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COVID-IMAGE

There is so much coming at us about the novel Corona virus. There is important, well researched information and good best practices along with false news, opinions stated as facts, and advice of all kinds. In this digital age, where so much of all of it is in our faces whether we want it or not, I’d like to share something that can be truly helpful no matter where you are in the process of coming to terms with this current pandemic.

If I carry only one message, I want to encourage us all to be practicing compassion. We must practice because it is hard and we need to get better at it because it will help everyone, no matter what is happening in our lives or in the world today. We need to practice compassion for others, but just as importantly, compassion for ourselves.

The definition of compassion is to hold pain and suffering with loving kindness. Having to cancel your vacation or be deprived of attending events you were looking forward to is painful. Trying to help your kids deal with canceled sporting events, social gatherings, and school closings is painful. Forced or self-imposed social distancing creates suffering of various kinds for people of all ages. Losing income because businesses have to close down for a time surely creates suffering. And of course fear of any kind, especially fear of the unknown, can be incredibly painful.

This current situation is one where so much is unknown. New things are unfolding constantly and we are all required to adjust, day by day, to changing circumstances. Humans don’t do so well with fear of the unknown and we have many different coping strategies; ways to try to help ourselves feel safe. These can range from denial: “This is all nothing, no different from the flu and everyone is over reacting!” to the fear driven hoarding of everything that might be helpful to prevent or treat the virus. Sometimes it’s anger that helps manage our fears: “What’s wrong with those horrible people buying up all the toilet paper?”

These kinds of reactions are in response to the suffering; the pain of how the spread of this virus is, or might impact us. How can we hold our own and other people’s feelings and behaviors with kindness? When we get to the store and find that all the bleach, and Lysol, and toilet paper is sold out, can we notice our fear about the possibility of not having what we need? Can we notice how quickly that fear turns to anger at the people who over-bought, depriving us of a sense of safety? Can we hold ourselves with kindness in all our feelings? Of course we feel this way. Can we remember that the people who are cleaning out the shelves are also feeling fear? Probably the same fear we have?

This sense of common humanity is one of the most important elements in the practice of compassion. To remember that we’re all human with human responses and the human drive to try to feel safe. We reach for a feeling of safety in many different ways, but we’re all doing it all of the time. And we’re all suffering, especially now. How can we hold this suffering, this fear, this annoyance, this disappointment with kindness?

If you’re disappointed that your plans to travel or to go out with friends have been interrupted, can remember that there are thousands of other people with the same disappointment? Maybe you can connect on the phone, Face-time, or Skype. If you are losing income because of the outbreak, can you remember that the financial fallout of this pandemic will be shared by many others? Can you reach out to someone else in a similar boat and commiserate or get support? If you’re terrified that you are your loved ones will get sick and die can you remember how many people are afraid at this time? Maybe you can take a break from reading the news, scrolling Facebook, talking about the situation. Find something good to watch on Netflix or escape into a good book. If you are feeling annoyed and inconvenienced and think people are over-reacting, you are also not alone but can you recognize that many people are very scared and trying to make decisions for safety? Can you remember a time in your life when you were scared and then try to act in ways that would have helped you in your fear?

In our fast paced digital world many people are already struggling with varying levels of emotional and psychological challenges. The current push for social distancing, along with the financial pressures many are facing can greatly increase feelings of isolation which can lead to depression and even more anxiety. In these times it’s ever more important for all of us to be practicing compassion. How can you make space for whatever you’re feeling and be kind to yourself and others? How can you reach out and ask for support or offer support to someone you know is suffering? How can we use out technology to be closer to people as opposed to create further distancing?

I believe that how we respond to what is happening will have a larger, longer lasting effect on us all than the corona virus itself. Let’s respond to the suffering, other’s and our own, with loving kindness as much as we can and we’ll get through this time together.

2Paul's 50th circle 048

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.

 

 

 

 

 

I was in a busy shopping mall over the weekend and carols were ringing, booming down through the spectacularly shiny stars and golden ornaments hanging from every rafter, urging the masses to buy, buy, buy. Every inch of space was filled with frantic shoppers hoping to find just the right gift for everyone on their list and maybe something for themselves as well. Peace on earth was miles away and stress was running high.

I spotted a young boy, about 4 years, old darting through the crowds followed by his parents who were trying to maneuver a stroller holding a wriggling toddler. The little boy clearly had all the wonder and excitement of the season. He just knew that Santa was coming soon and there would be special treats the elves had made just for him. The loud music and sparkling lights of the mall were all part of the magic since he had no list of relatives to buy for and no bills to pay.

Suddenly he took a spill and landed flat, bursting into tears. “You’re OK!” his dad announced. As the boy continued to cry, his toddler sibling soon joined in. “Give Anna a cookie” the mom snapped at the dad. “It’s OK Billy. You’re not hurt. Do you want a cookie?” Both parents frantically rifled through their giant bag looking for sweets. These parents were convinced that cookies were the magic thing that would fix whatever it was that brought her children’s tears.

Many of us often think that cookies are the thing that will take away the pain. We eat cookies (or cake, or potato chips) when we really want a hug but one isn’t offered and we don’t know how to ask.  We do all kinds of things to avoid uncomfortable feelings. We drink alcohol, watch television, shop, over exercize, over work, gossip, or focus on trying to fix someone else. This last one is usually motivated by an inability to tolerate our own discomfort about another person’s pain. Most of us have been fans of all of these activities at one time or another but I find that none of them really work in the long run.

Life is full of things that cause painful feelings. People we love hurt us or leave us or die and we feel intense sadness and grief. Sometimes we do things we know we shouldn’t and wish we hadn’t and feel embarrassment, guilt, or shame. When things don’t happen as we hoped or expected, we feel disappointment or anger. There is war and terrorism, pollution, starvation, and injustice in the world and we feel fear. When we can’t tolerate a feeling and engage in behaviors that we think will take the pain away, we often discover that we’ve only medicated or distracted ourselves from it for awhile. Those feelings lie in wait for the next time and they incubate and grow. And often, the very things we do to try to avoid the uncomfortable feelings only result in more pain: the guilt of a drunken spree; the shame and disgust of having finished the whole chocolate cake; the embarrassment and regret of hours wasted watching MTV or reruns of ER and Friends.

Many of us are afraid to feel the pain because we think it will be overwhelming and will never go away. But it does pass and we can stand it, especially if we can seek some support while having those feelings. Tolerating the discomfort and exploring what is truly there is the way of getting through it. Hugs from our loved ones can help a lot and usually just talking about what hurts can make it feel better.

Especially in this holiday season when so many uncomfortable feelings can surface, I wish for everyone all the love and support you need and so deserve to get through this time without polishing off all the Christmas cookies yourself!

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