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First you have to be willing

The last time I wrote anything for this space, I wrote to you about kindness. I wrote about falling apart and asking, “What’s the kindest thing I could do for myself right now?”. I wrote about starting there, about doing that.

Here’s the thing that happens when you start asking yourself this question: you get some unexpected answers. In the month since my last blog post I’ve learned a lot about what kindness is (and about what kindness isn’t).

Pop quiz: What comes to mind when you think about kindness?

I think of some kind of warm, gentle, mother-figure come to swoop me up and hug my hurts away. I think of generosity and tenderness and baths and soft blankets and space to call my own.

And, hey, sometimes a bath really is the kindest thing you could do for yourself right now.

But most of the time kindness is less obvious. Kindness might also be hard, overwhelming, or scary.

Because it turns out sometimes kindness looks like this:

  • Not procrastinating something stressful because it would be kinder to get it over with.
  • Speaking up for yourself and having a difficult conversation because it would be kinder than letting your emotions fester.
  • Cancelling on a friend if it would be kinder to risk disappointing them than it would be to make yourself go.
  • Taking a crazy risk because it would be kinder to risk failure than to live with the regret of never daring to find out.
  • Saying no to someone who wants your help because you can’t help them and take care of yourself at the same time.

Sometimes kindness asks really difficult things of us.

As I navigate this exploration of kindness, the metaphor I keep coming back to is about baby birds. There comes a day when a baby bird has to leave the nest and fly if it wants to survive. There will come a day when the kindest thing is to try and fly, no matter how unsure that bird might be. (And if you think baby birds swoop gracefully out of the nest on their first try, I’m afraid that’s not how it works!)

Sometimes this will end disastrously. Sometimes it will end wonderfully. Either way, trying was still the kindest thing to do.

Sometimes the hard things kindness asks of us turn out much better than we’d feared. Sometimes the hard conversation goes more smoothly than we’d imagined. Sometimes our friends understand when we cancel on them. Sometimes the person we said no to is really nice about it.

And sometimes this doesn’t happen.

When things go as badly as we’d feared, it doesn’t make them less kind.

Which is why kindness is key, but I think there’s a second piece to it that’s equally important and that piece is willingness.

You have to be willing to have the hard conversation.
You have to be willing to feel like a disappointment.
You have to be willing to have it all turn out exactly as you’d feared.

You have to be willing to have the whole experience — glee and fear and sadness and frustration and everything in between.

You have to be able meet that experience with kindness and compassion.

Being kind to yourself isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s hard and scary and asks you to be braver than you’ve ever been.

And that means that if you want to be kind to yourself you have to be willing to be kind with yourself, too.

You can learn to extend kindness even to the parts of you that are angry or scared or uncomfortable, the parts of you that maybe you wish would go away. You can to learn how to be okay even when you’re uncomfortable. You can learn how to witness your discomfort, to sit with it, and to hold gentle, compassionate space for yourself in the midst of your discomfort. You can to learn to have patience with yourself when you notice how unwilling and uncomfortable you are.

If you’re like me, this won’t come naturally.

If you’re like me then there’s a part of you that is scared and small and hurting and it staggers about in you like a two-year-old having a tantrum when you ask it to stay present with any kind of discomfort. (You get to learn to be kind to this part, too.)

So if you’ve been struggling to be kind with yourself in the face of life’s upsets and disappointments, then here’s something to try.

I’ve been reading True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart by Tara Brach, which I’m finding to be one of the more helpful books I’ve read in awhile. In it she writes:

“Many students I work with support their resolve to “let be” by mentally whispering an encouraging word or phrase. For instance, you might feel the grip of fear and whisper “yes,” or experience the swelling of deep grief and whisper “yes.” You might use the words “this too” or “I consent.” At first you might feel you’re just putting up with unpleasant emotions or sensations. Or you might say yes to shame and hope that it will magically disappear. In reality, we have to consent again and again. Yet even the first gesture of allowing, simply whispering a phrase like “yes” or “I consent,” begins to soften the harsh edges of your pain. Your entire being is not so rallied in resistance. Offer the phrase gently and patiently, and in time your defenses will relax, and you may feel a physical sense of yielding or opening to waves of experience.”

Brach, Tara (2013-01-22). True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (p. 63). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

“I consent” is something I’ve been playing with, and it’s one of the most powerful tools I’ve found.

