How to Take Care of Yourself… in a Conflict with Your Partner

Accepting conflict

Every intimate relationship has to find its balance of harmony, conflict, calm, and passion if it is going to bring those involved mostly benefit.  “Mostly benefit” may not sound so thrilling, yet it is a worthwhile goal. Every partnership has its low moments. Every human connection has some form of conflict at some point.  Every relationship has its own complex actions and reactions based on the partners involved. To get through the difficult parts with a sense of safety and intact love and benevolence toward each other is a win.  This is what I would describe as “mostly benefit”: even with some conflict, there is a foundation of love and goodwill that you share.

Truck Couple
Seeing the process underneath the content

I am passionate about working with couples because studying these interactions and identifying ways that conflict can be minimized and love can be amplified is fulfilling and inspiring.  What feels so catastrophic to intimate partners during a serious conflict doesn’t frighten me as the therapist in the room, because from the outside I can see the intensity of the love between the partners… and also the subtext of the conflict.  I can help to slow down the interaction and untangle the words describing the content of the argument- the topic being discussed- from the tone of voice, the body language, and the emotion expressed that all comprise the process of how the disagreement is being conducted.

If we’re going to get to the root of the discussion in a conflict, we need to focus on the process.  The content that couples arrive to discuss is short-lived in the therapy room, because pretty quickly we get underneath it.  What are the emotional needs that are really being negotiated here? (To feel heard? To know you are trusted… or your partner is trustworthy?)  What resentments are not being spoken directly, but are being broadcast in tone and posture? (The affair that was swept under the rug? The time she brushed off your grief when you needed support?)

 

 

Introductory skills for uncovering process

It is very helpful to have a marriage and family therapist in the room when you are having these conversations, but if you feel safe and stable enough in your relationship and your communication skills, you can support each other to do the same thing when a conflict arises at home.  

Here are some tips that will subtly shift focus to the process of your disagreement, rather than the content.

  1. Slow your conversation down.  Instead of thinking about what you will say in response to your partner, listen to your partner.
  2. When your partner finishes speaking to a point, repeat, in your own words, what he or she just shared with you.  
  3. Look for the feeling or the emotional need under your partner’s words.  If your partner hasn’t explicitly stated a feeling or need, you can elicit his or her help in identifying it.
  4. Above all else, be kind.  This is not a war. You are on the same team.

Here is an example with just one person trying these strategies, still with beneficial outcome:

“I asked you to pick up my sister on your way across town, but you just arrived without her.  I swear that you never listen to what I’m saying.”

“You asked me to pick up your sister and I forgot.  You feel like I never listen to you.”

“That’s right.  And now my sister’s waiting for you and our family meal is ruined.”

“You went to all this trouble to plan a family meal and now it’s ruined because I forgot part of the family!”

“You’re an asshole.”

“You’re angry.”

“YES, I’m angry!”

“You need me to be better at keeping my commitments.”

“Yeah, it would be nice to be able to depend on you now and then.”

“You need me to be dependable.”

“Obviously.”

“I’m sorry that I let you down today.  I don’t want you to feel like this. Can we have a small snack now and put dinner in the oven while I go get your sister?  Is it too late for a do-over tonight?”

“We’ll be eating after 8pm… but I would prefer that than not having dinner together at all.”

“Okay, can you text her that I’m on my way?”

“Okay.”

 

Notice that the partner who is trying to make peace here is not engaging in a dialogue about the content their partner is introducing.  Yes, they are repeating the content to let their partner know they heard it… but they aren’t evaluating the legitimacy of the content nor offering alternative perspectives.  This person reflected back to their partner what they heard (“You feel like I never listen to you,”) rather than answering the statement (“I never listen to you?? What about yesterday, when I made those two phone calls you asked me to make??”)

 

Reaching out for extra help

This type of communicating is a lot easier if both parties are on board, and even easier when working with a therapist.  But it’s never “easy” at first. This is because the vast, vast majority of us are in the habit of ignoring the process of our communicating and simply addressing the content.  It feels very unnatural to not respond to the content and to instead address the feelings underneath the words. It feels unnatural to step up into a role of support for our partner to express their emotions and needs, even when that partner may be stuck in blaming or negative communication patterns.  This is actually a skill that parents can use to help their children learn language that identifies their feelings and helps them to get their needs met. Since many of us did not have parents who taught us these skills, we have the task of learning them as adults.

In addition to being in the habit of only looking at a conversation’s content, most of us become defensive when the person to whom we are closest brings up criticisms about us.  It takes repeated experiences of safety with our partner to trust that a critique today is just that… not a sign that our partner thinks we are permanently defective or would rather be with someone else.

The kind of conversation I’m describing will not be successful for some couples.  If the baseline sense of safety is not there, or if both partners are not invested in moving past your habitual conflict patterns, this will likely fall flat.  In that case, I really do recommend considering a couples’ counselor. When you discuss the counselor’s style before becoming his or her client, look for someone who can articulate using this type of dialogue.  It is sometimes called emotionally-focused therapy.

Whether you are ready to jump in at home and try what I’m suggesting, or you are ready to find the help of a marriage and family therapist who can guide this type of communication, I wish you the best!

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Communication

Listening

Clarity

Partnership

Looking Deeply

Pausing

Habit-creating

Non-violent Communication

Self Awareness

Personal responsibility

 

 

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Are Being Bullied

Something I have heard from more than one client: “I spent so many years being told I was worthless… even though the abuser is finally out of my life, his voice is still in my head every day, cutting me down.”

 

You are enough

I wish I could face every child, teenager, and adult who has ever been verbally abused or bullied and say, “You are enough, just the way you are.  Whoever told you you were less than that is the one who is lacking.”

 

It might not be about you

The way a person makes other people feel is mostly a reflection on that person, not the people they are affecting.  If you are a relatively sensitive / observant person, try this sometime: pay attention to how you feel when you are around someone.  Later, in a quiet moment, reflect on whether that person is someone you would describe as how you felt with them. Very often, an anxious person can trigger anxiety in others.  A depressed person can lower the mood of those around them. A jovial person can make you smile. And a self-loathing person can make you feel bad about yourself.

 

Hurt people hurt people

In addition to the energy and tone of a person, there is how they treat us- the things they say to and about us.  Anyone who goes out of their way to hurt another person is a miserable person. That miserable person may appear to be the most popular girl in school or your boss who keeps getting promotions, but the fact is that they are miserable.  You see, a person who tries to hurt another is consumed with their own insecurity. They may even hate themselves. On the other hand, a happy person lifts up other people. A content, confident person walks into a room and makes everyone in the room feel seen and appreciated.  A worthwhile associate is someone who is generous in their perspective and looks for the best in others.

It’s sad: anyone who needs to pull others down was probably verbally or otherwise abused at some point, and that cruel voice of their abuser is constantly in their heads, giving them low self-esteem.  Don’t let that person who is stuck in their suffering pull you into the same boat. See them for the broken person they are, offer them healing, and then keep your distance. Hopefully, they’ll find a way to be happy and stop hurting other people.  In the meantime, surround yourself with a tribe that will see your wonderful qualities and appreciate them.

In the practice of forgiveness, there is an adage: “hurt people hurt people.” In other words, in order for someone to intentionally hurt another person, he must be in pain.  Happy people don’t hurt other people. When it comes to cultivating compassion and forgiveness for those who have hurt us, it is helpful to remember this. It is easier to forgive someone when we can see them not just as the person who hurt us, but as the person who has been hurt and carries that hurt around.

