My gift to you: Five minutes, five breaths

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. What could be better than the spirit of giving and thanking? But the week before Thanksgiving Day (T-day and counting) was full of minor crises.

My relationship with technology turned catastrophic. I spent two days trying to breathe life into my beloved, old Mac. Needless to say, that put me in a mood. And then a series of run-of-the-mill life hassles, not that noteworthy, seemed to crescendo against a background of our dismal, rainy, Northwest winter. Mood = gloomy.

Of course, that put me behind on all the preparations for T-day: the cleaning, the food fixing, etc., all calling me to move into action NOW!

So what did I do? I just made a cup of tea and did nothing for five whole minutes. I gave my self the gift of five breaths and five minutes to just sit. Let the world wait.

This is the gift I want to pass on to you. Five minutes for you. Five deep breaths. Tea is optional.

With each breath, I thought of what I would dedicate it to. You can borrow my list or make your own. Or just sit still and feel scrumptious.

Breath one: I drink in the love, allowing a feeling of love to surround me. I bask in it. That love makes everything else possible.

Breath two: I send that love out into the world. To the ones I love, and the ones I don’t. Today, I send to both.

Breath three: I send a special breath of love to family, friends, and community. Their support keeps me going. (Family comes in so many forms these days. You can send to whomever you want to bless for supporting you.)

Breath four: I send love to nature. She deserves it.

Breath five: I send love to that which is bigger, mysterious, and transcends the mundane stuff that all too often causes me to shortcircuit. The Eternal. The Divine. The Now. I love the word, God and use it. You use the word that works for you.

FIve breaths. Five minutes. Simple. They got me back on track. I hope they help you. Of course, you can take more. Because with just a few minutes of you-ness, the world can come back into focus.

And with that, I give my deep thanks for you. For your caring. For all that you do. For the light that you bring into the world. For your reading this. It means more to me than you can imagine.

Love,

Sally

After Me Too

 

The chorus of voices chanting “Me too” keeps getting louder. Hearing people finally speaking out against sexual harassment has been great, stressful, and long overdue. But hearing all of the allegations may also stir up deep feelings within those of us who have harbored traumatic memories for many years.

Public allegations of sexual harassment against celebrity figures like Harvey Weinstein have opened a floodgate of revelations, making it safer for people to finally speak up about the sexual harassment or misconduct they’ve experienced or witnessed.

We’ve been waiting for years to be safe to speak out. Twenty-six years ago, I witnessed what could happen to a woman who publicly spoke out against a man in power. Watching Anita Hill testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Testimony about her experience being sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was excruciatingly painful. A brave, educated, beautiful, competent African-American lawyer was being publicly slain by Congressional incompetents with mean, ill-intended questions, while millions of women nation-wide knew exactly what Anita was talking about.

ALL of my professional friends believed Anita, because all of us had experienced some form of sexual harassment, dramatic or small, or knew someone who had. Yet we were powerless to stop the process of what was later called a “high tech lynching” on camera. She paid too high a price for speaking out.

She wasn’t the only one to pay a price for speaking out to power.

Years ago, I began a project listening to the stories of female Iraq veterans who had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their time in the service. One vet called me, desperately needing someone who would hear and believe her story. She described being drugged and raped in Iraq. When she complained to her superiors, they covered for her assailant, one of the “good old boys,” and refused to believe her. Not being trusted by a superior officer is what some servicewomen describe being like a second rape. After her superiors dismissed her, she left the service, went to work in a fast food restaurant, and tried to kill herself. It was heartbreaking. All I could do was listen and encourage her to seek professional help.

What do you do when you are carrying a difficult story?

All of the me-too stories circulating over social media can potentially trigger difficult memories of trauma. Guts resonate in sympathy with the stories told, old wounds are revealed, and feelings of fury and frustration kept under wrap for years bubble to the surface. We deal with what we’ve tried to forget. We remember the toll it has taken to be confronted with so many micro as well as major aggressions over so many years.

In safe company, we may share our stories, although frankly mine aren’t suited to parties or dinner table conversations, and I usually prefer to keep them private. Our memories are often complex providing good fodder for self-judgments. (such as How did I ever think saving a few francs by hitchhiking by myself in France was a good idea?)

Here’s something we can all do: write.

