Playing mindfulness

She sits quietly, reverently. Almost solemnly. She picks up the mallet to invite the bell to ring. As she gently strikes the bell, I giggle. Out of the blue. I am tickled by the thought that we are playing mindfulness. Our playground is the Sangha, and sitting meditation is the game. We take our game seriously. When kids play hide and seek, they try to be super quiet, so that no one can find them. If they are discovered, they run as fast as they can back to base, before the seeker can tap them. And then they play again. And again. And again. There is no winning and losing, there is just playing.

We adults play mindfulness. We bow when we enter the room. We bow when we sit down, we bow when we get up. We bow when we serve tea. We bow when we drink tea. We bow to our teachers. We bow before we go home. We bow to our thoughts and label them “thinking”. We bow to our attention as we go back to our breath. We sit on a cushion and bow to everything that arises. To our entanglement in our thoughts, our presence, our breath. We bow in gratitude, and start over again when we’re lost. There is no winning and losing, there is just playing.

We once did a variation on this game. We were offered pen and paper and invited to write down our thoughts as they arose. I scribbled non-stop. “How much money do I have left?” “What is 38°F in Celsius?” “What should I write in my next blog?” Habitual thoughts, important thoughts, irrelevant thoughts.

My neighbor didn’t write down anything. I got anxious. Scribbling “I’m not mindful enough.” I got envious. Scribbling “My neighbor has a calm mind, and mine is stuffed with thoughts.” I got confused. Scribbling “Which game are we playing? Being mindful of whatever is present, or wining the competition of having the emptiest mind?” I giggle. There is something funny when games turn into competition. The fun is lost, there is just striving for winning. Scribbling “I rather have fun playing mindfulness, than be the best of my Sangha.”

Thanksgiving with Paul

Have you ever met Paul Bussell? I hadn’t. I had never even heard of him. Till Thanksgiving 2012.

in 2009 I moved from the Netherlands to Austin. I had never celebrated Thanksgiving and wanted to start a tradition. I bought a vegan turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie. I was excited about sharing appreciation and a meal with my husband. He wasn’t. He fasts. That’s his tradition.

I decide to find someone else to share my meal with. Maybe a homeless person. Stuart! I’m always happy to see him, I enjoy our conversations and his big smile. This is the perfect opportunity to celebrate our unfolding friendship.

I spend 30 minutes driving around. No trace of Stuart. No trace of anyone else on the street, either. I give up.

On my way home, I see a homeless man pushing a shopping cart! I push down my brakes, run up to him and ask him if he wants to share my pumpkin pie. He looks at me, unperturbed by my offer. “No, thanks. I just ate.” He points at two Styrofoam boxes in his cart. “It’s amazing how much food people throw away. I’ll eat it in the morning. I first need to drink. Do you have beer?” I shake my head. “Do you want tea?” He doesn’t want tea. “Do you have a dollar, so I can buy some beer?” I’m in doubt, I don’t like to sponsor addiction.

He is willing to sit with me on the curb, while I eat my pie. Two minutes after we settle in, another car stops by. A girl jumps out, pushes a cup of orange juice and a food tray in his hand, and yells “Happy Thanksgiving!” as she runs back to her car. He puts the food in his cart. He gives me the juice. “I don’t drink that.”

He starts talking. About his imprisonment for stealing some Frankfurters, some buns, and five cans of beers. About living outside walls. About his ex-wives, who wanted him to give up drinking. About his blood. How he is O-negative and has a protein percentage that’s only found in 12% of the people. He tells about his family, his sister, the suicides of relatives. He tells about a French friend who used to bring him food. “I said ‘motherfucker’ in Spanish. I didn’t expect her to understand. But she did. She never wanted to see me again. I was angry, you know. Not at her. Just angry.” His favorite quote is from W.C. Fields “A man who loves whiskey, and hates kids, can’t be all that bad.”

After 45 minutes he wants to leave. He doesn’t trust the guy walking up and down the street, watching us. Paul doesn’t want me to get mugged. I give him $5. For beer. I wait till I see him walk into the petrol station shop. I’ve never seen him again. Will you say ‘hi’ if you do? He has the brightest blue eyes you can imagine.