 

Take your distance

Whether someone you just met has attempted to bring you down once or you have lived for years with a verbally abusive person, it’s your right to set a boundary and not let that person speak to you like that.  For a lot more about setting boundaries, this past article of mine addresses things to consider when setting a boundary and ways to speak to make your expectations clear.

josh-boot-177342-unsplash

Heal

It’s possible you are living with the voice of the long-term abuser in your mind, holding you back with insults every day.  Another article I wrote on this exact topic explores daily practices you can incorporate as a response to that voice.

Remember: you are enough, just the way you are.  If any past or current voices are telling you otherwise, it’s up to you to refuse their narrative and make your own.

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Healing

Looking deeply

Reframing

Assertiveness

Setting boundaries

Self-advocacy

Awareness

Clarity

Congruence

Compassion

Communication

How to Take Care of Yourself When…Headlines are Inviting Anxiety and Depression

In the words of one of my clients: “I am barely able to function right now.  I am paralyzed by what is happening in our government.  I just don’t know what to do.”

I am hearing from clients and friends- and know from personal experience- that times are trying right now, to be euphemistic.  While there is great togetherness among caring people and communities who are standing up to celebrate and protect each other, there is an underlying and real fear of national and global catastrophe.  There is plenty of evidence every day in the news that the US federal government is entering a phase of fascism that will include mass suffering and even death.  It sounds like history is repeating itself- as the plot of a Hollywood movie depicting an apocalyptic United States.  For some of us- the most underprivileged and most vulnerable- every day can feel like a new nightmare.  This is the unreal reality that we are all facing.

Dark Skies

This storm is not our first.

I choose the phrase “unreal reality” because we are suffering from some factual events, but also from our own perceptions and expectations.  When we are suffering there is what is happening (the facts being reported by legitimate news outlets)- and then there is all that we pile on top of it.  All of our over-generalizations, fortune telling, and fallacies of external control cause uncomfortable facts to become insurmountable crises in our minds.  The fact that politician A signs an executive order is the reality, the consequences we and others dream up of that action is the unreality.  Will there be mass suffering?  Or will the order be nullified by a yet-unknown other entity?  Will the politician become embroiled in lawsuits and be unable to pursue his political agenda?  We don’t know.

At this juncture- and throughout our lives- the vast majority of our suffering in modern, Western culture comes from what we pile on top of the facts.  Let’s all take responsibility for the stories we weave in our own minds and share with each other- and refrain from catastrophizing.  So much of what we fear is not only not yet a catastrophe, but may take a sharp right turn for something surprisingly good.  We just don’t know.   

In order to reduce the collective pain right now, I’d like to share 3 straightforward suggestions for stepping off this doomsday train of fear and powerlessness.  Let’s instead choose to stand on solid ground.

 

Step Away From the Information Ledge

If you are regularly consuming news stories that leave you feeling anxious and/or depressed, it’s time to stop.  What you are doing is an emotional version of picking a scab.  Leave it alone!  Being an informed person is important, but being a happy person is more important.  If you have to choose between “informed” and “happy,” please choose “happy.”  

How stepping away from the news looks is up to you.  If you want to not watch news programs nor read news articles at all- nor even go on social media where the headlines are all over the place- you have the right to do that.  If you want to spend at most half an hour at a specified time each day scanning the headlines, do that.  Just don’t check in on the headlines with constant push notifications on your phone, peppering your day with doses of depression.  No one needs that.  Unless your profession requires that you know exactly what is happening, all the time, let it go.  

Instead of absorbing the news about distant decisions and potential fall-outs of those decisions, come back to the very real present moment, right in front of you.  Right now, are you… physically comfortable?  Have you eaten?  Are there any stretches you can do that would release some tension in your body?  All of these questions bring me to my second suggestion…

 

Treat Yourself Well

In the space created by not exposing yourself to the news so much, make self-care your priority.  Again, that can look many ways: pausing to do some stretching, making yourself a healthy meal, uplifting reading or listening, simply enjoying silence and your in-and-out breaths.  Going outside for a ten-minute walk.  Investing in personal psychotherapy or massage therapy every week.  When stress is high, your self-care needs to be higher.  

I have heard it said that if you usually meditate for half an hour each day, very busy times call for sitting a full hour.  That is the paradox of self-care: so many of us throw caring for ourselves out the door when we feel overwhelmed… which is exactly the time we need to narrow our vision to the bare essentials: livelihood, family obligations- and self-care.  

I can’t over-emphasize the importance of checking in with your physical and emotional needs at this time and taking a warrior stance in shoring yourself up.  Only happy and peaceful people can create happiness and peace in the world.  Begin with yourself, and move out from there.       

 

Lift Up Your Voice

Finally, a positive outcome of the alarming news is that all kinds of people are newly becoming actively engaged in US democracy.  Whether meeting together in private homes or town halls or on street corners, you are not alone.  You are part of the majority.  There are a lot of people now working on the issue of preventing the growth of fascism, in official and unofficial capacities.  It is healing to be part of that group.  Again, your choices are wide here.  Depending on the influence you have in your professional and personal roles, you can be an organizer or a joiner.  You can be a marcher or a donor- or a fund withholder.  Do you have any financial ties to organizations that are supporting destruction and human rights violations?  Eliminate those ties immediately.  Our voice is expressed in numerous ways, and the dollar is a powerful form of voice.  

There are people hosting parties to write letters to politicians about the issues.  There are groups planning the next march.  There are churches and schools determining how to protect their community members who are not US citizens.  Are you a writer?  A builder?  Those talents can be used.  Your particular voice matters, and I encourage you to find a constructive and personally meaningful way to speak out.  Speak out both independently and alongside the many, many other voices already speaking out.  

 

By taking care of ourselves and standing up together for what is beautiful in this world, we truly can- and are- shaping the future.  As one of my teacher says, “the best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.”  Taking care of your present moment by taking care of yourself and your community is a form of activism.  Taking care of the present moment is already creating the future you want.  Here’s to arriving in that bright future happy, healthy, and surrounded by Tribe.

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Creating Community

Generosity

Pausing

Setting Boundaries

Letting Go

Share Your Experience

Do you have techniques for managing anxiety-provoking news?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Have Downtime

A question raised by a client: “As soon as I get some days off of work, I Iike to jet off somewhere for a vacation.  Is there any better form of self-care?”

Travel can be an excellent option for self-care.  Whether it includes total rest or exploring new places, meeting new people, or learning new skills, you can support your mental, physical, spiritual, and social needs going somewhere outside of the places you ordinarily see.  A travel vacation is a gift to yourself.  There are also plenty of other ways to meet self-care needs and to gift yourself.  Other options are often less expensive than travel and can be as powerful of an experience.  Before you catch that plane or train or jump in that car, here are some excellent ways to care for yourself when you have several days that are unscheduled.   

Cozy Cabin

Reboot

Many of us have some changes we would like to make in our daily habits, and a few free days are a good time to practice incorporating the new habit or eliminating the old habit.  When you see the new habit in action, you can determine how practical it really is going to be in your usual, busy schedule.  You can also see how you feel without enacting the old habit.  You can identify barriers and scheme for how to circumvent those barriers.  Bringing a healthy lunch to work every day might be a challenge if you get home late at night and don’t have the energy or desire to prepare it before bed or in the morning.  These days off are a chance to explore some healthy soup recipes or even research some healthy-lunch hacks the food bloggers of the world can offer.  

Different from the conceptual making of a resolution to do something, creating a habit is done through nuts-and-bolts actions.  Do you want to meditate for 15 minutes every day upon waking?  Some down time is an opportunity to see what that’s like.  Of course, creating a habit is a multi-layered, longer-term endeavor.  First, conventional wisdom says that it takes about 2 months to establish a new habit.  So, after your few days of playing with the new habit outside of your usual routine, keeping it up during the busy periods will be a test.  It is very helpful to focus on the benefits of the new habit in that critical moment, or “choice point” at which you do the action… or you don’t.

