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Everyday Miracles

mircales

Today I read a chapter from Harold Kushner’s book, Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life. The reading was about the importance of helping others as a way to live a meaningful, purposeful life. That wasn’t particularly helpful to me because, if anything, I think I focus too much of my energy on helping others, to the detriment of caring for myself. But it’s still good advice, nonetheless.

There was a section of this chapter that gave me pause, however: his description of the miracles that occur in everyday life. The predictability and reliability of nature. The fact that we can count on the sun to rise and set every day, the waxing and waning of the moon, the changes of the seasons. They happen with such accuracy we know sometimes down to the minute when they will happen. According to Kushner, “a faith system attuned to the natural world celebrates the orderliness that makes our lives livable.”

I’ve had the sense of awe and wonderment about these very things, though not every time they happen. I’m not that mindful. But I guess no one is. Like, when I meditate, I begin by focusing on my breathing, and then I shift my focus to my heart, because for some reason, feeling my heart beat, feeling my pulse throughout my body, makes me acutely aware of the life force that is my heart. How, even when I’m sad, when I’m heart-broken, when I can barely summon the will to live, my heart keeps beating for me, carrying me through life. I know the heart isn’t as immutable as the sun, moon, and seasons, but it fills me with a sense of wonderment and awe, just the same.

In a previous blog post I’ve written about how the weather is a metaphor for our feelings–how it varies from day to day, moment to moment. Some weather conditions are more desirable than others–rain during a tennis match is highly undesirable, for example–but we ultimately accept whatever the current conditions are because we have faith that at some point, the weather will change. Plus, we don’t really have a choice.

We can have the same faith in our feelings, but it does not come as naturally. It takes a lot of practice. When I’m anxious or sad, I’m better able to remind myself that if I wait, at some point my feelings will change. It doesn’t really make the pain go away, but it keeps me from wasting energy on wishing I were feeling something else–a small way I can reduce my suffering in the moment. Perhaps this is a miracle, too–the fact that having compassion for our pain has the power to reduce our suffering.

As I read about these everyday miracles, my Inner Critic was quick to point out my failure to appreciate them. You should be thankful for these things more often! You shouldn’t be taking them for granted! My inner critic often turns practicing gratitude into something that leaves me feeling ashamed and inadequate–as far from awe and wonderment as you can get.

So I’m thinking maybe I’ll practice mindfulness by noticing these everyday miracles more often–to pay attention to the changes of the season, the sunrise and sunset, the waxing and waning of the moon. In practicing mindfulness, there is no expectation that you should feel any particular thing at any given moment; you simply notice what’s there. But even the act of noticing creates an opportunity to experience wonderment and awe. So I’ll try it out and see what happens.

5 Things Not to Say to a Depressed Person

Depression is not a choice

Despite the attempts to raise awareness of mental health issues and reduce stigma, people still say hurtful things to people who are depressed. Not because they are mean or uncaring. I think it’s actually because we are not taught more compassionate ways to respond to pain, so we say whatever we think will get the person to stop hurting. Because it hurts to be in the presence of someone who is hurting.

Here are some of the worst offenders:

  1. I don’t believe in depression. I’m not even sure what this means. It’s one thing to say that you don’t believe in ghosts, or God, or the theory of evolution. But how can you say you don’t believe in an illness? No one says I don’t believe in heart disease. That’s not chest pain. Just go take some Rolaids and stop your whining.
  2. Suck it up. Because we value stoicism, we think anyone who copes with their pain by pushing through is strong, and anyone who acknowledges their depression is weak. Maybe even wallowing in their pain. So just get out of bed and go to work. No one wants to hear about how you’re feeling.
  3. Think of all the less fortunate. There are people who don’t have the basic necessities like food, water, and shelter. People who live in war-torn countries. And here you are being all negative just because you don’t feel good. You have nothing to complain about.
  4. Be thankful. This one is similar to #3. In this case, rather than comparing yourself to others, you are encouraged to count your blessings so that you can see that you actually have no reason to be depressed. You just have a bad attitude.
  5. You just want to be depressed. I actually had a boyfriend tell me this when I was in college. Because it was so much fun being in my room, unable to go to class or get dressed or answer the phone and to think about suicide all the time. I was having a ball. I hope I broke up with him after he said that.

