Tag Archives: Buddhism

The Tender Place Between Shame and Blame

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image from neatorama.com

When I was a younger, I was bullied and excluded a lot.  It happened in elementary school, and in middle school, and in high school.  The people and the circumstances changed.  But the feeling inside didn’t.  It felt numb and distant and hot.  It still feels that way.  It felt that way this past weekend.

It is hard for me to not carry inside of me the belief that I deserve to be excluded or ignored if I act a certain way.  To avoid being excluded, over the years I have learned to push out and be charming and witty and social.  I like that “me” much better.  Other people like her better.  I am ashamed of the “me” that is awkward and silent, that doesn’t know how to be part of the group.  I am angry she still exists.

If I am not blaming myself, I get angry at the world.  At the way that we hurt each other so deeply.  At how heartless it can feel.  But as much as I hate the system, the truth is that I have been in the other position.  I exclude others.  I would exclude the “awkward me” too.

There’s a middle place in between the shame and the blame.  It is soft.  It is the part that can actually feel pain.  No story that anyone is right or wrong.  I just let myself hurt.  And strangely, it feels oddly peaceful in this soft painful place.

I can feel that my mind wants to pull me out of there.  It feels nervous, like it has nothing to do. It wants to get back to the shaming and blaming, where it can comfortably gnaw away for eternity.

I have this one particularly strong reoccurring belief that there are some incredibly cool, gorgeous, perfectly loved people who never have to visit this place–so if I am here then it must confirm that I am a loser.  I really used to believe that story. I would inevitably respond by doing anything to avoid admitting I felt pain.  Now, the story has loosened its grip, but it hasn’t entirely left.  It gets really close and scary and I have to remember not to buy into it.   It’s just a story.  It’s not real.   I practice letting it go by me.  I can feel the whoosh as it whizzes by my cheek.

Today, when I did yoga, I made my whole practice about staying in that tender open place. At first, I felt like an animal who is so used to protecting her wound that she doesn’t even realize that she is doing it anymore. I was nervous and skittish on the mat.  My breath sucked in with a rush every time I thought about how awkward I can be, about the pain of being ignored or disrespected. I left my body regularly.

Gradually, with each breath, I asked myself for permission to enter that space, to feel how hurt I was.  Slowly, slowly, I relaxed.  Slowly, I opened up to myself.  I stayed present with the pain.  It really hurt.  I cried.

And then, when I came home, I felt the desire to share this place with you.  I am learning to stay in the spot that hurts.  I can even open it up and let you in here.  I want you to know that if you have a place that hurts, you can learn to stay there too.  I think a compassionate wisdom arises when we learn to stay in this place, and can greet each other from that place.  It feels welcoming and kind.  I am glad for the thing that brought me here.  I want to be a person that knows this pain.

As Pema Chodron (“When Things Fall Apart, p. 109-110) says:

“Compassionate action, being there for others, being able to act and speak in a way that communicates, starts with seeing ourselves when we start to make ourselves right or make ourselves wrong.  At that particular point, we could just contemplate the fact that there is a larger alternative to either of those, a more tender, shaky kind of place where we could love.  This place, if we can touch it, will help us train ourselves through our lives to open further to whatever we feel, to open further rather than shut down more.  We’ll find that as we begin to commit ourselves to this practice, as we begin to have a sense of celebrating the aspects of ourselves that we found so impossible before, something will shift in us.  Something will shift permanently in us.  Our ancient habitual patterns will begin to soften, and we’ll begin to see the faces and hear the words of people who are talking to us.”

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Open Heart Meditation

 “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.” — Ho’oponopono prayer

For a long time in my morning sitting meditation, I would feel spacey, and tend to fall asleep. When I tried to go inside, it felt fuzzy, ill-defined. Like I was trying really hard to look at something through wavy glasses or trying to hear something through lots of static. I felt frustrated.  I stuck with it.

Lately I noticed that my sitting meditations have become more grounded and clearer. This morning, I found my way to a very sensitive, raw, pulsating, knotted spot about a foot away from my chest, connected to my heart. It hurt, in shimmery waves of tightness down my arms. And it was angry, in big waves of gritty intensity pushing out. Most importantly, I could FEEL it – it didn’t disappear in waves of unconscious sleepiness. I stayed connected to it in meditation long after the timer went off. And then I continued to feel connected to it through my drive to work, when I suddenly had an urge to cry. Then I was crying in big sobbing tears, and yelling big yells of pain for about 15 minutes.