For example, if you are laying in bed and deciding to get up to go sit on a meditation cushion, you may rather sleep for another 20 minutes instead.  At that critical moment, it’s important to recall how serene you felt for the rest of the day yesterday when you gave yourself the gift of getting on the cushion.  In fact, viewing the new habit as an indulgent treat you give yourself makes the “activation energy” of the behavior a lot easier to mount.  You are really loving yourself when you set aside time for meditation, feed yourself food that nourishes you at work, coach yourself through a vigorous workout that will keep your cells thriving.  Feeling cared-for is a lot more motivating than feeling cattle-prodded.  The choice in perspective is yours.

Sometimes there are some deeper psychological barriers to adopting a positive new habit / eliminating an old habit.  This course by Kelly McGonigal is an excellent choice if you want to address those elements of change during your time off.  I recommend it.

 

Dive In

Sometimes we have some unresolved experiences or feelings that keep calling for our attention, but it never feels like the right time to really look into them and do the work of “processing” the feelings or experience.  A few free days are a great time to safely look at difficult situations and allow the process of resolution to unfold.  This can be as simple as sitting down with a journal and writing out our thoughts and feelings about the experience, then going on a bike ride.    

Scheduling a retreat at a local church or meditation center is a way to delineate the time during which you are going to “sit with” the unresolved experience.  These venues also offer teachers / spiritual leaders who can offer support if your processing brings up some feelings you aren’t prepared to manage.

You can also bookend your few days of delving into your heart and psyche with appointments with your personal psychotherapist.  He or she may also have suggestions for exercises you can do during your time to welcome movement and healing in your journey through the difficult situation.  A therapist can also help you interpret what you experience, to integrate what you learn into your self-concept and your understanding of your life until now.   

Connect

A few free days are an excellent chance to reach out to loved ones near and far.  In our everyday lives, it’s easy to deal with what’s directly in front of us and mostly forget our web of support- all our friends and family!  With some free days, you can make plans to visit some of your loved ones, either locally or even a short flight away.

You can also plan your days of connecting as a “stay-cation” at home: days of relaxation and other self-care, punctuated by writing letters to distant loved ones and a few hours on the phone.  A whole day free makes it easier to ring up the people who cross your mind often, but with whom time-zone differences tend to prevent contact.  Maintaining the social fabric of your life is an act of self-care and loved-one care, at the same time.  Connecting with others is a basic need we all have to feel secure and seen.  Offering connection to others helps those in our lives who may not be as skilled at reaching out to receive those benefits, as well.  

 

Enjoy your downtime!      

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Communication

Looking Deeply

Habit-Creating

Rest

Creating Community

Healing

Journaling

Share Your Experience
How do you use your time off for self-care?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!

How to Take Care of Yourself When… There is Suffering Everywhere

In the words of one of my clients: “The state of the world makes it hard for me to feel joy.  Even though things are going alright in my life, I feel overwhelmed by the daily news of violence, environmental degradation, poverty…”

 

It is undeniable that there is great suffering on this planet.  The main news outlets are mostly filled with accounts of both local and international suffering.  Of course, logically we know that beautiful, joyful events are also happening everyday- and yet it can be a challenge to even find information about these examples of progress, generosity, kindness, and hope.

So, how do we cope with the pain of the awareness of the great quantity and depth of suffering impacting people and ecosystems all over the planet?  Like all pain that we experience, the best response is twofold: acknowledging the pain and then proactively addressing its source.  

 

This Hurts

Contrary to the messages of polite society, there are no emotional nor social benefits to being a robotic automaton without sensitivity to the pains and joys that roll through this life.  On the emotional front, anything pushed out of awareness only comes back in worse form- exaggerated reactions to pain in the future and / or physical illness, for example.  On the social front, others will find you cold and lacking personality- and deep interpersonal connection will be elusive.  An authentic, fully-developed adult recognizes and allows their own pain and processes it- allowing it to transform- in a responsible way.

If you are in pain, hold that pain for as long as you need.  Get intimate with it.  What does it feel like in your chest cavity when you see the city cut down a thriving 80-year old tree because its roots are causing problems with the sidewalk?  Where in your body are you impacted when you hear news of a serious accident in which lives were lost?  Sometimes, we only need 10 seconds to allow painful information to work its way through us.  Other times- especially when the suffering is especially deep or near to us, we need to hold and process our experience of it more deeply.  This can look many ways.  

One form of processing is to strike up a conversation with a loved one about the situation.  Just hearing another person say, “I know- that is really sad!” helps to not feel alone in holding the suffering of the world.  On a similar front, bringing the situation up in your own personal therapy can be helpful.  A therapist will likely direct the conversation towards the personal significance, to you, of this particular situation that is impacting you.  Some people find ceremony helpful.  When I hear about brutality in the world, I find the time to light incense, meditate, and pray for the victims and perpetrators to find freedom from their immense suffering.  

Golden Hour

Coming home to our beautiful planet is the best medicine.

In addition to other people and your source of spiritual life, you can also find support from the Earth.  We all came from and return to the Earth- which is able to create and absorb anything that we humans can imagine, and more.  One of my teachers takes daily walks in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado, a place filled with beautiful geologic formations.  When she sits there, she feels her troubles being held not just by herself, but by the Earth that is reaching up and holding her as she sits.  When we can transcend the illusion of isolation and see the various entities- human and otherwise- that surround and support us, our burdens become much more manageable.

We can also harness the mind-body connection and use physical ways to process our emotional pain.  Take a walk, do yoga, go on a run, surf, swim- do whatever it is that centers you and also increases your literal “flows” in your body, via the many systems (circulatory, digestive, lymphatic, etc.) of the human body.  Another benefit of some of these activities is coming into direct contact with the natural world.  One thing I do when I run through the forest where I live is to become aware of the sweet smell of the ponderosa pine trees, the fragrant earth after a rain, the slightly oceanic smell of the creeks and rivers.  I use my sensitive scent palate to find healing.  When I deeply inhale the exhalations of nature, I take them in as healing agents, filling my body with the life-force of the earth, working their way into every corner- including the places in my heart that hurt.  I’m aware this is a practice in imagination- and also that our minds have much sway in our physical health.  If there is a way you can incorporate positive imagery into your practice, why not try it?

After holding and allowing your pain to transform, one outcome may be a resolve to make a difference in the area of suffering that hit you hard in the first place.  If so, read on.      

 

I Have the Choice to Do Something

There are people working on every issue of injustice and suffering in this world.  Are you already, or are you meant to be, one of them?  This is something only you can decide for yourself.  The key concept here is “I have the choice,” not “do something.”  A friend of mine recently made reference to his “ego-based belief” that he needed to make everything alright.  It can be very empowering to see a need and to address it- you see a homeless and potentially hungry person and you offer the person food.  You visit the beach and pick up the trash you find there.  It is good and feels good to be a force of love and healing in the world.  

The challenge is that if you stopped to address every injustice and every place of hurt that you saw… you would have a hard time functioning in this world that requires that most of us spend most of our waking hours working, usually in careers that are not directly addressing these areas of need.  This is why so many people are actually blind to the great magnitude of suffering everywhere- in our own neighborhoods, schools, homes.  It is overwhelming to be aware and to have the kind of compassion that actively works to alleviate all of the suffering around us.  Unless we are able to let go of our worldly ties and dive headlong into service, like Mother Teresa, we have to choose when to address suffering and when to not address it.  If you are reading this article, chances are that you have the blessing and the curse of clearly seeing much of the suffering in this world, and it can get you down.

