September 30, 2013

A Compassionate Heart

I remember a conversation with my high-school volleyball coach. She advised me, as setter, to be a sponge: soak up team emotions, but remain even-keeled; be a positive leader. I absorbed negativity, upset, and frustration. I took responsibility for everything and beamed enthusiasm. This was natural for me. From an early age, I sensed the emotions of others.

Eventually, though, the emotional-sponge model didn't work for me. I took on the difficulties of others as if they were my own. I thought I could save people. I thought I was responsible for the world. My heart was overwhelmed. 

I needed to look inside myself; to understand my own emotions. With enough self-awareness, I began to discern my feelings from those of others. I could see my response to the pain of friends. Then I tried to work skillfully with the situation--applying loving-kindness to both myself and others. It took practice to develop compassion--to open my heart completely and yet not be overwhelmed. Sharon Salzberg writes in Loving-Kindness: "It is a state of peace to be able to accept things as they are. This is to be at home in our own lives. We see that this universe is much too big to hold on to, but it is the perfect size for letting go. Our hearts and minds can become that big, and we can actually let go. This is the gift of equanimity."

The last two weeks brought sad news from different arenas. Distressing things happening to people I love. Some days I'm overwhelmed by sadness--so many people suffering. I try to remember Sharon's words: the universe is much too big to hold onto. I can't possibly save the world or take away the pain of loved ones. And if I dwell in an overwhelmed state, I only create more suffering--my friends suffer and I suffer. A different strategy is to open my heart; to not resist the pain and sadness. Then do what I can to help. And when I can't help, I let go. (The universe is the perfect size for letting go.) Sometimes I forget, but then I remember: I only need trust in my compassionate heart.

September 25, 2013

Be Radical

In a previous post I mentioned the radical nature of self-acceptance. It's counter-culture--our society prides itself on self-improvement, not self-acceptance. But I think we need a little more radical: radical acceptance, radical kindness, radical vulnerability. 

It's always easiest to start small. Here's a good internal trigger: I couldn't possibly do [fill in the blank]. For example, I couldn't possibly ask for help when all my friends are so busy; I couldn't possibly take a walk outside in the middle of a work day; I couldn't possibly say no to this great cause, even though I'm overloaded; I couldn't possibly make space in my day for yoga, meditation, or reflection; I couldn't possibly take a personal day to process difficult emotions; I couldn't possibly start a new hobby just for fun; I couldn't possibly show my vulnerability in front of another.

Yes, yes, we can. We can do these things and I invite us all to try. The next time we hear the internal voice--I couldn't possibly; that's radical (but secretly I want to try)--let's be radical. Take a radical step toward kindness, vulnerability, or acceptance. I'll be right beside you on the path.

September 19, 2013

The Online Middle Path

Six years ago I read Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. That summer I practiced his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. And I forged a new relationship with media. We got rid of cable (or any TV reception). I stopped reading the newspaper. I minimized my time surfing the Internet. Mark--and other informed friends--became my news filters. And I felt less anxiety.

Some questions posed by Kabat-Zinn: "How much do you read newspapers and magazines? [Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, online material?] How do you feel afterward? Do you act on the information you receive? In what ways? How is your behavior affected by your need to be stimulated and bombarded? What are the effects of taking in bad news and violent images on your body? Your psyche?"

Two ahas for me: 1) how do I feel afterward? (well, usually overstimulated, sometimes violated, and generally crappy), and 2) how do I act on the information? (um, besides feeling overwhelmed, bad about myself, and distraught about the state of the world? nothing.)

Interacting with the online world is a fine balance. I've spent weeks unplugged where I live life in brighter color.  I've also spent weeks lost in distraction--spending time on the attention-grabbing rather than what's most important to me. And there's a middle-path on which I'm currently traveling.

