The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.
A friend posted that on Facebook this morning, and it is sticking with me as I move through the day.
This is the time of the year when everything starts to move faster, and gets crazier. Every year around December 1 I try to consciously shut that down for myself.
We celebrate a secular Christmas (tree, gifts) and Hanukkah (lighting the menorah). What I love about both tree and menorah is the lights. As much as Christmas is not my favorite holiday (my parents worked in retail when I was growing up, so December was synonymous with stress), I’ve always liked the lights. I love decorating the tree and then darkening the room to watch it glow. I like that about the Hanukkah candles as well (that and the sound of my girls reciting the prayers, which they learned in preschool at a temple, and which I think my dad, who was Jewish, would appreciate).
If I focus on that glow and the quiet, and let that be the central idea of the December holidays, I’m able to stay with the peaceful part of it, and not get caught up in the low roar that starts now and goes on for the next five weeks. I’m able to better consider what it means to celebrate the end of another year.
In fact, I’ve found that being still is a great way to handle any stressful or negative situation. It goes against my nature — or what I’ve always assumed my nature to be — not to have an instant, passionate emotional reaction when something intense is going on. With practice, I’m learning to rein in the reactive part — even if I feel the emotion like a punch in the stomach. As it turns out, being still and letting others react instead, or letting situations come untangled on their own, actually works — just about every single time.
It’s not that you’re being passive or avoiding things. You just don’t have to jump on a feeling of anger or frustration or desperation right then and there. In fact, it’s often a really bad idea to do so. When I look back at the moments in my life where I did something I wish I hadn’t, I see that it’s because I reacted in a knee-jerk way, when it would have been smarter to take a step back, pause, breathe, and take time to get some perspective on what was happening and how I felt about it.
The times I’ve reacted in the heat of the moment, I did so because I had some sort of need that I imagined must be satisfied right then. I wanted the other person to justify what I was feeling, or I wanted them to feel as bad as I did. Or maybe I just didn’t want to feel it at all, so by trying to connect, I was attempting to get rid of it. Either way, I didn’t give myself time to really get a handle on the situation. I didn’t hear all I needed to hear.
Lots of emotions feel bad to sit with, but pushing them away doesn’t make them go away. Letting myself be uncomfortable often results in my moving through whatever it is, hearing its truth, and leaving it behind.
So. This is a good time of year to practice being still, to imagine a nice, porous boundary around you, one that gives you a little breathing space. It doesn’t shut people or feelings out — it lets in what’s useful and what serves you. It allows you to maintain the stillness needed to engage with everything, and everyone, in a more graceful way.
The words at left were written by my younger daughter, Sara, on her dry erase board. I’m not sure what moved her to write them; it wasn’t me telling her to clean her room or brush her teeth. Here’s what it says (it kind of reminds me of an e.e. cummings poem): I do my best mama/Mama I’m not trying to be mean but when you say to clen my room I try my best to clen my room and when you say to brash my teth I try my best to brash my teth and that is all I want to say
Maybe she’d just been carrying these thoughts around since the last time I asked her to do such things. At any rate, it touched me, and it made me think.
One thing it made think is that I’m completely fascinated by this little girl. She’s the daughter I look at and wonder, “Where did you come from, and how can I be more like you?”
It also made me think, appropriately, of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. Because agreement number four is Always do your best.
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.
I find it interesting that he leads with the fact that your best is going to vary day to day, depending on how you’re feeling physically, and, I think it’s understood, emotionally. He offers an invitation off the bat to not be hard on yourself about doing your best. (This is such a service to those perfectionists among us.) If you always aspire to do your best, in the parameters within which you find yourself, you will have no regrets.
Of course, it’s not always easy to be okay with the fact that your “best” on a given day doesn’t even feel like what you’d consider “good.”
For all the love I profess for this book and for these ideas, as much as I strive to use them in my life, and as much as I’ve seen and felt them working for me, I often fall short.