Hearing these statements from the people we turn to for support can be even more hurtful than the symptoms of depression themselves. Because we already think that we’re lazy, weak, and pathetic. We already beat ourselves up for having no good reason to be depressed. We already feel like failures.

But if you’ve said some of these things, don’t be too hard on yourself. This is how we’ve been taught to respond to pain, so it’s not your fault. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

One of the things I do in therapy is to teach clients how to practice self-compassion, which in turns teaches them to have compassion for other people’s pain. It’s a surprisingly unnatural thing to do, trying to come up with loving statements to say to ourselves. Which is weird, because you’d think this is what we’d want to hear.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. The only proof I need that I am in pain is that I’m hurting. You don’t have to earn the right do be depressed by having a traumatic childhood or some recent loss. The pain itself is all the evidence you need that you are depressed.
  2. I will be with my own pain for as long as it lasts. Because this is what we do for people who we care about. We sit with them while they are hurting.
  3. My pain counts, too. In the self-compassion retreat I attended, I learned that I can focus on giving myself compassion for as long as I need to before sending it to someone else. I can focus on my pain first.
  4. I can be thankful but still be in pain. Practicing gratitude is helpful, but it is not some magical solution that will make our pain go away. Thankful people with good lives still get depressed.
  5. What can I do to alleviate some of your suffering? Would it help to eat some breakfast? Turn on some music? Call a friend? These are much better alternatives than screaming at yourself for not being able to get out of bed.

Compassion takes practice, just like anything else. So be gentle with yourself as you try to come up with compassionate statements for yourself and for others.

On the Road to Enlightenment

I didn’t realize how many posts I’ve written about Pope Francis until I looked them up just now, in preparation for this one. In one of those posts, I said that I thought Pope Francis was an enlightened human being. And that it was only fitting that as one enlightened being, Nelson Mandela, leaves this world, God would send us another one to restore balance in the universe.

Last week I was astounded by the reception that Pope Francis got in the United States. Apparently, he was, too. He even coined a term to describe his reception in New York: stralimitata–beyond all limits. He was like a rock star, attracting people of all religious and political affiliations. People cried when they saw him–even if it was just on TV.

He was the most popular topic on Facebook and a refreshing change from all the negative posts that I usually try to ignore. Anyone who can make people post about predominantly positive things on Facebook for an entire week has to be enlightened.

I think the most moving thing to me–and Boehner, apparently–is when Pope Francis asked people to pray for him. And, being ever respectful of their religious beliefs, if they couldn’t pray for him, he asked them to send him good wishes. I mean, how awesome is that? The Pope needs us as much as we need him. What a novel idea in a world where leaders seem more interested in proving how powerful they are than in showing their vulnerabilities.

The closest I have come to being in the presence of that kind of compassion was when I went to this conference and listened to the psychologist Peter Levine talk about healing trauma. He didn’t say he practiced compassion, although the techniques he describes for learning to identify the physiological signs of trauma are clearly mindfulness-based.

But when you watched him work, you could hear the compassion in his voice and see it in how closely he paid attention to his clients. It was a palpable, tangible thing that you could feel in the room. I was so struck by his presence that I went to his second talk just so I could sit in the audience and listen to him. The world felt like a safer place when he was around.

In Buddhism, enlightenment is something that anyone can achieve, hypothetically speaking. That seems difficult to imagine in practice, though. Plus it seems like a lot of work. And a lot of pressure. I’m sure my Inner Critic would try its hardest to sabotage my efforts every step of the way. But then again, I guess that’s why you practice self-compassion.

I like the idea that we all have the power to create a palpable, tangible force in the universe. I know how I have felt when I have been in the presence of compassion. And I know that practicing compassion has changed me for the better–both in terms of how I feel about myself and in how I interact with others. So I will keep up my practice and see where it takes me.

Social Pain

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I’m all into social pain right now. I mean, not experiencing social pain. I’m not masochistic or anything. At least I don’t think I am. Actually, maybe I am, based on my relationship history. But that’s beside the point.

Let me start over. I’m reading this book on Social Pain, and it is really fascinating. Probably not something you would be interested in reading unless you enjoy learning about brain research, so I’ll just tell you about it, since that’s what I do.

