particular emotion over another. What might annoy the heck out of me might cause squeals of delight in someone else, like television sitcoms and children in wedding ceremonies.

But even without the “make” part, I hate that question. When someone asks me how I’m feeling, I go blank. If they’re asking casually, I usually default with “fine” or “I’m well,” which almost always allows us to move past the question. If they’re asking seriously, I dutifully scan my being trying to find some clue to what emotions might be swimming in there. When I can’t come up with anything the problem is solved because I feel angry at the person who asked and annoyed at myself that I’m so emotionally blank inside.

In the evenings when I would ask myself this question, it took so much effort just to come up with an answer. I proceeded on a tentative faith that the scientific experiments attached to this torturous process were sound and that I would be able to tap into the positive outcomes reported by others and end up happier and more compassionate. Then when I kept yelling at the kids and when the emotions I wrote down were the same every single night, I just wanted to give up. And I pretty much did. Not only did I give up the self-compassion exercise, but I gave up journaling and for the most part blogging, too, because I knew I had to write an update  and I didn’t want to write about how I’d failed the self-compassion experiment.

Then last night I had something of an ah-ha moment. I was lying there in bed in the middle of the night thinking all kinds of mean things about myself and feeling worse and worse (and less and less able to fall asleep) when I just hit pause.

“Okay,” I thought. “I’m feeling worse and worse. So, what is it I’m feeling?”

I listed a couple of the loudest emotions, the ones I could hear over the constant criticisms running through my head. I took a deep breath and marveled at the moment of calm before the wave of criticism and “you shoulds” overtook me again. Then I stopped myself again.

“No,” I said to myself, with a gentleness that surprised me. “Telling myself I ought to start running again isn’t an emotion. What emotion is behind that suggestion?” And I identified another emotion and breathed in that calm moment again.

I did this over and over again until I just started laughing to myself at how predictable I was and how persistent that critical voice was. Then I got tired and fell asleep. This struggle was a lot of work.

I say I’m cool with incremental change. I say I understand that something is going to take a lot of hard work. I claim that I understand that changing ingrained thought processes is going to be a long and difficult road to travel. But when it comes right down to it, I want the easy road. I want the magic bullet. I want the quick fix.

And really, this is what so many self-help-type books and websites promise, isn’t it? Change your perspective, change your life. Easy-peasy.

While this statement might be true, it’s not easy.

I know that last night was not the last time I’ll engage in the struggle between my critical mind and the tentative whisper of my long-ignored emotions. But it felt like an opening. I feel like I know now what’s possible. I know what to look for now, and I have faith that it’s there. With time and practice, maybe I’ll be able to find self-compassion as easily as my sister plucks four-leaf clovers from a suburban lawn.

But I still don’t think I’ll be journaling about it anymore.

Self-Compassion: How Thinking About Bad Experiences Can Make You Happier and More Compassionate

Welcome to the March Mindful Mama Carnival: Mindful Mama Challenge

This post was written for inclusion in the Mindful Mama Carnival hosted by Becoming Crunchy and TouchstoneZ. This month our participants have challenges they’ve set for themselves toward becoming more mindful. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

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There was a show on NPR a few months ago about an anonymous person who left $100 at a coffee shop and said that it was to cover coffee and treats for anyone who came in after her for however long it lasted. The owner of the coffee shop talked about the positive effects of this generous act, including how it’s inspired other customers to do the same thing. The owner suggested that if we practice random acts of kindness, like paying for someone’s tank of gas as well as our own next time we’re at the pump, we can increase the overall level of compassion in the world.

My first thought: Wow. What a great idea!

My second thought: But wait…what if the person in the car you just filled with gas is a murderer and needed a full tank of gas to carry out his plans? Or what if he’s getting ready to kidnap his child? How do I know I’m helping the right person?

I often let this kind of fear prevent me from compassionate action. I have identified three categories of reaction that keep me from generosity:

1) Fear of helping the wrong person. This is the one I described above. Along with this is a fear of being taken advantage of. I don’t think this is an unrealistic fear. I mean, Elizabeth Smart’s parents tried to help out a fellow who was down on his luck, and look what happened to their family.

2) Fear of negative judgment from the person I’m helping. Usually what I imagine they’d say is, “What a weirdo!” or “How dare she presume to know what I need!” or, along similar lines, “This [whatever item I’ve given to them] isn’t useful to me at all. What a pain in the butt that I have to get rid of this thing I don’t want on top of everything else I’m dealing with!”