Many years ago I asked a spiritual teacher what I should do when I saw a man hit a dog.  I had been traveling in a developing country the week before, and I had become upset when I saw a man on the street hit a dog.  My teacher gave a long answer, but the first observation he made was, “It sounds like you are attached to the idea that the dog shouldn’t suffer; that all beings should be free of suffering…” This observation was correct.  I was operating on the assumption that a paradise of freedom from suffering for all beings was possible and that I had an obligation to correct unnecessary suffering that I saw… even though I know that suffering is a key piece of life and that there is no freedom from suffering if there is no suffering (non-duality.)  My teacher also spoke to practical approaches in the situation I presented (such as addressing the suffering of a man who would hit a dog,) but my primary take-away was the reminder that there will be suffering, and that it’s not my job to fight that fact.  It turns out that there is great freedom in relinquishing responsibility for the happiness of all beings on the planet!!  

I bring up this story to remind us that, while we can work for freedom from suffering, we must do it without attachment to the idea that we will eradicate suffering.  Like my friend who became aware of his ego-based need to make everything alright, we need to be aware of our actual position in the cosmos.  We are each one being in an infinitude of beings on a tiny planet in one small corner of the universe.  We can only go about making change in the world in a healthy way that preserves our own emotional and spiritual health when we recognize that the journey of other people’s lives, of animals’ lives, of the life of the planet are their own journeys, directed by infinite factors.  No one person’s effort- and maybe not the efforts of every human on the planet- can “fix” a single person’s life challenges or the challenges of the Earth.  In other words: let the weight of the world slide right off your shoulders, because you are not the boss of things.       

With this awareness, is there a way that works for you that you can address the world’s suffering?  You could choose one area of focus and then choose how deeply you want to dive into it.  For example, you may decide that child abuse is something you want to help reduce.  On a small scale, you can bring awareness to Child Abuse Prevention Month via social media.  You could donate to local non-profits that work with at-risk children and parents to prevent child abuse and neglect.  You could become a volunteer court appointed advocate for children in foster care.  You could go to school to become a social worker and work in child welfare.  You could do as Mother Teresa and join a monastic order dedicated to caring for impoverished children!  

Another approach could be to have a rule for yourself regarding how you address the suffering you come directly across.  For example, you could decide that if you cross paths directly with someone suffering- a hungry or homeless or distraught person- you will stop what you are doing and offer help.  You can decide that you will donate money once a month to a specific charity and that you will otherwise not get involved with strangers on the street.  At the same time, you can decide to not follow social media or the news because being aware of the suffering of the world- when you can’t directly change the vast majority of it- is hurting your mental health.

The person whose well-being you have the most ability to support is yourself.  When you make the choice to acknowledge and care for your own pain related to the suffering of the world, you are more able to make a difference through action- in the appropriate, thoughtfully considered way that you choose.        

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Boundaries

Looking Deeply

Generosity

 

Share Your Experience
How do you handle the suffering of the world?  How do you process the deepest suffering?  How do you decide when to act, and when to not act?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!  

 

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Know You Are Going to Die

The experience of a former client: “I was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and given a 16% chance for survival in five years’ time.  After all the treatment I’ve been through, we haven’t seen remission.  I don’t have much time left.”

I have heard it said that the point of living is to learn how to die.  In other words, we have succeeded in “living” if we live our lives in a way that- should we die this instant, from any of an infinite number of unforeseeable causes- there is nothing of consequence left incomplete.  Sure, we may never finish writing the book we began nor may we compete in the marathon we planned to run: those things are not the ultimate definition of “success.”  In the case of the former client whose dilemma, above, I am referencing for this article, a young child was left fatherless when the client died.  In his last weeks of life, the thought of not being there to “walk his daughter down the aisle” represented his fathomless grief at dying young.  This was heartbreaking for me, a tragedy that doesn’t make sense.  Most adults have faced senseless tragedy in our own lives or the lives of those around us.  While we can’t control the fact that sometimes, our lives are cut much shorter than the average and with fallout that feels cosmically unjust, we can absolutely control the way we live our lives until that unknowable date comes.  Being given a “deadline” is in one way a kind of gift- it can be a wake-up call out of the torpor in which many of us find ourselves floating.

underwater

Time to Wake Up

So, what do we do with the time we have?  Most of the tasks which we must accomplish to survive in this world are only beneficial because they help us succeed “historically”- in the realm of everyday things like career and finances and preserving material possessions.  These tasks seem to matter much, but they “ultimately”- in the realm of ontology- are of little consequence: paying mortgages, submitting paperwork for professional licenses on time, getting vehicles in for regular tune-ups, etc.  If we don’t tend to these things, our lives will be a bit out of control, things will fall apart… but, ultimately, dying individuals do not look back on their lives and think, “I am most grateful I never overdrew my checking account,” nor “I wish I had maintained my car better.”  In an often-publicized look into end-of-life regrets published by a palliative care nurse after eight years working with the dying, a common thread emerges: openness, authenticity, and strong relationships.  The regrets of the dying circle around the themes of not having been open and authentic in their lives, and not having put enough energy into building strong friendships and family connections.    

The consequences of these regrettable oversights are spending valuable life-energy doing things that are not fulfilling and, as the more than 70-year-long Harvard Grant Study has shown, not cultivating the one thing that leads to a longer, happier life: love.  It’s never too early nor too late to live your life fully.  Here are three suggestions that can guide you towards a regret-free life every day- whether you have 1 day, 100 days, or an unknown number of days left on this planet.

Sometimes, the grief of holding the prognosis that you are probably going to die soon is all you can do.  In those moments, all you can expect of yourself is to receive these three qualities of Amends, Appreciation, and Gratitude from others- and to give them to yourself, when you can.

 

Amends

We’ve all heard the term “to make amends,” but not many of us have an actual practice of regularly making amends.  In short, to “make amends” is to take responsibility for your part of a conflict and to share your regret at having played that part with the other parties involved.  This is a big part of 12-step recovery (step 10, “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”)  

You might be thinking, “But, but, SHE said X and SHE did Y, why should I be the one to apologize?”  You should be the one to take responsibility for your actions- regardless of whether the other person is blameless or is truly the source of most of the conflict- because they are YOUR actions.  You can only control your actions and your words, not those of others.  This is the meaning of another 12-step phrase, “Keeping your side of the street clean.”  Is waiting for the other person to wise up and admit their wrongdoing worth dying with a family conflict over a car that was totaled or a Christmas card that wasn’t sent?  When we remember that death is imminent, it is easier to openly, authentically- courageously- acknowledge our wrongdoing.

If this concept is entirely new to you, this article breaks it down pretty well.  I especially like the article’s focus on not just identifying the action for which you are apologizing, but the character defect of yours that allowed it to happen.  It’s also always powerful to identify the negative impact you believe this had on the other party, and your plan for fixing any damage caused and for preventing future lapses on your part.  For example, “Joe, I’m sorry that I cut you off in the staff meeting yesterday- you were making a point, and I was acting out of impatience and self-centeredness.  It must have felt insulting when I did that.  If it’s okay with you, I’d like to apologize for it at the beginning of next week’s meeting, to clear the air among all the staff so they know that what I did wasn’t right and that I am working on being more patient and kind.”

It’s important for us to always remember- whether veteran amend-makers or those new to making amends- that, similar to forgiveness, we are doing this work not only to be kind to others, but to free ourselves of the psychic, spiritual, and emotional binds of conflict and resentment.  We can only have deep and loving relationships if we are committed to this kind of open and communicative integrity.  What sounds most fulfilling: hiding behind self-righteousness and having shallow relationships, or vulnerably admitting when wrong and having deep relationships built on trust?