What did I uncover? I can only describe it as knotted-up energy of the pain of being alive. In it, there is a deep love for all the people in my life and the raw agony of all the ways in which I hold myself back from expressing that love fully in whatever form it might take (anger, compassion, joy, frustration, hurt), and instead settling for a numb niceness that denies I am feeling anything. A numb niceness that cuts me off from you. As I allowed myself to feel this agony, it would soften and turn sweet, and turn to an aching tenderness. I felt a deep forgiving towards everyone, and towards myself, because we are all undergoing this separation together and it is not our fault.

The Ho’oponopono phrase kept coming up, and touching the exact spot that hurt: “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.” I don’t care if being alive hurts, I want to feel it ALL so that I can really love and live in truth.

Thank you for reading. Knowing that there are people out there who read this and connect with this feeling encourages me to open my heart more.

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Diamond Approach: Desire is the Language of the Heart

What do you want right now?

What do you want most of all?

When you let go of worrying about whether or not you can have it, how does desire feel?

 

Last weekend, I participated in my second Diamond Approach workshop.  The approach was developed by a man named A.H. Almaas as a synthesis between spiritual and the psychological experience.  The group uses meditation and focused inquiry to help people gain a direct experiential understanding of a situation.  As a person gains direct experiential insight into a situation, their ego structure is both repaired and abandoned, so that their essential spiritual nature is more fully expressed (i.e., more LIGHT can shine through).

 

This weekend, our insight process focused around desire.  Buddhist teachings might leave one believing that ALL desire is bad.  Wanting brings suffering.  To stop suffering, stop wanting.

This weekend we explored a different, more subtle approach to desire.  Basically, some desire leads us AWAY from ourselves.  We desire things because we feel deficient in ourselves.  We crave things because we are seeking to not feel something.  We desire things to give us a sense of self.  This is the type of craving that Buddhism counsels against.

But there is another kind of desire.  The kind that is borne out of love.  The kind that rises in your chest, bubbly and yellow like champagne.  The kind that feels so good to allow, you want to sink your toes into it.  And this second kind of desire arises from a sense of fullness, not deficiency.

This second type of desire is a natural activity of the heart.  It is the heart’s GPS.  Follow these desires, and you will find the things in life that affirm you.  And even if you never get the things you desire, the sheer pleasure of loving them, wanting them, is what the heart wants and needs to feel alive.  This type of desire is a sacred movement, profound in and of itself, regardless of whether it is actually fulfilled.

One type of desire brings you closer to yourself, one takes you away. 

How do you distinguish one type of desire from another?  You can tell by how it makes you feel.  Let’s say you crave chocolate.  Do you feel happy and excited about the deliciousness of the treat, a pure and innocent joy in this treat?  Enjoy the pleasure of wanting, free from any attachment to actually eating the chocolate.  Or do you feel an anxious craving, and a gnawing sense that you are ignoring what is really bothering you?  If that is the case, then dig deeper to see what you really want.

So all weekend, this group of people, slowly at first, and then in a joyful rush, shared all of the things that we desired truly, with our hearts.  When we let go of whether or not we could actually have them, the energy shifted from one of frustration or tentativeness, to one of freedom and play.  We desired fun and travel and lovely work and intimate conversations and hot sex (as a seventy-year old woman gamely volunteered).

We were like children who had not yet learned the harsh rules of the world, and were free to love everything we wanted to love.

And we also discussed the things that kept us from our desires.

The most poignant scene of the weekend for me was the inquiry with a man in his late 50s.  He recalled that when he was a little boy, he loved women.  Worshipped them.  He could vividly recall sneaking behind a girl’s desk when he was just starting school (6 or 7 years old), so that he could breath in her scent and stare at the pattern on her dress.  But he quickly learned, because he was brought up Catholic, that such desires were a sin.  So for most of his life, he has had a tortured relationship to women.  He buried his desires because they were bad.

