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

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 Feel Disappointed by Someone

“One of my close friends didn’t come to my wedding, even though I gave her months of advance notice.  I know she can afford the trip, and I even made a point of letting her know how important it was to me.  ‘Disappointed’ is an understatement for how I’m feeling about this!”

 

Disappointment is a fact of life, and unmet expectations of other people are one of the greatest sources of it.  If you look again at the sentence you just read, you may notice the phrases, “fact of life,” and “unmet expectations.”  These two terms hint at keys to unlock the prison door of disappointment- which is a prison of our own making.  Disappointment is like all of our negative emotional states- we have the power to change it.  If we don’t manage our disappointment, it will soon become resentment, and resentment is toxic.  When we learn to distance ourselves from our expectations of others and to deconstruct those expectations, we can often get some freedom.  When we allow the disappointment of this one person’s action (or inaction) to rest on a level with all the other myriad disappointments we experience in life, we distance ourselves from the behavior we perceive as being disappointing.  This also leads to freedom.  The through-line here is recognizing that there are different ways of looking at the situation you are currently reading as “disappointing.”  Let’s look more closely at how we can care for ourselves when disappointment arrives on the scene.          

    

Sit With It

The best thing to do when a strong, negative emotion is rearing its head is to take some time by yourself to sit with it- to welcome it, listen to it, see what it has to teach.  Rumi said it best, in the poem “The Guest House.”

Your initial urge will probably be very different than this suggestion.  You may be inclined to numb out with some distraction (social media, television, daydreaming) or substance (alcohol, prescription pain meds.)  On the other end of the spectrum, you may be inclined to embody the emotion and to let it loose on other people.  If you’ve ever stuck your digital foot in your mouth by firing off an inappropriately angry email, you know why this is a bad idea.  I’ve heard it said, “Don’t just do something!  Sit there!!”  This is funny, and true.

Pug Puppy

This guy is working it out.

However, sitting with difficult emotions is not easy.  This is one benefit of psychotherapy- you get the practice of sitting in the room with an empathetic person as you express challenging emotions and learn, through repeated practice, to listen to and learn from these emotions.  This helps you to later go through the process on your own.  Some people learn this skill as they mature through adolescence, and some people enter adulthood still needing help with this.  The good news is that many of us have access to therapy to work this out.

When you do sit with the disappointment, you may feel terrible.  This is a good time to take out a journal and write down your thoughts.  You might write, “my friend doesn’t really value me or our friendship, since she didn’t prioritize my wedding.”  Write down your fears, too.  They could be, “She and I are growing apart, I’m becoming less desirable as a friend, my husband will think I don’t have strong friendships, maybe I don’t have strong friendships, maybe I’m unloveable, maybe my new husband will realize this and leave me.”  It’s really important to let all the pain and fear leave your psyche, to be seen on the page.  I can guarantee that, if you dig deep, you are going to find some ridiculous and embarrassing thoughts.  This is the human condition: we are a bunch of infants running around in adult bodies.  The more you listen to the infant and take care of the infant, the less likely you are to act like the infant in front of people.  

If this kind of vulnerability is new and uncomfortable to you, do this writing part next to a shredder or a burning wood stove, so you can destroy the document as soon as you are done writing and using it.  But before destroying that evidence, sit with the child-like thoughts and fears you may have uncovered, and send well-wishes to that child.  Cultivate some compassion for the child.  I have learned that placing my hand over my heart cues a sense of both nurturing and being nurtured.  Try sitting like that for a few minutes.

 

Reframe the Disappointment

Once you have honored your own emotions and underlying thoughts and fears, it’s easier to widen your perspective.  This is the time when you can deconstruct your expectations of the person and your stories about the disappointment.  

Here are some mantras that I find helpful when I’m feeling disappointed by someone.  The first one is:

This is not about me.

Because, truly, whatever the other person is going through or whatever his or her shortcomings, the disconnect between your expectations and the other person’s choices are almost never about you.  Untangling your disappointment from the ego leads to some freedom.  Second:

This is the nature of reality: dissatisfactory.