9 Steps to deal unmindfully with your anger, and one compassionate one

Nine steps to deal unmindfully with your anger

  1. Start by being angry. Preferably with someone close, someone you deeply care about. Your partner, your best friend, your mom.
  2. Stimulate blame and thoughts of wrongness about the other person. “They don’t care about me.” “They don’t give a shit.” “They take me for granted.” Be creative!! There are so many choices! So pick any thought that ignites your anger even more.
  3. DON’T connect with the pain underneath your thoughts. DON’T feel your hurt, your shame, the old wound of thinking you’re not good enough, you’re not worthy, you don’t belong. For crying out loud, stay angry and work yourself up into more anger!
  4. DON’T talk to the person you’re struggling with. DON’T ask for help. Stop any impulse to practice going back to your breath. Forget Thich Nhat Hanh‘s suggestions to be gentle with your anger, to take good care of it, holding it like a crying baby. Run after the one you think put your house on fire, and DON’T try to quench the fire. You carry a slip of Thich-Nhat-Hanh’s-mindfulness-anger-steps? [1. I breathe in, I breathe out. Say “Darling, I suffer, I’m angry.”, 2. Breathe in, breathe out. Say “I’m trying, I’m really trying.” 3. Breathe in, breathe out. Say “I need your help and support.”??] This is THE time to tear it up and THROW it away! Remember you’re trying to do something unmindfully with your anger, not something beneficial.
  5. Disconnect from the person you blame. Make sure they know you’re angry, but DON’T engage with them.
  6. Pick up a big, sharp knife. Start cutting something hard and slippery. A butternut squash will do.
  7. Start cutting. Fast. Put all your anger in the cutting. Fire up thoughts about the wrongness of your loved one.
  8. DON’T pay attention to what you’re doing. Be absorbed by your angry thoughts. Drown in them. DON’T watch how the knife slips away and chops off your finger top.
  9. Watch the bleeding. Blame your husband. Blame yourself.
  10. Stop. Embrace yourself with compassion. See how strong and habitual your anger patterns are. You failed to hold your anger mindfully. You failed. You contributed to harm. Don’t make it worse by blaming and being angry. Use this experience as a wake-up call to interrupt these habitual, unconscious patterns. Glue the scraps of the slip of Thich-Nhat-Hanh’s-mindfulness-anger-steps together. Bring your attention to your breath. Apologize. Tell your husband you’re suffering. Tell him you’re trying, really trying. Tell him you need help and support. And if you’re lucky, REALLY lucky he will rush to your rescue and heal your bleeding finger.

Trying to be inspirational

Our heater doesn’t work. It is 33°F outside, it storms and rains, and our heater decided to quit. Fortunately, we can go up the attic, and repair it. You can do that with heaters. It made me think. You can do that with people too. But you can only force compliance, never collaboration out of the joy of their heart.

Inspiration, admiration, sleep, empty mind are all examples of “states that are essentially by-products”. Jon Elster writes about them in Sour Grapes. These states arise as a result of something else. They cannot be created intentionally. The sheer attempt to fall asleep is counterproductive, as the effort itself will keep you awake. Sitting in meditation only brings calmness if you accept the busy, repetitive thoughts. If you strive for empty mind, your focus conflicts with the state you’re trying to attain. The effort to inspire someone is self-defeating, as it prohibits the spontaneity crucial for inspiration.

Ah! You cannot intentionally inspire someone…?! That explains why none of my efforts to inspire people have ever been fruitful. Not that I didn’t try. I died to be inspirational. Being inspirational seemed to give meaning to my life. But the more I strove for it, the less I got it. I only got it at moments that I couldn’t care less. A friend told me once how appreciative she was that I helped her surrender to the idea of staying home. All I had done was sit at the porch, enjoy the sunshine and listen to the birds. And giggle at her efforts to try to find something interesting and important to do. Just sitting there, doing nothing. That was inspiring to her. Being me and doing my me-thing apparently inspires, trying to be inspirational not.

Maybe that’s why I am tired of trying to figure out my ideal client, my ideal reader and how I can uniquely serve their needs. The truth is: I have no bloody clue. I don’t know what they need, and how I differ from all the other fantastic writers, trainers and coaches out there. I lost all interest coming up with yet another enrolling, inspirational elevator pitch to match my services with my ideal client.

