You remember the two dogs I wrote about a week ago? Luna and Sol? Well, Sol is not the only one triggering anxiety. Luna does too.
Usually, she is a sweetie. Super mellow, listens to me, doesn’t disappear in the fields.
So this morning when we get at the dog park, I let her off leash. We walk up to the field where other dogs are playing with each other, happy to have found playmates for Sol and Luna.
Then out of the blue, Luna charges at another dog. Like really charge: her neck hair up straight, her teeth in a grimace, her posture in complete attack pose. I feel terrified.
I’ve seen enough dog aggression, and it all ended in a hospital visit: my baby sister got caught in a dogfight, my older brother was bitten in the throat by a Dalmatian, I got bit when I was caught between Luna and Sol, trying to disentangle Sol’s collar.
So teaching Luna to calm down or stop her from charging at other dogs, is not only a challenging task for me – it’s really scary. Being afraid, I’m nowhere close to call upon my calm-assertive Alpha-dog leadership quality.
And as I imagine the potential for violence, I perceive urgency, and yep: my anxiety spills over into anger and frustration. My calm-assertive energy becomes anxious-angry-confused energy and I start teaching Luna the wrong lesson: Fear! Anger!
Of course it doesn’t work. My anxiety doesn’t invite her calm: it triggers her anxiety, reinforcing this sense that we are in danger and that she has to be aggressive to protect us.
It takes a lot of self-acceptance and self-compassion, before I reach a place where I can focus on Luna’s needs and understand that Luna’s behavior is a tragic expression of unmet needs.
Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, offers that “Everything we say and do is an attempt to meet universal, human needs, and some behavior is a tragic expression of unmet needs.”
As soon as I shift my perspective on Luna’s behavior from “she’s a scary, uncontrollable dog” to “she needs leadership”, I get curious: which needs is she trying to fulfill? And how I could I help her with them?
She probably needs safety and support: “Hey, Elly, will you be the pack leader? I want to trust you’ll keep us and yourself safe, so I can relax. Show me you’ve got everything under control.”
With that in mind, I feel less scared and more excited to figure out ways to meet all needs: hers and mine. Even without an answer, I feel inspired to work on a solution and I enjoy experimenting with different strategies.
When were you able to receive someone’s behavior as a “tragic expression of unmet needs”? And how did that help you feel excited about brainstorming strategies that meet all needs?
Let me know. I would love to read from you.
I’m babysitting my friend’s dogs. I find them super sweet: when I wake up in the morning, they greet me with excitement, puppy ears up, tail wagging, head a bit slanting. I can hear them asking: “Are we gonna play? Are we gonna play?”.
When we go to the dog park … it becomes, hum … a bit of a challenge … As long as there are other dogs, Sol is fine. He can release his energy by running around with them.
But today, there are no other dogs. Sol decides to run off by himself. Into the fields. Chasing whatever he smells on the ground. I can see the tip of his tail happily wagging above the tall grass.
Then I see nothing. Nowhere. For five minutes. For ten minutes. I call him. I squeeze his squeaky ball — no sign of Sol. I call louder, squeeze the ball harder. I get anxious. What if he ran to the river stream, apparently home to coyotes? What if he got trapped and dies?
My anxiety turns into panic. My calling becomes yelling.
A fellow dog owner asks entertained if I lost my soul. I understand the pun.
I am not amused.
Then I see his wagging tail, followed by his perky ears, and big, brown eyes. It takes me another five minutes to break his hunting spell and get his attention. When I finally do, he runs up to me.
Sure, I feel relieved. But mostly I feel ashamed and deflated, and full of self-critical thoughts about my “shitty” pack leadership qualities.
Then I think of Marshall Rosenberg’s teachings about taking things personally. His message is: whatever someone says and does is an attempt to meet their beautiful needs. It is NOT a reflection of who WE are.
I look at Sol: whatever he does, it is a reflection of his needs, not a reflection of who I am. He probably needs exercise, or express his innate drive to hunt. He is certainly not trying to demonstrate that I am a shitty pack leader.
