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Satisfaction Guraranteed

enough

I’ve read a lot of books on happiness. I’m practically an expert on the subject, as far as my library is concerned. The book that has been on my mind recently is by Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ. Which doesn’t sound like a book on happiness, but of all the books I’ve read so far, I think he gives the best advice on how to be happy.

This will probably not come as a surprise to you if you read my blog, but the key to happiness is to practice mindfulness. Well, actually, it was still surprising to me, because even though I do practice mindfulness, I’m not sure I am necessarily any happier than I was before I started doing so. So I was anxious to find out what I needed to be doing differently.

Here’s how it works: in any given moment, there will be good things and bad things. (Although I think he refrains from using the words good and bad, because Buddhism tries to avoid judgment and criticism. But I can’t remember what phrase he used.). We often imagine that if some aspect of our lives were different, we would be happier. If only we had a better job. More hours in the day. Eternal summer. In reality, even if we could get everything we wanted, it would just change the content of the good and bad things in our lives at that moment.

For example, lately I’ve been feeling increasingly dissatisfied with my single status. I tried to have a positive attitude on Valentine’s Day, but it would have been nice to have some guy other than my allergist wish me Happy Valentine’s Day. And he probably only said that because he kept me waiting for an hour before he finally saw me.

But when I really think about it, I thought it was sucky to be in a relationship, too. I don’t miss arguing about stupid stuff like where to put the plants. I don’t miss those periods of feeling disconnected during arguments. Being in a relationship didn’t even make me feel any more secure. The fear of rejection and abandonment was always looming. Every day my clients remind me of all of the pain and heartache that come with love, and I don’t miss that pain at all.

In many ways, my current life has been an exercise in learning how to be happy with what I have. When I got divorced I lost more than half my income and constantly stressed about the safety that comes with having money. Now I’m also supporting my brother and have even less than I did before. But I worried about money when I had more of it, too. So I really can’t say that money has made me happy, because my fear about not having enough of it has always kept me unhappy, no matter how much I had in my bank account.

Even though I still find myself wishing my life were different every day, multiple times a day, I do believe that happiness comes from accepting whatever life is in this moment. This mixture of joy and pain, good and bad. My relationship status. My income. Even my ability to access happiness.

When I teach clients how to practice mindfulness, I tell them that the goal is not to be successful at staying in the moment, but rather to become aware of when they are not and to bring their focus back to the present. So that’s what I do. A thought about how my life sucks pops into my head, and I remind myself that it is possible even in the midst of my pain to access happiness. Over and over again, until I get to that moment.

On Being Good

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I worry a lot about being good. I know we don’t have to be perfect because God loves us as we are, but that message is hard to reconcile with the idea of earning our way into heaven.

I think a lot about the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I’m not trying to criticize God or anything, but it sort of seems like it was a set up. I mean, any parent who put some forbidden object in a room and said, you can play with any toy you want to except for that one, they would probably not be terribly surprised if their child disobeyed them.

I remember reading a book by Harold Kushner called How Good Do We Have to Be? a while back in which he gave a different interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve, but I can’t remember what it was. So then I almost bought the book again, but I think it’s at work. I’m off for the summer, and my office is 45 minutes away, so I don’t want to drive all the way to work to get it. But I don’t want to spend money on a book I already have, either. So I decided to buy his latest book, Nine Essential Things I Learned About Life. Hopefully the answer is in there.

And since I’m apparently on some spiritual quest, I also started reading Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Nhat Hanh, which a friend recommended, and Everything Belongs, by Richard Rohr. I figured between a Jewish rabbi, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, and a Franciscan priest, someone would have the answer on how to be good.

Surprisingly, they do all have a common denominator. And the answer is, our task in life is not to be good: it is to know ourselves. And it is only through self-knowledge that we can know God. And it is only when we know that God is within us and within everyone that we can love everyone and everything.

That’s deep. Too deep for me to fully comprehend at the moment. But then again, I’ve just started reading all 3 books. But I have to say, in a time where some kind of act of mass violence seems to happen every day, it’s comforting that there is something specific we can do to bring about peace.

But self-knowledge? How does that work? How can self-awareness lead to some kind of radical change in how we treat one another? Today I read from Richard Rohr, and here are some quotes that I found particularly thought-provoking:

You cannot prove yourself worthy of this God. Feeling God’s presence is simply a matter of awareness. Of enjoying the now. Deepening one’s presence.

Can you see the image of Christ in the least of your brothers and sisters?….Jesus says we have to love and recognize the divine image even in our enemies….If we try to exclude some (sick people, blacks, people on welfare, gays, or whomever we’ve decided to hate), we’re not there. We don’t yet understand. If the world is a temple, then our enemies are sacred, too.

So today I have been reflecting on these words. I’ve been trying to get to know myself, accept all of the things that make me who I am–especially the parts I don’t like, as these wise men suggest. Which is the purpose of my blog, anyway.

It’s funny, when I started this blog, it wasn’t meant to be some kind of spiritual quest, but it seems like it’s turning out to be one.

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.

