Leaving Judgment Behind

Photo by macinate via Flickr Creative Commons

Sometimes I think I need to change this to a blog about coping with chronic pain. I’m on to a new doctor and another round of physical therapy. I’m frustrated that I haven’t been able to write more and keep up with my blogs. On a positive note, though, I have been watching a great video series called, The Compassionate Brain. The last “episode” featured Tara Brach, a leading teacher of mindfulness and author of Radical Acceptance and her forthcoming book, True Refuge. She told a story that I really liked. Sometimes I have trouble remembering something long enough to retell it, but I really wanted to share it with Greg, so I tried extra hard to concentrate.

Here’s the story:

Imagine you are walking through the woods and you see a small dog. You approach the dog and move to pet the dog. It suddenly snarls and tries to bite you. The dog no longer seems cute and you may feel some fear and anger. As the wind blows, the leaves on the ground are carried away and you see the dog has one of its legs caught in a trap. Now, you feel compassion for the dog. You know it became aggressive because it is in pain and suffering.

I told the story to Greg when he got home, and he really like it, too. The very next evening, he told me about a conversation he had with a colleague at work. She was struggling with another person in the agency. This other person came across as very negative and rigid and they were butting heads over some issue. Greg told her the story of the dog in the trap. She later thanked him because this helped her view the “difficult” co-worker in a different light.

I like this story on so many levels. It helps “depersonalize” conflict. When someone disagrees with us or somehow makes our life difficult, it is not really about us—it may be about their pain. Rather than assigning negative motives to those who challenge us, why don’t we give them the benefit of the doubt?

And, if we can give others the benefit of the doubt, why can’t we do the same for ourselves?

Sometimes I feel that I’m not really doing enough with my life. My chronic pain has led me to work fewer hours at my job. And when I’m at home, I need more time to rest—meaning I am less productive there as well.

At other times, though, I see that I make a difference. I think it’s pretty cool that I heard a story while listening to the warm and wise Tara Brach, and then told my husband, who told a colleague…and that this story helped someone think more compassionately about a seemingly difficult co-worker.  This is storytelling at its best.

My influence may be less direct, but no less meaningful. And maybe it’s not about producing a quantity of work…maybe its about being as compassionate as I can be, to myself and others, and seeing where that leads me.

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Life in a Box

Photo by robhowells87 via flickr cc

No, I’m not a homeless person, but I have lived much of my life in a box. Not a cardboard box, but an imaginary box surrounding my body and restricting my every move.

I spent nearly 20 years in school, sitting at a desk.

I wrote a Master’s thesis, a disseration, and four books, typing and sitting at a desk.

I spent another 20 years counseling others, while sitting.

Now I work as a medical consultant, reviewing medical records, typing, all the while sitting at a desk.

My favorite hobby has been scrapbooking, mostly done at a table or a desk.

When I stop and think about it, it’s no surprise that I have pain from my shoulders, down through my arms, and all the way to my fingertips.

But there’s more. And this part is harder to share. Not only have my physical movements been restricted, but my emotional repertoire has been limited as well. I’ve lived most of my life as a people-pleasing good girl. In other words, I don’t do anger well. I don’t want to make others mad, and I definitely don’t want others mad at me. (At least 20 minutes have gone by with me staring blankly at the screen.) I’m drawing a blank at knowing what else to write; that’s how out of touch I am with anger. If you asked me, “What makes me angry?” I would be hard-pressed to come up with an answer. I’m not sure I even know what it feels like. I recently read that anxiety is a reaction to repressed anger. It’s a bit too Freudian-sounding to me, but what if there’s even a grain of truth to it? I may not do anger, but I certainly excel in anxiety.

I’m not sure where this all is going, and it’s disconcerting.

My challenge is not the typical “think outside the box.” No, I have to figure out a way to live outside the box. Even if that means getting off my butt and kicking some ass. (Oh my, that last sentence is so not me.)

Love and Baseball

Photo by Mike Tigas via Flickr CC

(This is a guest post by Greg, my baseball-loving and very sweet husband.)

***

I have always been a baseball fan, and I grew up wanting to play for the St. Louis Cardinals. I remember pitcher Bob Gibson who was such an intense competitor that he continued pitching after suffering a broken leg. I never made it to the major leagues, but I did pitch in college.

When Barb and I were dating about 25 years ago, we went to a Cardinals game together. It was miserably hot as it often is in St. Louis, and I was very focused on the game. She said I ignored her and she swore afterward that she would never go to another game (one of our first fights). Over the years, she grew to tolerate baseball and even have some fleeting interest.

Of course, her interest was most intense when our son was playing little league and I was coaching. She loved the games and wanted to document every moment. Once she was taking pictures of our son warming up to pitch when one of his throws got away. The ball hit Barb squarely in the shin. Over the next few days, we watched as her leg took on a variety of technicolor hues. Barb may be very gentle, but she is also very tough.

