Bring your life into balance

Empathy works. It always does.


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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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I lied

I lied

To my husband. I feel pretty shitty about it. Scared. I fear I’ll lose acceptance by confessing. I know this feeling from long, long ago and it has motivated me more than once to show up with less honesty than I wanted.

A few weeks ago I described washing the cushion covers of one of our living room chairs. My husband has taken care of this chair for 25 years, and it was in almost pristine condition. I had asked to clean it and we had agreed to try the washing machine set on cold temperature and delicates. I shared in a previous story that the covers came out shrunken and shredded. I wrote that it was an accident, and that I forgot to check the temperature.

I lied.

I actually knew the temperature of the washing machine and had made a conscious choice to wash them on a ‘warm’ setting anyway. I thought it wouldn’t do any harm, and I was convinced that a warm setting would do a better cleaning job. When they came out shredded and shrunken, I felt shocked.

I did irreparable harm, and it was my fault. I felt shame. I feared my husband would be angry, blame me, and we would lose connection.

So I lied.

At our next Nonviolent Communication empathy practice, a friend asks me if I really hadn’t checked the temperature. With my husband nearby, I decide to continue the lie. I don’t want her to know the truth, before he does. That only seems to aggravate the lie. I feel horrible immediately. I sacrifice my needs for integrity and honesty in service of my needs for acceptance and emotional safety.

As soon as our practice ends and our community leaves, I tell my husband the truth about what had happened. To my relief he seems to already have understood this. He appears to hold no grudge or judgment, just a genuine regret that the cushions were ruined.

It reminds me of a lesson about mourning and self-forgiveness:

“Mourning in NVC is the process of fully connecting with the unmet needs and the feelings that are generated when we have been less than perfect. It is an experience of regret, but regret that helps us learn from what we have done without blaming or hating ourselves. We see how our behavior ran counter to our own needs and values, and we open ourselves to feelings that arise out of that awareness. […]

We follow up on the process of mourning with self-forgiveness. Turning our attention to the part of the self which chose to act in the way that led to the present situation, we ask ourselves, “When I behaved in the way in which I now regret, what need of mine was I trying to meet?” (Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication).

I feel relieved to see how much I value intimacy and honesty in my closest  relationships and cleanliness in my house, and how my strategies failed to include my hubbie, my roommate in brainstorming strategies that meet all those needs.

When I call my friend that same evening and explain what happened, she laughs. Wholeheartedly. She is amused by the tangle of cushions, honesty, and acceptance. She doesn’t have any judgments. Just compassion for our human predicament, and empathy for my needs for love, acceptance, and belonging.

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


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Walking my dogs and my anxiety, and becoming emotionally liberated

I walk my friend’s dogs Luna and Sol, my pack for the last ten months. I still have anxiety walking them. Whether it’s around the block or in the park: I feel stress. I believe it is my job as the pack leader to be “calm-assertive”, so they can trust that I will take care of our needs for safety. If I am not calm-assertive, I blame myself for failing to stay calm: I believe they pick up on my anxiety and get more aggressive toward other dogs. Before I know it, I’m in a self-feeding cycle of fear and failure.

And that’s when it hits me.

Nonviolent Communication tells us that every behavior is an attempt to meet needs, and that needs are universal throughout space and time. Feelings arise from our needs: feelings we enjoy, when our needs are met, feelings we don’t enjoy that much, when our needs are not met. According to Marshall Rosenberg emotional slavery is the stage where “we believe ourselves responsible for the feelings of others. We think we must constantly strive to keep everyone happy.” We avoid conflict and focus on making others (including dogs) happy, even at the expense of our own needs.

So that’s what’s happening. I’m so focused on keeping the dogs happy, that I forget about my own need for safety. Instead of accepting my anxiety as a messenger of an unmet need, I try to push my anxiety away and force myself to be happy with whatever is going on: dogs running away, attacking other dogs, chasing squirrels and cats.

If I want to transform my fear into calm, I need to include the need behind my anxiety.

So the next time we arrive at the dog park, I imagine I’m walking three dogs: Sol, Luna, and my anxiety. If I want to move out of emotional slavery, I need to balance their needs with mine.

My solution? Sol gets 10 minutes playtime with other dogs, before I put him on leash. Luna walks off leash, till we approach the car. I walk as fast as I can, so they have to follow me as their pack leader, reinforcing that I am in charge.

