Rediscovering Repentance

Featured Image: “Hope,” ©Luca Bovolenta (own work), May 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“What are you doing for Lent this year?” my pastor queried the few dozen of us who turned out for the earliest service on the morning of Ash Wednesday before the start of another typical work day. It was a rhetorical question. He promptly continued, “If you’re like me, perhaps people asking you that a lot. The answer I give is… ‘Not very much!’” My ears perked, and I leaned slightly forward on the hard, wooden pew. “We don’t do anything,” he emphasized. “It is God who does the work, when we return to that still, quiet place in our hearts.” His message was one of simplicity, surrender, and trust. In under five minutes, he reminded me that my weaknesses and imperfections were inherently human. If I wasn’t a sinner, then I wouldn’t need a savior. Though the standard of avoiding all evils and performing every possible good was set forth for me, I was realistically called to do my best, to quickly admit my faults and my mistakes, and to leave the rest to Him. It was probably the message that I most needed to hear.

In the days before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Christian Lenten season, I didn’t give much serious consideration to the changes that might be helpful in my life. On Tuesday evening, I was journaling about the busyness of my schedule and my longing for a more peaceful, less demanding existence. “I already know that I am good at self-denial,” I wrote. “I know very well how to punish and restrict myself.” I chewed slightly on the inside of my cheek, deep in thought. “Is self-flagellation really what Lent is about?” I wondered.

As a person in recovery from an eating disorder, my medical history precludes me from the requirement to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. If the purpose of Lent is to refocus on what matters the most, then refraining from this hyper-attention to food is actually therapeutic in my particular case. Instead, I find it helpful to reduce other less-than-healthy attachments. Last year, fasting from television provided me with more time for quiet reflection and contemplative meditation. Unplugging the TV eliminated a portion of the daily background noise, reduced my distractions, and minimized my exposure to those overt and subtle cultural messages appearing in entertainment, news, and advertising, with their negative conscious and subconscious effects. Yet, when Lent ended, all the shows that I missed were waiting for me on my DVR, and whatever gains I made in the cultivation of stillness slipped away. With the arrival of another intentional season of austerity, I welcomed the opportunity to abstain from television again and optimistically looked forward to growing more comfortable with both the quiet itself and all the difficult thoughts and emotions residing just under the surface of my occupied mind.

Thus decided, I confronted a confusing tangle of additional questions about the optimal Lenten practice. Should I also give up listening to Podcasts? At times, those could be a distraction, and I often used them to drown out the thoughts that sprang from fatigue when I was feeling overwhelmed. Someone raised the idea of fasting from sleep. Fortunately, I quickly dismissed this exercise as counter-productive to my own mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Why would I intentionally adopt a habit that would make it more difficult for me to make wise-minded decisions and to treat other people with compassion? “On the contrary,” I thought, “if I want to be a better person, I ought to commit to getting regular sleep!” Perhaps, I would benefit from letting go of all the things left unfinished at the end of the day in order to prioritize sleep. In that way, I would be forced to accept my own limitations, and I would (hopefully) increase in balance of mind, body, and spirit.

With simplicity in mind, I concluded that breaking up with my TV was the best place to start, and I resolved to dedicate my energy to prayerful reflection and contemplation. I further decided that there was something to the idea of caring for my physical needs in order to reduce my reactivity and impulsivity as I carried on through each day. Being honest with myself, I admitted that I was often so busy or preoccupied that I ignored or suppressed my bodily needs until the signals they triggered in my brain clanged so loudly that I absolutely couldn’t postpone pausing for lunch, sipping some water, or breaking for the bathroom any longer. If I treated my body more gently, maybe my mind would follow, and as my thoughts became gentler, I might be more considerate of my body’s needs and limitations. Ultimately, I hoped I would be able to respond more mindfully, compassionately, and wholeheartedly to the surging and fading activity of daily life. Yet, I acknowledged that even my best efforts would inevitably fall short of my idealized notions. And that was ok.

Desert Morning
Desert Morning,” © MarkCranstonPhoto.com (own work), Nov 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

In all my years of Lents, I never meditated on the difference between penitence and punishment. The punishment bit was always the emphasis for me. Even over the past few years, when I was in recovery and able to recognize the fullness of God’s merciful love, I was still stuck in a very literal interpretation of expressing “sorrow for my sins.” I acknowledged that I was forgiven and that there was reason for abundant joy in the superabundance of God’s grace, but I thought that a “season of repentance” was meant to be spent feeling badly for my faults. Then, I stumbled upon another fortuitous message that seemed to be precisely what was most needed to help me along my path. What I realized was that remaining fixated on my previous failings was an obstacle to my mental and spiritual development. If I truly trusted in the infinite capacity of God’s forgiveness, and I fully believed that He willed my ultimate good, how could I also hold that He desired for me to dwell in sadness for wrongs he already pardoned? Remaining in a cheerless gloom didn’t improve my ability to love myself or my neighbors. Could it possibly be OK to be happy during this penitential season? The very notion struck me as counterintuitive, but how could I respond any differently in the face of such an unimaginable gift?