It turns out that social pain–things like rejection, bullying, loss, and separation–registers in the same parts of the brain where we register physical pain. So some researchers thought, hey, I wonder if pain relievers might help people who are experiencing social pain? So they gave people Tylenol for 3 weeks and it turns out that it works! How cool is that?

The other thing that I learned is that we can relive social pain but not physical pain. Which is so true. I hurt my knee 2 months ago playing tennis, and I remember being in pain, but I don’t re-experience the pain when I remember it. But I can remember how rejected I felt when my tennis partner broke up with me because we didn’t win enough.

That’s the other major difference. I take social pain more personally. I felt humiliated by the whole thing. It’s hard to talk to that person now. The rejection is always there, hovering between us. And it has undermined my confidence in my game.

It turns out that social pain hurts so deeply because in our ancestral history, being accepted by your group meant that you would be taken care of. Being an outcast meant that they might tell you to wait in the cave while they go out to hunt and gather and never come back to get you. So being accepted was actually a matter of life or death.

Which is why people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. Because speaking in front of others could result in humiliation and rejection, which can feel like death. More so than actual death, apparently.

I guess that’s why I didn’t have to practice compassion when my knee was hurting. I would ice it and take ibuprofen and try not to play. And I’d sort of be pissed off at myself when I played and reinjured it, but I didn’t really beat myself up over it.

Actually, now that I’m writing this, I realize that I haven’t practiced self-compassion over the tennis breakup. So I guess I’ll do it now.

It hurts to be rejected. Everyone feels hurt when they’re rejected. That’s how our brains work. At some point, it will stop hurting, and I will be here with you until it does. In the mean time, I want you to think about something else, because I don’t want you to suffer unnecessarily.

I guess I’ll see if that helps. Maybe I’ll kick ass in tennis tomorrow night.

Cultivating Hope

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Despite my struggles with anxiety and depression, I actually feel like I have been blessed with a good life. In fact, this is true for many people with anxiety and depression. Yet instead of feeling like a blessing, our demons use our good fortune against us. We don’t deserve to be depressed and anxious. We haven’t earned it.

I am often accused of trying to save the world, and I have to admit, I don’t see why that is such a terrible thing. Other than the fact that it’s impossible to achieve. But moving up to 4.0 in my tennis rating may also be impossible to achieve, and I still try to do that. And I will live if it never happens.

Sometimes I think I try to help other people because of something akin to survivor guilt. God has always answered my prayers. I know that many people don’t feel that way, and I am not going to dismiss their bad fortune by saying they deserve it or that they’re not trying hard enough or whatever. I don’t really know how to make sense of all the unfairness in the world.

But I feel like the least I can do is to make good use of my good fortune. I can use my time on earth to alleviate other people’s suffering. Help them to believe they can make it to the other side of pain.

I’m not going to pretend that this is purely motived by altruism. At some level I’m saying, look God! I’m doing all these good things! Please let me continue to be blessed with good fortune. And a part of me feels like I have to pay God back for all that I have been given. Theoretically, I get the idea of grace; I’m just not sure I deserve it.

I think that’s why I have been drawn to practicing compassion. Surely a practice whose very name includes pain and suffering must teach you how to get rid of it. Which is why when I did the self-compassion retreat, I was disappointed to learn that practicing self-compassion does not actually get rid of pain. Damn!

I kind of already knew that. I tell clients this all the time. That our goal is to learn how to sit with our pain, be kind to it, wait patiently for it to pass. But obviously, at some level, I was still secretly hoping I could get rid of it.

I have gone through enough episodes of despair to know that, despite the fact that it may feel as though my pain will never end, it eventually does. That didn’t do much to make the pain go away in the moment. And sometimes the wait seemed endless. But I guess I must have always had hope. And practicing self-compassion seems to help me to cultivate hope, which has made pain and suffering a little easier to bear.

Maybe that’s why there was hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box. (Which was actually a jar.) Even if all of the evils of the world are unleashed upon us, having hope may be enough to survive them.

Good vs. Evil

power of one

Yesterday there was another shooting, but this time it was near my hometown. By another person who was inspired by Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Charleston. Who wanted to go out in a blaze of glory. And killed two young journalists in the process. Two people doing a feature story on the Chamber of Commerce on the morning news–because he wanted to make sure he got on the news.