One suggestion is to write about your memories, privately, in conversation with a page that can gracefully hold whatever you chose to write. Research, by Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin has shown that writing, in the wake of a traumatic incident, is even more effective than using on-the-scene crisis counseling in lessening the effects of trauma.

Write to the page as if it were your best friend, who expects nothing, does not judge, has empathy and loves you. Or just write for yourself. The page is willing to catch whatever you chose to share. It is for you, only you.

Then as you put events, emotions, interpretations on the page you can begin to examine your own narratives and edit them, as all good writers do. This is where the healing really begins. One caveat: the research suggests that this writing process works best after you’ve had a little time between you and the trauma. Like remembering the time you were harassed years ago that still sticks in your memory like a burr in your side.

I don’t know the mechanism that makes this writing healing, but I do know that being able to edit your own story is powerful.

At the same time, we can show compassion for others by listening to difficult stories without judgment. Our job, thankfully, is to be a friend, not to be a court of law sorting out the facts. Stories may be messy with complex emotions interwoven into what happened. Doesn’t matter. Our job is to be human, present, and empathic. Deep sharing requires safety and kind attention.

There are so many dimensions to the “me too” words. We need to acknowledge and say “me too” to where we also have used our power inappropriately to hurt, dismiss, or discriminate against another. And who, frankly, hasn’t done that?

We’re in this together.

Me, too.

 

Inviting death back into Halloween

Happy Dia de los Muertos, the end of the three-day festival from Mexico that celebrates the souls of ancestors, friends, and family members who have died, and supports their journey in the afterlife. The Mexican event, which began 3000 years ago, was shifted to sync with a three-day Christian festival that also honors the departed, Allhallowtide. The old Christian festival “to remember the dead, including martyrs, saints, and all faithful departed Christians”* begins with All Hallows Eve (Halloween), then continues with All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’) and All Souls’ Day.

For Dia de los Muertos, the songs and the tequila come out, so that the dead souls feel celebrated, rather than mourned. The dead are welcomed as part of the community, and death is considered a natural part of life.

Halloween without the hallow

Not so with that commercial blockbuster, Halloween, the only popularly celebrated part of Allhallowtide. Gone is the festival’s original intent of honoring the dead and acknowledging the mystery of death. The costumes and masks we wear today were originally donned, not to spook people or entitle one to candy, but to help people disguise their identities from the spirits that might be out and about on the night “when the veil between the material world and the afterlife thinned.”*

The night when the veil between the material world and the afterlife thinned. Wow. That sounds like the zone where death might live. (Mood music, please.)

Why do we turn our backs on the specter of death as if it’s some horrible, spooky thing?

In his classic book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker asserts that a lot of what makes people obsessed with their work or drives their creations is their desire to outrun death and achieve some sense of immortality through what they achieve.

When we deny death, we can’t be fully present to life.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about death, not as something to be avoided, but something to be welcomed as part of the two halves of life (life and death).

“I am not saying that we should love death, but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love…”

“It is only because we exclude it that death becomes more and more foreign to us and, ultimately, our enemy.”

“So long as we stand in opposition to Death we will disfigure it…. Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love… “

*Wikipedia quote
(Rilke quotes by Joanna Macy, cited in Brain Pickings)

Death can open our hearts

Sitting at the bedside of someone who is dying may be painful, yet dying is often described by those who have had this experience as a sacred passage, not unlike the passage of birth.

I loved being with my friend Jaralene during her five-year journey with pancreatic cancer. I did not love the cancer–I considered it cruel. Yet Jaralene, who cherished her life without denying death, offered me, through her presence, a way to live more fully. Whenever I talked with her, I felt as though I dropped into an altered space where I was more connected to what is precious about life. I felt closer to the veil.

I don’t want to romanticize death or deny that it can be bitter, unyielding, and infinitely difficult. A friend died unexpectedly yesterday; I’m walking around stunned.

Watching my mother slowly slip away in hospice care over the past two years has tested my patience while reinforcing my love. It’s not easy. Still, as I sit near her, I feel as though I’m in rarified air, a little closer to the edge of that liminal space between the material world and the afterlife–the space that those who first celebrated Halloween understood.

There’s so much more I could say about death, but not today. Fall is the time when nature offers leaves a chance to fall and plants a chance to die so that new life can come again. Greeting death through nature is not morbid, so shouldn’t we welcome death as a natural part of our human lives?

