The Grass Grows Where You Water It

I saw this saying, “The grass grows where you water it,” and it speaks to how I’m feeling today.

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’m loving my writing class, and I’ve chosen to spend my extra time soaking up all that goodness. I also went on a blogging binge last week and posted something Monday through Friday. Whew!

But (I know, there shouldn’t always be a but)…I’m having trouble focusing on more than one thing at a time. In February, I did great when I followed Sharon Salzberg’s 28-day meditation challenge. In March, I focused more on my physical health, managing my chronic pain, and have made some significant diet changes (you know, I reluctantly joined the free-range chicken/organic produce/supplement-popping club). In April, I immersed myself in the Alchemy writing class. In the meantime, I’ve let the meditation slide, although I’m managing to keep the dietary changes intact. I’ve found that when I focus my attention, I’m quite capable of making changes in my life. Yet I have trouble maintaining the changes, especially while trying to introduce new things, as well.

photo by Omega Man, Flickr CC

Does anyone know how to keep everything going?  I think I need one of those really long soaker hoses, so I can keep everything watered at once.

Although I don’t have my May goals to share with you, I want to tell you this. I’m being much more self-compassionate.  I sensed it and felt it, but I wanted proof. I retook the self-compassion test and compared it to the results when I began this project (you can find the test here). My scores show I’ve made significant strides in each of the areas measured. I’m really grateful and excited about that!

I’m not even too worried about not having any formal goals this month. I’ll probably start meditating again, because as Sharon Salzberg says, you can always begin again. I don’t even feel guilty (HUGE change) for not meditating. That’s just the way it’s happened. I’ll keep working on my health and exploring ways to manage my pain. I’ll definitely keep writing. And a huge thank you to everyone who keeps reading The Self-Compassion Project. Happy May Day!

photo by Greg Markway

Coping with Chronic Illness…Compassionately

Although Toni Bernhard’s book is called How to be Sick, I found it a lovely and poignant read on how to live, regardless of one’s health status.

Toni was a law professor at the University of California–Davis when she became ill on a trip to Paris in 2001. At the time, she was diagnosed with an acute viral infection–“the Parisian flu” they called it. Unfortunately, she never got better. Amazingly, she wrote How to be Sick from her bed using a laptop. The book won the 2011 Gold Nautilus Book Award in Self-Help/Psychology and was named one of the best books of 2010 by Spirituality and Practice.

Toni has not recovered her health, but her spirit remains strong. She writes regularly for Psychology Today and generously donates her time and wisdom. I was so excited when she graciously agreed to be interviewed for my blog.

When do you accept your pain or health condition as is, and when do you keep trying new approaches?

In my opinion, we have to do both. Acceptance is not the same as indifference or resignation, which carry aversion with them. Acceptance to me is an opening of the heart to the difficulties we face and being able to say, “This is how things are right now” even if “how things are” is difficult. I try to accept how I am AND continue to pursue new treatments. But I’ve learned a lot in the past eleven years about having to pick and choose skillfully among those treatments.

First, of course is the cost. I’ve spent so much money on failed treatments that it’s been a strain on our budget. At the point when the strain outweighs any benefit I can foresee, I stop (I did this recently with the third Chinese herbalist, even though he’s one of the most respected herbalists in the world).

Second, I’ve had to learn to not just jump at every treatment option, but think about it carefully and see if it’s at all reasonable. I used to try everything. Now, I’m very careful.

So, you have to find a middle way — but to me, acceptance of how you are now AND continuing to pursue treatments are not in conflict with each other.

I have also gone through periods where I’m just too exhausted to keep an eye out for treatments. I just retreat, as if I’m in hibernation, and that seems to be good for me sometimes too.

How do you have self-compassion when you’re feeling sick and tired?

I always tell people that the single most important thing they can do is to be kind to themselves. I look at it this way. We control so little in our lives, but the one thing we can control is how we treat ourselves. I see no reason for us not to be as kind and gentle with ourselves as we can be. It’s not our fault that we have health problems. We’re in bodies and they get sick and injured. It will happen to everyone. This is how it’s happening to us. I’ve had so many people write to me and say the single most important thing they got out of my book was to give up the self-blame and forgive themselves for being sick or in pain. Many people have said they didn’t even realize they hadn’t forgiven themselves until they read How to Be Sick. Those emails always touch me so much — just to know I’ve been of help to them.