As this man recalled the bright red and white check pattern of the girl’s dress that he so loved over forty years ago, tears streamed down his face.  Together, we sat in silence, letting him cry, sharing the beauty of this innocent desire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s OK to Be Sad: How and Why to Experience Difficult Emotions

eggshells

I wrote this last Sunday, but didn’t post it until now…enjoy. xoxo Nicole

Today I feel sad.  Normally, I might be moving too fast to notice it.  I might miss it because I am busy skipping from one event to the next.  But today is a slow, grey, Easter Sunday afternoon, and I don’t have any plans for the rest of the day.  I am purposefully not turning on my TV or calling friends.  Instead, I am meditating and writing and allowing myself to feel what is coming up in my heart.

We don’t usually just allow ourselves to just feel sad.  We tend to feel like we have to do something to lift ourselves out of this state:  we go for a walk, talk a bath, drink a glass of wine, re-read a positive book.  Maybe we call a friend and discuss the situation until we have figured out a “solution.”  When we feel better, we might even congratulate ourselves on our great self-care skills.   We assume that we are doing well when we have stopped feeling these negative emotions–the faster we can get out of them, the better we are doing.   This belief in the power of positive thought has been further exacerbated by the misunderstood teachings of the Law of Attraction (i.e., the belief that to manifest what you want you must be constantly joyful).

Some of you might immediately be thinking:  ugh–I don’t want to turn into a mess or wallow in the things that get me down.  But this sense of “wallowing” is not due to the emotion itself, but the unskilful way it is processed.  There is another, more skillful way to experience difficult emotions.

The skillful way is to be able to experience pain without fully identifying with it.  Thus, your awareness is large enough to allow room for the difficult emotion AND maintain contact with your fundamental power, peace, and confidence.   You can stay in touch with joy even as you allow yourself to feel sad.  You can feel strong and secure even as you experience vulnerability.  You can feel connected and lonely at the same time.

The best way to develop this enlarged awareness is meditation.  When you meditate, you develop your ability to stay grounded no matter what your mind or heart tosses up at you.  As you practice, you expand your capacity for presence.  Over time, you can handle more rocky stuff without needing to check-out, go unconscious, or otherwise distract yourself from the intensity of experience.  You can use this capacity to experience difficult emotions during your daily life without becoming overwhelmed or confused.

So, okay, we can experience difficult emotions more skillfully.  Why would we want to stay present for difficult emotions?  Why shouldn’t we be practicing getting rid of them, or transforming them into positive ones?

Because something important and valuable happens when we fully experience difficult emotions.  A lot of difficult emotions are tied up around our desire for life to be different than it actually is.  We want to be somewhere else, doing something else, with someone else.  When we avoid those emotions, we avoid directly experiencing life on its own terms. We live partly in our dreams and hopes.  This dream-world might be more comfortable, but its protection becomes our jail.  We lock ourselves up inside the belief that things needs to be a certain way for us to be happy.

When we experience difficult emotions, we come face to face with the way things are.  Even  though facing reality may hurt, the world does not end.  Instead, all of the energy we were using to avoid pain is loosed.   Instead of struggling and fighting the emotion and the circumstances that gave it birth, we relax.  We can LET things be the way they are, AND be happy.  Yes, we may have to wade through some pain and sadness on the way, but we are no longer afraid to experience them.  We acknowledge our pain and vulnerability with a soft, gentle compassion, not with fear or rejection.

With this softening, a new space opens up inside of us.  It is a new place for life to flow, to move, to breath.  Nothing has been solved or changed, and yet all is well.  This well-being is not a mere “belief” in the abundance and goodness of life–it is an energetic death of a closed/constricted consciousness (things must be so!) and the birth of a spacious awareness (surrendering to what is).  How appropriate for Easter Sunday that I find myself writing about allowing ourselves to die, so that we can be reborn.

 

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How do I Stop Thinking and Feeling? Answer, You Don’t!

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from a higher perspective, there is beauty and peace in a hurricane

 

“We have to make a relationship with our emotional energy. Usually, when we speak of expressing our energies, we are more concerned with the expression than with the energy itself, which seems to be rushing too fast. We are afraid the energy will overwhelm us, so we try to get rid of it through action. However, once you develop a harmonious relationship with your energy, then you can actually express it, and the style of expression becomes very sane, right to the point.” — Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

 

One of the biggest misconceptions about Buddhism is that it is about getting rid of things: thoughts, feelings, the ego.  It is not.  If you focus your efforts on getting rid of things, all you do is spend even more energy caught up in the very thing you are trying to throw out.    At first you might start out angry about something.  If you try and resist that anger, all you end up with is anger AND guilt about being angry.  If you try and make a thought go away, all you end up with is a new thought: I should not be thinking about that thing (which you then immediately think about again).

