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Life falls apart. That’s what it does on a regular basis for all of us and yet, every time it happens to me I’m shocked and dismayed. I’m launched into the groundlessness that part of me knows can be a huge opportunity for growth but most of me is simply scared of. The unknown is such a boogieman!

When I’m not busy shaking in my boots, it can be fascinating to observe the various strategies that the different parts of me employ in the service of trying to protect me from the feeling of terror. While I can intellectually identify that the level of fear I’m experiencing isn’t commensurate with the event that’s causing it, the feeling of extreme danger persists so my system goes to work to try to get me feeling safe.

My inner personal growth junkie has collected many pithy little pieces of wisdom designed to counter the fear. I mantra: “this too shall pass” and “pain is the touch stone of spiritual progress” along with, “everything is fine right this minute.” I employ lots of deep breathing and regularly attempt to shift my focus to what I’m grateful for. These things do help but I still feel the undercurrent of deep anxiety.

In the face of this fear I feel the part of me that longs to be rescued. The little girl inside who just wants someone to tell her that they’ll take care of everything, that I don’t have to worry about a thing. She cries, “Where is my knight in shining armor – my Mommy and Daddy – my benevolent powerful God to save the day?”

My inner critic generally jumps in around now. “That’s enough whining. You need to be your own knight – your own parent – your own deity. Get over it and grow up.” I know the critic thinks she’s helping – that she can shame my little girl into piping down – but it’s not a helpful strategy and I try to practice self-compassion when my critic makes an appearance. That scared little part of me that wants to be saved needs love and understanding, not criticism. Of course she wants someone to provide that for her!

At some point the practical part of me jumps in and begins to strategize. I gather information. Knowledge is power and this part of me knows that the more intel I have about what I’m facing, the better I can determine what I can control and what I cannot. The serenity prayer is a strategy that is best applied with lots of information that helps me to know the difference between what I must accept and what I need to muster the courage to try and change.

As you can imagine, all these competing strategies can be so exhausting so let’s say hello to the part of me that thinks that the best way to get everyone to relax is to eat something delicious. A lot of something delicious, preferably while watching a soothing show on Netflix like The Great British Bake Off or Anne with an E. It’s a surprisingly effective game plan and works for as long as I can keep the inner critic from reappearing to shame me for escapist behavior, “unhealthy” eating habits, and oh yes, fat. She will always tell me I’m fat. Fortunately, her body shaming has lost most of its power (with the help of my personal growth junkie!) but she can still successfully nail me about being a coward or being “unhealthy”. Sigh. It’s time for more self-compassion. It’s hard to be a person.

My parents were not particularly present or available as I grew up so I developed a fiercely self-sufficient part that doesn’t ever want to ask for help. She’s there to protect me from feeling rejected or abandoned. If I don’t ask, I can’t be told no or even worse, receive a begrudging yes. It’s much safer to figure everything out on my own and the side benefit to this strategy is that I’ve become an extremely competent person. I’m good at many things and generally available to help others with a wide array of issues. But it can be so lonely and when the shit hits the fan, as it is wont to do every now and then, going it alone can feel like a very heavy load. Wise mantras, mad skills, a can-do attitude, and cookies and TV don’t really help that scared little one inside of me. For that I really need other people.

Self-compassion is such an important practice and can calm the inner critic and curb the urge to sink into anxiety or depression but receiving compassion from others is what really helps. To allow another person to really see me and to have them hold my pain with loving kindness is the most valuable gift. My decision to be vulnerable and the other person’s decision to respond with compassion creates the intimacy that I believe we all crave in our deepest selves and what truly heals.

I can only echo the words of my incredible teacher Pema Chodrin: “The human experience is an experience of nothing to hang on to, nothing that’s set once and for all. Reality is always falling apart. In this fleeting situation, the only thing that makes sense is for us to reach out to one another.” Thank you to the people I have reached out to and those who have reached out to me. My heart is filled with gratitude. May we all hold each other with love and compassion as we make our way through these difficult times.

 

 

 

 

 

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I’m wondering if any of you have seen this meme going around that says: “My desire to be well informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane”. I don’t know about you but I’ve been feeling that way since the beginning of the last presidential campaign season and it’s only been getting worse. My desire to be well informed is most definitely at odds with my desire to remain sane.

