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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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.


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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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Scratching, unwholesome seeds, and mindfulness

It is 5:00 am at the second day of our Mindfulness Retreat. I wake up in the dark with a terrible itch on my left foot. I guess that it is probably fire ant bites from walking in the woods. The itch is overwhelming, it drives me crazy. I start scratching as hard as I can, until I feel it starts to bleed. The itching just gets worse.

After 10 minutes, I finally pause my scratching and attempt to practice “accepting what is”. I breath in and breath out of the terrible itch, and try to have an openhearted curiosity about what it is like to have a big itch. I do my very best to accept the experience, rather than to change it.

I have to say, I am not completely up for the challenge. I fail several times at holding back my scratching. Half of my brain would like to apply a sander to get rid of the itch. The other half gradually surrenders and succeeds at breathing in and out of the big itch.

Eventually I fall back asleep.

The next morning I wake up with less itch and a little more understanding about what I believe Thich Nhat Hanh means by wholesome and unwholesome seeds in our consciousness.

“Whether we have happiness or not depends on the seeds in our consciousness. If our seeds of compassion, understanding, and love are strong, those qualities will be able to manifest in us. If the seeds of anger, hostility and sadness in us are strong, then we will experience much suffering.” Thich Nhat Hanh

At the surface it might seem that Thich Nhat Hanh is making a distinction between good and bad, right and wrong, an instruction to only water the ‘good’ seeds. A moral dichotomy.

After my itchy experience, I see this differently. He is instead simply inviting us to be present with whatever is: to make our choice based on our most mindful vision for ourselves and others. If I want to keep my foot happy, I better stop scratching, even if the scratching feels good in the moment.

By extension, I imagine that if I want more happiness, peace, and love in my life, I might do better if I water the seeds of happiness, peace, love, understanding, and compassion in myself. If I want more conflict, suffering, or stress I might focus on watering the seeds of anger, fear, deficit.

When we are in choice about which seeds we water, we can be in choice of how we experience our lives. This is a practice with no right or wrong, just trying, and failing. Then trying again. Failing. Sometimes doing things that are not so wholesome, but feel good in the moment. We try to be curious and we try again. We continue until we are practiced enough to transform unwholesome habits into more wholesome ones.

Which seeds do you nurture within yourself? Let me know, I would love to read from you.


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Does Self-Criticism help us learn?

We have two armchairs in our living room. They have been around for 25 years. We also host two weekly Nonviolent Communication classes and a monthly workshop in our living room. People come in clean or not so clean and sit on these chairs.

I am a big fan of cleanliness and talk with my husband about washing the cushion covers. We agree to run an experiment and machine wash one set carefully in cold water on delicate setting.

With some excitement, I undress the covers of the chair cushions. I put them in the washing machine and take them out an hour later. As soon as I see them, I feel anxious. Like very anxious.

I know my husband really likes these chairs and he has taken good care of them for more years than he has known me. Except for some wear and tear, they were in excellent shape.

Were.

Now with my washing, the covers are shrunken and shredded. With all my might I barely succeed in pulling the covers back over the cushions. They are seven inches short.

I sit down deflated. With lots, lots, lots of self-critical thoughts. “You stupid, stupid, stupid idiot! IDIOT! What a complete moron you are for not checking the settings on the washing machine!” I feel pained and upset, and angry with myself.

Finally I decide to get up and walk mindfully for three minutes. Then another 20 minutes around the block. The physical movement helps me shift my self-criticism to self-compassion.

A friend asked if I think self-criticism is essential for growth and learning. I don’t believe it is. After reading and listening to people I respect (Thich Nhat Hanh, Marshall Rosenberg, Rick Hanson, Kristin Neff, Martin Seligman) I’ve come to the conclusion that criticism is not only not needed for learning, it is likely detrimental.

Criticism targets who we are, not what we do. Criticism conveys something is fundamentally wrong with us, as if we are unworthy of love, acceptance, and belonging. As social animals, these needs are essential to our survival. When we hear criticism of who we are, we fear that our emotional, social, and physical safety is in jeopardy. Our reptilian brain is activated and we react with fight, flight, or freeze. We lose access to the part of our brain that helps us find creative, collaborative solutions to the problems we face.

That’s not to say that we can’t regret and mourn what we did. When we approach our regret with self-compassion, instead of self-criticism, we can redirect our energy to thinking what we could do differently in the future. When we acknowledge our flaws, we can try to make amends, learn from the experience, and restore connection. We see that making mistakes (even irreversible ones) is part of our shared humanity. Humans are fallible and that doesn’t mean we’re not worthy of love and belonging.

With self-compassion, we don’t have to hide our mistakes to protect our emotional, social, and physical safety. We can more clearly see the needs that we tried to meet, even when our actions failed. We can think of better ways to meet our needs while caring for the needs of others.

Rather than shame and expulsion, we are empowered to ask for support and learn.

How do you nurture self-compassion? Let me know, I would love to read from you.


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Self-Compassion and tree cutting

Hurricane Harvey approaches Texas. The weather forecast calls for 35 mph winds in Austin. I feel scared.