It’s like those Chinese finger toys–the harder you pull, the tighter it holds you.

What you can do is develop a higher level of awareness so you can watch these thoughts and emotions arise, rather than identify with them.  I think about the process of disidentification very simply.  The thoughts/emotions are visitors. I stay present and watch/hear them do their thing.  I keep an open heart and a grounded presence, even as I feel/experience anger, sadness, mental jumpiness, ect.  I give them my full attention, but I do NOT let them live inside me and start pulling my strings.  And after a while, they run out of energy.  Then, I let them go.

So the idea is not to get rid of stuff.  The idea is to practice operating from another level that doesn’t get caught in the drama.   Actually, our thoughts and feelings can be important and valued guides.  If anything, I am working towards becoming even more open to my feelings and thoughts.   This helps me develop kindness towards myself and others, and grow more spacious and grounded internally.

It also helps relationships.  The more deeply I allow myself to feel sadness and pain around something, the less I need to create a story about why I feel this way (he is to blame, I am to blame, she is to blame).  Sadness is just sadness.  Anger is just anger.  Both of them are just strong energy moving through me.  Just feel them without pushing them away.

If , after feeling my emotions, it seems appropriate to express them, I can do so with a clear mind, taking full ownership of what I am feeling (see my last post on non-violent communication for more about owning your emotions).  People are much more receptive to you when you come from this place.  As Chogyam says, you can be sane, right to the point.  If you hurl your emotions at someone and say: “This is your fault!” you can’t be too surprised when they throw that ball of sh*t right back at you.  If you can approach someone and say: “I felt really hurt when you did this.” then you have created a safe space for them to empathize.

So, bottom line:  don’t try and get rid of your feelings and thoughts.  Just work on developing a better, saner relationship with them.

What is your relationship with your emotions?  Do you believe them?  Do you act on them?  Do you try and ignore them becuase they scare you?  Or are you strong enough to let feelings move through you without getting confused?

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Relaxing into the Rush of Daily Life

The past month has swept me away in a rush of things to do.  Early rising straight to the gym, long commute, lots of work, writing an article searching for a new job, finding a new job, weddings, bachelorette parties, dinners with friends.

On the surface, there is a lot of activity, but underneath I feel a bit stuck in the eddies of everyday life.  I want a spark.  I long for a transformative experience to touch me deeply.  I want an AHA!  Or an Ahhhh . . .

Part of this intuition is probably right–I need to create some more space for me to connect with my higher self in the midst of all this running around.  Some breathing room for my inner voice to come through.  Some down-time to set my intentions and delve into my creativity.

AND there is also another lesson I am learning here, and one that this blog is all about.  It is about not needing to escape every day life to feel connected to a higher sense of purpose.  It is about opening up to this deeper connectedness by fully meeting the rough and tumble of daily life.

Viewed from this perspective, the way out is through.   In addition to creating “time out” from life, I am also being called to embrace the messy mad rush of life more deeply.  I am being challenged to let go of my ideas about what feels spiritual and connected, and find new and different ways to open my heart.  Instead of rejecting whatever is in front of me, I am being asked to live it more fully.

My Tantra teacher, Charu Morgan, refers to this continual process of accepting whatever is rising up in life as “softening into” our experience.  When we feel something uncomfortable, we tend to harden against it.  We resist.  When we resist, we fight life.  When we soften, we let life have its way.  We let life move through us.  We let life touch us.

Writing this post is an acknowledgment of where I am at right now, and a way for me to embrace and soften into it.  By naming and owning up to my current level of consciousness, I am bringing this pattern into the light.   I am also helping myself honor and understand that being in touch with the spiritual side of life does not mean I have to be in a super-fired up state all the time.

Actually, the more I hold on to a rigid concept of what my spiritual path “should” look like, the further away I get from what life is offering me right now.  The mundane experiences of life are a great chance to wake up, to get out of my head about what things should be like, and experience them as they actually are–which is way beyond anything I could imagine.  That about sums up the point of Buddhist meditation in many respects.