This brings me to today.

Chris Carpenter is pitching for the Cardinals. Carpenter has been the ace pitcher for the Cardinals for several years, and he was a key to their championship in 2011. Carpenter has been out all season due to chronic pain, numbness, and weakness as a result of thoracic outlet syndrome. Just two months ago, he had a rib and part of his scalene muscle surgically removed. His return today is a testament to his determination. In baseball parlance, he is a gamer.

So, why am I writing about a baseball player on a self-compassion blog?

Those of you who follow this blog regularly know that Barb has been struggling with chronic pain. Like Chris Carpenter, she has thoracic outlet syndrome. She was diagnosed by the same doctor that first identified Carpenter’s condition. Barb and I feel a kinship with this major league pitcher that we’ve never met.

Barb works at a job that requires a tremendous amount of typing. Typing (or any repetitive motion, such as pitching) exacerbates the pain of thoracic outlet syndrome. But, just like Bob Gibson pitching with a broken leg, Barb continues on with pain. She doesn’t like to complain–she just wants to do her job.

Today, though, Barb went against her basic nature. With my encouragement, she talked to her boss and explained her condition. Barb had been dreading this because she does not like to call attention to herself, but I thought she should let her supervisor know in case she needed anything down the line. Perhaps in an effort to channel Chris Carpenter’s determined spirit, she wore a Cardinals shirt to work (it was a “dress-down Friday). Her boss responded very reassuringly, telling her that she is one of the agency’s “rock stars,” and that they would do anything possible to support her.

Cardinals fans revere Chris Carpenter. He competes intensely, and by his example, he brings out the best in his teammates. His efforts are seen on televisions across the country.

I love the lessons and mythology that come from sports. But, as I talk with Barb tonight, I realize not all warriors wear uniforms. Not all heroes are famous. Let’s acknowledge all those who struggle with dignity, and let’s love and support them.

Long Days, Short Summer

Gretchen Rubin said, “The days are long but the years are short.” That’s how I feel about this summer. Some of the days dragged for me, especially dealing with more pain than usual (see my post Tiny Dreams). But now I don’t know where the time went. Everyone is back in school and fall is near.

Despite the pain, there are definitely fun times I will remember about this summer. I feel a little silly sharing them–they’re not exciting things like going on vacation or anything like that. But they mean something to me.

* Watching the HBO series, Flight of the Concords, as a family for the third time. It’s hard to describe the show’s appeal; you’d probably either love it or hate it. The series revolves around a pair of folk singers from New Zealand as they try to achieve success as a band in New York City. It’s off-beat and quirky. I love it that we all three laugh out loud through every episode. (Well, I’ll be honest. Greg did fall asleep once.)

* Turning a large walk-in closet in the basement into a makeshift recording studio for our son. We pinned old comforters all over the walls and had blankets lining the ceiling. A folding chair and old table for his laptop, plus his guitars, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, ukulele and some other new instruments ordered off the Internet (a melodica?) made for a cozy space. It was pretty insulated, but occasionally I’d hear some random clapping wafting through the vents. I’m so happy our home could be a place where he could create his own wonderful (also off-beat, quirky, and make-you-smile) kind of music.

*Spending lots of time sitting on the covered patio just watching the birds and hearing the neighborhood kids playing. I really embraced just being, and didn’t worry that I didn’t “accomplish” much of anything this summer (see my post Busy Be Gone).

I’d be tickled pink if you’d like my self-compassion Facebook page–you can click here. You can also follow me on Twitter by clicking here. I’m turning into a social media junkie 🙂

Here is Gretchen Rubin’s heart-warming one-minute video, The Years are Short.

Tiny Dreams

Larry loves to dream, big or small, it doesn’t matter

People tell you to dream big

but maybe it’s the tiny dreams that matter.

Sometimes my dream

is just to make it through the day.

I wrote these lines a few weeks ago and have been waiting for more words to come to mind, words that would sound more positive and hopeful. (I shared in my last post that I’ve been dealing with a bout of increased pain–more than my usual baseline of chronic pain, which I’ve learned to manage.)

I’ve decided to stop waiting for any profound insights because I’m really at a pretty basic level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs right now. So, I’ve decided to take my own advice and focus on the tiny dreams:

  • When I feel tired, I will rest.
  • When I feel hungry, I will eat.
  • (And I’ll try not to get the previous two mixed up.)
  • When I feel sad, I will let myself cry.
  • When I feel happy, I will let myself smile.
  • When I need help, I will ask.
  • Regardless of how I feel, I will be kind.
  • I will remind myself that my blog is called The Self-Compassion Project!

Most of all, I will remember that tiny dreams are still dreams. All dreams matter.