My understanding of myself and my faith is continuing to expand. I am nurturing a refreshed hopefulness as I notice changes over just these few, short days. Wherever this journey continues from here, I am holding onto a point made by a priest on a podcast that I recently listened to (good thing that I didn’t give them up!) … We’re not bad, we’re just broken; and God wants to heal our brokenness. This Lent, I am inviting Him in. Or, at least, I’m going to try. It is a desert time – a time for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, for self-sacrifice and simplicity. Yet, even in the desert, there is beauty and life.

desert rainbow
Desert Rainbow,” © William Hanlon (own work), Apr 2016. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

The Seas of Self-Storms

Featured Image: “Stormy,” © Luke Gray (own work), Oct 2011. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Over the course of the past day, I found myself pitched about on the brutal seas of a turbulent shame storm. When the unfortunately familiar physical sensations of burning in my face, muscle tension in my jaw, teeth clenching, and wincing began to crest, I was able to summon little desire to face whatever real or imagined iniquity lay at the eye of this hurricane. Who would want to turn into that torrent of painful emotions and cruel self-criticisms? Armed with a toolbox of distraction techniques and distress-tolerance skills, I weathered the intermittent surges of mental and emotional anguish with their characteristic accompanying bodily signs. I took a hot shower, caught up on some reading, and listened to an audiobook, all the while pushing back the recurring sense of mortification that told me I had done something terribly, abysmally, unforgivably atrocious.

A new acquaintance recently recommended a small book to me entitled God’s Tender Mercy:  Reflections on Forgiveness by Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun. This morning, I woke feeling restored after my first decent night of sleep in recent memory, but I recognized a persisting vulnerability – the raw sting that hinted at shame lurking nearby. I reached for the little book on my bedside dresser. It was only seventy-seven 3×5 inch pages long in its entirety, and I was up to chapter two, “Forgive Us Our Sins:  Forgive Yourself.” With one hand stroking my ginger cat, I began to read.

“And sometimes keeping the rules, I came to understand, can be more sinful than breaking them,” the wise sister wrote. I placed the book on my lap and contemplated my shame. It probably rose from my impression that I violated some inviolable social mores. It likely originated in the idea that I committed some act of “rule-breaking,” though I wasn’t exactly sure which of a million, little, conflicting and mutually exclusive rules I broke. My tendency toward rigid, black-and-white thinking and my old striving to be perfect provided a ready substrate for self-imposed agony. It was my choice to remain stuck in that miserable place, I realized. “If we admitted our arrogance, faced our dishonesties, named our weaknesses – at least to ourselves – we would be consumed with kindness,” I read on. What exactly was I refusing to face? I returned to the events of the previous afternoon and revisited precisely what occurred before this particular storm started churning. There, I found myself afraid to look foolish in front of others, holding myself to such an impossible standard of decorum that the specific expectations of behavior defied definition. I saw that I was terrified of doing or saying something “wrong,” and I was telling myself that a few, minor faux pas were unforgiveable. Imagining rejection and judgment, my cheeks flushed and I reflexively scrunched my face, bowing my head and squeezing my eyes tightly closed.

“The fact is that we are all made of the same thing:  clay, the dust of the earth, the frail, fragile, shapeless thing from which we come and to which we will all return someday. We are all capable of the same things. Our only hope is that when we are all sitting somewhere bereft, exposed, outcast, humiliated and rejected by the rest of society, someone, somewhere will ‘reach out a hand and lift us up.’”

~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy

What makes me so special that I think I should never make a mistake? I asked myself. It wasn’t a new question, but I required some gentle reminding. Who am I that when I make a mistake, I am excepted from compassion and understanding? It suddenly occurred to me that accepting compassion required a strong knowledge of self. It demanded true humility. To accept compassion, whether from myself or anyone else, would mean acknowledging my need for that compassion. Why would I need compassion unless I was deeply flawed? Facing those flaws, how could I deny that I deserved the gentle grace of forgiveness? After all, if I could not embrace my inner demons, then how could I ever hope to make enough peace with them that I might embrace others? How could I move beyond the past I could not change into the future I was called to live?