The news these days feels traumatizing in a way that it never has before. It seems as if things have just never been this bad. However, a quick glance back through time actually shows that things have been much, much worse at numerous periods in the history of our evolution. Looking back, David Barker, the author of A Crash Course in Big History reminds us that somewhere around 72,000 BC there was a volcanic super-eruption that exploded with the force of 1.5 million Hiroshima-size bombs. The skies darkened and global temperatures fell. Food sources died off, and the number of people left alive was reduced to around 10,000.

And of course there was the year of 1348, when in the space of 18 months the Bubonic Plague killed at least a third of the population of Europe.  Parents abandoned their sick children. Cadavers were left in empty houses and dogs tore at the bodies of the dead that lay unburied in the streets. That’s was a pretty bad time.

And what about the major famines in Asia and Africa, or the start of the extermination of native populations in the Americas or the trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves, the rise of European imperialism and Hitler?  1919 alone was a year of political chaos, social unrest, economic disasters, health epidemics, bloody race riots, and brutal government overreach. Much worse than today.

History is full of horrendously perilous times where crazy, egomaniacal, people have wrested most of the power and money for themselves and wreaked havoc on the rest. Ghengis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, Napolean, Idi Ahmin, Stalin, Kim Il Sung, Pol Pot, the list goes on and on. So with all the progress we’ve made toward eradicating disease, more rights for more people, better financial security for record numbers of people, longer lives, etc. Why does it feel to so many of us as if things have just never been this bad?

I know there is a contrast effect, in that when things are so good, bad things feels much worse than they would if things were hard to begin with. We here in the US generally have a very high standard of living and most of us have freedoms that are unheard of in other places or at earlier times in history. But I’m pretty clear that my own sense of despair and feeling that this must be the worst of times is much more related to the level of exposure that we’re subject to.

Back in 1348, no one was Tweeting about the Black Death. There was no minute by minute, breathless, edge your seat coverage of the 1919 Influenza epidemic, or the massive labor strikes of the Indiana steel workers. No one had yet figured out how news could be entertainment or a huge platform for selling soap. One needed to be to be literate, which was far less common than it is today, and to seek out a newspaper to have even a small chance of knowing what was happening in other parts of the county, never mind the world. Folks in rural Kansas didn’t generally know, and frankly didn’t care that much about news in other parts of the world that didn’t directly affect them. It was easy to keep your focus on what was directly in your own sphere of influence without being unduly upset by things you had no control over.

Today, it’s almost impossible to escape the news. Facebook feeds are filled with petitions to sign, phone calls to make, articles and arguments about everything. My gym has televisions all around with CNN, MSNBC, and FOX news running at every hour.  And, that so much of the “quote unquote” coverage isn’t even real news just adds to my distress. Much of what is so excessively accessible is slanted, biased, bought and paid for coverage. Or it’s totally fake news. Fear mongering and alarmist messages being used to try to control people’s opinions and beliefs.  It’s all become too much for me to weed through to try to separate truth from truthiness. In case you’re not familiar with truthiness, it’s a term coined by comedian Steven Colbert that means: The quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like. There’s a lot of truthiness flying around.

So I’ve decided that because my desire to be well informed is at odds with my desire to remain sane, I have to make a choice and I’m choosing sanity. If I’m feeling traumatized, sad, stressed out, and terrified, and convinced that this is the worst of times; I can’t possibly hope to show up in my life in any meaningful way. I need my sanity to do my work in the world. I’ve decided to make a conscious effort take some distance and to shift my attention away from all the bad news onto what’s good. Not to deny what’s happening in the world but to have my sanity at the expense of being a little less well informed. Like the song says, from a distance there is harmony and it echoes through the land. From a distance we are instruments marching in a common band, from a distance even though we are at war, you look like my friend.”  Right now I think many of us could use some of that perspective.