When I feel scared or overwhelmed or angry or hurt, “I consent” is a gentle reminder that I’m choosing this, that I’m willing to have this experience — no matter how difficult. “I consent” is a reminder that I want even this — because I know it to be the kindest thing I could do for myself right now.

“I consent” allows me to find the willingness I need to keep going, to keep choosing and trying and failing and falling.

“I consent” helps me to feel my hurts and my fears and my shame and to be kind with myself through the whole of it.

“I consent” reminds me that it is enough to show up and allow the truth of what is here and now, to greet myself in this moment with all the kindness and compassion I can muster.

Because life is hard and messy and beautiful and brilliant and there is no part of it that is not ours to experience — and the miracle of it is that even the hard and messy bits take on an air of grace when we learn to open our hearts and stay present with the truth of what we’re feeling in each moment.

AN IMPORTANT NOTE:

If you are dealing with unresolved trauma, then this may be too much for you right now. When we are coping with trauma our emotions and the physical sensations in our bodies can be so overwhelming that making contact with them might feel profoundly unsafe. It is important to realize that this is totally okay. It just means that you may need to relearn how to feel safe with yourself before you are ready to practice anything else.

It is also important to realize that you may be dealing with trauma even if nothing really “bad” has happened to you. I believe that a lot of my trauma stems from experiences of physical pain that I have no control over. My pain isn’t anyone’s fault — no one beat or abused me — but physical pain in many forms has been a part of my life since I was very young, and I’ve been living with chronic back pain and headaches for roughly five years now. The near-constant presence of physical pain eventually left me feeling unsafe in my own body. This is still trauma even though nothing that happened to me was particularly “traumatic”.

If you are struggling with trauma it’s important to realize that you may not be able to move past the trauma without help. Being traumatized separates us from our innate sense of safety and it may be difficult to find our way back without someone to guide us. When we don’t feel safe in our bodies and able to stay present with ourselves even in calm moments, trying to stay present with uncomfortable physical sensations or emotions may do more harm than good.

Please don’t do this to yourself.

If trying to stay present with uncomfortable sensations or emotions is overwhelming, then go back to the beginning and ask “what is the kindest thing I could do for myself right now?”. If the kindest thing you could do would be to stop pressuring yourself into doing something that scares you, please start there.

If you think you might be struggling with trauma and want to know more, feel free to contact me. I’m happy to talk with you about what kinds of resources are available and help you figure out how you can move forward.

Much love,
Jessica

 

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The willingness to suffer is… the secret to meditation

I started a new practice a few weeks back — on the surface it looks like meditation, but it’s really an exercise in what I’m calling radical discomfort.

I’ve written before about my struggle with meditation. It was a struggle I’d never satisfactorily resolved. I always meditated sporadically, doing it more because I felt like I “should” than because I really wanted to.

Until a few weeks ago, when I started reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching and the following passage caught my eye:

“If you let yourself be blown to and fro,
you lose touch with your root.
If you let restlessness move you,
you lose touch with who you are.”

Those few lines hit me really hard.

There have been so many times in my life when I’ve let restlessness move me — and in doing so I have often felt myself become disconnected from the truth of who I am.

Restlessness has shown up in so many ways in my life: as procrastination, as a short attention span, as physical fidgeting, as a kind of semi-permanent muscle tension that kept me braced against painful sensations and emotions I was unwilling to feel.

The contemplation of those lines lead me into deep inquiry as to what exactly restlessness is.

Here’s what I concluded:

Restlessness is the unwillingness to feel discomfort.

We feel restless when we’re bored or agitated or stressed or in physical discomfort.

But in avoiding the experience of our own discomfort we avoid the truth of who we are in that moment.

For the past two weeks now I’ve been practicing a daily meditation that looks just like every other seated meditation I have ever done. I set my timer for 10-20 minutes, I seat myself cross-legged on my meditation cushion, I close my eyes, I place my palms on my thighs.

And then I remain still in the face of my own restlessness.

I stare my discomfort in the face.

I endure each aching and relentless second that fills the 10 minutes or 15 minutes or 20 minutes that I have committed myself to.

I used to think that the discomfort was a distraction from the point of meditation.

After all, wasn’t meditation about feeling calm and peaceful? Wasn’t meditation supposed to help me reduce anxiety?

And the answer to those questions is yes, and yes.