It works. They get playtime, exercise, and trust that I can protect the pack. I get the support I’m looking for from them. When we get home, we are all satisfied. The dogs sleep three hours, I get to work refreshed and relieved.

I’m not only walking the dogs, I’m working to become emotionally liberated.

“At the third stage, emotional liberation, we respond to the needs of others out of compassion, never out of fear, guilt or shame. Our actions are therefore fulfilling to us, as well as to those who receive our efforts.” Marshall Rosenberg, ‘Nonviolent Communication, a Language of Life’

Let me know how this lands for you.

(This is a repost from June 22, 2017. Since then, with a lot of concerted effort, Sol hasn’t been on leash in the park: he waits for us, and Luna hasn’t charged at other dogs. Big celebration for all of us.)


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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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Diagnosis and understanding

I am not a big fan of diagnoses.

From 1997-2007 I worked for mental health institutions. I have seen the same person diagnosed as manic-depressive, then depressive, then borderline personality disorder, then back to depressive. I have seen more than 100 people who carried the diagnosis ‘schizophrenia’, not one of them the same. Their symptoms might have had some resemblance, and their individual behavior was so different that the diagnosis could only partly help you help them.

Diagnoses reduce human beings to a uni-dimensional view of their being.

I believe in seeing whole humans. People with different backgrounds, different vulnerabilities, different potentials. People trying to meet precious, human, universal needs in different ways.

I do believe that diagnoses can help us understand people.

We can use a diagnosis as a working hypothesis for what might be going on. If this person is diagnosed with schizophrenia, does that help me understand that their aggression is a result of them seeing people I don’t see? If this person is labelled autistic, does this explain why they don’t make eye contact? Can I better accept that someone is in bed 18 hours a day, if I know they have clinical depression?

My compassionate response to a diagnosis is that – while incomplete – it might help me better understand what another person is experiencing. When one of my clients thought there was another person in the room, and talked to him while we were in conversation, I was respectful until he finished. I didn’t tell him there was no one else but us, because I accept that his reality is different and no less valid than mine.

With this unconditional acceptance, I can step into their reality and try to see the world through their eyes. When I know my friend has delusions, I accept that his truth is that the Suriname Embassy is trying to kill him. I might try to distract him, offer this moment right here as an alternative to his delusions, and reassure him that his life has meaning to me. If someone with an Asperger’s diagnosis, needs structure and predictability, I can try to be complete when I tell him my schedule. If my friend is diagnosed with Borderline, I support a clear sense of boundaries in our connection and open myself to the beauty they have to offer, and deflect their anger.

Diagnoses do not define people. They can be an incomplete starting point for understanding.

And I am a big fan of understanding. Anytime. Anywhere.


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There is a thought. It is.

When is the last time you saw someone talk to the chair on their porch and say, “You shouldn’t be here”? Or, “What’s wrong with you?” Or, “You should be ashamed being here”?Chair

I’ve never seen it.  And if I had, I probably would have thought them a bit crazy.

Most people see and accept the fact that there is a chair on the porch wherever it is. They don’t argue with reality.

And if they like where it is, they leave it. If they they don’t, they do something about it. Like give it to someone else, put it at the curb, or bring it to Goodwill.

We can probably agree that that makes sense.

When it comes to our thoughts, though, we act like a crazy lady: “This thought shouldn’t be here!” “This thought should feel ashamed being here!

We argue with reality. We challenge what we are thinking, even though it is right there in front of us being a thought.

If we fight reality, we can’t spend our energy doing something that might actually be more productive.

I think our lives are easier when we start from the beginning. Accept what is here, whether a chair or a thought. It is. Just that: there is a thought. Then choose what to do about it. Maybe work around it. Maybe change it. Maybe accept it.

One of my favorite clients told me that when her thoughts are too distracting, she writes them on a piece of paper. I think this is brilliant. By writing it down, we manifest in the external world what we experience internally. In writing our thoughts on paper, we create distance between ourselves and our thoughts: here’s what I am thinking, there is the thought.

We can become an observer of our thoughts. Literally: “There is a thought.”

Now we can soften our identification with our thought. And in that softening, we can stop arguing with reality and get on with what we want to do about it.

What do you do when your thoughts come up?


Safe travels David. Thanks for editing!


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Sitting on a meditation cushion is NOT about achieving peace and calmness

“The path of the spiritual warrior is to have the courage to face life.” Geshe Lama Phuntsho talks to a visitor at the Sand Mandala Dissolution Ceremony at City Hall Austin, April 17.

