Friday, January 11, 2013

Breathe in fear, breathe out compassion

Many of us struggle with self-judgment. I sometimes say that I am meaner to myself than I would ever dream of being to anyone else. The things I sometimes think about myself, the negative self-talk, can be terrible and rude, words I would never think about another human being. Yet, if I want to cultivate a compassionate heart toward others, the practice of compassion must begin with me.

A few days ago I was talking with my friend Ginna. She was mentioning her struggles with the behavior of someone we both know, a “difficult” person, and speaking of how judgmental she felt. “What is wrong with me?” she asked. “Um, nothing is wrong with you. It sounds to me like you are human,” was my reply. Ginna had been, in that moment, quick to judge herself. This is oh-so-familiar territory for me.

Like Ginna, I long to be free from the judgmental mind. I despise that icky feeling I get when I am in judgment of others. Yet, the truth is that a heart of compassion must begin with me, with compassion for myself.

Because human experience is so universal we find that when we make friends with ourself, we make friends with the world. When we cultivate compassion for our own weaknesses, we find compassion for others in their weakness. This doesn’t mean we excuse our weaknesses lightly. We still pursue freedom from our foibles. But we do so with kindness, which I think makes our efforts more productive.

Unfortunately, it is our natural reflex to want to push our weaknesses away. When I am lonely, I just want the loneliness to go away. When I am afraid, I want to magically be fearless. When judging another, I simply want my negative thoughts (and also the annoying person) to vaporize. You can see I have a lot to work with! And as counter-intuitive as it sounds, the way to diffuse the power of my loneliness, fear, or judgment is to embrace them. As Pema Chodron writes, “the things that really drive us nuts have enormous energy in them. That is why we fear them.” We are drained when we try to push our fears, our anger, and our jealousies away. We are energized for compassion when we find the courage to embrace them.

So, what is it you want to push away today? For me, I want am wrestling with a fear of failure. I have certain strengths, certain gifts. What if they aren’t all I think they are? What if my gifts themselves let me down? What if I undermine my talents with my own self-doubt? Rather than pretending I do not have these fears, how can I embrace them, look beneath them to what drives the fears themselves? Can I find a place of compassion for myself? Can I then have compassion on the fears of others?

I pause. I breathe in my fears. I breathe out compassion. This is why it is called “practice.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

New year, new list

At the turn of each year I like to pause and take stock. I’ve developed some habits over the years and thought I’d share them here. I would love to have you comment on your own turn of the year practices.

On New Year’s Day I do a journal review. As I page through my journal from the year just passed, I review highlights, make note of progress, and savor accomplishments. This can also be painful and trying as I relive losses and face stumbling blocks. Overall, I find this practice productive and satisfying.

The next thing I do is write down some goals and dreams for the year ahead. These are items as pragmatic as “get a new storm door” or as dreamy as “travel more.” As I write, I allow my dreams to run wild. Yes, I’d like to do a month long retreat at Spirit Rock retreat center. The chances that I’ll have the time or funds to do this isn't likely but that doesn’t matter here. I’m dreaming about my life, not laying plans. This is my big-and-little dream list for the year, so Spirit Rock is on the list.

I write about my hopes and dreams for my work life, my children, my relationships, my home, my spiritual life, my leisure time. Pretty much everything I hope for or dream of goes on this draft.

Once I complete this first list I take out a nice piece of stationery and I mold my dreams into an offering. I take the time here to whittle down the list to what feels true. Now the list becomes something I will look over almost daily as it becomes a kind of personal litany for my life over the course of the year. At year’s end I pause to re-evaluate it. What has come to pass from my list? How have I changed which, in turn, has changed the meaning of what is included on the list?

I find this practice instructive, guiding, and inspiring.

And there is one item that remains year by year: “may I be of service to others.”

I embrace this particular item once again for 2013.

What’s on your list?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Ten thousand joys, ten thousand sorrows

I spent the New Year holiday on retreat. Gordon Peerman and Kathy Woods, my teachers from Insight Nashville, hosted their annual New Year’s mindfulness retreat in the mountains near Sewanee. This is the second year I have welcomed a new year in that beautiful, rural setting. This year’s focus was upon the practice of compassion.

Buddhists refer to the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows of this life. Well, for me, from the first moments of the retreat-that first evening-well into the following morning, it was as if all ten thousand of my life’s sorrows came and just sat on me. I could barely contain the sorrow to sit in the meditation hall. And I really have no idea what that was about.

My sorrow did not ease until late Monday morning when Gordon, during the morning talk and in great vulnerability, shared his own pain and sorrow at what his younger brother is experiencing. The details of that aren’t important. What is important is that Gordon’s vulnerability helped my own heart break open with compassion. In some way, in that moment, I found joy again.

It wasn’t that I felt, “oh good, I’m not the only one.” Not at all. It was almost as if I felt Gordon’s love for his brother, felt Gordon’s own powerlessness at that situation and found it resonating with my own powerlessness. It was then that I could let divine love flow through my own heart.

There is a truly beautiful irony here: in Gordon’s vulnerability I was empowered to surrender to love and compassion. This has been on my mind since that moment last week. I so often hesitate to write about my most vulnerable moments. But I understand in a new way that my own vulnerability may help someone who reads this blog. And that is the whole point of the blog: to offer what I have in service to others. Maybe even my ten thousand sorrows. Don’t worry, though, I won’t write about all ten thousand at one time!

The good news is that, while we may experience ten thousand sorrows in this life, we also find ten thousand joys. I felt the heaviness of sorrow while on retreat but I also enjoy the fullness of joy. Gordon reassures me that all of this is perfectly normal, that on retreat our griefs often surface to sit with us for a while. Then they pass away and something new, like joy, arises. On retreat and in life, experiencing the joys and the sorrows adds to my awareness and renew my ability to be vulnerable with others. This is what I have to offer-my experiences-and the gifts of grace that come with the ten thousand sorrows and the ten thousand joys.