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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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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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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Have your experience and enrich it

Ever traveled business class?

I hadn’t.

In all my travels to and from my family and friends in the Netherlands, I travel economy class. I certainly have looked with envy as I walked past the business class seats, seeing them transform into beds, with clean, cotton pillowcases and yummy comforters.

I have never wanted to spend the money. I have made do with squeezing into an economy seat that I can’t stretch out, expecting to be startled awake when my head slips, as I try to sleep upright in a less than ideal position.

This July, I again traveled to the Netherlands to see my family and friends. And lucky me, my friend used his air miles to buy me plane tickets. When he emailed me my ticket, he wrote that the ticket allows me to use the lounge in Amsterdam and Houston. I didn’t pay much attention to that clue until the evening before my departure.

That evening when I print the ticket, I notice I have a seat all the way in the front of the plane!… When I take a closer look at the seating map, I see… YES! row eight IS business class, and my seat is one of those amazing, reclining seats…

So here I am, a simple girl from the Netherlands, sitting like a queen in this luxurious and comfortable chair. I can’t stop smiling. I play with all the different buttons testing my seat positions: all the way down, all the way up, my legs up and my back down, back up and legs down, everything at 45 degrees! You might understand why, with my excitement, it takes me more than an hour to finally take a nap. Nope. Not a nap. Sleep, deep sleep for more than four hours!

In this glorious moment of having all my senses satisfied, I remember an exercise by Rick Hanson to help change my brain for the better.

It is the HEAL process:

  • Have the experience: bring awareness to your needs being met, that you have feelings you enjoy, that something positive is happening in your life
  • Enrich the experience by focusing on the freshness of the moment, engaging all your senses
  • Absorb the experience as if you’re basking in sunshine, extending the positive feelings with a few minutes
  • Link this positive experience to a negative one in the same realm, to transform the brain’s negativity bias – which Rick Hanson describes as “teflon for positive, velcro for negative”.

Doing this exercise I notice I’m transforming distracting thoughts of scarcity, that I don’t have enough, that I don’t have support to seeing that in this moment I have more than enough conditions to be happy and that I have all the support I want. A sheer delightful experience of abundance.

Which positive experience can you link to transform a negative one? Let me know, I would be delighted to read from you.