I’ve heard it called the “inherent dissatisfactoriness of life”- many spiritual teachers talk about how dissatisfaction with the material world is just the price we pay to be in the flesh, dealing with imperfect bodies, imperfect minds, entropy, and all the other things that pose challenges.  Hence, the drive to seek meaning in spiritual practice.  Whether you believe this or not, there is no denying that the person’s behavior in question is not the only thing you were disappointed about- maybe even that day!  Recognizing this may help to accept this disappointment as just another drop in the “I don’t like it” bucket.  Third:

This is an opportunity for me to take care of myself.

What did the person fail to do, or fail to do for you?  Can you do it for yourself?  If so, do it!!  Don’t let your disappointment keep you from enjoying what you thought would be coming from the other person.  Do it for yourself, and enjoy it.

 

Acceptance

You’ve considered some new ways to look at the disappointment.  Now let’s dig deeper, to your expectation that set up the disappointment.  First, was your expectation a reasonable one?  Once you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you may find that your expectation simply wasn’t reasonable.  Maybe it was something that you would do- but was it something that the other party could reasonably be expected to want and be able to do?  For example, if you were disappointed that your friend with three jobs and two kids did not give you 24 hours advance-notice of a lunch invitation… maybe your expectation- while reasonable in most circumstances- is not reasonable here?  Expecting your partner to remember your favorite beverage when he’s at the grocery store is pretty reasonable.  Expecting your mother- who has never been expressive of her feelings- to tell you she is proud when you land a new business deal isn’t- unfortunately for you- reasonable.  

When looking at the reality of the situation, we can see the places where we haven’t been reasonable- the places where we need to accept reality- and also the places where we can ask more of our loved ones.  Maybe you have heard the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  

There is much, much freedom to be had in this sentiment.  When we can see the parts that we simply cannot change (a friend / relative / coworker who is not interested in being reliable, for example,) we can let those expectations go.  Sure, we also then adjust down our vulnerability to that person- but without any hard feelings.  This approach- acceptance- is against a lot of people’s natures.  Humans are problem-solvers, and sometimes the problem is another person!  If we could just decide how everyone else would act, the world would be great- right??  This is the dream of every dictator.  When you find yourself wishing someone were more this way and less that way, remember Stalin and instead radically accept the person for who they are.  You don’t need control of other people- managing yourself is hard enough!  

On the other hand, when we see the parts that we can have a hand in changing (a partner / coworker / friend who simply doesn’t know the best way to relate to us,) we can speak up and help change the situation.  This is where setting some boundaries- described in the next section- comes in.     

 

Set Boundaries

Now that you are much clearer in your thinking about the disappointment, and have gotten a deeper understanding of what pieces were your perception and what pieces were truly unacceptable behavior, it’s time to communicate skillfully.  It’s important to remember the things you appreciate about your coworker or loved one before you broach this conversation.  Look deeply to see the paradoxically good qualities tied to the disappointing behavior.  For example, if your college-aged daughter skipped her Sunday phone call home and didn’t answer her phone when you called, only to call the next day and say she had been backpacking that weekend, you might be disappointed that she didn’t tell you ahead of time so you could make other plans and not worry.  If you look deeply, you may also see your appreciation for her spontaneous and adventurous nature.

Next, look for times that you have made the same mistake as what you are finding disappointing right now.  There is almost always an example… for example, didn’t you miss the Sunday call by an hour last month, because your phone battery died and you weren’t somewhere you could re-charge?  Look deep for this- taking responsibility for your own regrettable actions allows you to have empathy for the other person, allows you to see how easy it is to do what they did.  When you share your regret with the other person, you also clear the air and you model taking responsibility for your mistakes.  To set your boundary, find a good time to talk with your loved one or coworker.  Share your appreciation, share your regrets for times you’ve made similar mistakes in your relationship, and then set your boundary.  For example:

“Lisa, as your mother, I so appreciate your spontaneous and adventurous nature.  I love that you are taking time to build friendships and enjoy the mountains even when you have such a demanding course load.  I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry I didn’t plan accurately last month and I wasn’t able to call you for our weekly phone call.  I know you set aside that time and I’m sorry you had to wait.  This last weekend, I was pretty worried when I didn’t hear from you on Sunday- and even more worried when I tried calling you.  I do my best to not catastrophize, but that kind of stuff keeps me awake at night.  In the future, I’d like for us to both make a better effort to keep our phone call- and to always let the other person know if we won’t be available.”  