“Arrogance commits us to a community of one. There is nothing to be gained there. Don’t confuse weakness with sin. Most of us struggle with something we never quite conquer. It is precisely that struggle that can become the stuff of compassion with others.”

~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy

Shame was trying to keep me isolated in my own ego, ruminating on the blunders of yesterday, and not in a healthy way that might lead to self-improvement, but in a self-castigating way designed only to inflict punishment and pain. Shame was telling me that I was unforgiveable, and beneath it all, shame was presuming that I was better than everyone around me, because I was fixing a standard for myself that was unreasonable for any human being. I peeled back all the layers, and staring up at me was my own, stubborn pride. It drove me to care so much about how others perceived and judged me that it sucked me into an unwinnable struggle to control the uncontrollable and secluded me in my own fear and self-defensiveness. With a great sigh, I accepted that this would not be the last time I would fall victim to the myth of self-reliance. I was refusing to allow for the graciousness of others. In my narrow, condemnatory, wounded little heart, I was denying that others might be more charitable than I was in overlooking my faults and reserving judgment. Could I admit that I was too caught up in my own self-importance, hand it all over to the God whose mercy surpasses His justice, and then simply let it go?

The driving winds of the tempest began to abate. The rain fell more softly. I started writing, and I discovered an odd gratitude. If I never went so far astray, upon what would I reflect? How would I grow?

“The only thing we can offer God of value is to give our love to people as unworthy of it as we are of God’s love.”

~ St. Catherine of Siena

the-life-comes-up-after-the-storm-02
The life comes up after the storm 02,” © Marcos Oliva (own work), May 2016. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

 

Every Little Step

Featured Image:  “Early morning riser,” © Vincent Mumar (own work), Sep 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“Sensations are not symptoms,” I tell myself as I place one blue-sneakered foot tentatively onto the concrete pavement. The words of my first psychiatrist return to me, though I can’t remember his precise phrasing. “How many times will you tell yourself you can’t do it before you do?

“Anxiety and fear do not provide solace for our pain but aggravate it, leading us to a kind of breakdown in courage and strength because it appears that our pain has no possible remedy.”

~ St. Francis de Sales

On this blog, though I recount forthrightly my struggles with depression and anxiety and I unabashedly discuss my recovery from binge eating disorder, there remain one or two subjects so steeped in self-judgment and shame that I continue to carefully avoid them. These issues are important parts of my identity, and I process them in-depth with my dietician, my therapist, and in my personal writing. Otherwise, I keep the stories to myself, with the persistent belief that, “There are some things that people just won’t understand.” The way that my mind processes thought through physiologic responses in my body is one of those topics that I eschew. It’s hard to describe the stress-induced symptoms that I can develop. They aren’t manifestations of an overactive imagination or an overwrought psyche, and I don’t suffer from what is commonly characterized (and stigmatized) as “psychosomatic” illness. Over-worked neurons send misdirecting signals into the muscles of my body, which contract irregularly, and – voila! – a knot in my shoulder or in my stomach, a rushed trip to the restroom, or a flare-up of an old tendinitis. Did you ever have a lump in your throat, tightness in your chest, or butterflies in your stomach when you were particularly anxious about something? In some people, that mind-body connection is a little over-developed. Different people may experience this process in a manner of ways, but for me, it is just that easy… and complicated.

My response to stress through these non-specific physical manifestations didn’t emerge out of nowhere. When I was in sixth grade, I was the target of some fairly serious bullying. (Those were the days before cell phones and social media. I can’t even fathom what children go through today.) By the end of the year, I was suffering from such frequent stomachaches and nausea that my pediatrician was convinced I was lactose intolerant. When all the tests returned with normal results, the symptoms eventually resolved. I was always a sensitive child and easily prone to worry. As I transitioned from elementary to middle school, the dysthymic depression that would persist for the next 20 years settled more concretely upon me.  I began to experience intermittent knee pains, which continued off and on throughout high school and college. I was diagnosed with patellofemoral syndrome, attributed to soccer and tennis. Before every tennis match, I lined up by the athletic trainer’s office so that he could tape my knees, but my ruminations about the sensation of pain only exacerbated and amplified the subjective experience. After college, I found my stride – literally and figuratively – becoming a short-distance runner and entering races. I completely forgot about my history of patellofemoral syndrome, and then I developed my first significant injury of adulthood. It was the fear more than the pain from the shin splints and possible stress fracture (I couldn’t afford the diagnostic test) that caused my depression and anxiety to spike. My thoughts lingered obsessively over my injury. In my fear and anticipation of pain, I could interpret almost any physical sensation in my legs as “hurt,” and my recovery extended beyond the expected six weeks into the range of six months. Eventually, when my bewildered doctor told me, “Either you are going to run, or you aren’t,” I screwed up my courage and forced one foot in front of the other. My mind reeled, but there wasn’t any inflammation in my extremities. When I forced my way through my dread and apprehension, both the emotions and their physical manifestations slowly melted away into… normalcy.