3) A sense of scarcity. “What if I give too much and don’t have enough left for my own needs?” This is the one that comes up most often when I’m trying to decide how much money to pledge to my church, but I also get it when I think about volunteering my time. What if I make a commitment and then find it’s too much to give?

And then when I let these fears keep me from compassionate action, I feel ashamed and guilty, which, I’ve found, doesn’t inspire greater compassion. Apparently this is consistent with what a number of scientists have found, too (not with me, but with other people, but I assume the results could be extrapolated to me).

When I did my yoga teacher training, one of my instructors was Kelly McGonigal. At the time, she was finishing up her Ph.D. Since then she’s been very busy. She’s been pretty hot lately on NPR and on the Today Show and various other places for her book about willpower (The Willpower Instinct) and for her book about yoga and chronic pain (Yoga for Pain Relief). At the time, she struck me as a very self-confident yet compassionate person. Her yoga practice was beautiful and seemingly effortless. And she cut her own hair, which is, to me, the pinnacle of self-assuredness and not being afraid of what others think. I found her fascinating, but I also felt intimidated by her confidence in herself. She’s one of those people who inspire a recording of Wayne and Garth saying, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” to start playing in my head. But then, I felt pretty much out of my league during the entirety of the teacher training.

At any rate, I’ve been checking out Kelly’s blog and her interviews off and on since she started appearing on the national stage, and I recently watched a video on her blog about the benefits of self-compassion. If you want to check it out, you can find it HERE. It’s thirteen minutes long, and the sound is a little echo-y, but it’s well worth the time.

One of the things that she said particularly struck me. She said that lack of self-compassion is associated with a fear of being compassionate to others. Specifically, people who were lacking in self-compassion were more likely to agree with the statement, “People will take advantage of me if I’m too compassionate.”

Hmm. Yes, that sounds somewhat familiar.

People lacking in self-compassion were also more likely to engage in negative self-criticism and unhealthy perfectionism, and to experience shame, guilt, anxiety, and depression.

Yes, [clears throat] also somewhat familiar.

McGonigal then briefly outlined a practice that was used in self-compassion studies and which appears to correlate with positive outcomes, including reduced procrastination, reduced anger, better resilience after a setback, and increased happiness compared to a daily practice of self-criticism and guilt.

I could really get into these kinds of positive outcomes.

I admit, self-compassion seems really, really corny to me. But I’m at an age where I’m starting to realize that if I don’t get moving on making changes and accomplishing great (-ish) things, I’m not going to have the chance to do that kind of thing, at least not in this lifetime. So, I’m going to give this self-compassion thing a try.

As part of the Mindful Mama Blog Carnival, I’m going to do the self-compassion daily journaling practice McGonigal describes in her presentation every day for one week. Basically, I’ll journal (not blog…journal. I’m not doing this self-compassion thing in public!) each evening about the most difficult event of my day with a focus towards writing down words of empathy and compassion for myself, rather than the usual “You dweeb. Why can’t you ever do [X] right?”

And I’ll let you all know how I do.

If you’d like to give it a try, too, please take a look at Kelly’s video (linked above a couple of times). I would love to know how it goes for you, so please leave your feedback in the comments section or blog about it and leave a comment with the link to your post.

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What Next?

Saturday marked the end of my self-guided 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living).

After eight weeks, daily mindfulness practice has pretty much become a habit for me. I’m making a shift to a vegan diet (this is not part of the program but since starting the mindfulness practice my tastes have just spontaneously changed, so I’m going with it). I’m more patient with the kids than I was. I, mostly, go to bed at a decent hour.

On the other side, though, I’m buying ridiculous quantities of kale, I can’t seem to remember people’s names like I used to, I still yell at my husband, and I’ve lost much of my old interest in reading. And meditation continues to be an almost daily struggle. I don’t feel like doing it even though I know I’ll feel better once I do it.