As I write this, as I acknowledge and soften into my discomfort, I also feel another layer of truth coming through.  The truth is that there is a purpose and spirit and divinity moving through life, even when it is not hitting me over the head.  I am relaxing into faith and gratitude.

Where are you right now?  How are you feeling?  Is there some sensation, some intuition tickling the back of your mind that you can acknowledge, feel, and soften into?  When you relax into it, what new insights come to you?

Love and blessings for your journeys,

N

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A Full Experience of Helplessness

“The only way to ease our pain is to experience it fully. Learn to stay with uneasiness, learn to stay with the tightening, so that the habitual chain reaction doesn’t continue to rule your life.” –Pema Chodron

I love discovering spiritual principles at work in the world around me.  They are unexpected and surprising, yet perfectly formed.  Like a nautilus shell, or a starfish.

Recently, I have discovered the beautiful symmetry of helplessness.

I have always hated feeling helpless.  So I make sure I am not helpless.  I am the one flagging the waiter down to get the check, making an extra call to double-check that there is really no availability, finding a way, someway somehow.  Useful, yes.  Rewarded, often.  And also, a way to escape the feeling of helplessness itself: a refusal to admit that nothing can be done, that I lost, that I am vulnerable, that I can be hurt.

In my last relationship, I often struggled with feeling helpless.  The person I was with at times chose not to listen to me, or could not hear me.  And so . . . I talked calmly, I talked loudly, I argued rationally, I made emotional pleas, I threatened, I begged.  And maybe, eventually, I got my way.  Until it all fell down and the cycle started again.  Rather than truly own up to this cycle and my part in it, I simply insisted all over again that this person would hear me.  Rather than admit that this person could not meet me, I worked hard to hold up their end of the relationship for them.  Until one day life gave me the gift of making the dysfunction so bad I could not ignore it any longer, and I paid life back by paying attention.  And so I left.

Right now, I am in the final stages of ending this relationship, wrapping up loose ends.  And this person is still repeating the same patterns of broken promises.  And I–the new, strong me, who left–what do I do?  I feel helpless.  So  I leap right into my part: “He can’t do this to me,” or “I will figure out a way to get him to listen.”  The same broken record, stuck in the same broken groove.

But this time I catch myself.  Okay: I took the big step of ending the relationship, but I find myself back here again.  What do I still need to learn?  The answer arises naturally: the very thing I am struggling with IS the answer to my question.  I am back here so I can FEEL what helpless feels like.

The more I resist feeling a certain way, the more likely it is that I will “find” myself in situations that cause that emotion to arise.   To break the cycle, I need to surrender and let myself feel.    

I am trying to wake myself up, and my feelings are my alarm clock.  

Okay.  What does it feel like to experience helplessness?  The very first thing I become aware of is how much effort I have been putting into avoiding this feeling.  I was approaching life with a big sign that says “YOU CAN’T HURT ME.”

I surrender– I take down the sign.  Life can hurt!  It is life!  And people disappoint you and accidents happen and sometimes you lose.   Surprisingly, this admission feels like cool relief.  It feels sweet to be human.  It feels sweet to be capable of being hurt.  This IS life.  I can feel life touching me, because I am not trying to hold it at a distance.

Emotions are like a knot that only tightens the more I pull against it, and then as I relax it slips free.

I let the messy, vibrant energy of LIFE sweep into this vulnerable place I have been trying so hard to protect.  My heart relaxes as I release my grip.  And as I relax, light and space and movement rush in and blow away the last shred of my resistance.

And I laugh because I suddenly understand why I have been trying so hard to not let down my guard.  I thought that if I experienced pain, if I “lost,” if a situation got messy . . . that it was my fault.  More than my fault: it meant I was not good enough to get it right.   I have compassion for the part of me that believed this.   I send love to myself, and gently let go of this belief.   Encountering obstacles does not mean I am a failure.  It is just part of being human.

Opening wide to the uncomfortable experience lets it become just that: an experience–a bird flapping through my sky.  I can experience it without identifying with it, without confusing it with who I a fundamentally am. 