The best advice I ever received was “When you don’t know what to do, do nothing. Wait. Breathe. And let the life within you show you your next step.” I don’t know what my ideal client wants. I don’t know my grand purpose in life. All I know is what I love to do, where my passion and my heart is. And maybe that’s enough. To do what I am most jazzed about. Not to achieve anything, but to enjoy the brief moment that I walk this earth.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Harold Whitman


I am not making enough money. I struggle paying the bills. I panic. What if I never create enough income? What if I end up on the street and die?

I try to reassure myself. “Well, well, calm down. It’s not that bad. You’ll earn enough to survive. You have friends and family who are willing to help.” My mind doesn’t listen AT ALL. “I don’t want to die! I don’t want to live in ever increasing poverty. I don’t want to end up homeless!” “Hush, hush. This is just temporarily. You have SO MANY skills. Of course, you’ll make enough money.” “Yes, but that’s not the point, that’s…”

Then, I remember Pema Chödron. Something I read today. About tonglen. Breathing in the dark, heavy, hot stuff. Breathing out the white, light, cool stuff. Just that. Breathing in all the pain and suffering. Of myself. Of everyone who is in the same boat as I. Everyone who panics, who feels shame, who is overwhelmed by fear. Everyone who wants support, hope, safety. Breathing out lightness, relief, reassurance and hope. She writes about removing the object. Bringing down your experience to the visceral feeling, without thinking about the object. Breathing in the panic, fear, shame. Allowing this pain to penetrate me, to open me up to the suffering of us humans. Breathing out lightness, support, understanding. Nothing else.

It doesn’t work. I breathe in hot, dark, heavy. I don’t breathe out white, light, cool. I am stuck. I am not relaxing in this panic. I am consumed by it. I am crushed by it’s impact. I feel how strong it is. How blinding. I don’t see any ray of hope. I don’t trust there is a way out, there is just fear. I can’t enjoy the warmth of my house, the protection from the pouring rain. I only see myself out on the street, in the same cold, pouring rain, begging disinterested car drivers for money. There is nothing but my panic, and these horrible images.

And yet. There is some shifting, some movement within me. An opening of compassion. Some empathy. Some softening. I understand how scared I am. How terrified that I won’t make it. How horrified that I won’t have support. How overwhelmed by shame to even ask for support. How lonely to face my struggles and demons alone. I totally get how terrifying this situation is for me. I calm down. Nothing has changed. And something did. A splinter of compassion is growing next to my panic. Underneath the fear, the panic, I touch a seed of solidity. A solidity without words. Like a willow in the wind. It’s top sways wildly in the storm, it’s trunk moves flexibly with the storm. The roots are solidly grounded in the earth. I am solidly grounded in the earth.

Living halfheartedly

Brené Brown talks about living wholeheartedly. Well. I do everything halfheartedly. I use Nonviolent Communication with some friends, but not with others. I work, but keep looking for other jobs. I eat vegan, but not around my family. I visit my Sangha, but not when I am tired. If there is anything I do wholeheartedly, it must be creating reasons to live halfheartedly.

My inner critic comes to my rescue. “Well, as Brené Brown found out, people who live wholeheartedly have a basic sense of worthiness. They believe they are worthy of love, belonging and connection. You don’t. You are full of self-doubt and insecurity. You grew up being scared you would be ridiculed, rejected, excluded. You never developed a sense of worthiness.” A second critic shows up “Stop being a whiny. Grow up. Get your act together and start living your life! Have the guts to be vulnerable. Take a risk and show everything that’s you, even parts you feel shame around. Remember David Schnarch? Remember that unilateral self-disclosure is a key element in differentiation? Sharing your authentic self, even when the other person is not disclosing anything personal in return? Be willing to stand there naked, trembling in your vulnerability, and be proud for doing so?” Gosh, I can’t imagine ever doing that. Writing a blog and inviting feedback from colleagues. Calling an organization and offering my services. Reaching for the moon, and landing on the stars. Living a full life of ME. I rather hide. And die in the end.

I think of my stepdaughter. She goes for it all. She wants to be a member of the city youth council? She writes and delivers a speech. She wants to do the summer school dance program with the Chicago Ballet Company? She auditions. She wants to go to college? She applies. She is willing to fail, to succeed. That explains her success.

I wonder. Can I do that too? Can I start a 30-day journey into living wholeheartedly and ask Brené Brown to comment on my blog? Can I face all the voices in my head that cry out loud I shouldn’t do that, that she is too busy, has no interest, that she has much better blogs to read? Can I tell them it’s not about her saying “yes”, it is about me getting into the arena and taking a stand? For myself? Showing up for who I fully am? To reach for the moon, and land on the stars? YES, I CAN!