 

 

Judgment, Part 2

I have always been an equal opportunity dater: I do not discriminate based on ethnicity, age, SES, marital status, or diagnosis. I have even dated people for the sole purpose of overcoming some form of prejudice against them. It was sort of like radical empathy training.

But it did not go well in many cases. Like that time I dated someone who was 23 when I was 35. I didn’t discriminate based on age, which in my mind was a good thing, but it was hard to have a meaningful conversation with someone that much younger than me. I’m actually kind of embarrassed about the whole thing. I never admit that I dated him whenever I see him on the tennis court–which rarely happens, thank goodness. Although he did introduce me to the movie “Elf,” for which I am eternally grateful.

I think I have taken the Christian and Buddhist mandate to be nonjudgmental too literally. I took the idea of having an open mind about someone to such an extreme that I rarely said no to anyone who asked me out. And then I tried to make the relationship work, even if I didn’t like the person.

I’m beginning to think that’s not what Jesus and Buddha meant at all about being nonjudgmental. When Jesus said to love our enemies, he probably didn’t mean we should date all of them.

Plus, if we aren’t supposed to judge people ever, that would also mean that we shouldn’t say that someone is a good person, either. How can we say that Nelson Mandela was an exceptional human being without comparing him to others who are less exceptional? Some judgement of others is unavoidable.

So maybe it’s OK to decide not to date someone based on ethnicity, age, SES, marital status, or diagnosis in a non-discriminatory way. Maybe I can even decide to say no just because they eat their peas one at a time, like Seinfeld did. Maybe I don’t have a moral obligation to give everyone a chance.

Maybe I really do think too much.

Despite the logical argument I have laid out here, I still feel bad when I imagine turning someone down because I have judged them to be undesirable in some way. But I guess choosing not to date someone isn’t the same thing as saying someone is a bad person. And really, that is the judgment that Jesus and Buddha seem to be the most concerned about.

This picture has nothing to do with this post, but my friend took it and I think it’s cool.

blue balls

Photo: Allison Szuba

Self-Compassion

My compassion reserves are running low. In my last relationship I took the words of Jesus and Buddha literally about how we should be able to love everyone. It was practically a 3 year exercise in compassion. But by the end I wondered if perhaps I had misunderstood what they meant about loving others. It was a lot of work to have to channel Buddha and Christ just to tolerate being in his presence. I feel like I’m experiencing a backlash now. All those feelings I tried to deny are coming out with a vengeance. I guess I was supposed to have compassion for myself, too.

I’m not very good at self-compassion. Every time I try, the Inner Critic berates me for whining about my problems when I have a good life. I don’t know what pain is. I’m not living in a war-torn country. My life hasn’t been devastated by natural disasters or school shootings. All of the people I love are still alive. Who am I to complain?But surely I must have the right to honor my feelings. My suffering must count, too, if God cares about all of us. So I’m going to write about what’s upsetting me, without apologizing for it or justifying it or willing myself to be positive.

This week I will be moving closer to divorce. Filing forms. Getting documents notarized. More tears. More snot. You would think there would be a limit to how much it’s possible to cry over something. That 4 years would be more than enough time. I used to pray to God–plead, even–to tell me what I could do that would allow both of us to be happy. Leaving seemed like it would just make us both miserable. And it has. And I don’t see an end in sight for me, at least. I’m trying not to blame God or myself. But in this moment, my faith in a happy future is wavering and I feel like I deserve the pain.

I have 2 family members who are currently on the opposite ends of the bipolar spectrum. My brother is trying so hard but still feels terrible.  It hurts me that he’s hurting. My dad is manic. Mania feels great for the person experiencing it, but it’s hell for the rest of us. But what power do I have to make him see?  If he were my client, I could make him see our psychiatrist, get him on meds. But as a daughter, I am practically useless.

I’m afraid to answer the phone when my parents call. Which makes me feel horribly guilty, because I know their time on earth is limited and I will regret not talking to them more when they’re gone. But the call is almost always about something bad. Something I’m expected to fix. Or something I don’t want to do. At minimum, I’m supposed to be a receptacle for the stress, but I can’t take it. It’s too much. I’m not able to function afterwards.

So I have to be strategic about when I call or when I answer. It has to be a time when it will be OK if I fall apart. But since it’s hard to choose something where there’s a good chance you’ll fall apart, I often forget to call altogether. Which makes me feel even guiltier and reactivates the vicious cycle. I wish it could be easier. I wish there were some way I could be a good daughter but also protect myself.

It takes a lot of work to maintain my health. Since I have GERD, allergies, and exercise-induced asthma, I have to take shots, nasal sprays, pills, steroid inhalers, rescue inhalers. I’m not supposed to have coffee and chocolate. I can’t eat or drink 3 hours before exercise or bed time. If I drink too much during a match, I’ll even throw up water. It’s frustrating to have to worry about throwing up every time I play. Or brush my teeth, even. But giving up dental hygiene and tennis are not options.

