Bring your life into balance

Empathy works. It always does.


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Shame, Creative Tension, and More

All my commitments fly out the window: “I reflect, before I react.” “I see the positive in every person and every situation.” “I accept myself unconditionally, especially when shame arises.”

In a second. I have nothing left but a puddle of shock, fear, shame, and anger.

‘Tragic expression of unmet needs?’ Never heard of it. All I hear are criticisms, demands, evaluations. ‘Seeing our interdependence?’ Not today. I take her remarks personally and my mind races with defenses, counter arguments, attacks. ‘Empathetically guessing: “Are you feeling upset and scared? You want more respect and safety?”’ My mind draws a blank.

All I can do, is stare at her moving video image on my computer screen and desperately (and thanks to my Sangha, moderately successfully) try NOT to express the angry, anxious thoughts clamoring to come out of my mouth.

I barely succeed in saying “I love you” at the end.

After we hang up, I feel deflated, discouraged, hopeless.

My thoughts are: “What a fool I am for believing I could create a warm, extensive community that includes me, my husband, my family, and friends. What an utter idiot I am for having that crazy dream, trying to get my reality closer to my vision.”

The emotional tension is so intense that all I can think is “Give up, give up, give up. Pack your stuff and fly back to the Netherlands.”

And then I also think of something I read in Peter Senge’sThe Fifth Discipline”:

“The juxtaposition of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are relative to what we want) generates what we call ‘creative tension’: a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution. The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.”

“People often have great difficulty talking about their visions, even when the visions are clear. Why? Because we are acutely aware of the gaps between our vision and reality… These gaps can make a vision seem unrealistic or fanciful. They can discourage us or make us feel hopeless… If we fail to distinguish emotional tension from creative tension, we predispose ourselves to lowering our vision.”

This was a literal and figurative call back to reality. Apparently I am not anywhere close to seeing my vision fulfilled. My reality is very different from where I thought it was. Yes, this is a set-back, and yes, I feel discouraged about it.

And that doesn’t mean that my journey is in vain. It means the difference is a learning opportunity for me. Where am I on the path? How do I work -not fight- with the obstacles I face? How can I be more creative, resourceful, and whole?

How can I make the journey the reward?

And with that inquiry I shift to feeling a little more settled, at peace, and hopeful.

Let me know: how do you work with creative tension? I would love to hear from you.


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All the conditions for my happiness are right here in a plastic cup

The camper slowly turns into our driveway, needing all the space we created by moving our cars. I can’t wait to see my brother, sister-in-law, and eight-year old niece. It’s their first visit since I moved from the Netherlands to Austin in 2009. I feel very, very excited to see them.

I baked a carrot cake for them, hung streamers, and spent more than a week tidying and cleaning to make them a warm welcome. I am ready to relax and hang out together. So are they, after more than 17 hours of travel.

While the cake is disappointing, the weather compensates with 80℉, sunshine, and a light breeze.

My niece gets excited when she sees our lawn sprinkler, and imagines jumping through the water spray. Together, we come up with an even better plan: one bucket with water and three plastic cups. My brother, niece, and I spend the next hour throwing water at each other. We team up in various ways: the Netherlands against Texas, the older generation against the younger, girls against boys. We play everyone for themselves, or throw water at whoever is nearest. The most evident theme is that we’re all having a blast, getting soaking wet, laughing, relaxing, and mellowing out.

It reminds me of a teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh:

“I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy.”

I savor this moment, which ultimately becomes a highlight of their visit. I take a mindful breath, enrich the experience by bringing my attention to my physical and emotional sensations, and see how relevant this experience is to my values of community, love, and play.

When my husband arrives at 4 pm, he sees three elated and joyful family members, resting on the chairs, soaking wet, and a more composed, though just as joyful, sister-in-law.

Let me know: what are your conditions for your happiness? I would love to hear from you.


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A car driver shatters my enemy image

My husband and I are on our daily walk around the block. We do that twice a day, to connect, listen, and hold hands. It’s always the same circuit, more or less 1.5 miles long. It’s drizzling, so I’m extra worried and aware that cars might not be as attentive as I wish.

And heck, for sure: an SUV backs out of the driveway, straight into us. Being alert, we’re already on the lawn of the opposite house by the time it would have hit us.

I feel annoyed. Mainly scared, but it shows up as annoyance. As a committed commuter cyclist, I have had my fair share of almost being hit by cars who don’t look around enough. For the last three years, at least once a month, I have to jump the curb, swivel around, or do an emergency break to avoid being run over.

I confess, I have thoughts of breaking car windows to teach this damn driver a lesson.