Finding refuge in tough times

I have been in the midst of a pain flare-up and haven’t been able to do much on the computer 😦 I miss blogging and communicating with all of you! I just cheated a little and found this Q/A from Tara Brach. She has a wonderful book called Radical Acceptance, and this was on her Facebook page today. It speaks to where I am–in the midst of struggling, yet trying to lean into the struggle, not fight so hard, and most of all, trying to find the presence of mind to remember self-compassion. I hope to be able to write more soon!

Okay, this is Tara “talking” below:

Question: How can we remind ourselves of what refuge is when difficult times come to life?

Response: There is a deep and powerful question you can ask yourself: How can this situation serve the awakening of my heart and mind? Then let that be your prayer–that whatever is going on in your life be part of what truly can free your heart and spirit. If this is your question and your prayer…then you will be guided home to an inner refuge of peace and freedom.

Sometimes the heart has to be broken open to be free, and the process can feel like a huge confusing, frightening mess. Please trust that within you is the love and awareness to awaken through all situations. The key is to take refuge in presence over and over, with tremendous self-compassion. The more you turn toward presence, the more you trust the process…the more fully you will discover an inner sanctuary of peace and freedom.

Busy Be Gone

Brene´ Brown recently posted this on her Facebook page: “It’s so easy to buy into the idea that if we stay busy enough the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us. When they start having 12-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums.” This clearly resonated with people.  1,183 people liked it and 80 people commented. I replied, “Great idea, but I might be too busy to go.”

I love her writing, but sometimes Brene´ uses such big concepts, I’m not 100% sure what she means. I definitely relate to the part about busyness, but I’m not positive what it means about the truth of our lives catching up with us. Maybe I’ll figure it out as I’m writing. Maybe it will be a separate piece.

In my post, The Grass Always Grows Where You Water It, I wrote: “It’s May 1st, and I usually would have already had my monthly goals mapped out in my mind (and on paper). But not this month. I’ve been busy living, so that’s a good thing!” I also added that I wasn’t even worried about not having any formal goals. Well, I lied. I’ve been scared out of my mind. I’ve been doing a lot of not being busy, and I wonder if I’ll turn into some sort of sluggish sloth!  What if I never set another goal again?

Busy has always been a good thing in my family. It means you’re being productive. My family is of German descent, and I think it’s a cultural thing. During weekly Sunday phone calls, my mother cheerily told me to “Have a productive day.” In talking with another woman of German heritage, she said her mother said exactly the same thing! She also told me about a German word,  sitzfleish. It literally means the virtual flesh that exists between one’s behind and the chair. Figuratively, it refers to the ability to persist in one’s work, the patience that can endure anything, and the idea that work is more important than play.

I’ve certainly had a lot of sitzfleish in my life. I’ve prided myself on being able to plow through work and sit there until the job is done. And I’m not knocking the value of being able to keep your butt on the chair. It’s a skill that has served me well over the years, especially spending oodles of study time earning a doctorate and pounding out four books.

For me, busy has been fun. It has often meant being fully focused and engaged, in a state of creative flow.

My problem is that I take it too far. I don’t know when to stop, take a break, get up from the computer, walk around, stretch, move, breathe. Can you have too much creative flow? Sometimes I think so. I can get so immersed in what I’m doing that I forget to eat—and that’s saying something! (Maybe there’s a book in there…Write Yourself Thin.)

Ethan Nichtern, a popular Buddhist teacher, talks about the Tibetan concept of coemergence. He defines it as  “the ability of any particular phenomenon or experience to manifest as either wisdom or confusion, helpful or harmful, a weapon or a prison. So busy is not good or bad, it’s what we do with it.

I’ve never been good at finding balance in my life. I’m an all-or-nothing kind of girl. Greg teases me about it all the time. For example, when I want to change the thermostat in the house (and being a middle-aged woman that is about every five minutes), I ask him, “Are you hot or are you freezing?”

If there’s one good thing that has come from my chronic pain, it’s that it’s making me more mindful of my work habits. I simply can’t work for as long as I used to. But I’m still fighting that fact. I usually don’t notice I’ve worked too long until my body screams at me.

Hmmm, I’m sensing a new goal…start listening for the tiny whispers.

***

We have a great covered patio, and I think I’ve sat outside more this month than in all the months we’ve lived here combined (about 5 years). I’ve been watching birds build nests, listening to them sing, and feeling the breezes blow. I’ve enjoyed sharing this time with Greg, my college-age son who has been home more, and of course, Lily and Larry. As I’m sitting here finishing this, I see 7  Goldfinches, an Indigo Bunting, two Cardinals, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and two Wrens who live in the birdhouse you’ll see pictured below. I’ve named them Henry and Harriet. They seem like a great couple! I wonder if they’ve done much decorating in their house…

There’s no place like home.

Windy day!

Trying to get Lily and Larry to pose.

We’ve had enough of this!