As I wrote previously, one of the ways I’ve taken that distance is by disabling my Facebook account. I miss the intermittent feelings of connection I used to find there, but taking a break from Facebook has helped me enormously to get my focus off all the political strife.

used awareness. It’s important, because whatever one focuses attention on grows in our minds. Most of the news today is begging for us to pay attention to the horror. To what divides us. To what incites us. I’m trying something different. Fred Roger’s, of Mr. Roger’s neighbThere is a mountain of research looking at the role of attention in our lives. Attention is focorhood said that when he was a boy and would see scary things in the news, his mother would say to him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” That’s a beautiful example how we can shift our focus of attention away from something awful to something uplifting

If we look for it, what is good and beautiful and uplifting is all around. One of the things I did to help me to shift focus was to sign up for a daily email from the Good News Network and Positive News organizations that collect stories of good and uplifting news from around the world. I read there about a man who for years has been going through the drive through at his local Tom Hornton’s muffins several times a week and always pays for the order of the person behind him.  Recently he was found and told that one of the people he had bought coffee and a muffin for had been planning to kill herself later that day and that receiving his anonymous act of kindness changed her mind. Wow. That’s good news.

I’m also reading the bi-monthly newsletter from Future Crunch another online media source that focuses on good news, specifically news that shows hope for our future. They ended the year by collecting 99 stories illustrating why 2017 was actually a great year. It was an incredible year for a serious rise in global health, and there were some stunning victories for global conservation as well as rising living standards for billions of people. And it was a terrible year for the fossil fuels industry and an amazing one for clean energy. And there are so many stories from this past year that reminded me, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” It’s so easy to forget that when we’re only focused on all that is happening that is so unjust. On all the things that divide us.

One of my favorite stories from the Good News Network was about a young aspiring rapper from Harlem who became friends with an 86 year old Jewish woman from Palm Beach Florida through the online game “Words with Friends.” After a year of the online connection, his pastor flew him down to visit her as part of her project entitled “Relationships Change Us.” And they do.

Research shows that regular feelings of connectedness lead to higher levels of happiness, lower levels of depression and anxiety, and enhanced physical health outcomes. Back in December, guest minister Kathleen Green talked about the human imperative for connection in her service “Connecting the Dots.” She told us that research professor Brene Brown defines connection as:  the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; Facebook is designed to mimic true connectedness but I don’t think most of us really feel truly seen, heard, and valued in the virtual realm. I’ve found that taking a break from Facebook has led to my reaching out more to really connect with my beloveds and that’s what really helps me feel sane. To really feel the interconnected web of life that we are all a part of. I do actually believe that  “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.”

Along with connectedness, a growing body of research is showing that gratitude, kindness, and self-compassion all contribute to better health and a sense of well being. These are all keys to noticing what makes the present moment the best of times. To practice gratitude, I like to write down one or two things, every day, that I appreciate and then I put the scraps of paper into a jar. Every month, I take them out and read them. It’s amazing how gratitude for my public library, or for my access to quality food, or the wifi connection that allows me to skype with my sister in Boston, can lift me right out of the black cloud of despair that threatens to overtake me when I think too much about the world’s bad news. I’d like to invite you to take a moment right now to remember something you’re grateful for and then turn to your neighbor and share it.  Doesn’t that feel great?

It’s so simple; just as kindness and self-compassion are simple; simple, but not always easy. When I’m caught up in my own stressful life circumstances and I’m feeling terrified about what’s happening in the world it’s hard to remember to be kind to others. My survival instincts kick in and my natural ego response is me me me. But when I make the effort to remember to be kind, to reach out and help someone, smile, hold a door, ask the grocery clerk how his day is going, maybe even pay for the person behind me in the Dunkin’Donuts drive through, not only do I feel better but who knows how it might lift someone else out their hard place. And I also want to be kind to me.

That’s the self-compassion piece. Compassion is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. So self-compassion is recognizing your own suffering and then being kind to yourself and perhaps taking action to relieve your own suffering. Shifting your focus away from what is horrible and outside your realm of control to what is uplifting and good is a practice of self-compassion. Seeking true connection with others is a practice of self-compassion. Paying attention to what you’re grateful for is a practice of self-compassion.
I have come to truly believe that these practices are the way for me to live in the present as it is and recognize that it is not the worst of times. It may not be the best of times either, but it is the time we are in. I can make choices and while I might not be the best informed person in the room, at least I’ll have my sanity.

 

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