I really think it helps to speak to yourself with words of self-compassion — to find just the right words for the moment: “It so hard to be sick yet another day.” I said to my husband yesterday, “I’m sick of being sick.” But, instead of “feeding” that thought with stories I spin: “I’ll never get well.” “I’ve been cheated of eleven years of my life,” I’ve learned to just let myself feel “sick of being sick” and speak to myself kindly about it. It’s natural for that emotion to arise so I try not to make it stronger by feeling it with worse-case-scenario stories. Instead, I’m just gentle with myself until the emotion passes — as it will.

How do you deal with uncertainty and unpredictability that goes along with chronic illness?

I use what I call “weather practice,” which I describe in my book. It was inspired by the movie, The Weather Man, which takes us inside the meteorologist’s craft where we see that the weather is unpredictable and ever changing. I use this as a metaphor for life. It helps me hold painful physical symptoms and blue moods more lightly. I can’t predict when they’ll arise but I know for sure that they’re just blowing through, like the wind. It makes it easier to wait them out. It applies to what happened yesterday when I suddenly got that “sick of being sick” feeling. I wasn’t expecting it to descend on me but it did. So I let it be there, knowing that it was an arising and passing mood. Sometimes, I do something particularly nice for myself — put on a movie — until the mood passes.

I also like to remind myself that uncertainty and unpredictability can work in my favor. We assume they’ll be a source of stress, but they could also mean that something unanticipated but wonderful is just around the corner. So, I like to remember that these two can be our friends.

How do you pace yourself (not doing too much on good days, then paying for it later)?

Now you’re asking about something I’m not very good at doing. I get off the hook a bit because my symptoms are pretty consistent from day to day — relentless you could call them. So for me, it’s not a question of overdoing it on a good day v. a bad day, but of overdoing it when something I enjoy is going on — like my son and his family coming up for the day from Berkeley. I try to pace myself but usually overdo it anyway. Then what do I do? Self-compassion again! There are some limits to which I can’t stretch myself, but visiting in the living room for longer than I should is one of them. And so I do it, and accept that paying the consequence was worth it.

How do you deal with anger?

I’ve been angry about my inability to be with my family more than I can. Sometimes, I do have to leave the living room and it’s hard to listen from the bedroom to all the laughter and good times I’m missing. But I’ve learned that getting angry doesn’t get me anywhere. It certainly doesn’t allow me to visit longer. All it does is increase our suffering.

Anger will arise. Don’t be upset with yourself for getting angry. It’s a natural response to your situation. The question is, how can you respond skillfully to it so as to minimize the suffering it causes. Here’s what I do. I note that it’s there, often by labeling it, “Feeling angry” or “This is what anger feels like.” I don’t get angry at myself for being angry — that’s just a judgment that makes the anger worse. In fact, I try to treat it like a guest I know well — an uninvited one perhaps, but still a guest. I find if I do this, it doesn’t fester and grow stronger. Then I look for what’s behind the anger. Almost always it’s some form of desire — I’m not getting what I want or I’m getting what I don’t want. It’s that “want/don’t want” I refer to in the book.

Just finding the desire that’s the source of the anger often loosens its grip on me, because I know, deep down, that we simply can’t fulfill all our desires and that if I continue to be angry about it, it will only make me more miserable and, in the end, won’t get me what I want. So, with this awareness that anger is present and that it’s because of a desire I can’t fulfill, I just let it be. Just sit with it. Just let it be until it gradually changes, weakens, and passes out of my mind. This is one of the ways in which the law of impermanence can be our friend!

Again, I’m so thankful to Toni for sharing her wisdom.  

To soak up more of Toni’s inspiration, click here.

Thinking about the Weather

photo by Greg

They say in Missouri that if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes and it will change. I’m pretty sure they say this in a lot of places. Right now, it’s pouring down rain. My dogs are mad that their bathroom is wet 🙂 I’m waiting for a webinar to begin of Dr. Kristen Neff teaching about self-compassion. She’s speaking from California live, and I’ll bet the weather is warm and sunny there.