I'm old school--no Facebook or texting--but I use email regularly. I'm both grateful for and beguiled by email. A full inbox feels overwhelming and sends me down rabbit holes. Yet it's also a venue in which I make meaningful connections. One practice has saved my creative soul: no email in the early morning. My mind is most alert in the morning. That's my rich space for writing, creating, and bringing together ideas. Email doesn't deserve my best work hours, nor should it dictate my daily intention. At the same time, email does deserve my attention. That is, the people who send email deserve my attention. If I--out of sheer distraction habit--open email mindlessly, then I'm not making space for what could be a  new and very important conversation. 

My creative tribe includes photography friends I've met online. Flickr is a safe space to experiment and share, and it's helped me grow as a photographer.  I also enjoy the connection--making thoughtful comments on the work of others. It's a community of artists. Yet I fall into two traps: 1) feeling responsible to comment on every photo posted by a Flickr friend, and 2) mindlessly checking to see if my photos have new comments. The latter is not necessary (a digest of comments appears in my inbox) nor is it helpful--it's my reaction to a feeling of lack. If I do have new comments, they don't fill that lack--they don't make me feel worthy, as is. And if I don't have new comments, then I feel edgy. The more skillful path: check in with myself--what's going on? What do I need right now? 

With regard to the first trap, I read something helpful in the August issue of Mindful magazine: "In the information blizzard, it's not possible to keep up. Accept that." It's not possible to keep up with all the photographs (or blog posts or cool things that others are doing). There's such relief in accepting this simple fact. Now I only enter Flickr to post a photograph. Then I thoughtfully view the recent uploads of friends (not the entire backlog) and write comments on photographs that move me. That's it. And that feels good. With intentional online activity I feel full (in a good way). With mindless online activity I feel scattered and not myself. I'm trying to pay more attention.

While at Lawrence, I had multiple news sites as browser homepages. (I looked for real-world data to bring into the classroom, but was also drawn to news headlines.) This summer my friend Miriam said something simple, yet profound: we can choose our homepage. Yes! Now my only homepage is Tara Brach--specifically her streaming-audio, guided-meditations page. When I open a browser, I often choose to meditate for 10 minutes before interacting online.

With any activities, I try to ask: Why am I doing this? What's my intention? How do I feel afterward? Do have more energy or less? There are many required tasks, where perhaps we have little wiggle-room. But our lives are also filled with our own choices. And curiosity about these choices is a helpful practice. 

September 15, 2013

Inner Dialogue

While feeling excitement and uncertainty about my professional life, I realize I'm exactly where I need to be. I have the tools and practices to stay present with all that arises; to see more clearly. If I made this change earlier, I imagine the process would've been murkier--filled with constant (and paralyzing) doubt and self-judgment. But now I can suss out ego and hear my authentic voice.

My dad asked me to define the term "ego." He realized my use of the word is not the dictionary definition nor his personal definition. I said it was Buddhist language that I try to avoid in general conversation (and then I found the word "ego" littered throughout my blog posts). Perhaps my readers also want clarification.

Ego survives on suffering--either 1) reaching desperately for pleasure, gain, fame, praise or 2) fiercely repelling pain, loss, disgrace, and blame. Ego concretizes--sees in black and white (no gray, no changing). And ego is never, ever happy. It is relentless and must be constantly fed. It promises a break, a moment of relaxation, or happiness, but never delivers. In this way, ego is a tyrant. So perhaps I should call it my inner-tyrant.

The inner-tyrant speaks loudly and unkindly. I've learned to reduce the volume of ego. It remains background chatter (I have no expectation it will disappear), but the voice gets quieter--especially when I don't believe or follow it. Sometimes, though, ego sneaks through a backdoor; whispers something alluring and (seemingly) reasonable. And I follow.

I wrote an essay about my last few years; my road map to choice and to leaving my job. It's a nice piece--truthful, well-written, interesting. I wanted to charge ahead and submit the essay--my first step as a writer. Yet my internal compass was absent. I wasn't sure of my motivation: well-cloaked ego edict or intentional push from my inner-artist? I've learned to pause when my compass is absent. So I did (just barely). I shelved the essay. And then I saw the truth: I wanted the essay to wrap-up my life as an academic. This piece was a way to leave that life behind--never to be written about again. When actually this essay deserves more tender care and attention. Someday in the future.