I look at the trees that are marked by Austin Energy. They are to be trimmed, because they endanger electric power lines. One tree in particular worries me. It leans heavily against the power lines next to our bedroom. I imagine that the storm winds might swing it back and forth so strongly that it will break the lines and cut power to our house and our neighbor’s.

It’s early Friday morning and my husband is still asleep. I decide to act with vigor and determination and keep our neighborhood safe. I’ll cut down the tree.

I get a saw and start sawing. Not too bad. I cut through quite easily and the tree falls in the planned direction. I feel satisfied.

Until I look up.

The tree is not leaning against the lines anymore. It’s hanging on them. With it’s full weight.

OMG! That’s not good. That’s not good at all. That’s horrible! The weight will certainly tear down the electric lines, and we are only hours before Harvey hits the Texan coast. No electricity for days and Austin Energy will probably have something more important to do than restore the power to our little house.

Unless it ignites a fire! Oh my goodness! I start to panic … Okay, breathe in, breathe out … I tell myself: “Pick up the trunk and move it off the lines …”

Despite all my weightlifting practice, I can’t move it an inch. Worse yet, with my moving it, the tree gets more entangled.

I breathe in, I breathe out …

I remember Thich Nhat Hanh saying “If you’re in a hurry, slow down”. Okay. “Elly, don’t act — think.”

I know I can’t stay for hours holding a trunk that’s way too heavy for me. And I don’t see or hear anyone who is within ear distance to call out for help. I conclude it’s up to me to solve this, for better or worse.

I succeed at pushing the trunk into the ground far enough that I think it won’t slide away and the tree will stay upright rather than dragging down the power lines. I run to the shed to get a ladder to get closer to the higher branches. It takes me half an hour and a lot of mindful breathing to fix the problem and get the tree out of the way of the power line. Nothing is broken. We are still safe.

That’s when a tornado of self-critical thoughts engulf in my head: “You absolute, stupid, idiotic moron! You could have killed yourself, you stupid, idiotic moron.” Some of them in Dutch. All of them extremely painful to hear.

I feel super grateful that we just offered our Self-Compassion workshop. I remember that self-compassion is not reserved for those situations, where our suffering is triggered by others. Self-compassion is especially needed when our suffering results from our own mistakes.

Yes, I was unconscious of my incompetence in tree cutting. I feel ashamed and embarrassed for the potential harm I created. That doesn’t make me a person undeserving of compassion, love, and belonging. On the contrary, I need it now more than ever. With some extra attention to my breaths, and some kind words in my head, I start to feel relieved, and even a bit amused by the whole situation. After all: this is the stuff newsletters are made of.

When do you need self-compassion the most? Let me know, I would love to read from you.


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A car driver throws his booger at me

I’ve just been to the dentist. I feel tired. The procedure was more complicated than anticipated. I spent two and a half hours in the dentist chair with my jaw jammed open.

Not very pleasant.

So I feel happy to leave and bike home, an eight mile ride.

I love biking. I love the sense of agency and empowerment I get by navigating traffic, pedaling up a hill, zooming down the hill, feeling the sun and wind on my skin.

The second half of the ride I’m starting to feel exhausted. I have 650 feet of climb, mostly unshaded from the sun, and it is now 101 degrees. I feel too tired to stop and drink water. By the time I’m at 38th Street and Duval, within a mile of home, I feel completely overheated and worn out.

I stop at the traffic light and tap into the last of my resources to be considerate of the driver of the car next to me. He is in the right turning lane, and doesn’t have his turn signal on. I want to know which way he plans to turn. If he is turning right, I will move to his left and give him space. If he wants to continue straight, I will move to his right.

I try to get his attention to coordinate. He doesn’t respond. I turn toward him with some frustration, pointing at his non-blinking lights, and throw my hands in the air, trying to mimic that I want to know which way he’s going. Then he smirks at me and rolls down his window. I assume to coordinate.

Nope.

He throws his booger at me. And drives off.

I feel shocked. I want more care, consideration, and respect in traffic.

Thank God I have learned Marshall Rosenberg’s term “tragic expressions of unmet needs”. Nonviolent Communication teaches that everything we say and do is an attempt to meet beautiful, human, universal needs. Sometimes these strategies do not meet the needs of others. That’s tragic.

This car driver tried to meet precious needs by throwing his booger at me. Maybe he wanted respect (he received my frustration as a form of criticism), autonomy (he wanted to follow his own choices in how to drive), or self-worth (he didn’t like the suggestion that he made a driving error, and wanted to reinforce the thought he was a capable driver).

When I understand that the car driver’s behavior was about his needs, I can take it less personally. I can see that he lacked creativity or support to meet his needs in ways that would nurture my needs too. I can have compassion for his inability to meet his needs in a more collaborative manner, and hold my unmet needs with compassion.

This insight didn’t help then. It helps now by seeing the human behind the tragic expression of unmet needs.

Let me know how this lands for you.

This is a repost from my newsletter, The Lovable Cockroach Gazette, Issue 23, July 21, 2017


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Self-compassion and cockroaches

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.

Ouch…

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.


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Authenticity and Courage

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.


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Holding unmet needs with compassion

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.