Thank God I don’t.

Once the car is out on the street, the driver rolls down the window. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…” I see a fifty plus woman with tears in her eyes. “I’m really distracted, … my mom is dying … I’m off to say goodbye to her …”

She stops the car and sits there quietly, I assume to calm herself, before she drives off.

I feel shocked. And embarrassed. Never in the world would I have expected that.

My enemy image of car drivers shatters in a thousand pieces.

I remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice to always ask “Are you sure?”. He invites us to write this question down and put it somewhere where we will see it: a bathroom mirror, the fridge, our calendar. And live by it.

As I regret my quick jump to the conclusion that she was inconsiderate of my need for safety, I stutter “I am so sorry for you.”

She drives off. I ask my husband to confirm which house she came from, and I make a promise to myself to drop off a condolence note.

I go home and write the note.

And a sticky note “Are you sure?”.

It’s up on my bathroom mirror to remind me to not jump to conclusions about someone’s intentions and character.

How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.


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Our four choices when receiving hard to hear messages

(This is a re-post from January 2018, when it was still cold. I hope this is a refreshing reminder that everything is impermanent, also temperatures)

It is sleeting. The road is getting slippery. It’s also getting dark. And it’s rush hour. Everyone seems anxious to get home, before the road completely freezes up and driving becomes a car balancing act on ice.

I’m on my bike. And I feel scared. I don’t like biking when it sleets. I have had my share of slips and falls growing up in the Netherlands with these road conditions. I have no desire to add one more to my track record.

I have to cross a busy street without stop signs or traffic lights within half a mile. I decide to cross without that support.

I wait and wait and wait till there are no cars in either lane. I cross the first lane as careful as I can. Before I am half way, the cars from the other side have a green light and are coming at me. I have to wait. As I look over my shoulder, I see that the cars behind me also got a green light. They’re speeding up. One truck in particular. In my lane. I see him coming right at me. I feel terrified he will drive into me, but I have nowhere to go. There are cars in either lane and I can’t make myself smaller with my bike. I just have to hope and pray that the truck is gonna spot me, before he hits me.

He does. He swirls around me within six yards, hunks at me, and continues with at least 50 miles per hour. No one gets hurt.

I tremble as I get on my bike to finally cross the street.

In my upset I start to rant blame toward him: “He is f*cking going way too fast on a slippery road, and the idiot was probably texting too. What a moron he is!”

After biking a few blocks, I turn the blame toward myself: “You are an idiot too, not taking the time to walk over to the traffic light and cross when it’s safe. You’re a fool for risking your life for a few minutes efficiency! You’re not competent to ride a bike! (Ouch, that’s very painful for a Dutch woman to hear)”

It’s only when I am home and feel safe, that I start to empathize with myself: “Gosh, Elly, you were terrified that you would be hit and end up with a wrecked bike, broken legs or arms, or… dead. You want to know that car drivers care about your needs for safety and consideration.”

It takes a few more hours, before I start to empathize with the car driver: “He probably didn’t see me at dusk. He probably didn’t expect a cyclist in the middle of the road. Maybe he was tired and anxious to get home safely. Who knows, he might have had to pick up a sick kid.”

I feel super grateful for Marshall Rosenberg’s teachings on our four choices when receiving a hard-to-hear message:

  • ​blame outward
  • ​blame inward
  • ​empathy inward
  • ​empathy outward

Realizing I can choose how I respond to difficult messages and situations helps feel empowered. I am not in full control about what’s happening around me, but I am in control of how I respond.

How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.


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Am I deserving of appreciation

Friday January 5, during Shabbat service, I was formally welcomed into the community of the Jewish people, making myself available to “become a partner with God in the work of creation and in the healing and redemption of the world”.

It is a festive, joyous evening of community and celebration. My husband is there, my stepdaughter, my friends Jen, Margaret, her kids and parents-in-law, and of course my congregation. We sing, we pray, we hug. My stepdaughter and I lit the candles to welcome in the Shabbat and recite the prayer. We are a bit nervous about whether we remember the whole Hebrew blessing. My husband reads one of his poems to express how I have contributed to his life. The congregation president reads one of my blogs. She thought it was the best way to describe how I show up in life. My stepdaughter jumps up and shouts “Yeah, Elly”. The cantor sings a song about being held by the wings of Shechinah (Spirit) and says I am a gift to the congregation.

I feel a bit shy with this shower of appreciation. I think of a quote by Marshall Rosenberg:

“For many of us, it is difficult to receive appreciation gracefully. We fret over whether we deserve it. We worry about what’s being expected of us… Or we’re nervous about living up to the appreciation.”

