Balance purpose, relationships, and self-care

Empathy works. It always does.


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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.


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Running around, looking for my Buddha nature

I’m up early. Before the crack of dawn. I love it. I feel energized and excited about a new day, about being alive and having the opportunity to contribute, learn, and receive.

I get dressed and make my tea. Green tea. Yum.

Then I hear the alarm on my phone go off. First softly, then loudly. I rush toward the sound, I don’t want my husband to wake up. It gets louder, the closer I get to the bathroom.

As soon as I think I am getting close, the sound fades. Shoot! So where is it? I don’t want it to go off next to his ear. I feel relieved to hear it again, in the kitchen. That makes sense, it must be on the counter, where I made my tea.

And again, as soon as I think I am close, the sound subsides. No! My husband worked late last night and needs his sleep. Where is my phone?!

The sound increases, in the dining room. I look around, more frantic now. Nothing to be found nowhere.

Then it dawns on me. My cell phone has been in my pocket the whole time.

My alarm sounds like ocean waves rolling on the beach: softer and louder with each wave coming in and fading away. The precious thing I was looking for, was right there in my jeans all the time.

It made me think of a story Pema Chodron tells in “When Things Fall Apart”. It’s about a woman who’s sent out into the world with only a coat. She ends up destitute, with no means to support even her basic needs for survival. She complains about her poverty. Her coat goes to shreds, and in the hem she finds diamonds. Plenty enough to sell and support her.

That woman is me, running around, looking for my Buddha nature, my Christ essence, my basic goodness. All the while, I’m stuck in my anger, fear, jealousy, and judge myself for having these feelings.

I hope there comes a moment where I realize that I had Buddha nature all along, buried in my hardened heart. The place where I stop, connect, and celebrate my innate compassionate nature. Where I acknowledge my love, care and gratitude as “enough conditions to be happy”. Where I see my happiness and suffering as expressions of our shared humanity.

Our shared humanity with people I like, and people I don’t like. People who think and vote like me, and people who do the opposite. People whose words and actions are in alignment with my values, and people who speak and act in ways that conflict with my dreams for our world.

I imagine that when I am grounded in my own goodness, I can offer my insight to help others see theirs. To help them pause, take a breath, and smile at life.

I think that thàt is the best gift I can give to others.


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Living a life of purpose

It’s Easter weekend, and many Christians are commemorating the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

One of the things that always struck me about how the event is told in the Gospels, is how reluctant Jesus was at being crucified: “Please, Father, take this cup from me”. Jesus wasn’t that excited about being killed, and I wonder if he was convinced he would be resurrected from death. His fear tells me he might not have been. To me, this is the most poignant example of Jesus choosing a purposeful life over a happy life.

Martin Seligman describes in “Authentic Happiness” a happy life as a life where you cultivate positive emotions about the past, present, and future. An engaging life is a life where you use your core strengths and virtues to achieve a sense of flow, being fully engaged with what you’re doing. The purposeful life is a life where you use your core strengths and virtues to contribute to a goal that is larger than you, even if it comes at personal cost. It is the life where you see the oneness in the fragmentation, and your motivation follows meaning.

History is full of examples of people willing to make personal sacrifices for a higher purpose. Martin Luther King and Ghandi are well-known, my grandfather and millions of others less well-known.

Jesus inspires me to live a life of purpose, pledging allegiance to love, care, and inclusion of the outcasts. Up till now I have enjoyed a comfortable life, being married and enjoying my beautiful home and loving friends. I have a happy life, an engaging life. I also believe my life has meaning: I have a strong sense of purpose in the work I do.

And yet. I wonder if I have the guts to sacrifice my comfort, when circumstances call me to stand up for what I believe is true. I am scared that I won’t be willing to follow Jesus’ example, when it comes at an expense to me. I ask myself ‘Do I need to?’, hoping the answer will be ‘no, sweetie pie, go back to sleep’.

When you ask yourself these questions, what comes up for you? I would love to read your response.


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A Peace Agreement for Our Country

creating-true-peace-book-front-pageAfter the elections, one thing that stands out to me is the need to create circles of listening. With myself, with family and friends, and especially with those who have different points of view. I want to understand the beautiful needs behind all choices. I want to collaborate to find solutions that work for everyone.

I love and have adapted the Peace Agreement that Thich Nhat Hanh offers for such conversations in “Creating True Peace, ending violence in yourself, your family, your community, and the world“, 2003.

I invite you to read it and edit it to adjust to your truth. Find others to agree to it, so that you can have the support of a community.

And if we can’t find anyone to collaborate with us, we can hold this mindset as a vow to ourselves when listening to people whose choices scare, upset, or anger us.

Without listening we are stuck in our segregated circles. With listening we can build bridges of understanding, love, and connection. One step at a time.

I, the one who is angry, scared, or upset, agree to:

  • Refrain from saying or doing anything that might create more damage or escalate anger, fear, or upset.
  • Practice mindful breathing to take care of my anger, fear, or upset.
  • Calmly, within 24 hours, find the empathy I need to understand which needs triggered my feelings so that I can speak responsibly about my experience, using loving speech.
  • Verbally or in writing ask for an appointment to talk about the matter more deeply, preferably with a community of mindful supporters.
  • Practice self-connection. I will not deny or suppress my feelings, and not say: “I’m not angry, scared, or upset, it’s fine. I’m not suffering. There’s nothing to be angry, scared, or upset about.”
  • Practice self-acceptance. I will look deeply into my daily life -while I’m sitting, standing, walking, or lying down- in order to see:
  • *How I myself have been unskillful at times.
  • *How my own unmindful habits have contributed to hurt in the other person.
  • *How my thoughts, needs, and the energy of my feelings are the primary cause of my anger, fear, and upset. How the other person is the stimulus of my feelings, not the cause.
  • Reflect that I cannot be truly happy, as long as the other person suffers.
  • Express my mourning for my unskillfulness and lack of mindfulness, without shaming or blaming myself, as soon as I have that insight.
  • Postpone any meeting, until I am openhearted enough to meet the other person with the love and respect I choose to bring into the world.

I, the one who contributed to the other person’s feelings of anger, fear, and upset, agree to:

  • Respect the other person’s feelings, not judge or deny them, and allow them enough time to self-connect and restore balance.
  • Not press for an immediate discussion.
  • Confirm their request for a meeting, either verbally or by note, and assure them that I will be there, and that my intention is to respect everyone’s needs for acceptance, understanding, and love.
  • Practice mindful breathing and looking deeply to see how:
  • *I have mistakenly thought that making others suffer might relieve my own suffering.
  • *I am suffering when I contribute to their suffering
  • Express my mourning for my unskillfulness and lack of mindfulness, without shaming or blaming myself or others. I will be aware that efforts to defend, explain, or justify myself indicate that need more support to act with the love and respect I cherish.

We vow with all our heart and in the mindful presence of our community to practice wholeheartedly. We ask that our community helps to protect us and grant us wisdom.


What have you committed to to bring more peace in yourself, your communities, and this world? Let me know. I’d love to be inspired.