“We have six consciousness: ear, eye, nose, tongue, touch, and mind. Our suffering comes from our desire to see beautiful views, hear beautiful sounds, feel something pleasant, taste something yummy, and have enjoyable thoughts and feelings. We crave what we like, and resist what we don’t. That is the source of suffering. The spiritual warrior accepts all that is, and learns to see reality for what it truly is, without distortion and illusion.”

Image courtesy of Mayusanctuary.comDid you ever sit on your meditation cushion, yearning for a sense of peace and quiet of mind? Did you ever get frustrated, self-critical, or hopeless, because your mind was racing with thoughts you didn’t want, you had the urge to get up, you got antsy, felt uncomfortable? “This is not what meditation is about! Meditation is about calming yourself, having these alpha and theta waves get stronger, being still! This meditation stuff is not for me. Meditation just doesn’t work!!!” And there you go, ready to give up on sitting on your cushion.

Wake-up, beloved friend! Meditation and mindfulness are not about trying to be this smiley, peaceful Buddha. Mindfulness is about having the guts to acknowledge all the places where we are stuck, all the places we feel hurt, and all the places where we want revenge, slash out, hide, disappear, disconnect, possess, hold on to, and be reassured that everything will be okay. Mindfulness is about opening up to what is true for you in each moment, engage with your very own, personal experience, accept that that’s your reality, and embrace it with care and compassion. That is what it means to be alive, to be a full human being, and to walk around on our precious Earth in your one wild and precious life. Your feelings, thoughts, sensations might not change on your meditation cushion, AND your compassionate and courageous heart can grow in the experience!

Isn’t that what we all want?


You want help to embrace your experience on your cushion with compassion? Contact me 512-589-0482 for a free discovery session to see if and how I can help you.


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My jealousy, my child

She is quiet. Her eyes are closed. “I want to talk about my jealousy…. I feel shame around my jealousy…. As if there is something wrong with me…. It is hard to talk about it…. I am so afraid I will be rejected when people know about my jealousy….”

She looks down, her head slightly turned away.

“I feel jealous of you…. As soon as I saw you walk in, I felt this surge of jealousy overwhelm me…. Out of the blue…. It has nothing to do with you, I like you….”, she says with some sadness, “You just have something I want…. It is always about wanting something I don’t have….. I’m gonna be quiet now, I don’t want to get into stories, I’m gonna self-connect….”

After 50 seconds, “The way the group listened to you, with so much empathy, care, compassion. Ferociously protecting space for you to express yourself, to share your pain…..”

She looks at me. “It has nothing to do with you. I can be jealous of anyone who seems more successful, lovable, attractive than me.”

“My jealousy is harmful. I want other women to fail, to be less popular, less loved.”

She starts crying. “My jealousy is like a child with bloodshot eyes and a hot, iron rod in her hand, chasing other children to poke out their eyes.”

Tears roll down her cheek. “She is not the kind of child you would put up on stage. She is not the adorable five-year old in a tutu, doing a pirouette, who keeps twirling, till she finally loses balance and falls down, and when she gets back up, looks at her teacher with wide-open, blue eyes full of wonder about the next step…. My child wants to cripple that girl, harm her.”

She is quiet. “I understand that everyone is afraid of her and wants to get rid of her.”

She sobs. “Don’t take her away from me…. Don’t put her in an asylum.” She looks at me, “Please, form a circle around me, …. and let me learn how to be a good mother to my child. How to take care of her, surround her with love and compassion, hold her closely, and prevent her from harming others.”

Her breath is deeper and slower. I see a shimmer of peace on her face, her muscles relaxed. “Let me just practice the first Buddhist principle ‘Do no harm’. And then, maybe, I will learn to connect with her, understand her, support her, so that my jealousy can calm down.”

There is something amazing when you create a safe container of radical, unconditional acceptance of someone’s experience. People learn to accept themselves, look at their pain with compassion, and find their own solution from a place of empowerment.

You want help to hold your jealousy with care and compassion? Contact me for a free, discovery session. I would be delighted to help, 512-589-0482.

 


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Mara pays me a visit

Mara brought me a visit today. Right during meditation.

