Self-care is an evolving discipline for me. I was labeled selfish and moody as a child, often sent to my room for being too emotionally intense. It may have been a practical strategy for a mother coping with four young children, but I didn’t understand that at the time. To this day, my alone time feels subversive. The deep core of Puritan work ethic and dedication to service in our cultural story can be misappropriated to guilt people, especially women, into caring only for others.
And yet, most spiritual traditions teach the importance of attending to oneself as an essential part of a life well lived. Modern teachers sometimes invoke the airplane oxygen mask as metaphor: you must secure your own mask before helping another with theirs. There’s also the cup of tea metaphor. Only once you’ve filled your cup to overflowing will you be able to give someone the tea that has spilled into the saucer. Continue reading
When I am unconsciously following the rules and stories installed in me during childhood, I sometimes worry that I am doing my life wrong. For instance, I was never taught that there are times when it’s perfectly justified to follow my instincts, to do or be what my heart urges. In fact, a life well-lived is a life entirely guided by the heart’s urgings. Still, I can feel a bit guilty when I need to withdraw from the world’s demands on me.
For so long, I believed that my retreat from conflict, difficulty, boredom, hostility, shame or blame was a bad thing that I inflicted, selfishly, on my close relationships. In this beautiful essay on hiding, the poet David Whyte sees it as a form of self-preservation, a drawing inward to prepare for transformation, and a necessary storing up of vital energy for growth.
“Hiding is one of the brilliant and virtuoso practices of almost every part of the natural world. . .”
I’ve long been fascinated by the ways that my inner and outer worlds mirror each other. Even way back in college, I somehow knew that annoying people are reflecting something in me that I don’t like. I’m devoted to dream work and my morning journaling for the insights and clarity that often come, and to writing in this blog for the same reason. I tend to regard this reciprocal conversation as a way to diagnose what’s wrong from the inside out, more so than to notice and appreciate what’s right outside, and how it reflects goodness on the inside.
Yet it does work both ways, and it’s going on all the time. When someone I respect questions or refuses to encourage my latest grand scheme, that is showing me the degree to which I am not on board with it myself. But it’s also true that if I look around at my comfortable home, good health, lovely neighbors, engaging work, responsible husband, and yummy food in the fridge—all that is reflecting an inner world that is safe, healthy, and full of good companionship, worthiness, love, creativity, intelligence, security, and nourishment. Continue reading
I love the image from Martha Postlethwaite’s poem of clearing a space. It’s a beautiful reminder to tend to my inner landscape, before I turn to outward work, no matter how urgent or grandiose the calling feels. The recommended order is: go inside, open your hands and wait for your song to drop into them.
Which implies two important points. One, that we each do have a song. And, two: that all we have to do to receive it is make a small clearing in our dense, wild places and wait patiently. Just ask and it will come. That it will fall into my open cupped hands is a nice image. It implies a readiness just this side of expectation, a proper, welcoming stance. Receptivity sourced from trust. Continue reading
To be understood as to understand,
The need to be understood has been a lifelong struggle for me. I suspect I am not alone in this, but admit to having very little perspective, as immersed in that longing as I’ve been. The problem is, during an encounter or argument with a loved one, to keep insisting on being understood closes me off from their needs and leads to repetition and stridency.
It strikes me that one of St. Francis’ overarching messages is that we always have the choice between turning inward and reaching outward, between isolation and connection. Between victimhood and generosity. It’s no accident that connection feels better. That being true, I wonder what stops me. Other than years of habit (not to be underestimated), why do I so often fall into the trap of insisting on being understood? Continue reading
Where there is darkness, light;
One of my favorite aphorisms is the advice to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. This has always made sense to me, although I sometimes forget to do it. Many wisdom traditions teach that we are, or we contain, light as the fire of consciousness. In my imagination, I can interchange light with energy with spirit; somehow this means that we are the stuff of the universe, we are light energy, animated stardust. The word, light, shows up in our language in so many ways, any one of them could be the basis for a whole journaling session.
We are said to be lighthearted, enlightened, to take things lightly, to shed light on a problem. Some people light up rooms, others may feel lightheaded or light on their feet. We have light in our eyes, so the phrase “lights out” refers to more than bedtime, as you know if you’ve ever had your lights punched out. A great leader is a guiding light. We “see the light” or “see in a new light” when we understand something afresh. Near death experiences often describe moving to a bright light. Revelations “come to light,” or we might see the “light at the end of the tunnel” after a long project or struggle. Continue reading
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Given that outer is a reflection of inner, love begins within. I sow love by bringing its warmth and compassion into the cold, dark, unloved places deep inside me. I wonder it’s this region that is moved to tears when touched by a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Or the beauty of the world in general, which has much to teach me about love. Red berries touched by snow, whitecaps on water, a young boy singing the high soprano notes opening “Once in Royal David’s City.”
The film “Still Alice” is a lovely exploration of this verse. While she, and her family, hated what was happening to her well-honed intellectual mind, they made the choice to seek solace in the love that bound them together. That love, and the attendant grief of loss, illuminated unique aspects of each of them. The youngest daughter, Lydia, had the fiercest courage to face her emotions, and so she let her love turn to curiosity. She asked her mother what she was experiencing, giving her the precious gift of being witnessed. To stand in helplessness with that much power requires tremendous love and awareness. Continue reading
I’m beginning a daily consideration of the Prayer of St. Francis, going line by line. Reciting this prayer out loud every morning is a wonderful practice to open to the mystery of opposites and experience being a threshold of both/and. Though I’ve gotten out of the habit, I was doing this a few years ago during what I would soon discover were my father’s last months. Since I’d never experienced the death of a parent till then, I can only intuit that this prayer worked quite a bit of magic on me. It certainly helped me to be present to the paradox and profound mystery of life and death, love and loss.
Although I was raised Catholic, my mother—who had the most influence on me as a child—was not a practicing Catholic, so we didn’t do much prayer around our house. In fact, other than saying a pretty rote grace before dinner, we prayed not at all. My self-consciousness about prayer is tempered with a fascination for people who do pray, especially those to whom it’s like breathing: just as natural and just as necessary. Continue reading
A friend recently began working with a new writing mentor, a well-known author who has been at it for over twenty years and has much to teach. It is humbling to be reminded that there is always more to learn, and yet I am aware that it works both ways. There is always more from the source of ideas, of images and words and revelation; I experience it daily in writing this blog. The creative source is boundless and endless, a reliable example of abundance. I have only to tune in, listen carefully and let myself be taken for a ride.
That there is always more I can do to hone my craft is at times inspiring, at times frustrating and depleting. It helps that I started in architecture, which is sometimes called an old man’s profession; it takes a good twenty or more years of practice before you begin to be any good at it. With writing, it’s said that you have to write 500 bad poems before you can write a good one. I’ve heard the same thing about drawing. Both refer to the requisite 10,000 hours of practice before mastery of anything that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in “Blink.” Continue reading
You get what you’re available for.
This advice, given to me by a wise elder years ago, has been echoing in my mind lately. Originally, I understood it in reference to meditative experiences or attempts to enter alternate reality, and it strikes me now that it has a much wider application.
Last night, I had the experience of handling a situation of conflict differently, and with surprising results. During dinner, my husband and son got into a disagreement over something that seemed trivial to me, but felt important to each of them. Neither was willing to come back together, to drop his stance and reconnect. By some miracle, I could see clearly how much they both yearned for connection, yet their pride wouldn’t allow it. Continue reading