No! No more Nonviolent Communication!

Rejection therapy, a 30-day journey for cowards” “No, that’s not a good title,” says my inner critic, “cowards is a label. There are no cowards, only people who sometimes are too scared to act according to their values, and regret that later.” “But I like the title. It’s catchy. My audience will resonate with it. People who label themselves as cowards, and want to be courageous.” “Yes, that’s exactly it. It divides the world in cowards and hero’s, this against that. It reinforces the fallacy of dualism, and forgoes the insight of oneness.” Silence. She continues “When -by the way- did you forget the lesson about ‘but’? That it diminishes the likelihood of collaboration and increases the likelihood of antagonism? Don’t you remember what Marshall Rosenberg said? ‘Never put your but in the face of an angry person’?” I remember vaguely. I know it’s true. And yet, I like the title so much. Even if it divides the world into cowards and hero’s.

I am done with always having to speak perfect Nonviolent Communication. Sometimes I want to use labels. He is an asshole, she is pretty, Kiran is adorable. Yep, as if I am God, judging who is right, who is wrong, who’s good, who’s bad. It seems much more efficient than: “When I hear Kiran say ‘Elly, watch me, I can do a cart wheel!’, and I see him put his hands on the floor, flip his legs over, land on the floor and jump up and down smiling (“My goodness, even ‘smiling’ is an interpretation! If I was a fly on the wall and had no clue about human interactions, I could not use that description. I would say something like: ‘the corners of his lips curl up, his teeth show, his cheeks rise’. You see what a drag it is to describe events in strict observations!”), I feel touched and amused, because I have a need for…”

I stumble. Which needs are nurtured when I see Kiran’s pride and happiness with his accomplishments? I don’t know! I just find him adorable! Why can’t that be enough? Why do I have to know the needs underneath my label? My critic doesn’t give up. “It helps you to connect with what’s alive in you, what’s important to you. Remember what Socrates said? Gnōthi sauton? Know thyself? That’s the whole point of life. To know yourself.” I sigh. There is some truth in what she says. It might help me to understand myself better. What’s important to me. What my life is about. Gosh, wouldn’t that be a blast? To know what my life is about! Maybe I can start here. With my needs and values, and let life unfold itself. Now it’s not so complicated anymore. I have two different needs: I want easy connection and understanding, and I want to honor the fact that I am limited by my perspective. I am sure I can balance both needs. I just have to sit with it.

What if it’s war, and no one goes?

What if this fear of rejection never goes away? What if I’ll always be afraid that I don’t add value, that I have nothing interesting to say? What if I’ll always have the thought that whatever if do, it’s never good enough, that I am not good enough?

I had decided to call my former clients and ask if they wanted to work with me again. To increase my income. I dreaded the whole thing. I hated the idea of selling myself. No matter how hard I tried to perceive the interaction as mutually beneficial, I didn’t. I saw it as begging, and I was sure they wouldn’t need me. I postponed. For two weeks. Completely and joyfully unconscious. I was very busy with other things. Important things. Cleaning the bathroom. Folding the sheets. Watching videos about enrolling conversations with clients. I knew I had to get started. I didn’t. First this email. Now I am hungry. Thank God, my husband wants to play music with me. Anything was a perfect reason not to call.

Then I caught myself in the act. I saw what I was doing and how I was rationalizing my behavior. I realized I would never generate any income, if I would not get up on stage and take action. Just start somewhere, anywhere. Now.

So I picked up the phone. Called one client. Left message. Then took a break. Then another client. Left message. A break. And another. And another. After six clients I started to enjoy it. Reaching out had nothing to do with fear of rejection. It had everything to do with connection. It had everything to do with getting started. Marshall Rosenberg writes something like “anything that’s worth doing, is worth doing poorly“.

You don’t have to overcome your fear of rejection. You don’t have to try to integrate it and heal it. It’s there. And it might always be there. Like a big hump on your back. Do you want to spend the rest of your life trying to get rid of your hump? Do you want to spend all your efforts and energy trying to make it less visible, more integrated? Or do you want to spend your time and resources on creating the life you want?

What if it’s war, and no one goes?