Having reconnected with my own basic worthiness, I regain my true power.  Deep, full, expansive breath.   Suddenly, I have many choices before me.  YES I have the power to enter into this situation holding the highest intentions for both me and him.  YES I have the power to protect and honor my own needs–or, to give up the fight if that ultimately brings me greater peace and joy.  YES I have the power to forgive him.  YES I have the power to refuse to get drawn into a negative cycle.

Ultimately, I replace the illusion of control I tried so hard to maintain with a much more profound power.  Although I can not stop painful experiences from arising in my life, I always have the choice to meet them with love and integrity.

So what does all this mean?  Externally, nothing has changed.  I still have a tough situation on my plate.  But now I accept that it may not turn out perfectly–and that is okay.   I am no longer struggling with myself.

The symmetry is complete:  by experiencing ‘helplessness’  fully, I can let it go.

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We Are All Stuck Being Human, Together

“If we begin to surrender to ourselves—begin to drop the story line and experience what all this messy stuff behind the story line feels like—we begin to find bodhichitta, the tenderness that’s underneath all the harshness.  By being kind to ourselves, we become kind to others. By being kind to others—if it’s done properly, with proper understanding—we benefit as well.  So the first point is that we are completely interrelated. What you do to others, you do to yourself. What you do to yourself, you do to others.”

— Pema Chodron

Sometimes, when you learn a really Big Lesson you have to learn it again and again, in smaller and softer ways.  Until you can recognize that lesson like a welcome old friend.

My Big Lesson came when I left my relationship/non-legalized marriage last September.  To get clear about what was actually in the relationship, I stopped trying to help, do, fix, argue, convince, plead, support.  All that mental and emotional chatter just had me going  in circles searching for an answer.   I was exhausted.  At that moment, a Buddhist teacher told me to get real about my life.  Stop spinning my wheels.  I took his advice and stopped focusing on trying to help the other person (who really did not want to be helped) or fix the situation.  In that space and silence,  I began to feel my pain, instead of avoiding it.   Instead of being destroyed by those intense feelings, I gained clarity and resolve.

Lesson learned right?  Not so fast.

Fast-forward to this week.  I was in a Facebook discussion group with some people, where some pretty heavy sharing was going down.  Everyone was being totally unconditionally supportive of each other.  You are so brave!  Way to show up and be real!  I was being very supportive too.  But–I was also offering some thoughts.  Okay, some advice.  Some solicited.  And some not.

I started to hear a Small Voice in my head, saying “Hmm, maybe you should just listen and not say anything else.”  Oh, that is silly I told the Small Voice.  This is an open discussion.  I am just offering thoughts.  And they are good thoughts!  Really, I just want to help.

Small Voice didn’t buy it.  So, I decided to stop the mental back-and-forth chatter about what I “should” be doing.  Get quiet, and see what was up.   How did I really feel?  What I saw was that sometimes my efforts to help were genuine and open and warm.  But sometimes my efforts to help were a bit . . . hmmm . . . anxious? forced?  In those cases, I saw that I offered help as a way to avoid MY OWN strong discomfort when I witnessed people I cared about “stuck” in pain.  I got uncomfortable for two reasons.  One, I did not want to see my friends stuck.  Second, I was quietly afraid that if they could not get free, then they would somehow drag me down too.  Oh.

And then I saw it.  This lesson-learning that it is not my job to help-is the exact same one I learned from my break-up.  And one I know goes back to childhood too.  Damn it.   My worst fears are true–I AM “stuck” with me and all the crap of being human and in pain.  This whole time I am so worried about the other person getting trapped in their habitual behavior, I failed to notice I am completely caught up in mine.  And I got there completely on my own!  This realization, ironically, makes me feel sort-of free and light and prone to laughing at myself.  My mind cracks me up.

So, hello again to my lesson.  It does not need to hit me over the head this time, but I appreciate it showing up in this small way.  It is letting me know that I need to go back to focusing on my own heart.

And of course, when I center myself in love, I stop fearing other people’s pain.   It will not eat me alive.  I am strong enough to stay firm in my open heart.  And I am weak and human enough to completely, totally relate.  I can see a bit more clearly that what I feared from other people is really my own deep worries reflecting back at me.  Once I can see that, the thought of others struggling to deal with their own stuff makes me feel warm and loving.  Like when you watch a great romantic comedy, and at the end you get teary-eyed at how everyone is just incredibly themselves and imperfect, but perfect at the same time.