It wasn’t until nearly five years later, while I was recovering from my gastrointestinal illness and plantar fasciitis, that my therapist and I started addressing the role that my thought process was playing in my over-interpretation of physical stimuli. Anytime I noticed the slightest suggestion of a feeling in the area of my abdomen, I began to focus all of my attention on my stomach. As I over-analyzed every gurgle and squelch, I descended into self-blame, and my head swam with alarming and catastrophic thoughts. “Am I relapsing again? What did I do? I must have done something to cause it! What should I do? What if I really am getting sick again?” While my mood tanked, my stomach twisted into aching knots. At the same time that I was recovering from the terrible trauma of that prolonged GI disease, I was also in physical and emotional agony over a lingering case of plantar fasciitis, which made it difficult to enjoy many of the activities I once loved. The onset of the injury occurred during the peak of the colitis, at a time when I was weakened, malnourished, and desperately depressed. When my therapist and I discussed this history, I began to see how my anxiety and perseverations were understandable. It was so obvious when it was all laid out as if we were discussing the life of some stranger. Of course, I would be hyper-vigilant to any cues that might alert me to impending danger from these two conditions which, together, upended my entire existence! With my therapist’s coaching, I practiced responding to my pain and my fear with acceptance, gentleness, and self-compassion. “There’s that pain again,” I acknowledged. “There’s my brain worrying that something is wrong. But nothing is wrong, and I am ok.” As I gently closed my eyes and relaxed the little muscles of my jaw, I repeated to myself, “Deep breath. Ground myself in the breath. Ground myself in anything other than my stomach or my feet.”

Turning to principles of operant conditioning, I trained myself to act opposite my emotions. Rather than modifying my behavior to “protect myself” from further exacerbating the “pain,” I did exactly what I was afraid to do, within what a wise mind might consider moderate and safe. Instead of staying home from a bike ride, I would set out for a gentle cycle around the block, just to stretch my legs and prove to myself that I was capable of spending 10 or 15 minutes on a bicycle without hurting myself or causing some sort of massive GI upheaval. Instead of sitting on the couch and nursing my poor feet, lamenting my “disability,” I would tell myself softly that walking through the grocery store was not enough to trigger any sort of severe injury from which recovery was impossible, and off I went, frequently deep-breathing the whole way along while squinting my eyes tight and forcefully redirecting my attention again and again to anything other than the focus of my worry.

paralyzed
200.365 paralyzed by the same old antics,” © ashley rose (own work), Jan 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“The best way out is always through.”

~ Robert Frost

During these days of rewiring my mind-body connection, I developed several mantras:  “Just because I feel pain does not mean I am injured. // Sensitivity is not the same as pain. // There is no way that this moderate level of (x,y,z) activity is causing permanent damage. // In the whole long course of my life, this will not last forever! I am ok, and I am going to be ok. // All of this is going to work out. // No matter what happens, God has a plan for my life.” I also expanded the vocabulary that I used to describe my physical sensations. From one word, “pain,” my lexicon multiplied to include pressure, twinge, niggle, rub, ache, sting, tenderness, smarting, soreness, prickle, tingle, pinch, throb, burn, and irritation. Sometimes, there was still no word that fit. “I just feel it. It’s just there,” I would tell myself. Just because I was aware of the presence of my feet, did not mean that there was anything amiss.

“Don’t trouble yourself. God didn’t make us to abandon us.”

~ Michelangelo

So… why am I now reflecting on a desensitization process that I undertook almost two years ago? Well, I still develop physiologic responses to stress, and I still rely on the same tools and skills to redirect the automatic thoughts that alarm my mind with fears that my body isn’t right. With my trip to Paris quickly approaching, I am discovering that there is much more to this jumble than I originally perceived. There are some fearsome monsters still slumbering peacefully in a dark corner of my closet. Until recently, I didn’t even know they were there. Now, they are yawning wide, stretching their claws after their long hibernation, and showing their fangs. They are knocking on the door, and I am timidly letting them into the room.