Or, on the topic of the missed wedding:

“Sadia, I appreciate that you are such a go-getter- you’re always doing creative things, and going to new places!  I was recently thinking about the time you planned a group vacation in Mexico and I was the only one from our group of friends who didn’t make it- I’m sorry I didn’t make a better effort!  Last month, when I was looking around at all the friends and family in town for my wedding, I was very hurt to not see you there.  We can’t turn back time and put you in those memories, but I need for us to have a conversation about how that went down, so I can put it behind me.  I want to know that you value our friendship and value me… if, in fact, you do.”   

When you approach another person with well-considered thoughts and perspective, you are much more likely to see a positive outcome.  The communication style I am describing here- influenced by both Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication and the Beginning Anew conflict resolution style of Plum Village Monastery- allows both parties to feel seen, heard, appreciated, and accountable.   

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Listening

Pausing

Journaling

Compassion

Acceptance

Reframing

Gratitude

Personal Responsibility

Self-Advocacy

Communication

Setting Boundaries

 

Share Your Experience
If you have some ideas or experience with managing disappointment, please share them in the “comments” section.  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Are Not Feeling the Love on Valentine’s Day

“I hate being alone on Valentine’s Day.  I don’t even like commercial holidays- but it still gets to me.”

 

There are several reasons why you may not “feel the love” this year on Valentine’s Day.  To name a few: being single if you would prefer to have a partner, having a partner who doesn’t express appreciation or affection as much as you would prefer, and being in a state of grief- for any kind of loss.  Even while the dominant culture seems to worship partnership and romantic love, the fact is that more than half of American adults- according to recent census measures- are single, which here means “unmarried.”  Not all, but many of us have a natural drive for romantic connection with another person.  Being single- combined with desiring a partner- during a holiday where others are enjoying time with their partners is a perfect time to take care of yourself.  In fact, any time that the wider culture is celebrating something that is not part of your current reality is a perfect time to take care of yourself.

 

Both of the categories below for taking care of yourself when not feeling the love, Make it a Self-Care Day and Let Your Light Shine, are using the same principle: watering the tiny seeds of happiness, love, and generosity that are always in us, but that- at difficult times- are hard to see.  We are not the victims of our emotions, and we are not our emotions.  Emotions come, emotions go- and we have a direct hand in helping them along in the direction we want them to go.  That is what all of the suggestions in this week’s article are meant to do.  Note: if you are suffering with major depression, it’s important to start small.  It is less likely you will be motivated to do something large to care for yourself (like the “run a marathon” possibility, below.)  Something small, like drawing a bath or reaching out with a phone call to a friend, are perfectly good and will also alter your brain chemistry for the positive.  Depression has a way of darkening our view of all kinds of things- even your self-care efforts.  I challenge anyone experiencing major depression to celebrate what you ARE able to do, rather than judging yourself for what you currently aren’t doing.  We are all on our own paths.  I’ve heard it said that we are all uniquely beautiful flowers in the garden of humanity- you, me: everyone.        

 

Make it a Self-Care Day

I’d like to note that self-care almost never requires a lot of money.  However, sometimes it is nice to pamper yourself with experiences that you don’t have every day.  Whether you spend any extra money on your day or not, the point is to give yourself some truly present care.  Especially when it comes to Valentine’s Day, I like to think of it as being your own awesome romantic partner; it turns out that you can do for yourself the things you would love to do for a partner or for a partner to do for or with you.  Here is a list of possibilities:

-Make a point of attending that yoga class / crossfit session / hiking club / etc. you tend to skip.

-Make a healthy and delicious meal to eat while listening to your favorite music.

-Put some candles and nice music (favorite beverage?) in the bathroom, draw yourself a hot bath, and soak for as long as you want.

-Buy yourself flowers or a new potted plant for your home or office.

-Set aside time to do your creative thing- play your instrument, paint, sculpt, write.

-Take yourself out to an amazing show you wouldn’t normally pay to see.

-Go to bed early and spend some quality time… with yourself… before falling asleep.

-Get a professional massage.

-Give yourself a massage- maybe in the bath.  Massaging your own calves, feet, belly, arms, neck, head, face, and hands is really nice.

-Spend some quality time with your Higher Power, if you believe in one: prayer, meditation, listening to a dharma talk / sermon, going to church.

-Invest in brushing up your appearance with a haircut, facial, or manicure.