Sure, I haven’t succeeded yet to channel his energy and innate drives, so he follows me, not a scent. I’m not yet trained to be a pack leader who supports both play and safety of the pack. But that doesn’t mean I’m less worthy of love, acceptance, and belonging. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Sol is in charge of my sense of self-worth. That’s still up to me.
When we are aware that any behavior is an attempt to meet needs, we can take things less personally. Without the self-judgment, we can learn to balance all needs as effectively as possible, instead of trying to avoid shame.
What helps you to not take things personally?
Let me know. I would love to read from you.
Cockroaches and Self-Compassion
My husband and I cherish our vegan household. We don’t eat animal products, we don’t buy leather shoes, we don’t spread poison to kill bugs.
As a result, we have our occasional cockroach visitor.
Since we don’t want to kill or harm them, we try to catch them and transition them to the compost pile in the backyard, hoping that’s nirvana to them.
It’s not easy. Cockroaches are fast, and have a magic ability to disappear between cracks I didn’t even know existed.
So when we spot them, we have to stealthily get a glass bowl from the drawer, put it over them, shove a piece of firm paper underneath the bowl, and run carefully to the compost pile.
My success rate is around 60%.
I am pleased with that, until a friend tells me it’s not difficult at all: you just pick them up and throw them outside.
Well, I don’t know which countries he has visited. Maybe Tibetan cockroaches have more equanimity and are happy to be picked up, but our Texan friends are fast, really fast.
Irritated at hearing his claim, I prove my point by acting out my catching strategy on the living room floor.
Exaggerating the speed in my demonstration, I land badly on my thumb. I can hear it pop. It’s extremely painful. I feel the blood drain from my head and I can barely get up. Still feeling the original irritation, I pretend as if nothing happened, waving him goodbye.
When he’s gone, I hear a roar of critical thoughts swell in my head: “You stupid idiot, you are unable to regulate your irritation! You made a fool of yourself by being caught up in your own self-righteousness! You deserve a sprained thumb!”
It takes a few hours, before these elements of self-compassion surface:
- Awareness. Just noticing my pain and suffering around these critical thoughts and my thumb. “Ouch, that hurts, that really hurts.” We cannot foster self-compassion, if we don’t acknowledge we’re suffering.
- Befriending myself, being on my own side. Just wanting myself to feel better, caring about my needs. Something like “I wished I didn’t suffer.”
- Shared humanity. I start thinking of all the other people who hurt themselves while trying to impress others. I breathe in their pain, heaviness, and suffering. I breathe out love, light, and relief to them. “May all beings be happy, peaceful, and light in body and spirit.” Myself included.
Working with these elements of self-compassion, I feel better. I see myself for who I truly am: an ordinary human being, whose behavior is sometimes a tragic expression of unmet needs. I don’t need to judge myself for that. I need to reaffirm that I am still unconditionally worthy of love, acceptance, and belonging.
How could these elements of self-compassion help you to accept your mistakes and learn from them?
Let me know. I would love to read from you.
I am redesigning my website. I want it to look professional, authentic, and inspiring. A colleague asks me what authentic means to me. Me at my most vulnerable, me at my best, me at my worst?
Haha…! Funny question!
Is it? … Maybe not so much. Authentic is not just me at my most cutest, vulnerable, my most delightful.
Authentic is also me in the middle of a fight with my husband, having judgmental thoughts about others, or seeing my poochy belly hanging out of my t-shirt.
I am pretty sure I don’t want any of that on my website. I want the me at my most lovable best. Me worthy of love, acceptance, and belonging.
Certainly not the me that might trigger criticism. Not the me that might prompt people to turn away, or turn against. Certainly not any part of me that might trigger being alone, all by myself.
When I consider the parts of me I want to keep private, I start thinking of the times when fear of rejection stopped me from living my truest dreams: my longing to go to theater school, to tell the first love of my life I had a crush on him, or to pursue publication of my first children’s story.
When I sit with this fear of rejection, I wonder if courage means taking a social risk and still doing what I believe is true? Maybe courage doesn’t mean risking my life to help war victims in Syria, or offering myself to replace the inmate on death row just before his execution.
