The Magic Moment #tinyhearts

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February is a good month for so many reasons – Birthdays, Valentine’s Day (love and hearts), and Sharon Salzberg’s annual meditation challenge. I’ve meditated daily for the past two February’s, and the experience has been valuable. Despite the fact that over the year I turn into a sporadic meditator, certain concepts stick with me–one of them being ” the magic moment.”

Many people think that when you meditate, you clear your mind of all thoughts. But minds wander–that’s just what they do.  Rather than thinking that this is a sign of failure (“I’m horrible at meditation), Sharon describes it as a magic moment.

The moment that we realize our attention has wandered is the magic moment of the practice, because that’s the moment we have the chance to be really different. Instead of judging ourselves, and berating ourselves, and condemning ourselves, we can be gentle with ourselves.

—Sharon Salzberg

This magic moment message can be extended in so many ways.

  • The magic moment is when we go from driving ourselves too hard to letting ourselves rest.
  • The magic moment is when we move from trying to be perfect to being real.
  • The magic moment is when we move from isolation to realizing we’re all in this together.
  • The magic moment is when we stop fearing change and embrace uncertainty instead.
  • The magic moment is when we come home to ourselves.

Oh, and by the way, I’m meditating again this February. The old me would have said, “Why are you even doing this again. It hasn’t stuck before; what’s going to be different this year?” but the new me says, “Hmm, I wonder what will happen…New habits take time to develop and lots of tries…It’s great that I’m willing to begin again.”

I wish for you many magic moments in your life.

photo-63Sharon’s books on meditation are very practical, down-to-earth, and not attached to any particular religion. I just bought her newest book, Real Happiness at Work with a Barnes and Noble gift card I just got for my Birthday. (It’s actually in the business section; I had to ask because I couldn’t find it.) Her other recent book is Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation.

To see the first of the Tiny Heart series, click here.

I hope you’ll join me on Facebook. I like to hang out there.

Self-Compassion and Setbacks

madewithover-12I originally wrote this for Psychology Today, but I think the information may also be useful to my awesome readers here.  Haven’t we all had the experience of trying to change something–maybe exercise more, quit smoking, or eat healthy? We do great for awhile and then boom, we “mess up.” How do we keep a setback from turning into a major relapse, and along with it, feeling awful about ourselves? Here are some gentle suggestions (on Psychology Today, they’d be called “tips.”  Oh, and they’d also be numbered.)

Expect setbacks. Change takes time, and often frequent tries. For example, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most smokers require 5 to 7 attempts before they finally quit. Did these people fail the 5 to 7 times prior to the final cessation of smoking? Or were these attempts part of their eventual success? Consider thinking of all of these tries as part of the process. It’s all good.

Check your stress level.  An increase in physical or mental stress may be the culprit. For example, if you’ve been sick with the flu, your resistance may be lowered leaving you more susceptible to setbacks. Other kinds of stress, such as work or family problems can leave you feeling drained and less able to cope.

Follow your self-care policies. I’ve learned the importance of making my self-care activities a priority by writing them down, almost like a policy. Everyone’s “policy” will vary, but mine includes things such as getting enough sleep,  time outside in nature, etc. Too often, when we get busy, the things we need the most are the things we let slide. This makes us very vulnerable to a setback. (Here’s a list of over 80 self-care ideas.)

Keep practicing. If your recovery or behavior change plan  involves specific activities—journaling, meditating, walking —make sure you don’t stop doing these things, even if you’re doing well. Sometimes it’s the good times, not the stressful times that take you off guard. Author Judi Hollis makes an apt analogy: “The tight rope walker, so well practiced he almost performs while sleeping, is the one facing slips or near misses. The newly trained aerialist or acrobat exhibits stringent caution. It is the seasoned performer, lulled into false confidence, who takes the fall.”

Identify your personal warning signs. You might notice an increase in physical symptoms, such as a frequent upset stomach, headaches or heart palpitations. Maybe you notice a lot more negative self-talk. Perhaps you find yourself drinking more, worrying, or being irritable. Everyone’s early warning signs will be different, but it’s important to notice any possible patterns.

Recognize it early. This follows closely with identifying your personal warning signs. The sooner you can catch yourself in a setback, the sooner you can get yourself back on track.

Recommit. Remind yourself of your goals and what you deeply care about. Recommit yourself to doing activities aligned with your values. Don’t give up!

Realize you’re human. Psychologist and author Kristin Neff identifies a sense of shared humanity as one of the three main components of self-compassion. We’re all imperfect; it’s part of being human. Remind yourself that setbacks happen to everyone.  It’s okay to make mistakes. You’re not alone.

Live in the gray. Life is a paradox. I like to remind myself that I’m doing the best I can at any given moment, AND I can do better. It’s not a beating-myself-up kind of “I can do better” but a gentle nudge.

Seek out support. If you’re feeling badly about yourself for “screwing up,” your first instinct may be to hide in a hole. But this is exactly the time when you need to reach out to your support system. And if you don’t have one, you just need to look on the Internet and do a little searching, and you’re sure to find someone going through a similar situation.