While it takes time to build trust between people, it is never too late to make amends.  The other party in the conflict may have written you off and may refuse to respond to what you have to say- but knowing that you faced your shortcomings and courageously sought reconciliation will free you from the burden of that guilt and shame.  When making amends, we make them with zero expectation from the recipient.  We are taking responsibility for our own actions, not taking inventory of others’ actions.  In fact, it is critical to only address our actions and not the actions of the other person during the course of our amends.  This is why it is important to have a script, so that we don’t regress mid-conversation to defensively trying to explain our actions based on the others’ actions.

If there is nothing else you have time to do before dying, it is worthwhile to identify all the outstanding conflicts in your life and investigating your part in them, writing a succinct but full script hitting all the key points (your role, your character defect, your regret at causing the other person pain, your plan for rectifying the problem) and delivering that script- whether in person, on the telephone, or in a written letter.  Do it promptly.

If you are unsure, find a friend or spiritual teacher who is willing to look at your amends with you and see if they seem right.  Always consider the recipient when making amends.  Does the other person fear you / your history of violence?  In that case, stick to a phone call or letter and clearly state that you only have one thing to say, that you do not intend to write or call again, and that you expect nothing in return from him or her.  Do you have reason to fear the potential violence of the other person?  Write your script in your own journal and do not deliver it.  Just.  Get.  Clear.  And then move on.  

Beyond people, there are other instances that call for making amends.  If you have a “Creator” concept in your spiritual views- particularly the Christian belief that you will go to hell unless you have humbled yourself before God and asked for salvation- this would be an important time to make sure you do that.

Moving forward, make daily amends- every night, look at your day and determine if you have anyone to whom you need to make an amend, and then do it promptly.  

         

Appreciate

In tandem with making amends, appreciating is the best way to strengthen relationships.  It also happens that spending time thinking about what we appreciate lifts our mood.  Every day, dozens of people we can name and thousands of unknown people contribute to our lives.  While it is beneficial just to think of and silently appreciate all this support coming our way, outwardly expressing this appreciation is the more “open, authentic” avenue.  The more you are able to express your appreciation to the people around you, the happier everyone will be.  Would you rather leave a neutral / critical legacy, or a grateful legacy?

If you are generally thoughtful, you probably already thank the people in service positions that you come across- checkout clerks, waiters, receptionists.  It’s always nice to say “thank you” when someone helps you.  It’s a delight to be able to share even more appreciation, with a specific gratitude.  For example, “Thank you for your patience as I unloaded my cart,” or “I appreciated the reminder call yesterday, I had actually forgotten to put the appointment on my calendar.”  Something sweet to do if you have several errands is to buy / snip a bouquet of fragrant, seasonal flowers and give one or two stems to the people in service positions that day that you come across, along with a verbal “thank you!”

As for people who occupy more time in your life, like colleagues or family members, making a point to catch them doing something you appreciate or admire and telling them is a joyful practice.  Small and beautiful / practical gifts, like flowers, coffee, or lunch, are easy and yet impactful.  If you have little time left on this planet (read: any of us,) spread appreciation in all directions.  Make it a goal to tell 1, 2, or 5 people each day what you appreciate about them.   

 

Generosity    

Yet another pro-social action that has strong positive impacts on the doer is generosity.  Whether gifts to people you see often or donations of time or resources to causes you appreciate, practicing generosity not only leaves a positive impact in your physical absence, but also helps you thrive while you are here, with feelings of purpose and connection.  I am most fond of acts of generosity that are experiential- where I can directly interact with those receiving my offering.  For example, if you donate money to a homeless shelter, can you also sign up to serve a meal there?  If you donate supplies to a youth program, can you also attend their open-house event and meet some of the families that benefit from the program?  How about making 15 sack lunches and taking a bike ride to pass them out at a homeless encampment?  Offering to carry bags when you see someone struggling?  Spending your Saturday helping at a public tree-planting event or an athletic event?  Doing a chore around the house that someone else normally does?  The possibilities are infinite.

It’s easy to be blind to the ways we can be generous, but if you commit to finding one way each day to practice generosity, the small but important actions will be easier to identify and do.  The more you can work generosity into your daily experience, the more beautiful your life and your legacy.   

 

            

     Important skills you are strengthening:

Amends

Communication

Personal Responsibility

Gratitude

Appreciating

Generosity

 

Share Your Experience

How do you live your life fully, every day?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… Your Own Mind is Your Worst Enemy, Part II

In the words of one of my clients: If anyone else said to me the things I say to myself, I would call it verbal abuse.”

Part I of this article addressed ways to take care of the anxious, negative, and critical mind when it targets people and incidents outside of oneself.  What happens when the same quality of mind takes the form of self-critical internal commentary and self-limiting automatic thoughts?  I hear from many people- particularly from those who are newly self-aware- that their thoughts towards / about themselves are abusive.  They have an oppressive inner voice that comes down harshly upon them- with name-calling and cursing included- for relatively minor mistakes.  They catch themselves staring in the mirror and mercilessly picking apart their own appearance, inwardly criticizing every bulge and sag.  The thoughts are automatic, and have been around for a long time.  Once they begin “hearing” this voice so clearly, they are disturbed that it has been going on so long.  It is as if they are waking up from a trance and discovering they have been in a toxic relationship… for decades… with themselves!

How did we get this way?  Why on Earth would so many people be so unkind to themselves?  It could be an internalized oppressor- the voice of someone abusive from the past, whose rude names and general disrespect for you has become the playlist for your own inner voice, always ready to tear you down at any sign of weakness.  It could be the influence of our wider culture, with its youth-and-beauty-worshipping messages creating an impossible physical ideal you have become programmed to expect of yourself.  It could be the same culture leaching its sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, and any-other-ism into your psyche, giving fodder for an unsettled mind to use against its closest, easiest target: you.

I like to hold out the possibility that the self-abuse isn’t meant to be personal: rather, it is a product of our evolution- as I mentioned in Part I- where our minds have developed to take special note of negatives, in order to avoid failure or harm that could be lethal.  In the case of viewing oneself, the mind goes overboard in criticizing and wanting to push away today’s “problems” that are not life-threatening, such as the social, financial, physical and other “shortcomings” we recognize in ourselves.  Maybe the mind believes that the harder it comes down on the “shortcomings,” the more likely they are to retreat- like fighting off an attacking tiger, tooth and nail.  Anyone with any kind of experience working with people knows that abusive language and actions do not fix “shortcomings-” rather, they increase shame and self-hatred, leading to either magnified “shortcomings,” or the eruption of a whole new problem.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, it’s time for an internal intervention.  Here are five ways to respond to the inner bully.  Are you ready?

 

Compassion

It’s tempting to respond to a negative inner voice with forceful rejection.  However… this is more of the same pushing-away energy that is hurting you.  Hatred cannot heal hatred.  Only love can heal.  When you discover that you are breeding hateful thoughts about yourself, the medicine you need is compassion.  The simplest way to do that is to pause and softly embrace the pain when you see hurting.  Whether you are having a bad day and need to cry or you catch that negative inner dialogue, you can apply compassion:  “It’s okay to cry, I am here for myself, holding my heart with tenderness and reverence,” or  “I hear you, negative inner voice, and I know you are coming from fear and insecurity.  I can assure you that I am safe and you don’t have to be afraid.”

Do you have a spiritual practice that addresses compassion?  All the spiritual traditions I have studied hold compassion in high regard.  Prayer, reading, and imagery on the topic of compassion can help make this virtue so present in your mind and heart that it becomes your natural language, replacing the critical or abusive.  Muslim, Christian, and Jewish theologians have written much about compassion.  Compassion is a central tenet of Buddhism, embodied by the bodhisattva Guan Yin.  If it suits you, pray to be filled with compassion.

desertfeathers

Call in the Medicine that will heal your heart

 

Dwell in the Light

I find that it is easiest to procure positive thoughts and feelings when I immerse myself in positivity… and steer clear of negativity.  Positive conversations, articles, films, and music all shape my mental state to one that is pretty much full-time positive.  This is not rocket science.  I have an appreciation for the macabre, the underworld, my own shadow self… but I don’t live there full-time.  You can be a complex and mysterious person with dark and light facets who chooses to dwell in the light.  If you are one of the many people drawn to dark and violent media and conversations and you struggle with dark and negative thoughts… well, you may want to reconsider your choices!  What we put into our consciousness is what comes out of it.  Would you prefer to feel light and positive?  Feed yourself full-time on the light and positive, and see what happens.  