Maybe my courage lies in holding on to my vegan diet, even if others find it weird. Or calling upon my co-mediators in the lunch meetup to recycle their plastic plates, instead of throwing them away. Or repelling from a cliff with a terrifying fear of heights, with guys I’d never met before.
What if authenticity means living your deepest aspirations, even if you might face negative consequences? Would my answer to my colleague be that authenticity means being true to my values, living them in everyday life?
Courage and authenticity seem interrelated, especially if we’re not sure we’ll face an empathetic, accepting response. So my questions to you are:
- What means authenticity to you?
- How is courage connected to authenticity?
- What comes up for you?
Let me know, I would love to read your response.
Six wasps are actively building a nest for their queen mama above the door to my room.
And I know from last year that these nests can become big. Really big. Lots of wasps coming in and out, feeding their babies.
Even though I don’t experience them as aggressive toward me, I don’t want to take the risk that they fly in and out of my room, each time I open the door. With sadness in my heart, I decide to remove the nest, before I get too stressed about safety for my human visitors. Early in the morning, when I think the six wasps are still asleep, I throw enough water on them, that they finally fly away. I cut down their nest.
The next day, I see the same six wasps on the same spot, huddled close to each other. I’m pretty sure they’re deliberating to rebuild their nest. On the same spot.
And so they do.
With even more pain in my heart, I remove the second nest. Fortunately for all of us, they haven’t returned since.
Sometimes we are not creative enough to meet all needs in every instance. We’re stuck with a strategy of what Marshall Rosenberg calls “protective use of force”. We meet our needs, even though we see that our strategy doesn’t meet the needs of the other party. I met my need for safety, and didn’t meet the wasps’ needs for autonomy, respect, support.
When we’re stuck, the best thing we can do is hold the unmet needs with compassion. Just like we hold a baby crying for her mommy. Even if we can’t bring her mommy back to her, we can hold the baby and show compassion and understanding for how painful that is. We can convey a message that we care about her well-being, even if we don’t know what to do to relieve her suffering.
I didn’t know how to ask the wasps the build their nest a few feet away. So I used protective force (water not poison) to meet my need for safety, while holding their unmet needs with compassion.
When we’re you not creative enough to meet everyone’s needs? And how did you hold the unmet needs with compassion? Let me know. I’d love to read from you.
Walking Mindfully, Walking Happily
It’s March 2017, SXSW week in Austin. A week bustling with thousands of participants trying to get to their coffee, their meetups, their conferences, screenings, and social gatherings in time.
It’s also the week of the premiere of “Walk With Me“, a documentary about monastic life in the mindful communities founded by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Seven monastics flew in from France and Deer Park, California to support the movie. In the middle of the chaos of the Austin Convention Center, they led an hour of mindful walking. An action to nurture a sense of peace, presence and love to the event.
I joined once. I was excited to walk with the monastics in a setting so different from our usual private Sunday Sangha.
When I returned a second time, it was because I was so moved by the first experience.
I feel so touched to see random people ask if they can join our walk. I see them invite friends to walk with them, happy to talk about what mindfulness means to them. I feel delighted to see dozens of new smiling faces carefully take a step, then another, focusing on their breath, feeling their feet touch the Earth. We walk as a river, balancing our individual footsteps with the pace of the community.
“Happiness is here and now
I have dropped my worries
Nowhere to go, nothing to do
No longer in a hurry.
Happiness is here and now
I have dropped my worries
Somewhere to go, something to do
But I don’t need to hurry.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
I am moved by how inspiring we can be when we offer our suggestions with Santa Claus energy: “Hohoho, wouldn’t life be more wonderful if you joined me for mindful walking?”
If we share what is important to us with an openness to hear a ‘no, I believe we are more likely to get a ‘yes’. Without the force of demand energy, our childlike excitement to share what we imagine is helpful to others becomes contagious.
What can you offer with Santa Claus energy? Which gift can you contribute to the buffet of life-enriching choices?
Let me know. I’m curious to read your special offering.
This is an ode to my husband. Or maybe better, an ode to our human capacity to balance authenticity and togetherness, our ability to differentiate.