In the meditation practice I’ve been doing lately, I’ve been working with thoughts. We all have a stream of automatic thoughts running through our minds. These thoughts are often undetectable, yet powerful nonetheless.  It’s like having background music playing while you work. Most of the time you don’t even notice it’s on — you simply go about what you’re doing. But have you ever felt that different music affects your mood or even your energy level? Perhaps also your ability to concentrate?

In my book Painfully Shy, I offered this tip on dealing with automatic thoughts: Call a spade a spade.  I wrote: “The first thing you must do to deal with automatic thoughts is identify and label them appropriately. Recognize your socially anxious thoughts for what they are — misleading and maladaptive. Thoughts running through your mind such as, “Everyone is staring at me” or “I’m such a loser,” are simply not true — they’re manifestations of social anxiety. It can be an enormous help to relabel these thoughts and realize you don’t have to pay attention to them.”

I went on: “This technique of ‘relabeling’ your thoughts is used in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), an anxiety disorder in which people are plagued with obsessive thoughts (e.g., I will be contaminated by germs) and compulsions (e.g., I must wash my hands over and over). In his book Brain Lock, UCLA School of Medicine psychiatrist Jeffrey M. Schwartz describes OCD’s intrusive thoughts as the brain misfiring. He instructs people to tell themselves, ‘It’s not me — it’s my OCD.’

In my experience, the thoughts of social anxiety sufferers are equally intrusive and unpleasant. No one wakes up one morning and says, ‘I’d like to worry all day long about what other people think of me.’ And although it’s probably not as simple as the brain misfiring, relabeling anxious thoughts as being at least partly biological can be quite helpful. Telling yourself, ‘It’s not me — it’s my anxiety,’ relieves you of some of the guilt and shame you may feel about having the thoughts in the first place.”

In Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness, and in many of her meditation CDs, she also talks about thoughts not being facts, or acts. They’re just thoughts. She writes: “Thoughts moving through your mind are like clouds moving across the sky. They are not the sky, and the sky remains unchanged by them.”

And to end with a touch of humor on this rainy day, a quote from George Carlin:

“Weather forecast for tonight: dark.”

Take What You Need

I’ve been feeling both antsy and lethargic since Sharon Salzberg’s “official” meditation challenge was over in February. I almost hate to admit it, but I went a few days without meditating. I thought about it. But I didn’t do it.

I noticed a few things. First of all, I didn’t feel as good, just in general. I was more tired than usual, and I spent a lot of time lying on the couch. Now this could be for any number of reasons (a lot of people have been getting sick around here). It did cross my mind, though, that I was going through meditation withdrawal—or maybe even Sharon withdrawal 🙂 The second thing I noticed was a bit of a shocker: I wasn’t beating up on myself.  In the past I would’ve condemned myself for being a “fraud”—here I spent a month blogging about meditation and then I quit. Yet, I remembered Sharon’s words from Week One. The “magic” in meditation is learning that we can begin again. Maybe we made a poor choice about something; we can begin again. Maybe we said some unkind words to someone; we can apologize and begin again. Maybe we ate too many Oreos; we don’t have to wait for tomorrow (or Monday morning) to start eating healthier. We can begin again, right now.

Of course, I didn’t have these revelations with out a tiny bit of struggle.

Yesterday I was pacing around the living room, feeling wound up and agitated, and I told Greg, “I just don’t know what I need.” Fortunately, he sometimes knows what I need better than I know myself. He said, “Why don’t you go and meditate?” Hmm. That sounded okay. So I went into the room that I have dedicated to this practice. I have a picture on a little table that says, “Take what you need.” I lit a candle, gazed at the picture, and enjoyed some soothing music for a while. Then I listened to Sharon Salzburg’s breathing meditation, and followed with some more meditating on my own.

I love the saying, “Take What You Need.”* But what if you don’t know what you need? What then? What if I hadn’t had Greg to nudge me in the right direction? I felt so relaxed and peaceful after meditating. Why had it taken me days to figure out that’s what I needed?

