Tuesday, February 25, 2014

One Morning's Struggle

I am not writing about happiness...absolutely not.

One day this past week, I arrived in the city to go to work. It was raining and I had to pick up the linens at the laundromat to bring them to my office. I stood on the corner with my umbrella open in one hand, a rolling cart with a tremendous bag of linens in the other, and three bags on my shoulder. I looked at the corner across from me where I was heading and saw I had two options, I could wade through a tremendous, deep puddle all around the corner, which would get my bag of linens wet or I could climb over a foot of  snow next to it hoping the rolling cart would cooperate. There was no good solution and I was short on time. I reluctantly crossed and chose the snow. I got up onto the mound of snow but then saw there were scaffolding bars blocking the way to the sidewalk. I now needed to squeeze between a garbage can and the narrow opening where there were no metal bars. There I was on hill of snow, with an umbrella, my bags falling off my shoulder, and my bag of linens starting to fall off the cart. I must have looked like a sorry sight. I finally put the umbrella down, cursing inside and looking harried. I was about to lift the entire cart up and over to flat ground when a guy standing under the scaffolding, watching me said, "do you need help?" He was standing there with a large Burnese Mountain Dog and an umbrella up. He didn't make a move. Clearly it would have been a project for him to help me, too. Everyone else was just walking by. I looked at him and laughed because I could finally see the absolute absurdity of what I was having to go through. His acknowledgment of my struggle was such a relief. It wasn't his help I needed, as much as someone to say, "wow, I see what you're going through." It changed my whole mood. I could then see the humor in it all. It was a good start to my day working with people who, in some ways, are also coming to have a witness to their struggles. His simple offer changed my day, for which I was grateful. I believe the other people walking by just didn't see me, as huge as I felt in that moment with all my stuff falling everywhere. I know that when I am "busy" or in a hurry or preoccupied, I, too, don't see.

The next time I am in an impossibly ridiculous situation like that one, I want to remember to look up, make eye contact, and laugh. The moment is going to end and if I don't take it so seriously, I can shake my head and find the humor in what we have to go through. I recognize that the tendency in a struggling moment is to narrow my vision, rather than open and share it where I might actually get relief. I can be suffering, however big or small, and not shut others out, but rather open to a universal experience of living that we all share. I also want to remember to show up for others in the same way as that young man with the beautiful dog did for me. It helps me to know that it doesn't take much to alter someone's day. A compassionate witness is all I need to be at times. As long as I am aware and remembering what is important, my eyes will be open and I, too, can show up that way. And so, the practice goes on...

Friday, February 21, 2014

If The Title Was "Happiness" Would You Read It?

I ask that question in the title because of how many page views my post "Sadness" received. I was thinking about how unlikely it would be that "Happiness" as a title would receive as many visits. Why? It is a rather popular subject in the mindfulness and positive psychology movements. This notion that the negative tends to stick to us more and the positive slides right off. We are, often unconsciously, drawn to what is difficult and have to consciously practice soaking in what is easy, good, joyful. This is how I experienced the very subject this week...

As is my usual routine, I went running on Monday. There are many inclines and declines on the paths and roads I choose. The extreme weather this winter has taken its toll, limiting my running opportunities and causing hills to feel more like "exercise" in the hard sense of the word. Running uphill Monday, I had to talk myself through it, agreeing with the voice that said it feels hard and then reminding myself that it is a temporary difficulty and to keep going. It will end, as all uphills do. And then, a greater realization came when I recognized that I was actually going downhill and how pleasant it was. I almost missed it! I wouldn't have missed the incline, but I certainly could have passed right over the decline. Isn't that the way it often is! We see the hardship, feel it, roll around in it, wear it for a while until we shake it off. But, how about happiness? What if we could feel it, roll around in it, wear it for a while (this is the important, often missed, part), and didn't shake it off? If there is one thing I have learned most significantly in the past two years, this might be it. It feels like such a revelation that I keep wanting to share it. Soon, I'll be knocking on doors with pamphlets! The power of recognizing what is good, well, joyful, easy, pleasant and staying with it is profound in its simplicity. It comes in recognizing what gifts I already have. There are always so many when I take the time to appreciate what is right before me. This is also known as gratitude. It can't be an imposed sense of gratitude, it is more like an awakening to awareness. It is humble.

