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Monthly Archives: March 2016

Suffering and Compassion, Part 2

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It’s been a while since I’ve felt the need to make a confession on my blog because practicing self-acceptance makes me obsess a lot less about what a terrible sinner I am. But I feel the need to make a confession today because, despite my best efforts, I was not able to make myself go to church yesterday, even though Palm Sunday is my favorite mass–even more so than Christmas and Easter.

In my defense, I suck at waking up early unless it is absolutely necessary. And even though it was the first day of spring, it was cold and gloomy. And my brother was supposed to go with me but then he decided not to. However, I imagine that when you go to confession, which I rarely did, you’re not supposed to list all of your excuses for why you have sinned. In a way I guess that’s a good thing, because it’s just assumed that you will sin, so you’re merely updating God on your latest ones. Even though he already knows what they are. But I can appreciate why you need to acknowledge them before you are forgiven for them.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my favorite part of the mass on Palm Sunday is the reading of the Passion. In particular, I like the part where Jesus prays to God, asking him if there’s any way he can not have to go through all of the pain and suffering that await him, but he’ll do it if he has to. Because I say this prayer all the time, and it’s comforting to know that Jesus felt the same way I do about pain and suffering: he didn’t want to have to experience it unless it was absolutely necessary. In fact, he was in such torment about it that his tears turned into blood. That’s how sucky pain and suffering are.

I like Buddhism because it gives me specific things to do while I’m in pain. I find practicing mindfulness and compassion extremely helpful in this regard. But reading about its philosophy on pain and suffering doesn’t quite capture the anguish that I experience in the midst of it. That’s what I like about Christianity: everything about Holy Week is meant to remind you how much Jesus suffered so that we can be forgiven. He experienced fear, betrayal, humiliation, and physical pain, just to name a few.

It makes me feel better to know that Jesus really knew what it was like to be in agony. Kind of like when I took swimming lessons as a kid early in the morning and the water was really cold and we’d be complaining about it and the instructor would be like, oh it’s not that bad. Except he wasn’t in the pool. He was just standing there on the side of the pool, telling us what to do without actually having to be wet and cold.

Ok, maybe that’s not a great example, but hopefully you know what I mean. For me, when I ask myself what Jesus would do as an example of how to live my life, it helps to know that  he really understands the pain of being human.

My niece drew this picture when she was about 4 years old. It was a Christmas card to her dad, even though it’s more appropriate for Easter. Because back then she was fascinated by the pain and suffering that Jesus went through. So it seems fitting to include it now.

 

 

May We All Accept Things As They Are

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As a part of my compassion practice, I am currently reading Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg. Today’s chapter was on equanimity, which is “a radiant calm that allows us to be present fully with all the different changing experiences that constitute our world and our lives.”

I can definitely use some of that. It’s hard to have a “radiant calm” because I have an anxiety disorder, so I obsess all the time. In my last post where I was describing how happy I was on Sunday, I really did obsess about death and bodily injury later that day. Luckily, I was able to focus my attention back to the present moment, which made me happy again.

And sometimes I get depressed for no apparent reason, which is maddening. Or sometimes there is a reason, but that’s still maddening, because I can’t function. The ups and downs that everyone experiences are a bit steeper when you have a mood disorder. Still, I try to accept whatever it is I’m feeling, whether it makes sense or not. To remind myself that this is the natural ebb and flow of life.

And I take my medication.

The equanimity meditation is actually about accepting that you can’t control other people’s behavior. Like getting mad when people don’t take my advice. Which is ill-advised, but I guess people can make bad decisions if they want to.

Seriously, though, one of the things that brings clients the most suffering is that other people aren’t behaving the way they want them to. If they would just text me back. Or put their dishes away. Or not hook up with anyone until we graduate. Then my life would be better.

Most of the meditations on lovingkindness are about sending yourself and others the hope that they are healthy, happy, safe, and free from suffering. Practicing equanimity means that we send these good intentions without trying to control the outcome. We understand that, no matter how much we want good things for other people, ultimately they have to help themselves; they have to take responsibility for their own happiness.

Salzberg refers to this as the release from codependency in psychological terms. Which is ironic, because I never heard the word codependent once when I was getting my Ph.D. in clinical psychology. You don’t read self-help books for your course work, so I had no idea what people meant when they said I was codependent. But now it’s pretty clear that I am. The whole feeling other people’s feelings thing. And trying to control other people’s behavior.

The words you recite in the equanimity meditation are:

All beings are the owners of their karma. Their happiness and unhappiness depend on their actions, not on my wishes for them.

That’s a lot for me to have to remember to say, so I opted for the shorter version when I did the meditation, which is “may we all accept things as they are.”

When I did the meditation earlier tonight I was feeling sad, and after I did the meditation, I can’t say that I felt significantly better. But then I remembered that I can’t practice the meditation with the intention of controlling my feelings; I just have to accept whatever they are in the moment.

But now that a few hours have passed, I do feel better. Which is a reminder that in the ebb and flow of life, happiness will return to you at some point.

I’m In Between Shoes Right Now

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Today I woke up happy because I had a good day yesterday. My tennis team won, my other team almost won, I got to play, and a bunch of my friends went out to eat afterwards–which is always my favorite part. And even though I lost my match, I played well and we split sets. The last time I played with my partner we had a set point but we blew it, and this time we closed the set out, so this match was an improvement. My friend told me that I am always looking for the silver lining. I know some people don’t believe in small victories, but I think you’re a lot happier if you do.

I was watching this commercial the other day about these athletes who were giving this guy’s daughter advice about life. David Robinson gave her positive advice, but I can’t remember what it was. This other guy who was supposed to be some loser said, “remember–success is just failure that hasn’t happened yet.” Which I thought was freaking hilarious. That’s a good illustration of what life is like when you don’t look for the silver lining.

My tennis partner gives me a hard time because he says I’m setting my sights too low and I don’t have enough faith in myself. And it’s true that I’m happy as long as we don’t get killed, but I prefer to think of it as being easily made happy about the small things. Like hitting a good forehand, since that’s my weakest shot. Or free pie on Wednesdays.

Nevertheless, I still get that sense of foreboding joy that Brene Brown talks about in her book “Daring Greatly.” I still worry about when the other shoe will drop. Sometimes after something good happens I’ll even switch to worrying about death or bodily injury, thanks to my anxiety disorder.

I just looked up the origin of that phrase, because why would it be so terrible to drop a shoe? Apparently it has its origins in NYC. In the late 19th and early 20th century, apartments were built so that the bedrooms were on top of each other, so it was common to hear when your upstairs neighbor took their shoes off. So the phrase refers to that maddening feeling of when you’re waiting for something that is inevitably going to happen. Last night on 60 Minutes they had a feature on this guy on death row who asked to be executed as quickly as possible for that very reason; he just wanted to get it over with, even though he didn’t want to die.

Most of the time I hear people say it after something good has happened and they know this means that something bad is going to happen soon and ruin everything. However, when we are feeling down, we don’t wait for the other shoe to drop; we think we’re going to feel bad forever.

When clients express this fear, I tell them to think about both positive and negative feelings as things that ebb and flow, even if we do nothing. So it’s true that when something good happens, something bad will follow at some point. But it’s equally true that when something bad happens, something good will eventually follow. The key to happiness is to be able to savor that moment, in between shoes, even though you know that at some point you won’t be happy. This works for negative feelings, too; in this moment you may be sad, anxious, or angry, but at some point you will be happy again.

So while I know that the next post you read may well be one in which I say I’m feeling depressed or anxious, in this moment I am happy, and I’m going to let myself enjoy this moment for as long as I can.