Of course, I always like things to be wrapped up in a neat little package. I asked Greg to help me brainstorm “tips” for how to figure out what you need. It seems like all good blog posts need tips. (My niece would add “LOL” at this point.) Without pausing, Greg replied, “When you don’t know what you need, just let yourself be.” Well, that sounds poetic, but it wasn’t very satisfying to me. I still had the urge to “operationalize” it more. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Accept the fact that you don’t know what you need.
  • Give yourself compassion for not knowing what you need. Say things to yourself such as, “It’s hard when you don’t know what you need.”
  • Try some things on for size: Do you need to call a friend? Do you need to take a warm bath? Perhaps make a cup of tea? Do something you’ve been putting off?
  • Realize that you may need more than one thing. Just try one and see how it goes. You can always change. You can always begin again.

I wonder whether, over time, meditation will help me be more in tune with what I need at each moment. I’m betting the answer is yes. But I’ll let you know.

(If you enjoyed this post, click on over to my Facebook page and hit like. I post shorter tidbits about self-compassion, share good links, and let you know when I’ve written something new. Thanks for your support!)

*See Kelly Rae Roberts blog for some of her awe-inspiring artwork and the idea behind this picture.

This, too.

From Pinterest

I’d about worked myself into a full-blown worry attack. There are a lot of things up in the air right now in which timing is key and I don’t have control of many of the variables. I felt crabby, and I craved a big bowl of New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream. My inner rebel kicked in and my self-talk sounded something like this: “I should meditate, but I don’t want to meditate. I’m sad the 28-day Meditation Challenge with Sharon Salzberg is over, and I probably won’t be able to keep the practice going on my own. Who am I kidding? I’m not the meditating type!”

Before I could go much further (as if that wasn’t far enough), the words popped into my mind, “This, too.”* Now where did that come from? The words came to me in a quiet, kind tone of voice, unlike the critical tone I’m so accustomed to hearing in my head. I can’t believe it. Only a month of meditating and I can’t even indulge in a good worry episode? This was new for me. I felt a gentleness with myself that hadn’t been there before. My worries were still there, but I felt some space…a little more room to maneuver. The quiet voice continued:

Things end. This, too.

Things aren’t in my control. This, too.

I don’t want to do things, even when they’re good for me. This, too.

I worry. This, too.

I laid down on the couch and took some deliberate deep breaths. I said some lovingkindness phrases for myself and others. And then I took a nap.

This, too.

*I’m sure I’ve heard the phrase “This, too” somewhere. I’m getting paranoid that with all the reading I’m doing, that others’ words are seeping into my consciousness and I don’t know to whom to attribute them. Whoever came up with this phrase, thank you. It’s a really good phrase.

(If you enjoyed this post, click on over to my Facebook page and hit like. I post shorter tidbits about self-compassion, share good links, and let you know when I’ve written something new. Thanks for your support!)

Tweeting with Sharon

Sharon Salzberg

A week ago today I participated in my first “Tweetchat.” This is quite an accomplishment for me as six months ago I didn’t have a clue what Twitter was all about, and I still don’t fully understand it. For those Twitter-challenged like myself, a Tweetchat is sort of like a virtual meeting held on Twitter. Everyone gets together at a certain time and uses the same hashtag (#) and an actual conversation takes place (it’s magic!).

This Tweetchat was with Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation. Although I had some anxiety ahead of time (What would I ask? Would I sound dumb? Would I make some Twitter faux pas?), it went really well and I got a lot out of it. Since then, I’ve been obsessed with organizing the content. I saved everything right afterward (because I don’t think Twitter keeps things very long), printed it all out, and then organized tweets by topic. This isn’t everything, but it will give you some of the highlights.