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Finding the Strength to Be Vulnerable

A friend of mine asked a beautiful question the other day that I think many of us have asked ourselves before.  He said (I am para-phrasing):  “I have no problem being angry.  Anger is a STRONG emotion.  I can be present for that.  But how do I stay present with fear and self-doubt?  Those are such weak, wimpy, non-masculine emotions.  Plus, when I stay with them, sometimes I end up unable to effectively run my business or be with my family.”

My friend is on the right track.  We do not want to stuff fear and self-doubt down our mental toilet, only to have the piping back up.  These emotions as a natural part of being alive–if we cut them off we distance ourselves from the brightness of life.

But feeling emotions is very different from letting them consume us (that is where my friend was running into trouble with his work and family).   We need to open our hearts without getting lost in our experiences and confusing them for reality.  So in a sense, we need to be really strong in order to be truly vulnerable. 

So the deeper question is: How can we develop the strength to truly face fear and self-doubt?

I have two different practices that I would like to share with you.  One is mine, and the other is from renowned vulnerability expert Brene Brown.

Me:  Cultivate the Heart of a Warrior

To develop this strength, I consciously cultivate a relationship with my awareness/witness mind.  This awareness is spacious, vibrant, and tender.  As I walk to work in the parking lot, I connect with this awareness through my heart, body, and breath.  As I brush my teeth.  As I do my work.   Definitely, when I meditate.

Then, when a big oh-shit wave of fear and self-doubt comes, I can watch it rise and fall with compassion, even curiosity.   Because I know the emotion is not me, I can let the fear and doubt be as deep and wide as they want to be without getting sucked in.  This is what Shambhala calls developing the heart of a spiritual warrior.  A warrior heart is strong and open enough to face even the scariest fear.

Brene Brown: Release the Fears to God

Brene Brown is a well-known speaker who has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame.  (Agh-LOVE!)  She just posted this beautiful post about her practice of “Turning Things Over.”  When she has any fears (or even great hopes) come up, she writes them down on a piece of paper.  I would encourage anyone doing this practice to take a few minutes to sit with that fear and feel it in your body.  Then she puts them in a bowl or box that symbolizes turning over those fears to God.   (The bowl in the picture was given to her by an admiring potter.)  This is a concrete way to allow yourself to FEEL and ACKNOWLEDGE the fear, but then release it to a higher power.  Again, a great way not to get sucked up in the Fear Trap my friend was worried about.

Brene’s practice might be especially great for specific problem-related “nagging” fears, while my Shambhala-based practice might be especially suited for pervasive self-doubt.  I hope that they both serve you.

With love and light,

N

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Practicing Patience, Big and Small

Impatience…can you feel it with me for a second…the small tickly feeling when you have sat at that restaurant table for hours…the far-away detached glaze when someone has been talking and talking…the unsettled, anxious knot when you want something to happen and nothing is going on.

Lately I have been noticing impatience in my life in big and small ways.  Rather than glossing over it, I am tuning in.  What is this feeling?  What I come up with is that I get impatient when I get fixated on something in the future, and I am not allowing myself to be in the present.  I have already checked out.  Why do I check out?  Lots of reasons.  Because I do not think anything will happen right now.  Because right now is uncomfortable and I want to escape it.  Because I am nervous about what is going to come next and I sooth myself by mentally jumping into the future and playing it out.

But really, there is only one reason to be impatient:  I am trying to lead life, instead of letting life lead me.  I am trying to substitute my will for Spirit’s.  I am trying to control things because I am scared to let things unfold in their own time.  So when I notice myself feeling impatient now, I try and use it as an opportunity to practice self-awareness, compassion, and surrender.  I notice how it feels in my body.  Oh, hello impatience.  Why are you here?  I have compassion for the part of myself that thinks it needs to be in control or the world will fall apart.  And I tell myself, “It’s okay.  Let life show you around.  Trust.  Let go.  See what happens next.  It could surprise you.”