But I’m increasingly convinced that meditation doesn’t do this by turning down our experience of suffering — it does it by helping us to turn up our willingness to suffer.

In meditation we meet our pain on the floor.

We have the opportunity to observe, to witness our pain, our discomfort, our restlessness.

We have the opportunity to witness our resistance to the reality of things.

And we have the opportunity to choose a new path:

A path of willingness, a path that invites us to really ask ourselves “this hurt, is it so bad? is it a problem? is it really troubling me right now?”

When I asked these questions of myself I found, to my surprise, that the answer was no.

I noticed that when I chose to sit and witness my restlessness, my uncomfortable emotions, my physical pain — I found that none of these things were so bad as I had imagined them to be when I was trying not to look at them.

Therein lies the real secret to meditation, I think — the secret I’d been missing.

Meditation is an opportunity to meet our discomfort with open curiosity and warm friendliness and seek the truth of whether or not the discomfort we’ve been avoiding really is as bad as we’d thought. (In my experience it’s usually not.)

But in order for the process to work we have to be willing to really look at our discomfort.

We have to be willing to stare our suffering in the eyes.

Now it’s your turn! Do you meditate? If so, do you practice a radical willingness to witness your own discomfort? How do you interpret those lines from the Tao Te Ching? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Do you live in your body? (I don’t.)

Here’s an item from the list of things you might not know about me: I exist in a state of near-constant physical pain. Some days this pain is worse than others and during the past couple of weeks it’s been particularly bad. But fear not! This post is not going to be a long-winded elaboration of my discomfort — instead, I want to talk about our relationship to our bodies (or at least, my relationship to my body!)

Because here’s what I know about pain: when it gets bad enough it forces me literally, viscerally back into my body. When the pain is bad enough I find I can’t do anything except feel how much I hurt. Pain can force me directly into the present moment.

But when the pain is not so bad, when it is only a little tingling and twinging and soreness, that is when I find I exist outside of my body entirely. When the pain is not so bad, I retreat into the fortress of my mind and busy myself with thinking, with anything really, anything to keep my mind occupied so that I don’t have to feel the discomfort in my body.

This is easy to do because we live in a culture that idolizes the intelligence and value of the mind. We measure our worth not in the ableness of our bodies but in the cleverness of our thoughts — and so my physical pain does not threaten my self worth on the days when it is only a small discomfort. It does not call into question my utility.

And so I divorce myself from my body whenever I can and get on with the business of being human.

But there’s a part of me that wonders if perhaps this course of action is not so wise as it would seem. If you wander around in more woo-woo spiritual circles (as I have done in the past few years) you’ll encounter the idea that symptoms in the body can be messages pointing to where we are out of alignment in our lives.

I do not really believe in this theory. I have a very rational explanation for my pain involving too many hours spent at the computer compounded by bad posture and ergonomics leading to muscle imbalance, tension, and nerve pain.

And yet when I think whether this very rational story might carry a message, I am tempted to conclude that it does. Perhaps my pain carries a message about not caring for myself, about not standing up for and defending my needs, about not asking for help, about keeping my pain and my secrets tucked away safe and hidden where no one can find them and judge me wanting.

Because on the days when the pain is so bad that I can hardly bear to think or sit still, I inevitably pick myself up and get out of bed and go to work (easy, because lying in bed is the most uncomfortable thing I ask my body to do). At work I hurt too much to really think, but I try anyways because I am at work and at work I am supposed to be working. But there is very little that is easy about my job and when I am not at my best I find the work is sometimes too hard. I find myself stuck between bullying myself into working even when I’m aching or feeling guilty for idling away the hours when I hurt too much to think.

Our culture teaches us to value the mind and to set aside the needs of the body. Our entire medical culture is built around this principle — which is why, when I discuss my pain with my doctor, she suggests a low dose muscle relaxant instead of offering to refer me to physical therapy. We treat our bodies like disposable vessels, rented rooms that provide the comfort and safety of the mind.

But our bodies are more than that and we often don’t do enough to give them their due. So, no, I’m really not sure that our bodies hold messages for us about the things in our life that we’re trying to ignore. But I do know that it’s hubris to think that the mind can function when the body is unwell, and as such, we could all do more to take better care of our instrument.

I’d love for this to be a conversation, not a monologue! How do you care for your body? Do you believe your body carries whispers from a deeper, wiser part of you? Let me know in the comments below!