On this last day of Dia de los Muertos, let’s honor life while also celebrating death. Maybe it’s time for tequila!

By bringing death into life we remember those who have gone before and acknowledge death, if not as a best friend, at least as an on-going participant in our lives.

Honoring fall

 

I love fall with its bittersweet splendor. Months of dark rain lurk just around the corner, yet the leaves today are at their most brilliant. Nature prepares herself to let go and rest before beginning next season’s growth.

I wish I could let go and rest my mind as well–and fall may be the perfect time to do that. I’ve hit a couple of days this week when I couldn’t write and no words came out. I knew that I wasn’t feeling writer’s block–it was more like I needed a space in which to be empty.

And let things fall away.

In case you missed these:

Thanks so much for reading these blogs, as you can. It may be hard to keep up (no expectation, either!) but you might want to check out a few you missed, like my reflections on how our empathy can tire us out and what we can do about it.

On a lighter note, some of you joined me in creating a story in six words. Try it! It was fun, easy and surprisingly expressive.

One of my readers recently thanked me for reminding us that this is not the New Normal. There are some things that have been happening recently that, heaven help us, we shouldn’t adapt to.

At the same time, we may need to let go of some of our thoughts about the past to clear space and cultivate our creativity now. Being able to express myself creatively and artfully always brings me back to center.

Last words from Leonard Cohen

Creative Commons Photo by Rama

Want to hear a terrific interview with someone who knew how to honor the fall of his life? (Not my work, alas). I loved listening to this last interview with Leonard Cohen by New Yorker reporter David Remnick. Cohen was a man who lived every ounce of the last part of his life while understanding that he was dying from cancer. As he spoke:

“Now I haven’t gotten near finishing up. I’ve finished up a few things. I don’t know how many other things I’ll be able to get to, because at this particular stage I experience deep fatigue. . . . There are times when I just have to lie down. I can’t play anymore, and my back goes fast also. Spiritual things, baruch Hashem”—thank God—“have fallen into place, for which I am deeply grateful.”

 

From his late-in-life song Going Home

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before
Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore…
How beautiful to be able to embrace the late fall of one’s life.

Today I stand in awe of autumn, for which I am deeply grateful.

Is empathy wearing you out? (And what you can do about it…)

Do you feel exhausted after listening to just ten minutes of news?

Last week, as I was driving to the ferry and listening to Public Radio, I heard about:

  • Mounting death toll in California, fires still raging, property destroyed;
  • Puerto Rico still without power and basic health care for many;
  • New facts about the Las Vegas shooter;
  • Millions about to lose health care insurance;
  • Successful family planning clinic helping the poor in Madagascar losing funding because of US policy changes.

I clicked off the radio.

It wasn’t even 9 am and I was distressed for the day.

Compassion Fatigue

Some years ago, the term compassion fatigue was coined to describe how nurses and other caretakers can lose their ability to care after dealing with too much trauma and working with too many difficult cases. It referred to people who burn out on their work.

What about those of us who are burning out because we can’t do anything–or enough–to address the problems we hear about daily?

Empathic Distress

Roshi Joan Halifax, renowned Zen teacher and medical anthropologist, prefers a different term: empathic distress. Empathic distress is a form of trauma that occurs when you empathize deeply with a situation, but it seems you can’t do a darn thing about it–like influencing Congress these days. In a recent interview with Krista Tippett, Halifax described how people can be pushed into “edge states,” close to trauma, where they experience their energy being sucked out of them.

Who can listen to the radio these days, with empathy, and not feel distressed and exhausted?

Halifax said:

“Compassionate people are overwhelmed now with the deluge of terrible news. The pictures are too present and too vivid. The news cycle is too relentless. I see pictures of children in faraway places that wreck me for a day. So the question…is how do we find the courage? How do we heal enough? How do we be present to that and not be overwhelmed by it?

We feel this profound moral conflict. And yet we can’t do anything about it, and we enter into a state either of moral outrage, or we go into states of avoidance through addictive behaviors where we just don’t want to deal with it, or we just go into another state of withdrawal, a kind of numbness, or into freeze.