As a Cancer I have a tendency, when I perceive that I’ve been hurt, to hide in my hard little shell and snap with my claws at anyone who might come near to discuss it, or just to chat because they don’t even have a clue that they’ve hurt me.
I know this doesn’t serve me. It involves taking things personally, making assumptions, and not being impeccable with my word (because the only word I’m thinking at that point probably starts with an “f” and goes along with “you”). And then I might fall back on the self-judging thought that “I’m being too sensitive” or the self-abusing decision that my feelings aren’t legitimate, don’t matter: I’m overreacting. I don’t have a right to be hurt and mad. It’s not their fault, it’s mine.
Well, at least I’m aware that I’m doing it.
On days when you feel good, and things seem pretty effortless, it’s easy to speak up for yourself, to ask for what you need, to let people’s comments and issues roll off of you without getting in any digs of your own. It’s easier to embrace and own your feelings, because they feel good. It’s harder to do this on days when you feel bad, or when you’re going along feeling good and then suddenly something stops you up and makes you feel bad. Instead of letting yourself have your feelings and making an informed decision about what to do with them, you might just lash out at whoever caused them even while you deny to yourself that they matter.
In yoga, we talk about the fact that you feel different in your body each day. Some days you’re clear, alert and strong; your warrior poses feel rock-steady, and you can push up easily into a backbend. Other days you’re muddy, and everything just feels yucky. You just want to crumple to the ground and crawl out of class.
All you can ask of yourself on either kind of day is to make your best effort and try not to get frustrated. Because whatever efforts you make toward the poses, you’re going to feel better in the end.
So when tears of anger or hurt brim in my eyes and I feel myself pulling into that shell and hissing mean words under my breath, I try to breathe more deeply and maybe just sit with it. Take my time deciding how I should react, and what I can do to feel better. Try not to do or say anything rash.
Do my best, like Sara.
It’s been a while since I raved about the book The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. Last year I wrote about the first agreement, Be impeccable with your word, and the second, Don’t take anything personally.
The third of the Four Agreements is Don’t make assumptions.
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
Once again, it sounds simple, but it’s not, quite. It can be scary to be straight with someone, especially if they’re wound up tight. But consider how much grief you could avoid, for yourself and for others. Think about how often you get bogged down in things because you assumed someone meant something by a look, or a comment, or an email. Think about how many times a friend has told you another friend did this, said this, and asked you what you make of it, or urged to you agree that the other person is a jerk. It’s also true that we often make assumptions about other people’s actions based on our own issues and feelings, though we may not even be aware of it.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just look one another in the eye and say “What did you mean by that?” or “I was hurt by what you said” or “It made me angry when you took credit for the work I did”? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just clarify complicated things? In so many instances, a potentially charged situation could be quickly diffused.
I just did a workshop with my older daughter through the Girls Leadership Institute, an organization co-founded by Rachel Simmons, who wrote The Curse of the Good Girl, which you should read if you’re the parent of a girl, if you used to be a girl, or if you’ve ever met a girl or a woman. If you are female, I guarantee that you’ll see yourself in this book: as a schoolgirl, a teenager, a college girl, a woman. It’s about how girls communicate (or fail to), how we often sabotage ourselves and our friendships by not expressing our feelings or even letting ourselves feel them, by not letting others know what we need and want.
This workshop, for second and third grade girls and their moms, met for a month, once a week. The girls (and we) came away excited about their new pals and empowered to communicate better with their friends, their siblings, and their parents. The workshop literally gave them tools for standing up for themselves and being the wonderful, beautiful, authentic girls they are. Things like:
Say how I feel.
Ask for what I need.
Make eye contact.
Stand on both feet.
Use a firm, clear tone of voice.
Ask a question.
Apologize if you’ve done something to make the situation worse.
Remind the other person what it means to be a friend.
Instead of assuming a friend was “just kidding,” didn’t mean to hurt them, or that their hurt or sad feeling doesn’t matter–that they’re “too sensitive” or that they overreacted–they are now able to identify how something made them feel, talk about it, and do something about it.