I am 44 years of habituated thoughts. My meditation practice allows me to better see these thoughts and the emotional responses (and vice versa). Each day I feel more awake. More awake to life, others, and myself. I still get hooked by ego, but I always find my way back home. Back home to my open, kind, creative heart.

September 9, 2013

Trance of Unworthiness

On Friday night I attended a stirring talk by Tara Brach. Tara is a meditation teacher who speaks directly to my heart. Her book, Radical Acceptance, exposed me to life-altering ideas. More simply, I appreciate the book's title. In our culture, it's indeed radical to accept ourselves, as is. Self-love is so counter-culture that it's radical. Her new book, True Refuge, provides a heartfelt framework back to ourselves--dropping the false refuges and regularly connecting with our true refuge: our own inherent goodness.

From Tara I first heard the phrase, "trance of unworthiness." In her experience, most people suffer from this trance--living life with the constant hum of I'm-not-enough. I understand this trance well. I've lost swaths of my life in it. And I've also found my way back to myself. (See my previous post about shame and acceptance.)

My habituated reaction to difficult emotions is aversion--I push away. Through meditation practice I've learned it feels better when I allow for these emotions. It takes more energy to push away than to let them in. Still, my habits are well-grooved. But eventually I release from the trance. I allow for the sadness, anxiety, fear, and shame. Sometimes sitting with an emotion (e.g., sadness) releases it. Other times, the emotion is layered and sticky. In these situations, when I compassionately sit long enough, I typically find this root: something is wrong with me; I am not enough; I am unworthy. In these moments, if I place my hand on heart and say, "Joy, I'm sorry and I love you," I feel release. I feel connected to myself--my true, vulnerable self.

Tara names the common false refuges: striving, distracting, numbing, and judging. I understand every one of these. When I feel unnamed uneasiness, I often 1) try to prove myself via achievement, 2) distract myself with busyness and planning, 3) have a glass of wine and watch a movie, or 4) judge myself harshly (self-judgment is the background chatter of my mind)--or sometimes judge others harshly. These false refuges provide merely seconds of relief and must be reapplied. That is, they don't provide long-term refuge. 

Uncovering my shame and loving myself through it has radically changed my life. I live many more moments not in trance. I'm more present to all of life and all of me.  And once my heart opened to myself, it opened even bigger to the world. Imagine if we all healed ourselves with self-compassion; if we experienced life and others without protective armor; if we walked not in trance, but with open-hearted presence. 

September 2, 2013

Getting Out of My Head

Yesterday began in the normal Sunday way: I steeped tea and chopped veggies, Mark made biscuits, we created egg-veggie mixtures, and ate outside. We talked about ideas, food, and the wildlife around us.

Then I got into my head. I tinkered with a recent essay. I worried that it would be rejected. I obsessed about my author bio (in the small chance the essay is accepted): Joy Jordan is a former professor of statistics who now obsesses about writing an unassailable personal essay. My mind was full of thoughts. But not productive thoughts.

I recognized the unproductive nature of my thinking. And so did Mark ("perhaps writing a new essay would be better than worrying this one to death"). So we went for a walk. We walked to the student-run organic garden on campus; we walked to the local urban farm. We surrounded ourselves with wild nourishment. It was a wonderful antidote to my obsessive thinking.

There are different whats about which I can endlessly think--work, plans, projects, rumination on past events, daydreams of life all-wrapped-up. When I'm unproductively in my head, I need to 1) sink into my heart and listen, or 2) move my body--get outside and get some perspective. Yesterday I did the latter. I walked for hours, connected with nature, investigated spaces, witnessed parties on people's lawns--I got outside all the thoughts in my head. And there's so much life out there: so much life to be experienced.