These people who share their appreciation, do they know that I have lied? That I get angry and yell? That I have people I let down? That I have done things I feel ashamed of? Would they still appreciate me if they know the whole truth about me, and nothing but the truth?

Maybe. Maybe not.

As I sit there and receive congratulation after hug after welcoming, I start to relax. Yes, I have done things in my life I wished I could undo, and I have desisted from doing things that I wished I had done. That’s the truth. And even though that is correct, it is also incomplete. Because I have also helped others, listened to my friend’s suffering, refrained from saying hurtful things, committed to a 95% vegan, eco-friendly, fair-trade diet, tried the best I could.

As I open up to the appreciation and love, I see more clearly that I have contributed to other people’s needs. I see that I have the capacity to make life more wonderful for others. And since I already am aware where I have made life more miserable for others, receiving appreciation helps me better see the whole picture of who I am and how I show up.

How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.


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This very moment is the perfect teacher

My ex-husband, Rob van Gils, passed away November 16, 2017. His cremation was Thursday November 23.

My visit to the Netherlands for his cremation service was much harder than I anticipated. Rob and I had succeeded in having –what our mediator described as– “the most peaceful, loving, and harmonious divorce.” We had also figured out how to have a caring friendship beyond divorce. While we had moved on, four of his best friends still harbored pain and anger about my decision to leave him nine years ago for my second husband.

The cremation service becomes not only a moment of intense grief and mourning over the loss of my first love, it becomes a startling confrontation with unresolved issues of loss and perceived betrayal in our former circle of friends.

One friend turns away as I approach him. Another can barely say ‘thank you’ when I share my condolences. A third lets me wait for two minutes, before he interrupts his conversation, then looks at me with a face that seems to convey his wish I had died instead of Rob, and says with emphasis, “You better leave. I don’t want you here.”

I leave the service quickly, too overwhelmed with confusion, pain and grief.

That night I read Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart”:

“Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors –people who have a certain hunger to know what is true– feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.

As enemy images of Rob’s friends race through my head, fretting how they should have behaved, how badly I am treated, how not deserving of their wrath I am, I notice I soften. I am open to using this experience as a wake-up call to lean into where I’m stuck. To let it all be, the pain and sorrow, the hatred and shame. I am willing to allow myself to be penetrated by my feelings –to be changed by them. Slowly I relax into my human condition, and experience the vulnerability of being alive.

That evening, I do not reach enlightenment. I do stop myself from becoming frozen in my judging of how life “should” be. Instead, I accept what is: the pain and the hurt triggered by people needing understanding and compassion.

I take another step on the path of the spiritual warrior, facing adversity with dignity and compassion.

How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.


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Dying and having the rug pulled out

I wrote this blog four days before my beloved ex-husband Rob van Gils died, Thursday November 16, 2017. I’m writing this in his honor and as a reminder of the love we shared:

When I think of my ex-husband dying, I experience intense feelings of fear, grief, and terror. It’s like I’m drawn into a black hole in the vastness of space, a hole around my solar plexis, till I’m stretched out to nothingness and finally annihilated. When I sleep I have nightmares with invasions of Klingon-like monsters, Uruk-hais, and Sauron. And again, an overwhelming, devouring, completely black nothingness of darkness: a void without life and love.

I struggle to be mindful with my feelings. Mindfulness teachers tell me to accept and embrace them, to allow myself to be fully penetrated by them, and surrender into the tenderness of life. I fail in the practice. I struggle. I resist. I barely succeed to stay afloat in an ocean of grief, loss, and terror.

In my search for support, I talk and cry. I take a break from work and spend more time with myself, and I read. I reach for Pema Chödrön who talks about our suffering in “When Things Fall Apart”:

“When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize. The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really swell. In fact, that way of looking at things is what keeps us miserable. Thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly. The very first noble truth of the Buddha points out that suffering is inevitable for human beings as long as we believe that things last – that they don’t disintegrate, that they can be counted on to satisfy our hunger for security. From this point of view, the only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land. We use these situations either to wake ourselves up or to put ourselves to sleep. Right now – in the very instant of groundlessness- is the seed of taking care of those who need our care and of discovering our goodness.”

I find something meaningful about letting be. To sit with the terror of losing my best friend, grieving an unhappy ending, overwhelmed by grief.

Am I able to see that this is what life is about? The joy of a sunrise, laughing out loud with my sister, feeling annoyed with a car cutting me off?

And losing my best friend.

I live in an ebb and flow of feelings, thoughts. Nothing to hold on to. Grief, terror, love. Letting it in and letting it out. Being with the groundlessness of our human existence.

How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.