Nourish relationships and self-care

Empathy works. It always does.


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Walking mindfully, walking peacefully

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.


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An Ode to Vulnerability, Authenticity. And to My Husband

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.


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Dog bites, flowers, and impermanence

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.


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Compassion Without Empathy Can Be Harmful. I Learned First-hand.

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.


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I’m in a shame storm

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.


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Juggling and learning new things

I’m juggling. Four balls. My best is maybe five catches. I drop them a lot. Almost all the time.

My husband juggles too. He drops too. More than I do. He’s practicing seven balls force bouncing on a double stacked rola bola balance (watch the video, it’s insane). He has 107 World Records.

When we’re learning a new trick, building a new habit, or changing our situation, we can have a lot of misses. It’s inevitable when you’re learning something you haven’t yet mastered. If you knew how to do it, it wouldn’t challenge you. I would already qualify four balls, stop eating when I’m full, be more consistent and disciplined following my work plan.

Apparently, growth is not simple. We have to overcome homeostasis, the tendency of systems to revert back to an original set point. We can make a conscious effort to change our habits. And in that effort we can get lost, make mistakes, slide back.

For me, the trick is not to beat up myself, blame or shame myself, when I don’t meet my own aspirations.  The trick is to see that a failure in action is not a reflection of who I am, but of what I do in this specific moment. I am not a failure, because I failed here and now. If I can’t accept my failures as the natural consequence of sincerely trying, if I think I’m a failure when I don’t succeed, I would feel so discouraged and disappointed that I would stop trying altogether.

My challenge is to endure “creative tension” (Peter Senge in the Fifth Discipline). This is the difference between my reality and my vision — between where I am and where I want to be. If I can’t stand this tension, I resign to my situation and give up on my dreams. When I can stay with my thoughts and feelings around this tension, I can change my current situation and get closer to my dream.

For me, it means accepting that dropping balls is part of the path to learning juggling. What’s important to me, is learning and getting better, not being attached to the results.

When can you accept and celebrate your ‘mistakes’ as a sign that you’re learning and growing? Let me know, I would love to read your wisdom.


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Walking in my husband’s shoes

We’re at Sangha, my Thich Nhat Hanh mindfulness community and we’re starting our mindful walking. One step in front of the other, taking a breath with every step, solidly feeling the ground underneath our feet.

I always love this practice, it slows me down and solidifies me in the support I have from our Earth.

For the last couple of months I practice synchronizing my steps and speed with the person in front of me. A sort of bodily empathy.

“Can I let myself enter fully into the world of his feelings and personal meanings and see these as he does? Can I step into his private world so completely that I lose all desire to evaluate or judge it? Can I enter it so sensitively that I can move about in it freely, without trampling on meanings which are precious to him?” Carl Rogers, “On Becoming a Person”.

This time I walk right behind my husband. It’s enlightening to see where I’m stuck in my dedication to physically understand what it means to walk this Earth as someone else. I notice all kinds of judgments and evaluations come up: “That’s so unique: he drags his feet in a 45° to his other feet, as if he’s waltzing.” “That’s weird: he turns the corner in a 90° angle, as if he is in a military marching band.” “His steps are way too big!”

It reminds me of all the other times when I lose my empathic presence. Where I’m being triggered and focus my attention on my reaction to what someone’s sharing, instead of on their experience.

It usually doesn’t help with the connection, and certainly not with the understanding.

So now what?

  1. The first step it to acknowledge that I often hear two things at the same time: what they’re saying, and what I’m saying as a reaction to it.
  2. Then: honor that both voices are worthy of respect and being heard.
  3. And finally: make a choice what I want to do: pause the interaction and listen to the thoughts in my head first, or pause my inner voices and tell them I will listen to them after my connection to this other person.

When I am in that mindful state of knowing what’s going on within and around me, I can create the greater sense of connection and understanding I want: with myself and with them.

And you, what do you to maintain empathic presence? Let me know: I would love to learn from your experiences.