“Differentiation involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness. Individuality propels us to follow our own directives, to be on our own, to create a unique identity. Togetherness pushes us to follow the directives of others, to be part of the group. When these two life forces for individuality and togetherness are expressed in balanced, healthy ways, the result is a meaningful relationship that doesn’t deteriorate in emotional fusion. Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality. Either way, you end up being less of a person with less of a relationship.” (David Schnarch, “Passionate Marriage“).
Every year during Jugglefest, my husband and I go to the Renegade Show. It’s a show where skilled, and not so skilled, jugglers test their newest acts. It doesn’t matter whether a performer succeeds in performing any specific trick, because the show is intended to be a platform to try out new material, to take risks, and to engage an audience for feedback.
It’s more of a “first experiment”, than a stream of polished, successful, less daring acts. As this year’s emcee, Mark Hayward, said: “Try to make your performance fit one of these three rules: short, awesome, or hilarious – or even better, try making more than one of these.”
I was inspired by what I saw as the risk my husband took. He took out Sandy, a spiritual being in the form of a Grey Wolf puppet, and interviewed him about how it was to be up on stage. Shaking all over, it took Sandy 30 seconds before he could say how nervous he was.
The performance brought tears to my eyes. I imagined the courage it took to share something so personal: expressing the need for belonging and acceptance of who we truly are. I imagined Sandy’s (and David’s) fear that sharing authentically their most vulnerable self, might risk being ridiculed, scorned, or dismissed. Especially in a public setting, in front of 200 strangers.
The “awwww” and applause they received, confirmed my husband’s delivery, and his connection to the audience. I read that the audience appreciated his willingness to take the risk and be authentic.
I received so much inspiration from seeing him balancing the two life forces of individuality and togetherness, that I am now committed to prepare my own act for next year’s Renegade show.
What are you willing to do to show up more authentically, at the risk of losing connection and acceptance? Let me know, I would love to read from you.
Do you remember when I wrote about being accidentally bitten by a dog?
The grandma sent me a basket of flowers, arranged like a dog with a bandaid, and a big smiley balloon.
I have kept that basket on my desk. As you can see, most flowers are brown and droopy (except for one, which is hanging in there), and the balloon is deflated.
I find it a beautiful visualization of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on impermanence: No phenomenon is permanent, everything is constantly transitioning to the next manifestation. If the conditions of its existence are favorable, the phenomenon is here, if the conditions are unfavorable, the manifestation will disappear.
The flower transforms into compost. Compost turns into grass. Grass is eaten by insects and animals, who poop by the pecan tree. This autumn, I might be eating these flowers in the pecans I harvest, and the digested pecans might come out as words! Well, heck. Those words might show up in the newsletter I’ll be writing in November!
Impermanence also teaches me that death is a reminder to cherish life. Everything and everyone I love will eventually die, including me.
“We need to learn to appreciate the value of’ impermanence. If we are in good health and are aware of impermanence, we will take good care of ourselves. When we know that the person we love is impermanent, we will cherish our beloved all the more. Impermanence teaches us to respect and value every moment and all the precious things around us and inside of us. When we practice mindfulness of impermanence, we become fresher and more loving. (Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddhist Teachings, 1998)
I have a personal practice of reciting this Thich Nhat Hanh gatha (verse) every night:
“The Day has now ended, our lives are shorter.
Now we look carefully: what have we done?
Noble Sangha, with all our hearts, let us be diligent,
engaging with the practice.
Let us live deeply, aware of impermanence,
so that life does not drift away without meaning.”
This gatha inspires me with joy, gratitude and appreciation for everyone and everything I’ve been given.
When I find myself disconnected from someone, the insight of impermanence helps me realize that they might be taken from me in the blink of an eye. When I reflect on this, I find it easier to see that any struggle I am facing is smaller than our vast impermanence. And realizing this helps me to reconcile and reach out to reconnect.
What helps you to see the impermanent nature of yourself and those around you?
Looking at the wilting flowers and deflating balloon, I see the new seeds of life in it. And I feel happy, very happy.
I’m at my friends’ house. They have two kids, Maya and Kiran, and two dogs, Luna and Sol. I wrote about the family earlier in “Stepping Into Poop”.
