Being Still

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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.

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Always Do Your Best

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.


Don’t Make Assumptions

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.

Be honest.

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.


Messages

Yesterday I was cranky all day. I couldn’t really put my finger on it. Yes, it was rainy in the morning, and that’s enough right there. I didn’t get to go running, so that probably didn’t help either. By the end of the day I was feeling snapish and peeved and couldn’t wait for my sweet daughters to go to bed, because they were really bugging me.

Well, to be honest, I wasn’t totally clueless about why I was out of sorts. I’d spoken to my mom in the afternoon. Today she went in for an endoscopy, because she has some gallstones, apparently. She was feeling bad about having to go do this, because it meant having to leave my dad, who is home and on hospice care. He has cancer, and it’s beyond treatment. They have a nurse visiting twice a week.

We’re all going to Chicago this weekend. I don’t know whether it will be the last time I see my dad alive. To say I’m feeling a bit of dread would be putting it mildly. Though I’m glad we’re going and I know I’ll be glad we went, I’m apprehensive.

So I woke up this morning hoping that my planned run would lift my spirits. I met up with Susie (my running guru, you will recall), and it definitely helped (the run and seeing dear Susie). But something else happened that was sort of remarkable, in retrospect.

During our run I saw someone in passing who’s no longer in my life and whom I usually don’t see or have to see. I hadn’t had a glimpse of this person in almost a year, in fact. A few years ago, I wished very much that I had some sort of connection with the New Jersey mafia so I could put a hit out on him. You think I’m joking. Suffice it to say I had some very strong feelings.

This is someone whom I long ago decided I can’t and won’t forgive for how certain things happened. I spent a lot of time and energy on these negative feelings. At some point, I decided to stop. I realized that holding onto my anger was only hurting me. You know how that goes.

So as we passed today, the totality of my reaction was: Oh.

For real. Not even a single butterfly. Just a sort of disinterested oh. We did not interact (he made a point of that). That also had no effect on me.

After the run I had breakfast with my dear friend Nerissa, ran into a few other friends, and then picked up my daughter Sara at school and dropped her at a friend’s house to play. In the course of that hour I heard “Rio,” “I Melt With You,” and two pretty obscure Cure songs on the radio. I thought, Hmm, someone’s watching out for me somewhere.

And then I realized that my nonreaction this morning was proof positive that I’ve really let all that old stuff go. I did already know this, but it was reinforced, at a time when I’m feeling unsure and bracing for another big, tough situation. It’s all gone, released completely into the lovely spring air. And all my music was on the radio, further assuring me that I’m covered, that I’m being looked out for. There’s good, supportive energy flowing around me and through me.

At this point, my dear husband, who enjoys the role of devil’s advocate, would probably say something to the effect of, “You just want to interpret those things as messages or signs. That doesn’t mean anyone or anything is really sending you a message.” To him I would say — who cares? It doesn’t matter! And who’s to say the universe didn’t send them to me?

This afternoon I’m feeling lighter. Buoyed up.