Remember, life is not linear. Don’t think you have to progress in a perfectly linear fashion. Most people cycle in and out of change. As writer and creativity coach Jenna McGuiggan notes, life is often “one step forward, two steps back, and three to the side for good measure.”

Give yourself credit. Remind yourself of the steps you’ve taken, regardless of how small they might seem to you. I’ve always liked this Chinese proverb: “Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”

Don’t let it snowball. Relapse prevention experts use the term abstinence violation effect (AVE) to describe a particularly dangerous form of black-and-white thinking. The classic example is the person on a diet that eats something not on the plan, and then thinks, “What the heck, I’ve already blown it so I might as well keep on eating.” Be on the lookout for this. Try self-soothing statements such as: “It’s okay. One slip up doesn’t mean I have to throw in the towel.” This is not a time to berate yourself. Instead of piling on the criticism, calmly tell yourself that something needs to be adjusted. Maybe you’re being too rigid with yourself… Maybe you need to back off a bit…

You can always begin again.This is the most powerful message I’ve learned from studying meditation. I am a complete novice, yet I’ve already gained so much. Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness, talks about this idea of “beginning again”. When meditating, our mind begins to wander. This is normal and to be expected. What matters is what we do when it happens. This is, as she says, “the magic moment”. Do we beat ourself up? Do we tell ourself we’re a failure? Do we give up and say it’s too hard? Or, do we learn that we can bring our attention back, with gentleness and kindness, again and again? To me, this is a metaphor for life. We don’t have to wait until Monday to start eating healthy again. We can make the choice to honor our intentions with the very next bite of food we put in our mouth.

Regardless of our goals, slow and steady progress, even with a few setbacks sprinkled in, works just fine.

Hard, But Not Horrible

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A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast with Sharon Salzberg, best-selling author of Real Happiness, talking about “equanimity.” Now there’s a deep-sounding word that I’ve heard, but never really understood. Leave it to Sharon to explain a big concept in a practical way, with a touch of humor and wit thrown in for good measure.

The part of her talk that has stayed with me the most is this story she told. Imagine that there is a quite elderly person sitting in a park watching children play.  Now this is someone who has seen a thing or two—someone who has lived a full, seasoned life. This quite elderly person sees a child who is playing in the sand with a dump truck and a shovel. The shovel breaks and the child “freaks out”, cries, etc. Now how does this quite elderly person, with the wisdom of these years, react? Does he or she go up to the child and say, “What are you crying about. Wait until you have a real problem.” Of course not. That would be cruel. On the flip side, does this quite elderly person fall down on the ground sobbing right along with the child? Again, no. The quite elderly person has the perspective to know that it’s just a toy shovel. Shovels break. That is the nature of life. (By the way, Sharon really did keep saying “this quite elderly person.”)

She said that sometimes people mistakenly think that equanimity is detached and passive. But it’s not. If you are going to tell someone your problems, do you want someone to get as upset as you are? No. If that happened, you’d think to yourself, “Whoa, this problem really must be bad.” You want someone to have BOTH compassion and understanding AND the perspective that this situation is not forever. You want someone to give you a sense that there are options and possibilities…not that you’re stuck.

4257485778_f2f60e67da_zAnyone who has read this blog from the beginning, knows that I’m extremely sensitive. It’s a part of myself that I’ve often not liked and struggled to accept. One particular aspect of this sensitivity that I’ve HATED is that I cry easily. It can be very annoying to cry at inopportune moments, or to cry for so long and hard that your eyes are puffy and red for hours afterward.

In a way, I’ve been the kind of person who really might cry at a broken shovel. Thankfully, I’ve grown enough this past year that I’m not going to judge myself for it. It’s just something to notice and work on.

Since I’ve heard the story about the child and the broken shovel, I’ve been trying to take the perspective of the quite elderly person who has wisdom and perspective. I’ve adopted the phrase, “This is hard, but it’s not horrible.” To me, that phrase validates my experience, whatever it is. Yes, I’m sad.  Or yes, I’m in pain. But that doesn’t mean it will last forever. And it doesn’t mean I can’t handle it.

I am super excited because twice now I’ve been able to stop myself from a full-blown sob fest by remembering this story and saying these words to myself… “hard, but not horrible”. I know that stopping myself from crying is not the goal, per se (although having a little bit of control over my feelings would be nice). The goal is to see possibility. The goal is to sense spaciousness. The goal is to develop balance.

And of course, as I’ve said the words to myself, “It’s hard but not horrible,” I’ve said them in a gentle tone of voice; perhaps the tone of voice that a quite elderly person would use.

RealhappinessbookcoverpicYou can hear the full podcast here, which was recorded live at The Interdependence Project in NYC in 2012. You can tell it’s New York. You can hear sirens and horns honking in the background of the talk.

Sharon Salzberg’s website is here.

I highly recommend her book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation.