The dogs are playing in the living room, the kids and I are working on math and essays, the parents are at work.
Everything is peaceful, everything is quiet.
Till we hear one of the dogs whine. Like real whining. The kids and I jump up to find out what’s going on. I feel dismayed by what I see. At least, by what I think I see.
From my vantage point, it looks like Luna is biting the jugular vein of Sol, ready for the kill. I feel terrified, and start slamming Luna on the head… Poor dog, if only I had looked better…
It doesn’t help. The whining gets worse, and one of the dogs bites my left arm, even if only a scratch. I start pulling on Luna’s collar, believing that will force her to let go of the jugular vein, and preventing Sol from being killed…
My goodness, if only I had looked better: the whining gets even worse, and one of the dogs now really bites my arm.
But they do get loose.
However, not by any of my actions.
Maya was the one who saw that Luna’s jaw got stuck under Sol’s collar, and couldn’t get loose. The more Luna (or me) pulled, the more in pain Sol and Luna were. So Maya jerked off Sol’s collar, and resolved the whole tangle.
If we define compassion as the desire to relieve suffering, and empathy as a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing, Maya and I both acted with compassion, only Maya had more empathy.
It made me think of all the other times I have acted with lots of compassion and insufficient understanding. Instead of relieving pain, like I intended, I ended up making things worse.
When we don’t understand what’s going on, we don’t see the causes, the correlations, or the consequences of the suffering. It helps to have empathy skills, when we want to relieve suffering. Without empathy, compassion leads to unskillful actions: well-intended and not effective.
Have you ever acted with compassion and insufficient empathy? Would empathy have helped you to relieve the suffering more effectively? Let me know! I would love to learn from your experience.
I’m in a shame storm. I’m in our NVC group, practicing empathy with a buddy. My husband walks by. He says “I hope my eating won’t disturb you too much, honey.”
I feel the urge to explain to my buddy what my husband is talking about. “Well, uh,… you know,… I have this issue…”
My goodness, why did my husband say that? So innocently expressing his care for me. And triggering so much shame? As if I am exposed in my nakedness, covered in poop?
I look at my empathy buddy. He doesn’t seem too concerned by my stuttering. He just listens with a calm smile. I trust him to listen with empathy. I feel safe expressing honestly. “Well, you know… I hope you will not judge what I’m saying… I fear judgment… I get super triggered by eating sounds.”
Sigh… Relief… The truth is out… I never shared this with anyone, other than with my husband.
“It’s any eating sound: smacking, slurping, licking, screeching your fork with your teeth, or banging your spoon against a glass bowl.”
Another sigh of relief. My empathy buddy doesn’t seem too disturbed by my confession. He’s still listening. “You can fart as often as you want and I won’t mind. But making eating sounds drives me through the roof! I’ll get so triggered that I’ll either find an excuse to leave the table or I’ll turn it against you with something like: ‘There is something wrong with you for eating like that!’”
My empathy buddy still listens with care, nodding understanding and acceptance. No judgment whatsoever. I continue “And the truth is, I think there is something fundamentally wrong with me for having this sensitivity. I have the thought: ‘I am defective, beyond repair.’”
I feel a sadness come up. It is the first time I speak about this issue I feel so ashamed about. And it is just as Brené Brown describes: my shame disappears. Shame only survives in hiding. If it is brought into the light and received with compassion and acceptance, it loses it’s power. In the connection, acceptance and understanding, we experience the opposite of what shame wants us to believe. We experience that we are worthy of acceptance, love and belonging. We realize there is nothing wrong with us for having an issue. We notice we are not an issue.
I’m still not proud of my issue. It’s a handicap I didn’t chose. My eating sound sensitivity might never change. And now that I talked about it honestly with an empathy buddy, I can make different choices around it. I can ask for help without blaming or criticizing the other person. I can expand my compassion for everyone else who struggles with their own issue. I can choose mindful walking when my trigger overwhelms me. And most of all, I can work on self-acceptance and my longing to connect, even while eating.
With empathy and honesty, we can explore creative solutions that work better.
Let me know how you deal with issues you feel shame around.