How distress can physically freeze us: the strange case of frozen shoulder

A few years ago I was afflicted by a bizarre condition called frozen shoulder. Lifting my shoulder or doing routine arm movements such as catching a ball sent me into paroxysms of pain. Massage and physical therapy didn’t help, and I learned there was little that could be done to remedy the problem. With frozen shoulder, your shoulder starts out feeling acute pain. Eventually, your shoulder freezes and numbs and the experience of pain subsides. Then, after a few months, it “melts” (some pain may return) and the shoulder eventually resumes operations. The process can take up to a year.

Doesn’t today’s news risk making us freeze and numb?

Trauma therapist Peter Levine, the creator of Somatic Experiencing, writes that frozen shoulder can occur when we’re caught between stopping and needing to move ahead. He described the dramatic case of a firefighter who had to pull a woman’s body out of a wrecked car. He was pulled to do his job yet repulsed by the blood, body parts, and dead children he saw in the car. His go/stay trauma eventually lodged in his body as frozen shoulder.

How do we deal with daily doses of trauma?

Halifax says: “Affecting positive change in society, a mission so vital to those passionate about caring for others, is perceived as elusive, if not impossible. This painful reality, coupled with first-hand knowledge of society’s flagrant disregard for the safety and well being of the feeble and frail, takes its toll on everyone from full-time employees to part-time volunteers.”

She says the solution isn’t to go numb or stop caring, but to learn to “down-regulate” our emotions so that we can return to a place of calm after the shock of what we have experienced.

What we can do

Halifax says: “For me, the path of meditation has been critical because I’m a very passionate person. And I have learned to actually down-regulate and to become, in a way, more sensitive without being hyper-aroused, which would cause me to withdraw.”

Through meditation she trains her mind to be sensitive to when she’s at an edge. “I can withdraw—but not completely—in order to ground myself…”

Down-regulation, or calming ourselves in the face of emotional responses to upsetting news, is vital. We begin by recognizing when we are approaching an edge and need to chill in order to feel compassion without over-whelming ourselves. We can experiment with methods that allow us to receive the news, then return to a calm place within ourselves, such as:

  • Meditating
  • Sitting quietly, breathing and chilling
  • Going for a run or getting some vigorous exercise
  • Playing with animals
  • Laughing or singing

I believe the best relief involves some somatic (bodily) release through breathing, moving or sweating, activities that give our minds a chance to relax.

I’ve recently started Zumba dancing. The music lifts me up.  I move. I laugh. I sweat (a lot!). With  Zumba, I haven’t saved the world but at least I’ve found some balance with which to proceed through my day.

I don’t think the news is going to get lighter soon. We all need to be able to down-regulate so we can bear the news, keep going, and then decide what we want to do.

How do you keep moving with the news?

 

Cultivate the space for creativity

 

You know the adage: “The past is the past,” often spoken as if the past is over and no longer a dynamic force in our lives.

But is that so? Doesn’t the past still act upon us? And if that’s true, can’t we be a partner in the exchange and shape the story that we make about our experiences?

This weekend, wanting a dose of inspiration, I listened to a marvelous interview between author-educator Parker Palmer and journalist Steve Paulson, exploring the topic, “Creativity and Aging.” I transcribed it so I could offer a few highlights for you to use, regardless of your age.

Parker defined creativity broadly as anything you do that is life-giving. He offers this caveat:

“You can’t live a creative elder life if you’re still tangled up in regrets about the past.”

Our relationship with our regrets and our pasts is something we can make more conscious and possibly transform. To develop this idea, Parker shared a poem by David Ray, titled, Thanks, Robert Frost

The poem begins:

Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought…
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear…

Read the full poem here. 

How beautiful. To hope that the past will turn out to be all right–something we can bear–something that need not limit us from living our most creative life now.

By letting go of regrets and allowing yourself ‘hope for the past,’ Parker says you “clear the deck for creativity–which always requires freedom.”

“Nothing creative comes out of trying to prove something to anyone.”

If only I had known this years ago.

He gives us a stunning quote by Florida Scott Maxwell from her book The Measure of My Days.

“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours.  When you truly possess all you have been and done you are fierce with reality.”

You can’t rewrite your past, but you can shape its story. By claiming your past as an amazing experiment, you transform regret into something you own, a fertile compost from which to create something new, something bold, something that is indeed fierce with reality.