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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.

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.

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.

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.

How does your perspective influence your experience?

Barton Springs is my favorite spot ever since I arrived in Austin, April 2009. During summer, my husband and I go there on Saturday afternoons to connect with friends, juggle, swim, and take it easy. Others around us do acro-yoga, hula hoop, and play music.

The water is spring fed and constant 68 degrees all year, even when the Texas sun brings us temperatures of 100 F or more. The water feels cold, very cold. The only way I can get into the water, is by jumping or diving in. Walking down the steps feels like torture.

When I scheduled my Mikveh at the springs, I asked my Rabbi if I could jump in, instead of walking down the stairs. He had never had that question, and answered “Yes, I think so”. I felt relieved.

We gather on Friday evening September 8 for my Mikveh. The outside temperature is 85 F and the sun is setting. The Rabbi explains why we have gathered. I share why I chose my Jewish name Elisheva (in honor of the name Elizabet my beloved parents gave me), I say my prayer, and I head to the water.

Without thinking, I simply walk down the stairs into the water. It doesn’t feel cold at all. It feels comfortable, almost as if God is embracing me, as if I’m coming home to a very safe, loving place.

My surprise at being able to comfortably walk into the cold water makes me think of how my perspective influences my experience and changes the opportunities I see.

If we think we’re a loser, we’d probably feel sad, discouraged, or depressed. We don’t see many opportunities. “Why bother with the effort? We’ll lose anyway.” If we see ourselves as a unique person, worthy of love, we might feel creative, or secure, trusting that there is support when we need it. When we see ourselves through the eyes of our biggest critic, we might think we don’t do enough, we’re lacking, and we can’t rest. When we see ourselves from the perspective of our biggest fan, we might see how kind, caring, and giving we are. We might know that our lives are filled with connection, love, and opportunities. We see our innate goodness.

I believe we can choose which perspective we take. And with that, we can influence the opportunities we see.

How? Try this experiment:

  • Pull up a table you can easily walk around, empty it, and place something in the middle that represents you.
  • Walk to one side, and say out loud whose perspective you’re taking. Maybe it is your inner child, your future self, your biggest fan, or your loudest critic. Say how you see yourself from this perspective, and which opportunities you see for yourself.
  • Walk to the spot left of you, and take on another perspective. Again, share how you see yourself from that spot, and which opportunities seem available.
  • Do this six times in total, including both negative and positive perspectives, ending on something positive.
  • Now choose the perspective that resonates most strongly with you and experience what happens.

Which perspective do you take on yourself? Let me know, I would love to read from you.

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.