Usually this is a relief.  For example, when I am rushing out of my apartment in the morning and all of a sudden I notice that I am already mentally at the office (35 miles and 45 minutes away), I can check in and slow down.  I notice how my body is all tight.  I use my breath to release this tension.  I have compassion for the fact that I am worried about work.  But then I remind myself that I’ll get there in due time, and worrying won’t speed it up.  And then I give myself the pleasure of opening up to what is going on around me.  Like the amazing view from my front door of the ocean.  The fresh morning smell.  Don’t want to miss that because I was in such a rush to get to work.

This can also work with difficult experiences, like when someone is talking when I think I “should” be doing something else.  I notice that I am fighting the experience.  I drop into my body, forgive myself for being so tense, forgive myself for ignoring the other person, and then relax.  I am here.  I do not need to go anywhere.  Nothing needs to get done.  The most important thing I can do right now is give this person my full, undivided attention.  And really, what is more important than truly being present with someone?  Once I have given myself permission to stop worrying about all these illusionary things I need to do, and remind myself of the honor it is that this person wants to share something with me, I start to actively engage in the moment again.   The impatience disappears.

The one area of my life where I am having real trouble applying this right now is my job.  I am in a one year position, and at the end of this year I need to decide what I want to do next.  I could go back to my old position.  I could go to a new job, but still work at a law firm. I could do something totally different.  I am not getting any clear answers and it. is. driving. me. crazy.  Even though out of all the examples I have given this is the one that allows me the most physical time, it is the one where I am least able to chill out.

So right now I am at the stage of tuning in to what is making me so uncomfortable about the whole thing.  And I can see that the reason why I am so impatient about my career choice makes perfect sense.  I have this underlying belief that I need to actively take control of my career and “make” things happen–the perfect remedy for impatience.  This vision is given extra juice by my underlying fear of finding myself 20 or so years down the road, realizing I am not fulfilled by my job and wishing I had “done” something about it.  I don’t want trust in the universe to devolve into passivity and missed opportunities.  On the other hand, I do not want my desire to be active and engaged in this process to snowball into a big mass of anxious impatience that leads me to make a rash decision before the time is right.  Especially when I do not have a clear vision right now of my goal.

I know that when I have patience about getting out of my apartment in the morning or listening to someone, it doesn’t mean I entirely abandon the idea of doing what I need to do next.  It just means that I have a different attitude towards the pace at which it is going to happen.  But for some reason, I am having more trouble trusting that an answer about my job will come to me unless I frantically worry away at it.

On the ride home tonight, I heard great advice that helps me put this situation in perspective.  The speaker, Michael Neill (a life coach) said that there are two ways to use your mind.  One is to solve problems.  Your mind can go into the filing drawer of learned skills and accumulated information and help you out.  Two plus two equals four.  My brother’s name is Gabriel.  You go in, you ask the question, you pull out the answer.  I keep on trying to use this method on my career.  Guess what?  The answer is not in the drawers, no matter how many times I go back to try and figure it out.

The second way to use your mind is to access a deeper web of intelligence–sort of like surfing the internet for an answer.  This is intuition.  When you silence your mind and allow it to go into “internet search mode” it will come back with an answer from wisdom far greater than your conscious mind.  But you have to trust the process, otherwise your little mind will be too busy frantically searching in the file drawers to hear the response when it does arise from that deeper source.  This is not a passive process.  You have to ask the question.  You have to listen.  And most importantly, you have to trust.  I know this is how I am going to get my answer.  Man, does it require patience in the deepest sense of the word.

To give you an example of this second kind of  knowledge, here is a story about a famous Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh.  He was organizing the rescue of 800 Vietnamese refugees from small boats that lacked food or water off the coast of Singapore.  After his activities leaked to the press, the Singapore police arrived at his apartment, took his travel documents, and ordered him to leave within 24 hours. They would not allow his boats to leave the harbor to pick up boat people.  What did he do?  Did he immediately gather a council to debate the answer?  Did he freak out and start brainstorming possible solutions?  No.  He practiced walking meditation for the rest of the night.  Five minutes before he was going to be expelled, with his mind calm, he received the guidance to turn to the French embassy for assistance.  They intervened, and the boat people were saved.  Wow.  Kind of puts my job worries in perspective.

I am just really getting started on my journey of practicing patience.  It is important for me to focus on making sure I practice patience in the small ways, because those help prepare me for the bigger experiences.  So I will remember to check out the ocean and enjoy long conversations while I am waiting to get clarity on my career.  All in its own good time.

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