-Schedule an all-day outdoor adventure, if mid-February weather where you live is comfortable for you: a bike tour, surfing, a long hike, a marathon.  Hint: this year, the LA Marathon is on Valentine’s Day…

 

lakeswimmer

You might need a wetsuit, but an outdoor adventure will change your state of mind.

 

Let Your Light Shine
Sometimes, self-care comes in the form of letting our love and care flow outward.  When we consciously choose to focus on uplifting others (rather than focusing on others as a habitual way of not paying attention to our own needs; there is a big difference!) we are liberating some of our most powerful potential: the potential to multiply positive energy, to touch many lives.  At the end of the day, those we touch and we, ourselves, are lifted up.  In order to access our loving thoughts and appreciations, it is key to pause and spend 10 minutes or so meditating on and/or writing about the people in our lives who we’d like to give some love.  What do you appreciate about them?  What really great qualities about them might be hidden much of the time?  Where have you seen them shine?

 

Once you’ve got some love flowing, here are several suggestions for sharing that love with the people in our lives on or near Valentine’s Day:

 

-Buy a dozen flowers and give one, with a small note of appreciation attached, to your nearest colleagues (in your office, for example, or on your team.)

-Invite a good friend to be your guest at that music show with which you are pampering yourself.

-Write a haiku or other short verse about someone you appreciate, describing their superhero qualities, and give it to them- by email, on a social media forum, in a card, on a note attached to something nice like a flower or chocolate.

-Take a good friend out for a special lunch.

-Make it a point of telling a handful of people (3?  8?) a few things you appreciate about them when you see them the week of Valentine’s Day.

-Depending on your goofball factor (mine is pretty high,) buy a box of those Valentines that kids give each other at school from the drugstore, and give them (with candy hearts in the envelope, of course) to your friends / neighbors / colleagues who you think can handle the goof.

-If you don’t already have a place you volunteer your time regularly, find one ahead of time and schedule to be there on Valentine’s Day, caring for the people, land, or animals the place serves.

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Appreciating

Communication

Service

Generosity

Gratitude

Compassion

Now, Share Your Experience

If you have some tips for self-care during triggering holidays, please share them in the “comments” section.  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You are Feeling Carried Away

“I’m in an early relationship that seems to be moving fast.  I’m not sure if this is right for me.  How can I know?”

 

winterroad

“Am I going the right way here?”

 

We all have had the feeling that we are being pulled along by a force outside ourselves.  This could be in any area- career, intimate relationship, a single conversation.  Maybe we wake up one day and realize that we are only climbing the corporate ladder for larger paychecks- that we may have been happiest at work in our entry-level position from years ago.  Or, as in this question, we are carried away by new relationship energy, making an “insta-relationship,” without giving the adequate time to get to know the other person’s personality, in all kinds of circumstances.  Or we keep having the same kind of banter with someone that leaves us feeling… icky.  

In some instances, this action without even having to think much can feel like divine purpose- like we are in contact with some power greater than ourselves, and consciously choosing to go with the flow of that power is sublime.  While lovely, this is not the type of “being pulled along” to which I am referring here.  The feeling I am referring to is a product of being out of touch with that greater power- out of touch with our higher purpose.  It feels over-powering, not just energizing.  Neutral, negative, blind or frantic.  Not joyful and inspired- though it can be hard to really distinguish between these sensations, if we do not give ourselves the space and time to discern, for ourselves.

If you find yourself in a moment- or several years- of following a path that doesn’t feel right, it’s time to take care of yourself.  Here are some steps to take to look into this apparent dissonance between your actions and your heart.

 

Pause

Take some time and space away from the activity.  For a career question, maybe it’s clearing a weekend or even tacking on an extra mental-health day to the weekend so you have time to look into your own heart.  In an intimate relationship, let your partner know that you need to take a span of time for yourself (this looks different, depending on the nature of the relationship- casual dating means just not going on a date for a week, a spouse that you live with might mean taking a weekend vacation by yourself.)  In a conversation, it would mean ending the conversation, “Anyway- it has been good to catch up with you, and I need to stop now and take care of some other things.”  