 

Forgiveness

When you begin to see that you have been hurting yourself from the inside (and probably with the choices you make on the outside, too,) it can be frustrating and bring up anger, more self-hatred.  This, of course, will be a self-reinforcing cycle.  So, like compassion, forgiveness is the medicine needed here- not resentment.  I have mentioned forgiveness practice here before, in the last paragraph of this article.  Forgiveness practice goes through a cycle of multiple objects- first yourself, then someone you have hurt, then someone who has hurt you.  The entire practice is so fruitful, but you can meditate on self-forgiveness, alone, if that is what you need today.  

The words you can use are something like this: “I see that I have hurt myself deeply, and I am so sorry.  I have been confused and in pain, and I have made choices that led to my own and others’ suffering.  I allowed my pain and confusion to spill over and multiply, creating more of my own pain.  I forgive myself for making this very human mistake.  I am committed to protecting myself from further self-abuse, to taking care of my suffering so that I do not cause myself or anyone else to suffer needlessly.  From the bottom of my heart, I bring forth forgiveness and compassion for all those places in me that hurt and don’t yet know how to heal.  I am here and I will take care of myself.”

 

Higher Power

Do you have a Higher Power concept in your spiritual life?  Whether God, the Divine, Great Spirit, Holy Spirit, Suchness, any among the myriad world pantheons of Gods and Goddesses or Bodhisattvas, Mother Earth, your Guru or mentors, or that part of yourself that is most wise, this is a time to call upon your Higher Power for help.  Light up some incense and place your pain at the feet of your Higher Power.  Summon the support of your Higher Power in transforming your internal dialogue.  

The action of humbling oneself and acknowledging the need for support is a key to transformative healing.  This is part of the magic of 12-step programs.  Steps 1-3 say: “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.  We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.  We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.”  You could view your hurtful relationship with yourself as a kind of addiction to self-hate, just as substance and behavioral addictions could also be described.  Whether it’s poisoning ourselves with toxic thoughts or toxic substances, sometimes we need help from a Power greater than ourselves to break free.

 

Affirmations

People who have worked all or most of the 12 steps are also familiar with the concept of affirmations.  Affirmations are short, powerful, positive phrases that counter negative self-views you have been carrying.  While identifying affirmations as you work the steps is an in-depth exploration of negative self-beliefs via the process of making a “searching and fearless moral inventory” (step 4,) you can do a smaller version of this right now.

Let’s start with one negative belief you have about yourself.  Let’s say you find yourself criticizing your appearance.  You get deeper, and you see your negative self-belief is “I am ugly.”  Can you dig deeper?  Maybe you find another layer, “I am unloveable,” or “I am worthless.”  Once you think you’ve found the belief that is ailing you, play around with crafting positive affirmations that oppose that negative statement.  They will begin with “I am…”  Various options here could be “I am Beauty,” or “I am loveable,” “I am Love,” “I am worthy.”  These are not statements that you will believe- at least, not fully and deeply.  That is why they are important!  If you do this for several beliefs, you may come up with a list of 10 or more affirmations.  Put them on small note cards, put them on your bedstand or in your bag, and shuffle through them once or more every day.  Say the affirmation out loud as you look at each card.  Say them to yourself in the bathroom mirror.  Say them under your breath if you can’t get privacy.  You are studying for a self-love test called “Life,” and the sooner you get this part down, the further you can go!

            

Important skills you are strengthening:

Loving-kindness

Compassion

Forgiveness

Affirmations

Share Your Experience
How have you healed from self-hating and self-defeating beliefs and internal dialogue?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… Your Own Mind is Your Worst Enemy

In the words of a former client: “When I finally looked into all of my most painful moments, I saw that it was my own thinking about the situations that made them so bad.”

Some people seem to be born with a positive disposition, with optimism at their core.  It doesn’t matter if they had saint-like parents nurturing them in all the right ways or came from the most challenging of childhoods, marked by poverty or abuse- they see the silver lining, and their joy is contagious!  Others of us struggle with negative, defeating thinking- even if things have always worked out reasonably well for us.  The mind is a powerful indicator of our ability to enjoy our time on this planet and to make a positive impact while we’re at it.  Have you found that your biggest obstacle to happiness or reaching your potential is your own mind?  Count yourself among the majority of humanity!  We all have struggled with the fact that our own thoughts in reaction to difficult situations can make the situations much worse.

The good news is that we can work with our own minds.  We can leverage our thinking mind in ways that- over time- develop a positivity bias in our brains.  As Rick Hanson says in his book Hardwiring Happiness, “All mental activity—sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes—is based on underlying neural activity. Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on its channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/ neural activity—especially if it is conscious— will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like a surging current reshaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain.”  

We can use this powerful information in two directions- limiting the negative and cultivating the positive, both discussed below.             

 

Respectfully Set Boundaries With the Negative Mind

Negative thoughts come and go, just like positive thoughts.  Negative and positive experiences come and go, alike.  It has been said that our minds evolved to take special note of negative experiences, in order to protect us from future negative experiences.  For other species, and for our pre-homo sapiens ancestors, a “negative” experience would be something like encountering a predator and narrowly escaping alive, or experimenting with eating an unfamiliar plant and becoming violently ill.  

We no longer have close calls with such life-threatening experiences in the mainstream modern lifestyle, yet most of us still have the same strong internal reactions to common, but unpleasant experiences.  A supervisor at work gives us a less-than-glowing yearly review or a friend neglects to include us in group plans, and it can fill our minds as if it were a life-threatening encounter.  We might have anxiety around encountering the supervisor or the friend the next day, or we might ruminate over what imminent problems the event portends, such as being fired or being told your friends no longer find you interesting.  Nevermind that 80% of the work review was positive, or that the event you weren’t invited to was a musical jam and you’re not a musician… our minds have a way of running away with shreds of negative experience and drawing a picture much worse than it actually is.  

Along the same lines, we may find ourselves repeating difficult conversations / conflicts in our minds, practicing the statements we wished we had made in order to maintain our dignity / demonstrate the inferiority of the other party.  

When we step back from these thought patterns, we can see that they are useless.  In the vast majority of cases, it is useless to fret over whether something more drastic is coming down the line after we’ve had an unpleasant experience.  It is useless to repeatedly play back challenging interactions and to build up our own sense of superiority or righteous indignation.  In fact, it’s not only useless: it’s harmful!  If there is anything to be worried about in this area, it is our own negative thought process.  As Dr. Hanson says, the repeated thought patterns we follow develop and strengthen neural pathways- whether the thought patterns are damning, angry thoughts or are loving, joyful thoughts.  I would posit that the pathways we develop in our brains lead to not only further thoughts along the same lines, but further actions, and, hence experiences.  This is the degree to which I can get behind “The Secret”- type thinking.  Yes, our thoughts create our reality: they manipulate our physical brain and sway our future thoughts and actions.  The future starts with the thoughts you are thinking right now.  Is it going to be a limiting, afflicted reality… or an expansive, liberated reality?  The choice is ours!

