The Being of Doing

Silver maple flowersThis morning I had a large load of laundry to hang up.  I found myself rushing to get it finished, hurrying to complete the task because I had another task to complete or maybe just because I wanted to get back to my cup of coffee.   The point was that I was going to spend twenty minutes hanging laundry and I could do it with my mind in the next task or in irritation or in feeling rushed, or I could hang laundry and practice being present to myself as I did it.  So I decided to take this task moment by moment, and try to see when I was derailing and when I might actually be in the present.  Hanging laundry doesn’t take a lot of attention and I can attach many memories and thoughts to it, so it was a bit of effort to stay present.  In fact, I was thinking I’d write a blog post about hanging laundry and that was yet another way I escaped the present moment!  Ahh, the monkey mind can be a clever fellow.

The most potent sensory moment was in snapping out my cotton flannel pajama pants and tossing them over the line, feeling the cold wetness on my hands and the dryness of my skin, smelling the damp cotton and the briefest sense of the enjoyment of the future of pulling on clean pajamas….maybe that was a memory and not a projection, but in any case, it was being present to my own inner experience as well as what was coming in from my senses.   I might have enjoyed more spending that twenty minutes sitting on my meditation cushion in silence, but I still would have needed to hang the laundry, and so I am choosing to see that as part of today’s practice.  How can I BE when I am still doing?   This is one way.

Be-ing is something that I can access all the time.   When I am deeply into thinking or remembering or reacting or otherwise unaware of myself, I can stop, notice my sensory experience, take stock of myself (“what do I notice in my body NOW?”) and connect once again to the ground of Be-ing.  I don’t need silence, my cushion, or even a quiet space, although they certainly can help.  But I am “being” all the time, even when I am not able to notice it.

How do you find yourself in the midst of a lot of doing?

Silver maple buds in march

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My mind is full of thoughts…

Is your mind is full?  Do you feel flooded with racing thoughts, images, ideas, memories?  It can sometimes feel like there is no room for anything  else in there.  Feeling too full in the mind often goes with feeling charged up (not in a pleasant way) in the body, and there are usually unpleasant feelings attached.  If you have ever suddenly realized what you are thinking is making you feel bad, you are not alone.

The practice of mindfulness helps people to notice the contents and processes of the mind.  Sitting quietly and just being with yourself is a way to directly access the mind.  But I know people who find it overwhelming, especially if they think they are supposed to “quiet the mind.”    We all start in different places.   For people who feel “full up” in the mind, another strategy is called for.

struggling-writer

If there is no space in your mind, you can pay attention to what IS in your mind. To start, you can label your process as “thinking.”

“Thinking.”  Just noting that you are thinking may help you separate a bit from it.  If just adding the label isn’t enough, you can notice the categories.  What is the CONTENT of this “thinking?”   Lists?  Memories?  Fantasies?  Imagined conversations?   Redecorating the living room?    What are the contents that fill your inner space?   When you can start to notice the contents and categorize them, then you have created a bit of space to witness your own mental activities.

So if I notice that my mind is busy making lists (things to do, what to get at the grocery store, reminders of tasks) then I have stepped out of the content for a moment, at least long enough to see….oh, yes, I am  “thinking,”  specifically, I am making lists.

If I am busy reliving last night’s party, then I can note that – ah, yes, I am remembering.   If I can observe and label, then I am witnessing my own process.  I am not in the thought, but outside of it.

As a witness to my mind,  I can decide how I want to interact with those contents.  If I remember that somebody was unpleasant to me at the party, I can decide if I want to stay with that memory and maybe regenerate some unpleasant feelings.   By labeling the content as “memory”, I make distance from the thought, and then I am in charge of myself.  Otherwise, my mind may run away with me into a waterfall of unpleasant memories and emotional distress.

If that’s already happened, and I am overwhelmed with thoughts that feel upsetting, I can notice it.   I can become aware that there is a rush of thoughts and feelings cascading through my mind and body.  Perhaps I notice it is like a river in full flood, with logs and debris and crashing brown water barreling through my mind.  If I can notice that, I might be able to rise above this river and observe the flow, becoming a witness to this internal process of thoughts, feelings, and reactions. I am no longer in the river, but observing it.