The truth is, by God’s grace I am blessedly able-bodied, and I always enjoyed a very active lifestyle. I grew up running, jumping, and playing. At parties, I loved to dance! I lived in New York City and Washington, DC and constantly walked everywhere. Until a couple years ago, my job was incredibly active, and I was on my feet for 12 to 16 hours a day. Where did she go, that girl who used to clomp and shuffle and skip and scurry? She never gave her feet much of a thought. “This trip is going to be good for you on many levels,” my therapist predicted during our most recent session. She was referring to the myriad ways I was finding myself hurtled out of my comfort zone. Her underlying assumption seemed to be that I would emerge intact and healthy from my visits with the beasties in the closet. She foresaw us all pleasantly sipping thé and eating gateau at some Parisian sidewalk café in May. I reminded her that there were only four months until my departure – not much time to rehabilitate myself. “And here I was thinking, ‘Wow, we have four whole months! Think of all we can do in that amount of time!’” she replied.

Ironically, it was my mother who offered me the centering words of reassurance that anchored me in acceptance and self-compassion. “If it hurts to walk, just sit down,” she spoke to me over the phone. I was so overwhelmed by how much walking I would have to do after I landed in Paris, that I never stopped to consider I didn’t actually have to do any of it. “There will be so many places to sit! There will be places to sit everywhere! You don’t have to go everywhere and see everything. Just do what you can, and then take a break.” I was a little stunned that these words of balance and wisdom were coming from the same driven woman who instilled my perfectionistic, neurotic restlessness in me. This was the bold, fearless mother whose sense of adventure and curiosity could never be dissuaded until she explored every nook and cranny of every city, street, neighborhood, beach, field, house, museum, shop, or parking lot into which she ever stepped foot. She never saw a “Do Not Enter” sign that applied to her. As I contemplated her message, I remembered that she was also the same one who gently told me, “Let go of your pride,” when I blushed with shame as I maneuvered a motorized scooter through Disney World two years ago. In both instances, she reminded me that it was ok to be flexible, that I was more than I imagined myself to be, and that in the acceptance of reality, there was nothing to fear.

“If we are intended for great ends, we are called to great hazards.”

~ Blessed John Henry Newman

“Do what you can. It’s going to be ok.” Both feet are planted on the sidewalk now. I close the front door behind me, turn the key, and drop the little brass ring into my jacket pocket. Unravelling a set of earbuds, I jam them into my ears, wedging them in extra-securely. I thumb through my music and hit the “shuffle” button on the same playlist that comforted me during those early days of transition after my partial hospitalization discharge. Pat Benatar blasts into my tympanic membranes, reverberating down my auditory canals into my brain, drowning out any other thoughts. Off go my feet – one, two, one, two – and I consciously slow them as I count my inhales and exhales. Clenching my fists and singing softly along with the lyrics, I turn the corner, and I lose sight of the house behind me. “My body can do this! My body wants to do this,” I think. “It is my mind that is weak.” At the end of the next street, I turn back. The loop is about a mile, all-told, and I finish it in about 30 minutes. I am ok. “It’s going to be ok.”

Backpacker in Cairns
Backpacker in Cairns,” © Jo Christian Oterhals (own work), Mar 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

~ J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings

Prayer for Morning

Featured Image: “New year’s Eve morning dew #1 20141231,” © Yasunari(康就) Nakamura(中村) (own work), Dec 2014. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“The One that rules over men in justice / Is like the morning light at sunrise / on a cloudless morning, / making the greensward sparkle after rain.”

~ cf. 2 Sm 23:3-4

“Every morning we arise afresh in Christ our light. Ancient Christian writers warn against ‘morning demons’:  yesterday’s worries and grievances returning to poison the new day.”

~ October 31, 2016: Prayer for Morning,Magnificat

I know morning demons well! I confront them in the mirror every day at 5:30am as I wash my face, blow out my hair, and apply my makeup. It always frustrates me that during those 20-30 minutes, I am invariably flooded with preoccupations about all the worrisome and troubling thoughts that are crying for my attention. They rush upon me all at once. It seems that one anxiety-provoking notion recruits another and another in an escalating spiral. In like fashion, one bitter and resentful animosity about some conflict at work, some perceived injustice, an invalidating experience, or some other occasion for ire stirs up memories of all manner of past injuries and offenses. My emotions run away with me, and I am left in a conflicted and tense state, vexed by my inability to self-regulate and by my failure to think dialectically, objectively, and compassionately.