Luckily, we are not the victims of our thoughts.  Maybe your thoughts are way more negative than you would prefer.  The most important thing is that you see this, and determine to work with your mind.  The only way to make change is with respect and compassion.  When you see the negativity, take note, pause, and gently embrace your fighting, negative mind.  You can journal or even say a silent mantra to yourself, “Everything is okay.”  “I don’t need to fight.”  “I’m here for myself,” “I love and respect myself.”  Just like a meditation practice, you can decide to drop the negative line of thinking and pick up a positive line of thinking.  For example, dropping the argument re-hash and deciding to pay attention to the beautiful flowers on the path you are walking.  Or thinking about someone you love and appreciate.  You may have to re-direct your mind a dozen times in as many minutes, but this boundary-setting around negative thought processes is making a difference.  You are employing your pre-frontal cortex in the enterprise of minimizing negative thought-pathways in your brain stemming from the amygdala.  Your brain has its reasons for being focused on the negative, yet you have the ability to guide it towards patterns that serve you best.

 

Cultivate the Positive

Going a step further, you can choose to turn your attention towards the positive at any time.  

Flower Garden

We are responsible for growing the flowers of compassion and joy in our own hearts.

It can be a part of your meditation practice, it can be something you do once an hour with a bell chime you set up on your cell phone, it can be something you do, as mentioned above, in response to a negative thought-stream you’ve just found yourself following.  Here are just a small sample of countless potential practices to try:

A quick and calming practice is to contemplate a source of support you’ve known in your life- a person, a pet, an organization, a tree.  Allow your mind to rest on that source of support and how the feeling of being supported feels in your body.  Stay with that awareness for a full minute or two, relaxing into the soft feeling of being cared for.  

Another example is gratitude-listing.  Take 3 minutes to get out a pen and paper and write, stream-of-consciousness-style, everything that comes to mind for which you are grateful.  Some people do this every day.  I do it many mornings.

An alternative is to write down one thing for which you are grateful and the several (positive) ways you feel because of it.  For example, I am grateful for the internet because it allows me to feel more connected when others can see what I have written and respond to it.  The internet helps me feel abundant because it allows part of my livelihood to exist.  The internet helps me feel more efficient when I can use it quickly to find information as I’m making plans or writing.  The internet brings me a sense of being in community when I see that others around the world share my political and spiritual perspectives.   

The loving-kindness meditation practice is powerful, and also requires more time than the other practices just listed.  It is a heart-opening concentration practice of developing genuine goodwill for yourself and all others.  Here is a description of loving-kindness meditation by teacher Jack Kornfield, and a 40 minute talk / guided loving-kindness meditation by teacher Tara Brach.  One of the most powerful meditation retreats I have attended was a week-long silent retreat on the topic of loving-kindness.  Out of that came a commitment to practice in this way on one specific day of the week (at the least.)  I am grateful to have the regular opportunity to make a little more space in my heart.  Similar to forgiveness meditation, loving-kindness can be triggering when we bring to mind those who have presented challenges in our lives.  I believe this confrontation with our mental formations around challenging people is a direct line to freedom.  When we work with our minds, we can break ourselves free of hatred by growing forgiveness and free of judgement by growing compassion.

Another heart-opening (and more lengthy) practice I enjoy is sympathetic joy.  This is an excellent antidote to envy.  In the meditation, you contemplate the blessings and good fortune of others, and grow your sense of joy for them that things are going so well.  Here is an article describing the practice, by teacher Sharon Salzberg.  Here is also a 1-hour talk and guided meditation of the practice, by teacher Joseph Goldstein.          

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Awareness

Loving-kindness

Sympathetic Joy

Gratitude

Goodwill

Compassion

 

Share Your Experience
What have you learned about nurturing your own positive mental states?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Mistakenly Thought You Could Have an Intellectual Discussion on the Internet

“I was intrigued by an acquaintance’s statement online, so I joined the conversation and added my perspective, only to receive ad-hominem attacks by another commenter.  My acquaintance didn’t even respond.  Is it me, or is respectful, logical, intellectual exchange no longer possible?”

All it takes is one glance at the online comments under the average YouTube video or web article- which are often unmoderated- to get an eyeful of more pointless, racist, sexist, homophobic, and crude language than you ever wanted to see.  The number of people trolling (joining conversation threads with the only intention of spewing ugly words and hurting others) is large.  While there are many reasonable and reasonably kind people online, it only takes one troll to shift the energy of a conversation towards the uncomfortable or even abusive.  

On the other side of the spectrum, many people don’t want to engage in actual dialogue online.  They may feel fine posting articles or making comments that put forth debatable perspectives, but if anyone shares a contrary perspective, they will not engage or may even delete your comment.  (Believe me, I’ve seen it happen.)  So, how does someone who appreciates intellectual discourse and wishes to be engaged with others by sharing thoughtful and respectful dialogue get his or her intellectual and social needs met?  If you haven’t guessed it yet: NOT online!  Here are some tips for recovering from your mistaken attempt at online intellectual discourse.           

 

desertbench

“Is there anyone reasonable out there?”

 

Remember: What You See Online is Not Representative of Reality

As an intellectual person, you value respectful discourse.  You may even be sensitive to others’ words and intentions, which is why you are drawn to talking things out: to make sure everyone is understood, to break down barriers to communication, and to find the common ground where many parties can find agreement.  And then you witness the underbelly of our society: people spewing hateful words, for no beneficial reason, derailing actual dialogue.  This can be demoralizing.  A resilient way to respond to this situation is to accept that some places are dark and negative, and you have no obligation to go to those places.  Avoid them, if that is better for you.  I would propose that this is better for all of us, but for various reasons some people are drawn to the dark and negative and intentionally go towards them.

Another resilient response is to recognize that there is a disproportionate quantity of negativity online because the negative, trolling individuals are making their voices heard, while those who are conflict-averse are not posting at all and those in the middle are getting shut down by the trolls.  Additionally, one troll can be accountable for great quantities of vitriol.  In this This American Life podcast, writer Lindy West talks about her experience with online trolls and discovers that one person was responsible for several- apparently different- troll attacks that she sustained.  The podcast is definitely worth a listen.

 

Accept the Limits of Internet Dialogue

Now that you have experienced first-hand the limits of internet dialogue, it may be easier to accept those limits.  The unmoderated internet is, at its worst, wide open to being co-opted by trolls.  People who want to have intellectual discourse have no control over that (aside from heavily moderating the comments made by guests to a given website.)  Besides the troll factor, the difficulty in ascertaining tone and intention behind typed statements prevents the genuine understanding that could be possible between people speaking face to face.  This is not surprising when you consider that even speaking face to face about contentious topics with someone you know well is fraught with potential misunderstanding and communication breakdown.

Your thoughts- no matter how well-considered and reasonable you consider them- have a high likelihood of being misunderstood and negatively interpreted if you toss them into the ether of the internet.  It is silently- and silencingly– frustrating to be pedantically told how you are wrong by someone who then puts forth a position that is intellectually inferior to your own.  When you think about it, do you really want to engage a stranger in mutually trying to educate each other through written text, in a forum that is visible to and available for further comment by anyone with an internet connection?  Probably not.  That, unfortunately, is the nature of the internet: people who don’t know the experiences or education of others, interpreting their black-and-white words through one’s own flawed, limited perspective, and then critiquing others’ knowledge/logic/intention/decency.  Any expectation you have for compassionate and intellectual dialogue is misplaced on the shoulders of the person in front of the computer at another node of the internet.          

 

Get Your Intellectual Stimulation in Person

So, you now know that the dark side of the internet is not (entirely) indicative of the intellectual decline of the human race, and you know that you can’t expect the internet to provide the understanding, rational, intellectually curious dialogue you wish to have.  How do you meet your need for thoughtful intellectual discourse?  Look for places that foster face-to-face dialogue.  Mainstream, generic culture does not bring us into places where we can have meaningful discussions.  Most people are neutralized in their non-work time by television, passive internet usage, and substance use.  