When I have stepped back from the surging river, I have changed my relationship to it.   I am no longer in danger of drowning, although I can still feel and think everything I was feeling and thinking before.  I am out of danger.  Through paying attention to my process,  I can predict where I might get pulled in again, and remind myself to stay on the banks,    Staying out of the river isn’t about controlling thoughts or feelings;  it is about compassionately observing your process as you experience those thoughts and feelings, watching the river in full spate, and watching as it slows and clears and calms.  This is a way that space opens up in the mind.

Learning to make friends with your mind takes attention and compassion for yourself.  Like any kind of training, it takes practice.  When my mind is in charge of me, I am lost in my thinking processes.  When I am in charge,  I can observe what happens without getting lost in the process.   I can decide to watch my thoughts or to jump in the water with them.   Either way, there is an exquisite freedom to owning your own mind.

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The Space Between

Michelle at The Green Study posted this today….I love the attention to the spaces between those things that grab our attention.  What can you notice in your day today?  Where do you experience spaces?  I am going to watch myself for space….

The Green Study

An interval of silence

when your arm no longer bows

music at rest

time to breathe

canstockphoto7479668An interval of rest

between reps and sweat

your muscle regroups

lives to fight another set

An interval of breath

dozy conscientiousness

before sleep carries you

into the shadows

An interval of quiet

before the kids wake up

and after the dog has been walked

coffee steam swirls up your nose

An interval of observation

standing in lines

watching the cashier

have a good or bad day

An interval of thought

Mouth closed mind open

walking about

in the shoes of someone else

An interval of grace

for that momentary glance

that says I’ve got your back

for the child still snoring on a school holiday

An interval of peace

a cup of a tea

the list that doesn’t need

to be started right now

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On living and dying

When I die, let me lie down in the forest

Let the wild animals gnaw on my bones

Let the tiny animalcules burrow into this flesh, putrefying and liquidizing

Until my cells become elements

And my flesh is earth and air

And life reconstructs those components into something newly alive.

 

Wheatgrass Grass Drop Of Water

When I die my body is dead, is no more

and my consciousness is also no more

released away as a product of living tissue to become a part of the ineffable

the universe first of thought, memories and feelings of others

And later just a turn of the head or shape of an eye in my children’s children’s children.

 

Blessed is my life

My living body, my living self

Blessed is me, the “I” that I experience as a blade of grass, full of myself,

full of belief in my own individuality importance specialness.

I am an expression of my Mother

This planet who birthed us all

Gave rise to our species and is even now modifying and allowing us to modify ourselves and her

a member of this tribe of grasses

mere tubule of intake and output which has somehow developed sentience

And thus believes, each of us, that we are enormously important in the vastness of the universe.

And maybe we are.

Ways to welcome a new year (or not)

In early December, the guy at the desk at my gym commented on how busy things will be early in January, and then laughed wryly and said, “Well, you can always just wait until February when things get back to normal.”  People embrace big changes at the beginning of the new year, as if that particular moment in time is especially potent for change-making.

I have participated in this ritual for many years, setting intentions and identifying things I want to move toward.   Today, though, I wonder about it a bit.  Change is a constant.  Change is always happening, and often we resist and regret change.  So why do we want to embrace personal change on January first?

I am thinking it is all (ALL) about control or at least the illusion of control.  If I decide what kind of change I want, and how I want to accomplish that change, then I am not at the mercy of the random-feeling sorts of changes that happen without my permission and without even notification.   This isn’t true, of course, but it is a way that we can comfort ourselves into feeling safe.  Yes, I can go to the gym every day and eat nothing but lettuce leaves, and that will keep me safe from really big painful changes.  Maybe it will just numb me to other changes, or keep me so preoccupied with trying to stay on track that I don’t have to acknowledge that somebody had died, that my job isn’t  satisfying, that my children are struggling and that I don’t know how to help them.

So that’s a theory for today.  But even cursory notice makes it clear that it is an illusion.  We actually live in a world where we have little control.  In the realm of our personal behaviour we do experience ourselves as being able to make choices and manage our responses, but that’s often because we don’t realize the degree to which we have been limited and programmed by our previous experiences or deeply entrenched beliefs.