Once a month, I receive a small devotional booklet in the mail called Magnificat. All month long, I tote the little collection of passages and reflections around with me, just in case I manage to create the time and silence necessary for a brief meditation. On this last day of the month, the pages are now very tattered. Opening them to read the words of this morning and realizing that the struggle against these “morning demons” is (and always has been, and always will be) a part of the universal human condition reminds me why making space for quiet contemplation is worth the effort. I am not uniquely broken, and I am not alone.

Wishing you all a beautiful, blessed week and month ahead.

A Message to Myself Today

Featured Image: “Moonrise,” © Brian (own work), April 2012. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“In the course of a lifetime, what does it matter?”

~ Sharon Creech, Walk Two Moons

When I read this book, I was probably about twelve, and I forgot the majority of the plot long ago. But, when I was at Walden, I was reminded of these words by another patient. It was one of the quotations that helped keep her afloat during her intense battle against anorexia.

While I still don’t remember much about the story, I now carry this single sentence in my heart. It is slipping back into my consciousness today, as I return to work after a restful week of visiting family. Though there is much catching up to do, I am able to fluidly transition from one task to the next, without taking myself or the demands of my job and my day-to-day life too seriously. “How long will it be before I start growing anxious and frustrated again?” I wonder. “How long will it be before I start telling myself that all of the too-many-things I squeeze into my schedule are necessary?”

Last night, as I was about to climb into bed, it occurred to me, “It is going to be a long life. In the whole, long course of my life, does [it] really matter?” Pondering this idea for a moment, I remembered that gentleness applies not only to how I act and speak to others, but also how I think, and how I talk to myself. Then, I thought, “…and if I don’t live a long life, and I die tomorrow, or next month, or next year, [it] really won’t matter!” I smiled. The though was more comforting than morbid. I felt silly for being anxious and worried about so many insignificant concerns.

Today, I can’t even recall precisely what last night’s [it] was. Most likely, [it] was some dietary indiscretion, a few days without exercise, a few nights of poor sleep, or some other perceived imperfection, but the plain fact that I don’t specifically remember demonstrates just how irrelevant these few dropped notes are in the grand symphony of the universe. Am I living up to my values? What are those values? When I stop to reflect, I know exactly how I am called to live my life.

“Then he said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?’”

Luke 9:23-25

The cross is the sacrifice of self-giving love. It is the call to die to my own egocentrism, patiently bear the trials and tribulations of life, trusting God, loving always, seeking the little way. Am I choosing this path each day, each moment? Because, in the course of a lifetime, that is all that matters.

moonlight-path
Moonlight Path,” © V. Michelle Bernard (own work), July 2010. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Hyperkinesis

Featured Image:  “Merry-go-round,” © Tony Goulding (own work), Nov 2005. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

According to science, true perpetual motion is not possible. Those physicists at MIT never met me…

When I was in college, I was in awe of my friends who could sit in near cataplexy for hours upon hours, deep in focused concentration, with towers of books, sheaves of paper, assortments of pencils, pens, and colorful highlighters, and discarded coffee cups piled about them. There were a multitude of cozy, quiet, beautiful little nooks and crannies across our centuries-old campus where a person could nestle away for days of endless study. Yet, within an hour or so of burrowing down into the catacombs of the library stacks or snuggling up beside the massive fireplace in the periodicals room, a stirring would begin to creep through my body. It declared to me, “You’re a failure, you can’t hack it, you’re not as good as the rest, and there is clearly and obviously something abnormal about you, because you can’t sit still for two bloody hours! For crying out loud! GET BACK TO WORK!

As the clock on the wall continued its tortuous march, the thoughts in my head continued their annoying chatter, filling my mind with fantasies of restroom breaks, the weather, chocolate covered pretzels from the lobby shop in the student center, friends from home, shopping, movies that I loved, movies that I wanted to see, the parties that I wasn’t attending and the life that I wasn’t living while I was slaving over my textbooks day after day, all of my shortcomings and failures, the birds outside the window, my next vacation, anxieties about the future, regrets about the past, curiosities about what every person I knew was doing at that very moment, coupled with assumptions that they were all thriving, self-criticism of my sloppy appearance in my standard study-garb of t-shirt and sweatpants… This cyclic, often distorted stream of consciousness was accompanied by a twitchy, restless energy. There was a kinetic force that just wanted to be released. “Make it go away!” was the subconscious message I sent myself, though my executive center screamed, “Everyone else is working hard! What is wrong with you? Why can’t you sit still?!” (Self-compassion was never one of my strengths.)