In general, I believe that love is stronger than hate. That good trumps evil. But in moments like these, I sometimes wonder. Because one person’s hate has the power to destroy so much love. One act of evil can put an end to all of the good that these two people brought to the world.

The killer got his wish. No one may have paid attention to him before, but now he will be remembered forever. People will know his name. His act of evil has been immortalized. If I were to try to do the opposite of what he did–to perform one grand act of love, of goodness–it would not have the same impact. What does that say about the power of good vs. evil?

Still, in my state of helplessness, I do what I can. I pray. I send compassion. I’m sure it does something, but I’m not sure what. If I ask God to send them extra angels–even some of mine, and just leave me one–will they be surrounded by them? Will angels be there with them while they grieve? Will they sit with their pain? Will they make them feel God’s love?

If I send compassion, if I feel their pain, will it lessen their suffering? Make the pain more bearable? If I cry for them, will it absorb some of their tears? Or maybe sending love and compassion becomes a force that sits side by side with the grief, anger, and confusion. Maybe it helps to balance out the good and evil in the universe.

The people affected in these tragedies always say they feel the outpouring of love. During 9/11. Sandy Hook. And yesterday. During natural disasters. And even during our private tragedies. The friends who bring food when we are sick. The people who prayed for my father when he was depressed. Even though they didn’t know him. Just because they love me. I was deeply moved by how much other people cared about my family’s suffering.

When I went on the self-compassion retreat in May, we did this exercise where we imagined someone we knew who was suffering and we sent them compassion. And then we sent it to ourselves, because we felt their pain deeply. The whole time I was doing this, I thought, is this really going to help? Is sending compassion going to actually make a change in this person’s life? They didn’t even know I was doing it.

The instructor’s response to this question was perhaps one of the most helpful things that I learned in this retreat. He said that he didn’t know if it helped the other person to send them compassion, but it helps him to send it.

That’s a good enough reason for me. Sending angels and compassion helps me feel less helpless. And it helps me to put love and goodness at the forefront of my mind.

Because that’s one way that I won’t let that guy win. I won’t let him fill me with hatred.

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Adam Ward and Allison Parker

This is Who I Am

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Once when I was in therapy I remember telling my therapist that I was like Fred Flintstone. I yelled. I wanted to be right all the time. I wasn’t as good of a friend and a spouse as Barney was. In retrospect, I now realize that the show was about Fred, so people clearly liked him, despite all of his flaws. But at the time, it was a painful realization.

This was a common theme in therapy. How ashamed I felt about being all the things that you weren’t supposed to be. Too loud. Too sensitive. Too controlling. Too needy. Too high maintenance. I couldn’t stand being me. And I couldn’t respect anyone who thought I was great. They clearly must not have very good judgment. So I treated them badly. Which made me feel terrible about myself.

That’s why I treated life like a test. I felt like I was the wrong answer. I had the wrong opinion on everything. I listened to the wrong music. I didn’t have good table manners. Didn’t know anything about current events.

That’s why I got a Ph.D. and got married and tried to have kids. Why I changed my oil every 3,000 miles. Why I force myself to eat vegetables. Which doesn’t have anything to do with being a good person, but somehow all of the big and small rules became equally important to follow.

In all of those years of seeing my therapist, the thing I remember the most was when she said she liked it that I felt things deeply. That I made life more vibrant. This was how she rephrased my shame about being too emotional. I had spent my whole life trying to be less. Until that moment, it never occurred to me that my excesses could be assets.

Yes, feeling things deeply means that sometimes I get depressed. I worry about everything. It’s hard for me to let go of my anger. But being emotional also allows me to be passionate about life, expressive in my writing, and compassionate for other people’s suffering. My excesses enable me to have a blog that helps other people feel less crazy about the things that make them who they are.

And my most recent epiphany is that it doesn’t matter if I can’t think of a way to turn one of my flaws into a strength. Like, I have no idea how counting all the time can be interpreted as something useful. But still. That’s what I do. This is who I am. And I want to accept everything that makes me who I am.

And you know what? It’s pretty liberating. It’s easier to write now, knowing that the only thing that matters is that my posts are a true reflection of how I feel and what I think, regardless of whether or not they’re popular.

Although I still want them to be popular. But that’s OK. Being someone who seeks approval is a part of who I am, too.