After I wrote my last post where I acknowledged accepting my tiredness and the need to be taken care of without judging the feeling, I suddenly found myself realizing all the ways I have actually been taken care in the past few days. Someone close to me gave me the ability to watch television on my computer, a simple luxury in my cable-less apartment. I'll now be able to watch Downton Abbey on Sunday nights with the rest of you who do. I had the gift of an extra hour before my children arrived for the day so I could run on the first sunny, snow-less morning in a while. I was given a gift for Valentine's Day. My sister and brother-in-law had my kids and I over for dinner,  which was fun for my kids and a relief for me to have adult company. I could go on, but you get the point. This morning, I felt grateful for NJ Transit for getting to me to the city on time. None of that was guaranteed to me to happen. All of those are ways I have been taken care of. They are easy to miss. In the past I would have overlooked them and felt my life was constantly lacking and I would feel a deep longing. What a difference it is to take in the good, which is simple in its form and hidden in its obviousness.

On the days or in the moments when I feel a deep lack of something, as if something essential is missing, I take it in and honor the need and the longing with genuine care. Though I might not do it in the same moment, I also try to see what of that very thing I may already have in some form. This is not talking myself out of the feeling, but a gift I give myself, the gift of seeing. That is not to say that I don't reach for what I may still be longing for, but the longing and search doesn't wipe out what I already have. Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh would say that happiness is available here in this very moment. I used to think this was an overly simplistic statement, but now, I have to agree. I believe it took some suffering to arrive there, but even at my lowest, I now know that the suffering part is is not all of me. There is still the part of me that smiles and laughs, of which I do plenty.

Happiness. It is a title worth reading about. We have to practice it though. In a society where ownership and the accumulation of things seems to be the goal and there is constant barrage of messages suggesting that we need something else, this other way of being in the world, of recognizing the happiness in what we already have, needs to be nurtured and encouraged. It is infectious, too. The more we notice happiness, the more of it we have. I often write about being able to stay with what is difficult and not running from it. In doing that, I have also learned to stay with what is joyful and not run passed it.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Did I Really Sign Up For This?

Over recent weeks, I've had this pervading, unwelcomed sentiment. It goes like this...I can't believe this adult thing we have to do in life. No, I don't mean anything x-rated. I mean this unrelenting responsibility that suddenly hits us around a certain age and never goes away again until, maybe, we are very old and become someone else's responsibility. Before I started to feel this about my life, I was feeling it about my clients' lives. I'd think, "wow, this person never gets to be "off duty, never gets to let go until he/she is in here for an hour." I'm speaking of the endless tasks of an adult life. Waking up, preparing meals, getting kids off to school, working, cleaning, bills, scheduling, laundry, buying groceries, washing dishes, cooking more, cleaning more, getting exercise and doing all the other self-care activities, walking the dog, planning, and did I say cooking more and cleaning more (and if you are in business for yourself, well add that responsibility to it). It goes on and on and doesn't stop. Lately, I've had this feeling like, hey, wait a minute, this is not fair. Did I really sign up for this? Having kids makes it even more apparent...wow, they get all that taken care of! No wonder I feel shocked. (Thank goodness, of course. I wouldn't want it an other way).

That is the monologue that one part of me has. Another part hears this and puts it to shame. Who do you think you are!!! It wants to know. Notice the lack of a question mark and three exclamation points. No, this part will tear the other to shreds making her embarrassed for having the sentiment at all, let alone saying it out loud. This side says, "suck it up; it could be a lot worse, and who said it would be any different!" And then, the big daggers come out and say, "where's all that mindfulness you talk about, anyway, you know the part about enjoying washing the dishes and cutting vegetables."

Well, all that chatter was on high volume today until I was actually on my way to lead meditation. Yes, little, unmindful me leading meditation! On the car ride there it hit me. A new voice that simply said, "Jean, you're tired, that's all. This is not about your lack of mindfulness, or your not being in the present moment." This voice was kind and warm. I heard it and said, "yes, that's right, I am tired." It is not a physical tiredness, it is just a temporary life tired and we can all have that at times. Nothing is bad or wrong and my life is really nice just as it is, I'm just a little tired of taking care of everything and could use a little more being taken care of. Suddenly, the rest dropped away. All the thoughts and judgments slipped away like those ghost creatures, the Dementors in Harry Potter that appear and want to suck the life out of you and then something good arrives causing them to slide away. This kind voice had that effect of making the other thoughts disappear as quickly as they arrived.