If you knew Alice or Margie, you could ask them what it was like to live with me during final exam week. When there was no other outlet for that nervous, impatient, distressing dynamism that flooded my body and irritated my brain, I took up the habit of pacing the countertop of our kitchen peninsula. Sometimes, I stood on tables while I recited biochemical reactions from memory or they quizzed me from my flashcards of Latin declensions. Food offered a release, a distraction, an escape, and a comfort. Everyone needed to eat. I awaited mealtimes with apprehensive eagerness, because they provided a legitimized reason to leave my desk for an hour or so. Self-soothing and escaping difficult emotions by eating when I was not hungry or over-eating were maladaptive coping skills that I already carried with me from my earliest childhood.

A few weeks ago, I was tucked into a corner of my therapist’s couch, recounting a more recent experience of that same intense urgency, which arose during a stressful and busy time at work. When my therapist asked me to describe what I meant, I was ready with a catalog of adjectives. Skittery, jittery, tense, and intense. Fluttery, high-strung, and hyperactive. Agitated, frenzied, and disquieted. Discombobulated. She asked me if this state was always necessarily negative, and her question left me confused. Clearly, I was not using my words effectually. Of course it was negative! When I was caught up in this crazy spiral, I felt like my heart might explode, like electricity was running through my body, like I was literally a live-wire. It was confusing, disorienting, uncomfortable, and distressing, and the result was that I became inefficient and ineffective. All I could think about was making it stop and turning it off. Without binging, there was no physical release. I was left to tolerate the intolerable with coping skills like deep breathing, which felt like whispering into a tornado.

My therapist pressed a bit further, challenging my negative associations. Where did I learn that feeling hyperactive, confused, disoriented, and electric were bad? Could those same adjectives also describe excitement? What about exuberance, joy, enthusiasm, and positive energy? Then, she suggested something else that I wasn’t ready to hear. What if I was born with a more restless temperament? What if I simply wasn’t created to sit still for eight or ten hours at a stretch? After decades of comparing myself to others, could I accept myself as I was? What if the fact that I was not the sort to sit still and quiet for very long didn’t mean that I was broken, or a failure, or dysfunctional, or bad, or deficient, or weak-willed?

Oh, to know peace and rest in my body and my mind! To simply stop moving and thinking! How I yearn for such stasis! To be able to pass an afternoon with reading, meditation, writing, drawing, or painting seems like it would be bliss, but within fifteen minutes (sometimes more, sometimes less) of sitting down, I am up again. Maybe my rejection of my restlessness and my easy distractibility is what amplifies the intolerability of the urge to move. I attempt to fix the “problem” by eliminating every possible distraction before I try to find my calm, but the chores never end, and the to-do list only grows longer.

We spoke about ways that I might find more of a forgiving cadence in my day by building in more frequent, shorter breaks, interspersed with shorter periods of work. Perhaps the combination of quietness and movement is what I need, finding a rhythmic flow between work and restorative reflection. My current patterns will be hard to break, but I am hopeful, because I see the potential for more peace and less burnout. With repeated effort, this could be another step toward relaxing my rigid standards and reducing my self-criticism. Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy yoga so much is the unity of movement and stillness. Now, if I could only bring my practice off of the mat and into my life.

yoga
yoga,” © Bär Baer (own work), Nov 2014. CC BY 2.0. (license)

 

Compassion for Self and Kindness for Others

Featured Image: “Untitled,” © Jonas Witt (own work), Nov 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

When I first began the Kindness Challenge, I was feeling frayed, haggard, and on the cusp. I felt overpowered and threatened by circumstances that were beyond my control. My coping skills were always, almost, utterly depleted under the unceasing exigency. Like a raw nerve, I cringed and recoiled at the slightest prick, hypersensitive in my anticipation of the next deluge. Edgy and exhausted, my thinking slipped into rigid patterns, my self-compassion waned, and I stumbled along a circuitous course of self-perpetuating frustration over my “regression.” My intention at the outset of the challenge was to reconnect with a gentler version of myself. Through the first few weeks, I honestly noticed little change. When the fourth week of the challenge began, I was ready to begin again with renewed energy.