Have you ever seen the 1980’s TV show “Out of This World?”  I’ve always wished I had the same superpower as Evie, to freeze time so I can do all the things I want to do in the course of an already busy day.  We may not be able to freeze time, but we can clearly set aside time for the things we want- need– to do.  If gaining clarity for yourself is important to you, set the boundary with the people and tasks in your life around this exercise.  Take the time and space you need, where nothing else can intrude.

 

Set the Stage for Inquiry

Maybe this means finding a chair for yourself and your journal in a quiet corner and letting others in the house know that you will be unavailable for anything but medical emergencies for the next half-hour.  Maybe it means spending several hours in a day or over a weekend in a room of your home with candles and incense burning.  You don’t need to book a cabin in nearby mountains, or a spot on a weekend meditation retreat that allows space for personal practice.  However, if you have the means and wish to, please do that!  Do whatever it is that you believe is going to be most conducive to this self-inquiry.  

 

Look Deeply and Embrace

Now that you have paused the activity in question, and have set the stage for your inquiry, it’s time to check in with yourself and embrace what you see.  Go slow.  Before you begin your inquiry, give thanks to yourself for seeking clarity and alignment in your life.  Give thanks to all of the teachers, ancestors, and conditions that have allowed you to be in this exact position in your life, able to take stock and grow.  If you pray and/or believe in a higher power, ask for guidance.  This can be silent or out loud.  

 

Next, sit quietly and gradually scan your body- head (including mind,) neck, shoulders, torso (including heart and gut,) arms, hands, hips and reproductive organs, legs, feet.  Notice the qualities of energy, weight, and heat you feel in these parts of your body.  If you are completely new to the idea of a body-scan meditation, here is a short (5 minutes) video online to get the idea: Body-scan meditation.  

 

Now that you have settled and have a sense of what’s happening in your body, bring to mind the activity in question- your career path, the relationship, the uncomfortable conversation you were having earlier.  Rest your mind and heart gently on this topic- not tearing into it with intellect, but allowing its essence to seep into your body.  It may not take long (a few seconds?) before you begin to feel what is changing in your physical sensations, when exposed to the activity in question.  Once you feel you have settled enough into your physical inquiry, allow the physical sensations to speak to you.  

 

Is the constriction in the chest saying things are going too fast for you?  Is the fog in the mind saying that there is confusion about the topic?  Are the sweaty palms spelling out anxiety?  Let the flavor define itself- note that we are not using intellect here.  This is a corporal way of knowing, different from what most of us do every day.  Many of us have spent lifetimes building our intellect, and we obsessively ruminate about everything under the sun.  In this investigation, we are setting rumination aside and listening to other sources of information- this is an aspect of intuition.  

 

When the mind naturally returns to thinking, we re-direct our attention back to the physical sensations that are arising, and the feeling-words that may appear with them.  Do this for as long as you need.  Take breaks for tea or stretching, if your inquiry is taking a lot of time and you need to break it up.  If you are approaching the limit of the time you have for this exercise, and no insight has occurred, this is okay.  Move to the next step.

 

Write it Down

Whether you have gotten some guidance just yet or not, it is time to journal.  Record your question (“Am I on the right career path?”  “Is this relationship building me up, or bringing me down?” “Are these conversations good for me?”) and what your body told you.  If there is not a clear answer from your corporal knowing, write your intention to receive clarity- from the passage of time, or from a higher power.  Setting the intention for clarity, now that you are aware of this prominent question, may be all the progress you will make at this time.   

Now is also when- if you are giving yourself plenty of time for a larger life-question- you can allow the intellect to look at facts about your area of question and to evaluate them.  This is much better done in writing, as thinking tends to be repetitive and is slower to insight than writing.   This could be simple journaling (writing whatever comes to mind,) or a “pro” and “con” list in response to the question of keeping the status quo or changing things up.  It could be an “evidence for” and “evidence against” list in response to some belief you may be circling back onto, but which feels a bit sticky, maybe skewed.

 

Closure

If you have established that your activity in question must change, you can continue with making a plan to initiate change- see next week’s post about that.  Whether you are making a plan for change right now or not, make sure you close your self-inquiry with a few moments of repeated gratitude: to yourself, your teachers, ancestors, and other conditions that have led to your existence, on the path you are walking.  Finally, make a commitment to yourself to continue to listen to and care for your own deepest truths. 

     

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Setting boundaries

Gratitude

Listening

Journaling

Meditating

Intuition