What came radiating through in all of this today? Many great teachers talk about it, but from a teacherly distance so it feels like they still have it "together," but when you're in it as they have been, it doesn't feel like we've got it together. No, it feels messy. A mindful life is not about not having difficult feelings. A mindful life is not about being good or wise all the time. A mindful life does not mean you enjoy everything. A mindful life is just what the word means: attentive, aware, careful (of). I was aware of strong aversive feelings. I was aware of the judgments that followed and then I stayed with them to hear the compassionate truth under it all. With all of that, I can then offer to anyone else who wants a rest from adult responsibility my understanding and compassion. It is hard. Beautiful and hard. I wouldn't want it any other way. That is a mindful life. So, the next time you feel taken over by a feeling you wish you didn't have and then it gets dumped on with judgments for having it and then you come through to some other understanding and there is even a touch of relief, you, too can rest in knowing that this is what a mindful life looks like and you are just fine. Beautifully fine.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sensitive Superheros

For much of my life, I have been called the "baby" of the family. Though I am in fact the youngest of three, when it was said, it wasn't meant as a simple fact about my placement in the all too significant family order, but as a somewhat ridiculing statement that I am "too sensitive." Far along into my adulthood, I can now say that this label is accurate. I am too sensitive. Thank goodness. This post is for all of those people out there who may also fall into that rich, sometimes complicated, but truly valuable group of humans.

When I am in my "right mind," I am grateful for my sensitivity. There are so many gifts it brings. It's as if we have some "supernatural" powers. We can walk into a room and unconsciously assess the moods of the people there within a few minutes. I know when to say something and when to wait, or if I know the person well enough, to skip the small talk and ask what's really going on. We see, hear, and feel what many other people wouldn't notice at all. We pick up on the details of life in colors, sounds, movements and interactions. We observe how objects are placed and why or who needs something and who is checked out. And then, there are the other "special" gifts. A friend of mine gets weirded out by the fact that we could be talking on the speaker phone in the car and I recognize by his tone and the background sounds that he has arrived at his destination. He always seems surprised and wonders if I've put a hidden camera somewhere. Ever since I was little, being sensitive enabled me to find things in the house. It's as though my eyes unconsciously take in where everything is in the room. As long as I've seen something once, if you were to ask me, I could probably locate it for you. Sensitive people tend to have a great deal of compassion and can empathize because they see so much and they're paying attention. It's not a matter of effort, we're just wired that way. It can all be exhausting, too, but I've come to affectionately understand this "too sensitive" business and think the benefits are well worth the difficulties that come with it.

Okay, in all honesty, it doesn't always feel that way. Ultimately, it's a lot of work to have superhero like qualities. After all, superheros are in tights and can easily be the source of ridicule. Every now and then, I hear from myself the critical version of "you're too sensitive" (yes, I wish it were the tights that were being made fun of instead). It is full of judgment and anger. I say it to myself and then follow it with a diagnosis that something is really wrong with me. I turn it on myself by saying that I'll never have deeply intimate and lasting relationships. People will get tired of me. That I'll never move up or be successful because I am too effected by what or who is around me and how they are. This voice tells me I should "toughen up." It's not fun in these moments. Though, I do know that in every superhero movie I've seen, at some point, the hero falls hard. It has to happen.

When certain critical words surface in my mind, like the sensitive one, I now know the best thing is to say hello to them with kindness. To not treat them the way they want to treat me. Rather than an eye for an eye, I could welcome the voice and try to remember to ask what's really going on. As all my blog posts tend to say, it's usually some fear and if I tend to that fear I'll actually be taking care of myself and the weapons can be put down. The "too sensitive" part has no weight. It's all a facade of muscle. But, if remember to look closely, there's actually a zipper in the back and it's simply a costume that can come off. Without a doubt, when it is stripped down, the underlying source of the loud and powerful sounding voice behind the curtain is some hidden hurt. It could be the way someone responded to me or the lack of affection or attention from another. I might have misperceived the situation and the other person may have no idea how he/she came across. Either way, until it is clear, it hurts. Rather than be hurt and feel it, the voice of childhood booms its thundering call and out come the words, "you're too sensitive!" This is when, in my healthier states, I can respond. I can answer lovingly or, at the very least, go to someone I trust who can do that (usually another sensitive person). A hero must fall in order to know how to lift someone else up. Imagine a movie a where the hero never suffers. How boring would that be.