Needless to say, these are skills for everyone, not just 8- and 9-year-old girls. I’m so grateful that Kate is starting to learn about this now, though, because it takes many of us a lifetime to figure it out. A lifetime of unnecessary anger, resentment, and hurt.
It’s so easy to see how learning not to make assumptions can indeed transform your life.
These past few weeks, as things have sort of exploded into chaos in the Anusara yoga world, I’ve been thinking a lot about being still.
My pattern my whole life, when things got painful or uncomfortable or crazy, was to freak out. Just fall apart. Respond immediately in a rush of whatever emotion was present. To grasp on desperately if something was ending or someone was leaving, without stopping to take a breath, to think, to get my head around what was going on.
This didn’t serve me well.
So finally, in my late 30s and early 40s, I’ve learned to take that breath. To feel my emotions without giving in to the intense need to do something about them, or about the situation — which I’ve realized really amounts to trying to avoid sitting with the feelings. Because it’s not fun to sit with icky feelings.
But what it comes down to is that if you don’t take the time to be still, to fortify, to find your bearings, you’ll just make the chaos worse. You might think an unbridled emotional outburst will make you feel better. Sometimes it does, I suppose, but my experience has largely been that in the long term, it really won’t.
Being still doesn’t mean doing nothing. It’s a conscious decision. It also doesn’t mean you’re not engaging; it is a boundary you create to protect yourself, to give yourself the space you need to think clearly, and to show other parties that there’s a line you’re not letting them cross just now. But it’s a line that protects them, too, because you’re going to be able to have an authentic response if you slow down and become still. You’re changing the quality of the energy between you and the other person, or you and the situation.
And ironically, though it might feel, look and seem like you’re building a wall (which perhaps, temporarily, you are), this is what will allow you to maintain your connection, if you choose. It will let you become more receptive. Instead of lashing out blindly or desperately, possibly with pain and anger, you’ll be able to process, sit with the emotions, and then reach out voluntarily, with clarity.
Though the organization called Anusara is in a period of intense upheaval right now, I would bet that all the yogis involved are still holding to their midline, the Universal Principles of Alignment. And there it is: First be still. Then you can be receptive to what comes next.
November is the month when I became a mother. Twice. Both girls have their birthdays this month. It makes for a fair amount of craziness, with parties, presents, and the December holidays right around the corner.
My friend Amie always sends a greeting to her mom friends for the occasion: “Happy birth day to you!” It’s so true — the occasion of your child turning a year older is a milestone for you, as well. You think about the events surrounding their entry into the world: how you felt, how it went, how long it took, the funny moments, the scary moments. Every year I remind each of them of the time of day they were born, and when we get to that hour and minute of the day, we acknowledge it. I do that on my own birthday, as well.
I think about how I handled motherhood then, and how I manage it now. How far I’ve come.
My girls are 8 and (almost) 6, and being a mother feels much, much better now than it did, say, six years ago. With a newborn and a 2-year-old, I was the very picture of a complete wreck. I was wracked with guilt over not being able to be 100 percent there for each daughter 100 percent of the time. That’s impossible, of course. Nevertheless, I flogged myself emotionally because I could not attain that level of perfection. I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water. Sometimes I’d go under, anger and despair flooding my lungs. When I emerged again, I’d be exhausted. I’d sleep (for as long as I could in those days with very young kids) and just desperately hope for the best the next day.
I crashed and burned, hit my own personal rock bottom. And then I started the careful climb back up. Yoga has been a huge part of that for me. It helped me find my center again — or maybe truly find it for the very first time. It helped me to learn balance, and acceptance, and to practice being in the present moment. It helped me to create a container for my emotions, a way to process them from a safe and strong place. It helped me to feel more certain when things are uncertain.
Today in class, my teacher Lisa’s words really resonated with my thoughts about motherhood. There is no perfection in the universe, she said; if everything was perfectly balanced, all we’d have would be stasis. And that’s impossible, because there’s always movement, always a pulsation, or spanda, starting with our own breath.