It reminds me of the summer my husband and I trained for a marathon. We got up before work (and before the North Carolina heat hit) and ran. We did two shorter (3 to 5 miles) runs during the week and a longer run (6+ miles) on the weekends, with cross-training in between. I hadn’t run more than a mile at once before that summer. I would sometimes curse and complain the entire time, but when I sat at my desk and felt the tingle of fatigue in my muscles and the intense relaxation that comes after a workout, it was worth it.*

As far as meditation goes, I know I’ve got farther to go. There will always farther to go because there isn’t a finish line in mindfulness. You just keep running and running and running. The progress is incremental and sporadic and often difficult to detect. Some days I totally feel it and others it’s like starting from the beginning. But even in meditation (to stretch the metaphor even more), every now and then there are water breaks and little packets of power gel to get you through the next leg. This 8-week MBSR program was the most recent pick-me-up of this sort for me.

Now I’m back in the “running and running” part wondering…what’s the next little boost that will come my way?

*For the purposes of this metaphor, let’s ignore the fact that my husband and I never actually ran a marathon. We threw in the towel after a 13-mile practice run during which we realized that we didn’t enjoy chafing. I’m hopeful that I’ll stick with meditation a little better since it doesn’t generally require the use of duct tape or petroleum jelly. Or at least neither the Dalai Lama nor Thich Nhat Hanh has mentioned chafing in anything I’ve read of theirs.

Sitting With Disequilibrium

I’ve been feeling very much off-kilter for the past couple of weeks. I’ve been working hard to just let myself feel off-kilter, but I much prefer to take a situation and reason it into submission if it’s not turning out the way I want it to. I’m a big fan of creating plans. And schedules. And lists. And making major changes and not waiting around for the dust to settle before making another major change.

But I’m still meditating. Still meeting with myself every morning to confront the very noisy silence and the restlessness in my body that just wants to get up and DO something.

Every morning I whine to my husband that I just don’t want to meditate.

Every morning I find piddling little tasks to postpone the trek downstairs to the yoga mat and the meditation cushion. I need to put these beans on to soak. I need to look up that smoothie recipe for breakfast. I need to set out today’s homeschool books in a line on the table, even though they’re all going to get stacked out of the way before we can start the math lesson anyway.

And then I pout and stomp downstairs and sit or stretch or sit and stretch, even though the struggle to get there is tough and the short-term benefits are minimal. Many times these past couple of weeks I’ve lamented that meditation “just isn’t working anymore.” But still I keep on doing it.

This week, though, several things have come together to help me feel a little more optimistic and to see that maybe the meditation is still “working,” it’s just on a different time scale than the one I’ve got in my head.

The other day, Leigh from Live Your Bliss posted about the detoxification effects of the Gerson Therapy for cancer. The “lots of veggies” shift I’ve made in my diet over the past month hasn’t been nearly (nearly) as intense as the protocol for the Gerson Therapy, but it’s still significant. Leigh’s post reminded me that perhaps some of my sense of disequilibrium (physical and emotional) is a sign that my body’s adjusting to the healthier diet and letting go of the cravings and other things I don’t need.

The weather has been warm and the children cooperative, so I’ve been able to walk every day this week. On Monday, we took an hour-long hike and found our first letterbox. On Wednesday, the kids and I walked to the library and back (5 miles round-trip). Tuesday and Thursday, the kids and I took little 20-minute walks around the neighborhood, the toddler in the mei tai on my chest and zipped into my jacket, my daughter’s hand in mine. I don’t know if it’s the vitamin D or the fresh air or the exercise or just the promise of spring (or the oxytocin from the pleasant closeness with my kids), but walking has brought me a sense of peace each day.

Then today my daughter’s history lesson was about ancient India and included a brief retelling of the story of the birth of Siddhartha, aka Buddha. After our walk, the kids and I snuggled on the bed and read Buddha by Demi, which included more details about Siddhartha’s life and short versions of two of his famous parables. As I read aloud about Siddhartha’s life and teachings, my son fell asleep in my arms.

What beautiful reminders these all have been to live in the moment.

This isn’t to say I’ve not done some scheduling and planning (exhibit A: the detailed and unrealistic homeschooling schedules littering our dining room table). But just as in meditation when I bring my mind back to the present when I find it’s begun to wander, I’ve been gently bringing myself back from the plan-schedule-ruminate rut I usually fall into so easily. These things—the walks, the blog post, the picture book, the snuggling with my kids—have all helped bring me back.

I’d love it if I were back for good, if I no longer had to work to just be present. But I’m here now. And that’s about the best I can do.

And today I had an awesome (and enormous) salad with watercress, romaine lettuce, walnuts, pears, and dried currants. Awesome salads don’t hurt, either.