He usually does that. I don’t know how he knows when I’m gonna sit -my schedule is rather erratic- but he knows. As if he is around the corner, waiting for me to ring the bell, then barge into my room, pull up a chair, and talk right in my face. Rather loudly too. I never understood how my husband sleeps through his barking, but he does.

Image courtesy to lennemi.files.wordpress.comMara rants in a non-stop stream of words: “You should do butterflies to transform your pain, not this stupid chunking along with your plans. You’re too attached to your ego, you don’t live from your heart. You’re not funny enough, your website doesn’t have nearly as much humor as your sister’s. You’re not giving enough, you don’t really love from your heart, serving without attachment or expectation.”

A constant cascade of words that undermine my self-confidence, self-acceptance, and self-compassion.

This time it’s different. I remember how Mara threw arrows at Buddha, and how Buddha transformed each of them into flowers.

Mara is just doing what he is supposed to do: to create a world of illusion, of suffering, of despair. Nothing wrong with that. We each have a role to play, and Mara is playing his to the best of his abilities. There would not be any mindfulness, any compassion, if it were not for the suffering in the world.

No mud, no lotus.Image courtesy to a3.urbancdn.com

All I need to do is to bring my awareness back to my breath, my thoughts, my feelings.

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.

Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.

In.

Out.

Breathing in, I know I have feelings of loneliness, sadness, shame in me.

Breathing out, I smile to the feelings of loneliness, sadness, shame in me.

Breathing in, I know I have seeds of solidity and peace in me.

Breathing out, I smile to the seeds of solidity and peace in me.

I look at Mara. He looks rather cute on the tiny, red seahorse chair. “Hey friend, thank you for visiting me. I would love to hear what you have to say. I’ll listen to you after my sit.”

Breathing in, I know I have unconditional love in me.

Breathing out, I smile to the unconditional love in me.


 

You want help to smile to all your thoughts, feelings, and sensations? Contact me for a free, discovery session. I would be delighted to help, 512-589-0482.


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When was the last time you turned toward conflict?

When was the last time you felt angry with someone? Do you remember your response? Did you close off and suppress your anger to maintain some sense of acceptance, emotional safety, peace? Or did you blame, judge, criticize in an effort to support your needs for transparency, being heard, emotional safety? Or, maybe, did you turn toward your friend, expressed yourself with compassion and listened with respect to understand your friend better and restore the connection?

Image courtesy to Wikimedia.orgJohn Gottman has 40 years of relationship research under his belt. Married couples, friends, siblings, co-workers, parent-child relationships. You name it, he researched it. He describes all interactions between people as bids for connection. “Honey, will you pass me the sugar?” “Dad, I need help with my homework.” “Will you come to my birthday party?” Even a bitchy “You’re late.”, or an enraged “Get of my back, f*ck off with your anger.” are bids for connection, a longing to be understood for our experience.

It took me a while to get the concept. Usually I see anger, dishonesty, blame as clear signals to disconnect, and I feel relieved to do so. One less conflict in my life.

The truth is, it doesn’t work that way. When we habitually turn away or turn against bids for connection, including conflict, we have less and less intimate relationships that help us weather the storms of our lives.

Let’s take the example of “F*ck off with your anger.” Not the most inspiring bid for connection, and we can respond with empathy and compassion. “I hear you’re fed up with the way I express my anger. Do you want more respect, harmony, support for your sense of well-being?” Sounds pretty open, doesn’t it? That’s what turning toward does. It conveys a message of acceptance, ‘your experience matters to me’, and a willingness to understand and restore the connection.

Turning away shows up as silence, disregarding, interrupting, being preoccupied. Turning away seems to be devastating for relationships, because the implicit message is ‘I don’t care about you, or your experience. You don’t matter.’

Turning against is more contemptuous, belligerent, contradictory, domineering, critical, or defensive. There are many flavors. It could sound like this “As if you’re such a sweetie-pie.” “What did I do? Nothing! It is you who is angry!” “You’re blowing it out of proportion, as usual, drama queen.” Painful responses, because I am arguing your experience. In the long run partners lose trust that they’ll be heard, and they’ll retreat within themselves and withdraw emotionally.

What is your habitual response? Turning toward? Turning away? Turning against? And how does that impact your relationships? Do they deepen, grow stronger, build up trust? Do they evaporate, dissolve, disappear? Or does conflict, distrust, withdrawal increase?

You want help to give turning toward a try? Contact me for a free, discovery session. I would be delighted to help, 512-589-0482.