 

 

The Perfect Mommy: the myth that binds

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There is a terrible mythology operating among sensible, educated, intelligent women, and the result of this mythology is a whole host of trouble:  increasing stress levels, anxious thinking, moodiness, roller-coastering emotions and self-esteem.  This is the myth of the perfect mother, who, with no apparent effort, has perfect children.  She is totally self-sacrificing, perpetually loving, has boundless energy to give to her children, and her life, because she has sacrificed everything, is perfect.  Her children lead charmed lives, as well, because she is a perfect mother. 

Do you believe this?   I know that in your intellectual mind, you understand that it is an impossibility, unachievable.  We all “know” that nobody is perfect.    But deep in your heart of hearts, do you believe that if only you are perfect you can protect your baby and child from harm?  That you can support her development to the degree that she can become something wonderful and special?  That if you breastfeed longer, play the right music, keep her away from screens, anticipate her every need, that you can protect her from anything that might befall her?

Many moms seem to have this belief underlying their everyday behaviour.  There is a terrible fear of being less than perfect and thus putting your baby at risk.  And maybe the worst part is this “perfect” is a moving target!  Today it is about co-sleeping.  Tomorrow it is about enforcing a schedule.   Avoid peanut butter.  No, no, offer it early, prevent allergies!  When you are in the middle of this, it is impossible to see the whole context…. which is that the “right” way to raise baby is going to be different next week….and in five years, you’ll look back and say, oh, I can’t believe we thought that was right….

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A mom got really angry with me once for suggesting that she could maybe try to be a “good-enough” mom.  This concept is time-honoured, and I’ll get to the background in a minute.   The mom who got angry thought that she would be short-changing her children if she only was “good enough.”  She needed to be more than that, more than even what is possible, in order to justify her having these children in her life.  She couldn’t relax into the idea of being “good enough” because that would mean she didn’t actually deserve to have children.  What a painful, limiting way to think….and she wasn’t completely aware of it until it came out in therapy.  When those ideas get some light and air in therapy, then we have the ability to think about them, and decide if we want to believe them.   We develop the capacity for making choices in how we will mother.

So what about the “good-enough” idea?   Well, it got its start with Donald Winnicott, a very important psychiatrist from the U.K. in the last century.  He suggested that children have very particular needs in order to develop to their highest capacity. Most mothers supply these needs without a lot of outside intervention.  And once those needs are met, then adding more doesn’t do anything to support development.  It is actually energy spent that could be doing something else, like maybe taking care of yourself, or working at your career, or doing something you love.

How can you switch to being a good enough mommy when you have been programmed since forever to aim for perfection?  You have to reprogram your inner world and then restructure your outer world.

Inner world

  • Check your default thinking.   When you interact with your child and you hear self-critical thoughts come up in your mind, see if you can think “that was probably good enough.”   If that’s impossible, see if you can think “I wonder what good enough would be like?”
  • If you tend to catastrophic thinking (i.e. if I give my baby a bottle all these terrible outcomes could happen), do a reality check. Specifically, how likely are those outcomes?   If one happened, would you manage it?  Another approach to that worst-case thinking is to just notice that you are doing that kind of thinking again.  If it is a pattern for you, you might be able to notice that you are in your pattern.  Once you can see the pattern, you have some traction for fact-checking.  “Oh, this is my scary thought pattern.  I don’t have to believe these thoughts; this is just my pattern.”
  • Practice thinking about what is constitutes “good enough.” Do I have to read three books at bedtime or is one book enough?   Does the baby need to nurse five times a night at six months or is less going to be enough?  Don’t expect to know what enough is…. but at least when you are asking the question you can notice when you are giving too much.
  • Destress your life as much as possible, and focus on enjoying the time with your baby or children. More about that later.

Outer world.