First, as with any social engagement, there are a few pleasantries and introductions:

Sharon Salzberg Getting ready for the #realhappiness #tweetchat at 1:30 PM today! Tweet you soon!

barbmarkway Ready for my first tweet chat with @Sharon Salzberg #realhappiness

HMKoutoukas Happy President’s Day! This Month’s #TweetChat will start at 1:30 PM with @SharonSalzberg. Open to all! #realhappiness

On meditation practice in general:

HMKoutoukas Q: What time of day is best to start your practice via @FaceBook Fan #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@HMKoutoukas The time when U’ll actually do its the best time. Going from thinking abt it 2 doing its the hardest part #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@HMKoutoukas I try to sit first thing in the am, before e-mail! #realhapiness

barbmarkway Sometimes I feel like I’m just daydreaming with a few deep breaths thrown in #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@barbmarkway Sometimes it is just a few mindful breaths! but in the long run, we are still building awareness. It’s good #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@TheBuffyProject They say the Buddha taught med. in 4 postures – sitting, standing, walking & lying down #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@2catsandapencil Even if I’m sleepy or concentration seems crummy. In the end, it’s all good. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@2catsandapencil Sometimes we think things r going badly but when we look back we see we were building strength and openness #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@2catsandapencil Please keep going. it takes time but meditation really does have an effect. #realhappiness

On dealing with thoughts and anxiety:

SpicedNutmeg When I sit initially my mind is quiet and then there is flood of thoughts and no stop to it. Thank #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@SpicedNutmet Practice cn B more abt getting space from thought than stopping them. Then flood of thoughts is no problem. #realhappiness

CharleySez Hi. Meditating can give more space for anxieties and worries as there are no distractions. How best can we sit with these? #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@CharleySez true. 1st understand it’s normal. 2nd, we work w/balanced awareness & compassion 4 ourselves #realhappiness

SharonSalzbert@CharleySez it includes feeling the worry in yr body then moving attention 2 something easier 2 b w/then back. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@CharleySez We try 2 call anxiety painful rather than “bad”. that takes practice 2! #realhappiness

CharleySez@SharonSalzberg Thank you. Being with the worry, also with compassion for self, taking it moment by moment – I will do that. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@CharleySez That sounds great! You will see changes, more in your life than on the cusion. but that’s where it counts. #realhappiness

On dealing with emotions:

SpicedNutmeg I find it difficult to separate the thought and emotion. I’m caught in it. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@SpicedNutmeg mayB ask yourself “What am I feeling in my body?”. Breath & body will giv sum space w/out denying the emotion. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@SpicedNutmeg Can u feel your emotions in your body? that is often grounding, and interesting 2 #realhappiness

TheBuffyProject Sometimes it’s important to give yrself the space to feel unhappy, too. That, too, is #compassion #realhappiness

TheBuffyProject “I feel what I feel, and it’s ok.” Recognition leads to potential options. #realhappiness

On dealing with anger:

Stacysingsone Wanted to ask ? about compassion–the more compassion I feel, the more angry I feel when others do not #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@Stacysingsone When you c lack of compassion can u remind yourself that the lack is itself suffering? #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@Stacysingsone It is hard 2 c. The Buddha said, within & without, we are fighting ignorance. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@Stacysingsone It’s not that anger is “bad” but it won’t work. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@Stacysingsone If we think of it as bad we usually strengthen it. even tho we don’t want to #realhappiness

Stacysingsone@SharonSalzberg Thanks for thoughts on anger. have more work to do. #realhappiness

On working with pain:

barbmarkway I struggle with “Is pain real?” I blame myself. I sometimes use the mind/body connection against myself. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@barbmarkway Pain is real @ it’s hard. it also changes w/in itself. we can make it harder due 2 habits. Rt. thr is R work. #realhappiness

barbmarkway@SharonSalzberg Yes, I do a lot of “add on” like you write about. Trying to notice that more. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@barbmarkway Very hard. But good to examine what makes things worse. that’s the part we don’t have 2 feel helpless about #realhappiness

barbmarkway@SharonSalzberg So hard not to anticipate more pain when you’re in “chronic pain” cycle #realhappiness

MettBomb RT@SharonSalzberg@HMKoutoukas Research shows Med. affects pain first by helping us not anticipate next hit of pain. #realhappiness

barbmarkway@SharonSalzberg Thank you for this! #realhappiness

(If you enjoyed this post, click on over to my Facebook page and hit like. I post shorter tidbits about self-compassion, share good links, and let you know when I’ve written something new. And of course, you can follow me on Twitter. Thanks for your support!)