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

The focus of week #4 was “Be Kind,” which sounded simple and direct enough. However, after practicing loving-kindness meditation for the past year while striving to bring a bit more good into the world as often as I could, I wasn’t sure how the week would be different from my routine. I was re-reading Niki’s wonderful list of suggested kind acts while thinking to myself, “I already make eye contact and chat with everyone I meet, both friends and strangers. I already hold open doors for people, I’m continually working on being a better listener, I often write encouraging notes to friends and family members, I donate money to the church every week and to my favorite charities every month, I try to go out of my way just a bit to help other people when I see they need a hand, and I endeavor to remain open to the smallest act that might add a little light to the world…”

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

As I mentally scrolled through this litany of kindnesses, trying to conceive of something novel (that also wouldn’t take up too much time in my zany, work-a-day life), I was struck by how difficult it was for me to acknowledge my ongoing efforts. (Even typing them out here feels boastful and wrong. “People will get the wrong idea about me,” the voice in my head is saying. “I’m not that good.”)

Oh, that little voice. It clings on. I am no longer feeling quite so fragmented. Time and space are a soothing balm, but so are prayer, meditation, and the gentle, consistent, understanding, and encouraging support of an expert therapist, a skilled dietician, and a host of patient friends and family. Whether my external circumstances are truly altered, or the shift is an internal one, or both (I suspect the combination), I am thinking and feeling better. I leave it up to those who know me well to judge if my subjective sense of improvement correlates at all with an exterior change in comportment, but I am telling myself that I am less reactive and volatile than I was a month ago. Of course, my mind and my moods ebb and flow, and I continue to struggle with difficult and distorted core beliefs, such as that I am a bad person, blameworthy and wicked. Yet, I accept that I am a work in progress, and this work is the enterprise of a lifetime.

tide
Tide,” © Supermariolxpt (own work), Nov 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

After toting about the book, “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion,” by Christopher Germer, for a couple of months, I finally started to earnestly read it again. I also found a few other, short articles by various authors about what I would call, for a lack of a better term, the wholehearted approach to building an enriching life. Perhaps I needed a little refresher. With a highlighter and a pencil, I plodded along, a little bit each day, allowing the words to percolate as I scribbled my reactions and ideas in the margins. When I noticed a troubling or repetitive thought or an unpleasant feeling, I jotted it down on a sheet of paper that I titled my “monologue diary.” In five, neat columns labeled situation, thoughts, emotions, rational responses, and outcomes, I attempted to identify my underlying self-talk and pinpoint the circumstances that prompted these automated messages, countering the distortions with compassionate but honest reframing.

“Unless this love is among us, we can kill ourselves with work and it will only be work, not love. Work without love is slavery.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

At the conclusion of each day, as I tucked myself into bed, I permitted a few moments to feel the crisp, cotton sheets against my skin, rub my tired feet, and reflect upon my day. I paused long enough to bring to mind the different conversations that I shared with friends and strangers, the smiles, laughter, and encouraging words that were exchanged, to remember the emails or text messages that I sent to my loved ones, the letters that I mailed, the prayers that I offered for others, and each small act of generosity, whether it be holding a door open or allowing someone to skip ahead of me in line. From a six-week course on positive psychology that I completed last summer through the free, online educational website, Coursera, I learned that meditating for even a short while on “micro-moments” of connection or positivity at the end of each day would affect not only my mood but my body chemistry and neurobiology. I brought to mind the experiences from the day that were not-so-great and reflected on the ways that I failed to live up to my values. Rather than blaming or castigating myself for all of my shortcomings, I offered myself the same kindness that I was trying to cultivate for others. “Nobody is perfect. Yes, I made mistakes, and it just proves that I am human. It just shows that I am still a work in progress. Tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to try again.” It was grounding and humbling. Silently whispering my prayers, asking for the help, the grace, and the strength to navigate the coming day with an open heart, I pressed my face into my squishy, soft pillow.

“I prefer you to make mistakes in kindness than work miracles in unkindness.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

A week later, my heart feels fuller, and my mind is more at ease. I continue to hear the sharply judgmental and critical voices telling me that I’m worthless, that I need to work harder and earn my redemption, and fearfully casting others as potential threats to my own best interests, but I understand where those messages come from, and I don’t become angry or frustrated with myself when they occur. I recognize that they are just thoughts and emotions, and that everyone experiences unwanted and unhelpful thoughts and emotions from time to time, but they don’t dictate who I am or the choices that I make. I still need practice. It feels like a tiny, baby step. The result thus far, though, is liberating. When I am compassionate with myself, my heart feels gentle, and I treat others the same way. The kindness flows outward, but it starts with me. Wishing you all a kind, gentle, compassionate day!

“Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

Gentle breeze
Gentle breeze,” © Bill Harrison (own work), Dec 2014. CC BY 2.0. (license)