  • Check your context. Are you inundated with other peoples’ views on perfect parenting?  Do you spend time on social media listening to women judge other peoples’ parenting?  Or do you spend time in social groups trying to improve your parenting?   See if the context supports your sense of being okay or if it contributes to a sense that you are not okay at this mothering thing.  It probably won’t be all or nothing:  there may be parts that feel good and supportive, and parts that feel judgy and uncomfortable.  See if you can extricate yourself from judgement.  That includes offering judgment as well as being the recipient.
  • Ask for what you want. In an effort to change the context to support you in being “good enough” instead of perfect, you can ask for support.  Ask for support for your parenting and tell them what that will look like.  For example, “Mom, I’d really like you to tell me that I am doing a great job, and that you know it is sometimes hard, and that you think I’m a good mom.”   You can’t control whether she will do it, but you will have made your preference very clear.
  • Destress your life as much as possible. Yes, you did just read that in the list above, but it is essential for both inner peace and an outer serenity.  More about this later.

 

Getting out from under the burden of perfectionism in motherhood is not easy, but it can be liberating.  You know what your child needs, and you know how you want your family life to be.  You and your spouse get to make those decisions for your family. It can just like the folks next door, or people on Pinterest, but it probably won’t be.  And just as perfect mothering cannot protect your child from real life, it cannot keep you from struggling with the complicated feelings that arise as our children grow, change, and face their lives.  Liberating yourself from the myth of the perfect mommy offers the possibility of deeply enjoying the process of raising children.

Photo credit: Thanks to Katie Huffman, of Looking at Life through Agreeable Hours for the lovely hands on mug picture.

Where is the darkness?

I have clients in my practice who have suffered through traumatizing situations, people who struggle with PTSD, the real deal.   Sometimes they have seen so much that it can be hard to hold any idea of the world other than the one that is framed by that experience.

If you have been a helper in this world, one who sees the suffering enacted on humans by other humans, one who tries without success to bring order into chaos, one who wants desperately to reach out a hand to help but knows that a hand isn’t enough, the  world can look like a terrible place, where people do unconscionable things to each other, where behaviour lies outside of our capacity to understand, and where compassion seems to have dried up and blown away.

I know, though, that we have an inherent capacity to tolerate trauma.  Our nervous systems are wired up to experience it, work through it, and work it out.  PTSD happens when that natural system is disrupted. Instead of feeling our feelings, watching our memories, noticing our body sensations, we are trained to avoid all of that, pretend we are okay when we are not, and smile….at all costs, to smile.  When we are good at avoidance, we can sometimes pretend that we didn’t have those experiences.  At least we can pretend to others, but it is harder to pretend to ourselves, especially at night.

But because I know we are self-healing, I know that people can and do recover from trauma and from PTSD.   What can be hard though is when the darkness from the worldview starts to invade your heart and mind.  You can get to a place where you wonder if the world is really all dark, if people really cannot be trusted, and if there is no self-righting tendency in anything.  That can be the edge of despair:  not a place we especially like to visit.  And if you haven’t been there before, it can feel like there is no way out.

Despair.  Despair:  if you’ve been there, you know it.  Despair is the last protest of hopelessness, the energy that powers our movement back toward the light.  It is the NO that shifts gears from ever increasing darkness.  When the dark forces gather, we resist and try to push the feelings away.  But letting go into the experience of the body allows for the cry of despair….and that is our protest.  The cry is both the indicator of the depth of feeling and the movement out of that feeling.

Our literature and beliefs are rife with examples and expressions of despair.  It is a very human experience, and we try like crazy to avoid it.  But it is what comes when things are overwhelming, sorrows abound, fear and sadness and loss are activated to a high level.  We see the world and ourselves as without redemption.   But making the protest, crying out despair, especially with your therapist, your lover, or your friend, can open a door to recovery.

 

A platform for therapists, lovers and friends…..holding space for another person (a bit of direction)

When you cry out that there is nothing, no one, that you are unutterably alone, I can hear that.  When you cry out and I witness your despair, you experience something different.  You are not alone.  You are not carrying this burden by yourself.  You are not unsupported, unloved, unseen.   I will not give you up to a world that is all darkness.  Even when you cannot imagine that there is anything else, I can hold the space so you can feel into your despair.  When you feel like you have to give up, because you just cannot go on any more,  I have strength and room for you.  When you cannot believe in a future, I can believe in it, and I can believe in you.   Even if you cannot see the light, I will hold it for you until you have sunk into your despair and made that cry that moves you away from it.