I know many people who are "too sensitive." Yes, they struggle at times and sometimes things take a little longer because they have to process more or, simply by their nature, they ask for others to be more aware, but, wow, they are they beautiful people. I am grateful to have them in my life. They notice details like the rare type of print in a book they pick up or the holly berries partially covered in snow on their walk. They remember the specifics of something you shared with them and remember to ask how you are about it at a later time. They tend to be creative and artistic and often have no idea that they are. They are often perceptive and thoughtful. So for all of you who have ever been told you are too sensitive, I bow to you. And, at times when it feels too much, know that to be gifted requires a certain kind of sacrifice, but that ultimately it is a sacrifice that makes for a very beautiful life.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Holy Smokes

It’s another week of writer’s block. I wrote something, but a voice in me wasn’t happy enough with it, so it is sitting as a “draft” in my blog folder like one of those misfit toys that won’t get sent out. I read it to my kids this morning. They both said they liked it, but I said how it wasn’t quite right and how I wanted to come up with something else in the day. Well, evening came and I was sitting with my computer on the couch, still with a blank page when my six year old son came over to me and asked if I sent out that blog post I read to them in the morning. I told him how I was stuck and he said, “well, what did you write about last time?” I replied, “sadness,” to which he paused and then said, “well, I know what you should write about…goodness.” I said, “do you mean happiness?” To which he replied, “yes, happiness.” I told him it was a nice idea and thanked him. I thought to myself, can I really write about happiness on a day where I mostly felt an unrelenting crabbiness? To my surprise, a feeling of absolute delight came with the question and, for the first time all day, I felt happy. In one simple moment and the unexpected help of my child, I was freed from the rabbit hole that the unforeseen snow day brought on. Talk about a lesson in happiness! I needed help. I needed the simple joy of a child who, despite my moodiness, was happy and could call forth the answer with an obvious clarity. I started writing and reading aloud as I wrote, as I sometimes do, and he heard me. After a few minutes, he said aloud, “holy smokes, I’m still so happy that you put me in your blog.” Oh my gosh! Happiness beamed forth again in both of us.

The day had gotten off with a bang at 5:30 in morning with a recorded phone call announcing that school was canceled. Before I was quite conscious, I had a flood of internal questions and then pings started sounding on my phone as I lied there in the dark. What do I do with my clients, will the babysitter still come tonight, how was this going to work. Yes, none of that was pleasant in my semi-conscious state, but none of that was the problem either. The real problem was fear of not making money, a feeling of lack of purpose if I wasn’t working, and then the dread of the absence of any quiet or alone time in the day. That last one I have come to learn is essential to my happiness, unless I am prepared ahead of time, that there won’t be any. I wasn’t prepared today for any of the above. And so, a crabbiness descended that even the most stunning walk in a winter wonderland of the woods with my kids and a thrilled dog could not pop a hole in. No, what turned it around? A simple question…what did you write about last time? Sadness? Well, of course, you write about happiness. It felt like a zen koan when he said it and it still does. There was that “aha” moment and suddenly I was lying on my back as if I was bounced out of some nightmare onto a green, grassy field, stunned and relieved and a bit perplexed. But, such are the nature of koans.

What did I re-learn today? Crabbiness comes and goes. Happiness can arrive in a split second if I pay enough attention. It’s okay to let my kids know I am crabby and that it has nothing to do with them, so they can go on being happy. It’s okay that I need alone time, that I am not a parent or partner that can turn into water at the turn of a faucet and just go with the flow and that I need space. Most of all, that I can be where I am, aware of it, not necessarily liking it, but knowing that it is not all of me and that it can change in a split second by the grace of someone who shows that what I care about matters. The fact that it came from a boy only six years into the world is enough of a reason to smile. And yes, I can write about happiness on a crabby day.