In nature, in the world, there’s never absolute perfection. Everything is always slightly off, slightly crooked or uneven. That doesn’t mean there can’t be balance; it means that in any given situation, the balancing point is different. We’re always trying to achieve that balance. But if we start from the assumption of perfection, we’ll never get there. Perfection is rigid, and rigidity doesn’t offer stability. We need a bit of leeway in order to find the balancing point. We need to be self-aware enough to know how much energy to apply to bring something into balance. Sometimes it’ll be more, and sometimes less. There’s no one thing we can do to nail it every single time. That concept doesn’t even truly exist.
As mothers we are constantly fighting against our need to be perfect, our need to compare ourselves to other women and the job they’re doing, and to beat ourselves up whenever we make a mistake or a misstep. We don’t always trust our instincts, even though with time and experience every mother realizes that her instinct about her own children is the truest and wisest voice she can listen to. What’s more important than striving for perfection is striving to know ourselves well enough that we can decide in each situation, in each moment, how much energy and exertion to apply in order to bring something that’s a little off into balance.
We’ve got everything we need. The one thing we really don’t need, that we should let go of with joy and relief, is the need to be perfect.
This is the second — and my favorite — of Don Ruiz’s four agreements. (Click here to read about the first one, Be Impeccable with Your Word.)
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
Can you see how healing this can be if you really internalize it? It’s not easy to do, but man, is it freeing when you start to get the hang of it.
When I first read what Don Ruiz has to say about not taking things personally, it really resonated with me. Perhaps because I have a long history of taking everything personally.
What was really eye-opening was when he took it to the extreme, with the example of someone you don’t know coming up to you on the street and saying, right in your face, “You’re stupid!” Who’s that really about? You, or this random person? It’s about the other person, whom you’ve never seen before in your life. But the majority of us would still be affected by that experience. As Ruiz writes: “If you take it personally, perhaps you believe you are stupid. Maybe you think to yourself, ‘How does he know? Is he clairvoyant, or can everybody see how stupid I am?'”
He goes on to say, “When we take something personally, we make the assumption that [others] know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.” We try to make it about us, when it’s so not about us. And the way we choose to react to whatever it is can have implications. It can cause us needless suffering.
For example, for most of our married life, when my husband would come home from work and snap at me in a mean way (not that he does this every day, but when he does), I would take it personally. I would decide it meant he thought I was a bad wife, a horrible cook, lazy, a bad mother, you name it — whatever it was, I now realize, that I might have been thinking about myself that day. What he was actually upset about, almost always — no, actually, always — was something that happened at work or elsewhere. When I made it about me, we’d end up in a stupid fight that wasted time and emotional energy for both of us.
When I finally decided to stop reacting — because after years of getting to know this person and having this same fight again and again, I realized it wasn’t something about me that he was upset about — he’d apologize and then take the opportunity to vent to me about what was really frustrating him. That’s way more constructive for both of us.
The anger I often feel as a mother has much the same shape. Usually when I blow up at the kids, it’s because I’m anxious or stressed about something completely other than what they’re asking me about or telling me. The mess in Kate’s room is really not that big of a deal, but because I’m overwhelmed by all the organization I need to do on some PTA project, or whatever, it puts me over the edge. Did Kate make the mess just to piss me off, which I can then use to prove that I’m a horrible, angry, mother? Of course not — she was just playing and being creative and having fun, as she should do as a seven-year-old.
It’s not all about me.
This idea was also once illuminated for me quite powerfully when someone accused me of something so over the top that I had to take a deep breath, sit with it and think, “Is this really something you could say about me, or something I would ever do?” And I decided, rather quickly: absolutely not. It became crystal clear that whatever led this person down that road was hers, not mine. Letting go of responsibility for that was a huge relief.
Not taking anything personally is not just an easy way to avoid responsibility for things that are yours to own, or that are your fault. But I’m pretty good at owning up to things. It’s the rest of the stuff, the stuff I used to take on just because other people handed it to me, that I’m able to let go of when I remember this agreement.
And that’s made all the difference.