My mental health is always hanging in the balance. It’s work to maintain my sleep cycle because of my night owlness. I can’t miss any of my drugs. I can’t miss Ativan for even one night. I meditate, pray, journal, exercise, and all of the other self-care strategies. But despite my best efforts, I can never make it to the end of the term without burning out before I cross the finish line. I can’t handle the stress of my life. I can’t get out of bed right now. It makes me feel weak. Inadequate. Unable to do the basic tasks of life.

Just got a call from my lawyer friend that my paperwork looks good to go, so I guess I’ll be filing for divorce this week for sure. If you believe in God, feel free to say a prayer for me. If you don’t, send positive vibes my way.

Patience Isn’t Always a Virtue

I looked it up. While it is included in some lists, in Catholicism the 7 virtues are faith, hope, charity (the theological virtues), prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance (the cardinal virtues). Since I at least grew up Catholic, I’m going to use this list, because I’m not patient at all, and I don’t want to be unvirtuous.

My greatest strength is probably fortitude. I never give up in a match, even if I’m down 0-6, 0-5. I continue to play tennis, even though it makes me throw up. I will do everything I can to make a relationship work, even if it’s a lost cause.

Last week I had a client who started antidepressants and experienced a sudden onset of suicidal ideation, which sometimes happens in young adults. As she was describing what it felt like, I realized that I had experienced the same thing when I got back on meds, even though I was not a young adult. But I was on a higher dose than I was before. In retrospect, it turns out it was too high; I had a lot of side effects that I had attributed to the depression.

I didn’t think much of it at the time because I always have some suicidal ideation when I’m depressed, but it was definitely different. It was what psychologists call ego dystonic. As my client put it, my brain told me in the most illogical way that suicide was the next logical step to whatever I was thinking. If I didn’t have the energy to walk over to the fridge and get a milkshake, my brain would say Well why don’t you just jump off the balcony, then? It freaked me out. I would yell back. No! I don’t want to do that! I want to live!

So I fought the thoughts off until the meds kicked in. At the time I thought I was weak, but when I recognized myself in my client’s story, I realized how strong I am.

Patience, on the other hand, is a different story. Patience also requires strength, but in a quieter, more peaceful way. And as you know if you’ve been reading my blog, I am loud and obsessive. You can’t will yourself to be patient the way you can will yourself to save break points. In fact, although this blog is about practicing other quiet, peaceful things like self-acceptance, compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness, I have never included patience in that list until today. Probably because it seems impossible to achieve–even for a warrior like me.

As I mentioned in the post on obsessiveness, I can only focus when I meditate about 5% of the time. But it still works. I am definitely less anxious, better able to tolerate my emotions, and more compassionate. Maybe patience is the same way. Maybe if you at least have the intention of being patient, even if you suck at it, it will still work. That’s what they say in Buddhism–in a less judgmental way, of course.

Might as well give it a shot. Whether or not it’s a virtue, it’s still a good quality to have.

God’s Will

It feels incomplete to talk about blame and free will without also talking about God’s will.  This one is the scariest of the 3 to write about, but I’m committed to being honest, so I’m making myself do it.

When I was in high school, my best friend’s father died of a heart attack in his early 40’s.  During the funeral, his best friend broke down crying while giving the eulogy.  My friend’s mom calmly took his place, saying that she believed her husband’s death was God’s will so she was at peace with it.

That really bothered me.  I was glad that it gave her comfort, but I could not fathom how God could want someone to die.  If deaths are God’s will, how can it be a sin to commit suicide?  Or murder, for that matter.  Or acts of terrorism.  All of these deaths would just be a part of God’s plan; these people were simply fulfilling their roles.  In fact, sin wouldn’t even be possible.

There is someone in our tennis community who is reaching the end of her battle with cancer.  Although I did not know her well, I was struck by how positive and kind she was when I met her last year.  She was in the midst of chemo at the time, and she was my opponent on the court.  And she kicked my ass.  Which was both impressive and upsetting, given my competitive nature.

I have been praying for her and her family, but I struggle with what to ask God for if death is, in fact, part of God’s plan for her.  I know some people don’t believe in God for this reason.  Or if God exists, they don’t want to worship a God who would allow people to suffer.  I wouldn’t go that far.  It is clear from the life of Christ and the teachings of Buddha, and probably most religions, that no one is immune to suffering.

I accept that, but it’s still hard to tolerate.  I try to imagine what it would be like to be her or her loved ones, but I can’t.  My brain won’t let me go there.  It’s too painful.  Too much to bear.  I can’t envision surviving a loss like that, even though I know that somehow I would if I had to.

I do my usual prayer.  Because we’re allowed to ask, even if we don’t always get what we want.  God, if at all possible, please let her have a miraculous recovery.  And then I say a more realistic prayer.  Please minimize their suffering to the extent possible.  Please  surround them with love, to mitigate the pain. 

I am no theologian, but based on the story of Adam and Eve, one thing is for certain: God wants us to have free will.  We, too, have the power to say no.  We can choose not to follow God’s plan.  We can choose not to love God, or not to love at all.

In the midst of tragedies, the people involved always say that they are humbled by the outpouring of love and support from people they don’t even know.  That it does mitigate the pain.  So I will continue to pray for this member of the tennis community and her family.  If love can ease their pain, then I will choose love.