Photo Credit: Matt McGee, flickr, CC and Pink Sherbet Photography 

Kicking Open the Door

medium_1805045379I’m going to start keeping track of when the word “open” (my word-of-the-year) shows up in my life. Today I was flipping through Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and the book just opened to this section:

At Bob Dylan’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Bruce Springsteen described hearing Dylan’s music for the very first time. Springsteen was 15, he said, riding in the car with his mother, idly listening to the radio, when “Like a Rolling Stone” came on. It was as though, Springsteen recalled, “somebody took his boot and kicked open the door to your mind.” His mother’s verdict: “That man can’t sing.” Mrs. Springsteen’s response reminds us that we don’t all react the same way to the same experience–and her son’s reminds us that life holds moments when our perspective dramatically shifts, when our assumptions are deeply challenged, when we see new possibilities or sense for the first time that whatever has been holding us back from freedom or creativity or new ventures might actually be overcome.

There are moments when we sense that tomorrow doesn’t have to look like today–that the feeling of defeat that’s been flattening us for what seems like forever can lift, that our anxiety needn’t define us, that the delight we been postponing and the love we long for could be nearer at hand than we’d thought.”

Sharon’s 28-day Meditation Challenge is going on right now. Click here for lots of inspiration and resources.

photo credit: seagers via photo pin CC

Crossing the Great Divide

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I made this video a few weeks ago but have been waiting for the perfect time to share it. Well, there really is no perfect time, but the start of a New Year comes pretty close.

My inspiration comes from two sources.

One is this quote:

Religion is like a multi-colored lantern. Each of us looks through a different piece of glass, but the light is always there.” –Mohammed Naquib, a 20th-century Egyptian politician and author.

The other is a line I heard while listening to a podcast. Jean Houston talked about “crossing the great divide of otherness.” These two quotes intermingled in my mind and this is what emerged.

We let so much divide us.

Who we love.

What we believe.

Where we came from.

We put things into categories:

Good and Bad

Right and Wrong

Black and White

Categorizing is part of what makes us human. It means we can think.

But sometimes this kind of thinking can get us into trouble.

People don’t fit into neat and tidy categories.

Human beings defy categories because we are:

Complex

Textured

Messy

Broken

Whole

We need to drop the categories, that make us feel so adrift and alone.

Let’s cross the great divide of otherness,

and realize that we are more alike than different.

All we need to do is look up

to see that we’re all connected.

No matter what part of the glass you look through,

The light is always there.

May the light sustain you,

guide you,

and give you courage.

Share the warmth.

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.

Unique and the Same

I’ve had ideas swirling in my head all day. My thoughts seem random, yet connected. I’m not sure how to express them in a coherent fashion, yet I feel compelled to write.

I was talking to Greg about how sometimes I want to feel unique and special.  And yet, at other times, I want to feel I’m not alone. This dilemma makes me recall when I’ve been in therapy and the therapist tries to “normalize” my experience by saying, “I think everyone feels that way.” Sometimes this can feel validating, and at other times, it feels dismissive. Why is this?

Greg said it reminded him of a poster he once saw that says: “Remember that you are unique, just like everyone else.”

After this philosophical discussion, we ate dinner, not really talking. Thank goodness I’m married to another introvert who is comfortable with silence.

I still couldn’t figure out what I wanted to write, so I went downstairs to walk on the treadmill. I watch DVDs while I’m walking, and I’m on Season 2 of Mad Men. In the episode I was watching, Don Draper is having marital problems, and he is visiting with an old friend who offers some sage advice: “The only thing keeping you from happiness is the belief that you are alone.” What a great line! I thought this was surely a sign I needed to go upstairs and get busy writing.

Still, nothing came. I decided to do my meditation practice for the day.

This is week 4 of Sharon Salzberg’s Meditation Month and the focus is on Lovingkindness meditation. In this type of meditation, you focus not on your breath, but on certain phrases such as: May I be safe; May I be happy; May I be healthy; May I live with ease. You then extend these phrases (along with heartfelt intention if possible) to someone in need, then to someone you may know only casually, then to someone who you find difficult, then to people everywhere.  (For more details on this type of meditation, click here).

The person who popped into my mind when it was time to think of someone who may be in need was a previous client of mine. She had a child with a very rare and complex health condition. The condition wasn’t visible to others, so she was often given standard parenting advice that simply did not apply to her situation. Well meaning people would say things such as, “That’s just normal teenage stuff” or “You just have to use tough love.” These statements, meant to help her feel less alone, actually did just the opposite. She often told me she felt isolated from others, and that she was “crazy.” She seemed to feel better in our sessions when I found a way to validate her experience that, yes—her situation was different and unique. Somehow, paradoxically, that is what helped her feel less alone.

Looking back on it now, I wonder if I could have done more if I had helped her realize that somewhere (although not necessarily in her peer group), there are other mothers with similar challenges, going through similar painful circumstances. Would that have helped her feel less alone? It’s so easy to second-guess myself, but I  really don’t think I would have done anything differently.

Well, I’ve thoroughly confused myself further, and probably you, as well.

If I can come up with any take-away points, they’d be:

  •  Life is hard. It’s okay to acknowledge that fact.
  •  We’re all in the same boat.  We all want to be happy. We all want to suffer less and be at peace. It’s not always easy to find that place. I’m learning that meditation can help.
  • We’re not alone, even when we think we are.
  •  I need to use the word “AND” more. We are unique AND we are the same.
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