If you crave real interactions and talking about serious issues with other people, you need to connect to groups of people that meet for some common objective.  Groups of people where you are likely to have meaningful conversations with other members would include activist groups, church / spiritual groups, debate clubs, poetry slams, Toastmasters clubs, and other places where people meet to either look deeply into things or to develop the art of communication.     

Hostility on the internet does not have to silence you; turn your attention to places and communities that celebrate dialogue and cultivate understanding.  Help build those communities, help bring in other people who, like you, are engaged thinkers looking for their tribe.

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Accepting

Creating Community

Share Your Experience

What have you learned about self-care through internet dialogue?  Where have you found good outlets for intellectual inquiry?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!  Don’t worry: I monitor the comments.  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Are Ill or Injured

“I’ve had a recurring sinus infection for months, and it’s sapping my energy.  I’m ready to be done with it!”

Our bodies are of the nature to become ill and injured, at times.  Everyone’s been there, but some of us certainly go there a lot more than others.  We all say we want to be healthy, yet we may struggle with staying healthy.  Many factors go into this- our environment, our socio-economic status, our access to nutritious food and medical care.  Ultimately, the daily choices we are able to make- and we all have choices to make- can sway our health.  Are you making choices that lead to health and healing?

 

Temple or Trashcan?

When you get right down to it, self-care is a spiritual enterprise.  It is the attitude of reverence and respect for our bodies and minds that allows us to prioritize caring for ourselves- the same kind of reverence and respect for the body that various religious traditions speak of when describing the blessing of being born human.  When you recognize the great responsibility that has been given to us by our ancestors, Great Spirit, the Earth- or however else you identify your reason for being- it becomes clear that great care must be given to your body.  When you consider how dependent you are on your body to get around and do all the things you do every day, it becomes even more clear that great care must be given to your body.

Juicing Veg

Green Juice in the Making

When we are making choices throughout the day, we all need to ask ourselves, “Is this the choice for a Temple, or a Trashcan?”  For example, am I putting whole, nutritious foods (temple) or processed, high-sugar foods (trashcan) into my body?  Am I training my muscles to become more flexible and strong (temple) or ignoring them (trashcan?)  Do I allow my body regular deep rest (temple) or do I run myself into the ground (trashcan?)  Am I putting toxins like alcohol (trashcan) or nutritiously-dense green juice (temple) into my body?  This 1977 quote from Swami Muktananda frames our options pretty well:

“If God made heaven, he also made hell. Remember both. Don’t go by what God has created but by what is good for you. Who created poison if not the same God who also made honey? What shall we eat, poison or honey?”

In my words: our experience is a mirror of our consciousness- it all comes from the same Source, but what are we choosing to cultivate?  Heaven, or hell?  This is the same question as temple, or trashcan?  Awareness of the quality of your choices is the first step towards lifting up your overall quality of choices.  The second step is interpreting the drives underneath your choices.  Most of us have some drives for treating our body like a trashcan rather than a temple, though the further along in your self-care practice you become, the less and less desirable the trashcan-choices will become and the more and more desirable the temple-choices will become.  When you deeply believe you are a manifestation of the Divine, you treat yourself that way.  Our choices are a reflection of our mental and spiritual state.  If you are recognizing repeated, unhealthy choices, it’s time to acknowledge that you are suffering with sickness at the level of the heart.  Your malady may be self-hatred, from internalized misogyny or homophobia or racism.  It may be addiction to food or sugar or alcohol or another substance / behavior that you use to soothe anxiety or depression.  We have access to nearly unlimited ways to briefly escape our suffering.  

Does any of this sound on target?  You may think, “I don’t hate myself!  I have good self-esteem.”  However, you don’t need to love yourself to have self-esteem.  Maybe you know you’re a good realtor and parent, and you have self-esteem around those traits.  You can still have underlying, unprocessed shame that is calling the shots when it comes to making choices about your health.  If you are making unhealthy choices and treating your body like a trashcan, you’ve got work to do.  The work may be deep and uncomfortable, but I’m going to posit that your growth and health are worth the work.  Don’t despair- there are many ways to get started with this work.  Personal therapy, prayer and meditation, group therapy, 12-step programs, and seeking support from elders in your spiritual community are all great choices.

 I begin this exploration looking at daily choices because it is the years of positive choices that build up our health or the years of negative choices that break down our health.  The sooner you start putting clean and nutritious fuel into your body and training your muscles for strength and flexibility, the sooner you will see that you are less likely to become ill or injured.  We can prevent illness or injury just as well as we can respond to it when it happens.    

 

The Ill Body’s Message

First- as described above- illness and injury are potential alarms that the way you have been treating your body may not be the most gentle, caring, and supportive.  Second, illness and injury are telling you exactly how to heal: you are naturally less able to do as much when you are sick as when you are healthy.  Your body is telling you to slow down and take it easy.  Our culture rewards working through illness- we even have over-the-counter drugs meant to clear up congestion and keep us awake!  This has always seemed wrong to me, as congestion is part of our body’s process of defending against pathogens and our need for greater sleep is meant to conserve energy for healing.

We don’t all have sick days at work or the savings to afford the luxury to rest when we are ill or injured- this is one part of how socio-economic status can prevent us from making the decisions that will lead to our greatest health- but if you can, your body is telling you to take it as easy as possible.  Some illnesses require several days in bed or not leaving the house.  Give your body what it needs.  I know many people can’t be still, can’t allow themselves time away from work for healing.  Sometimes these people think that their work is irreplaceable or that they are just that committed to their work.  I’d like to propose that the real challenge is that most of these people simply are uncomfortable sitting still, maybe to the point of being afraid of what they might see in themselves if they simply stop and spend time alone.

Be Still and Heal

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Very little in the world is so important that it can’t wait a few days.  Let the work sit- undone or delegated- while you are healing.  If you are afraid of appearing weak or somehow incapable at work, I will propose that not tending to your needs now will just make even more incapacitating illness occur down the line.  Just like in so many areas of life, there aren’t shortcuts.  We need to go through the experience of being sick.  If you don’t allow yourself thorough healing- if you don’t stand next to your body and her need to heal- how can you expect your body to stand by you, for the long haul?  This is my favorite recording of a laying-down, body-scan style meditation practice from the Plum Village tradition called “deep relaxation.”   It’s 45 minutes long, so listen when you are truly laying down to do some deep relaxing!

The beauty, radiance, and resilience we wish from our bodies all come from our careful cultivation of these qualities through our own loving choices.

 

Invite the Care of Healers   

Aside from the baseline self-care of good nutrition and exercise and the special effort to get rest when you have fallen ill or injured, it is always good to identify a team of healers in your life.  Medicine women and men are all around us!  These may be friends who can give you consultations when you have health concerns, or professionals you only ever see when you have a formal appointment.  Healers come in many stripes: massage therapists, doctors, nutritionists, nurse practitioners, acupuncturists, herbalists, Reiki practitioners, chiropractors, and so many others.  Who has come into your life?  Your friend-circle is a great place to start; you can ask informational questions to learn about a friend or friend-of-friend’s practice, to see if you’d like to try his or her work.  I recommend getting familiar with the types of healing available in your life at any point- whether you are feeling healthy or ill.  Make appointments to meet with those whom you feel drawn to work.  Money invested in learning about health and healing is wisely invested.  Just like seeing a financial advisor, seeing a health-practitioner can help put your mind at ease about having the tools necessary to make the best decisions for yourself, should you ever be ill or in an actual health crisis.         

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Looking Deeply

Personal Responsibility

Seeking Healers

Rest

Healing

 

Share Your Experience
What have you learned about self-care from illness or injury?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!