Masterpiece

11817183_10206405009697407_8440405729264954038_nWhen love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece. — John Ruskin

I’ve been thinking about how we are each responsible for our own care.

So often, so many other things and people come first: boss, kids, spouse, parents, friends. We beat ourselves up for not hitting the mark, for not being everything we can to them, not realizing that we can’t even come near that (unrealistic) goal if our focus veers so very far away from ourselves.

We pay lip service to the “Take some me time” concept. But in general we put ourselves at the bottom of the to-do list. “Me” is the line item we let slide, the one that can wait.

We treat hearts, our minds, our bodies like a tin can or a paper bag: disposable, temporary, unimportant. We should treat ourselves like a masterpiece — fragile, rare, special — and care for ourselves in kind.

This takes two things: love and skill.

The first step is being kind to yourself.

Most people are used to being hard on themselves, noticing every flaw and every slip-up and then punishing themselves for it, over and over and over. They’re so willing to let other people pile on with their actions and comments — so willing to let other people’s issues cut to their quick. They eschew boundaries completely and leave themselves open to any hurt that might float their way, or they build a wall so tall and strong that nothing is getting in or out. They dismiss their feelings and opinions as worthless, not valuable. They work so hard to make others happy that there’s nothing left for them.

Being kind to yourself is a choice. You can decide to take care of yourself, to love yourself, to know yourself better. There are lots of ways to do it. Eating better. Exercise. Therapy. Meditation. Books. Music. Friends with a ready shoulder and ear. Taking real, quality time away from work and other responsibilities. Considering what you love and what makes you happy, and making it a priority to get more of that into your life. Making all of these things a priority — scheduling them in like you do everything else, all the meetings and errands and things that don’t matter nearly as much.

Then you need skill. Tools for creating the proper boundaries — ones that leave space around your protected center, your heart, but that are also porous, allowing you be open to other people, to life. Tools for identifying your emotions and learning how to engage with them and move through them instead of letting them control and hurt you. Tools for learning how to let go and believe that the universe has your back. Tools for learning to engage with yourself, the people around you, and the world, so that you can feel real joy and freedom.

The most important part? Engaging with yourself. That’s what we let ourselves look at the least, what we’re least practiced at.

It’s a huge responsibility, but we need to take it on if we want our experience here on earth to be as full and deep as it can be. And truth be told, shouldering it is not nearly as exhausting as avoiding it.

You don’t have to do it alone. There are people around you who love you and will be happy to remind you of it, who will tell you in minute detail exactly what’s amazing about you, whenever you need them to. (To that end, I highly recommend a regular Dharma Dinner.) All you need to do is reach out and ask.

All the work will be worth it. Feeling yourself transformed into a masterpiece is true bliss.

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Intertwined

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Every day when I wake up and see that we’re having another beautiful 40-degree February day, I’m glad — but also slightly nervous. Obviously this isn’t typical winter weather. Have the poles completely melted yet?

As much as I don’t want to wish a winter storm on us, and as much as I adore hot weather, it’s also true that the contrast between the extremes is what makes both so desirable, and so beautiful. Think about being freezing cold in the middle of a dark January day, dreaming of a warm beach, or of fanning yourself desperately in the depths of August and craving the gorgeous sight of a row of icicles hanging off the eaves of your house.

This brought to mind a quote from one of my very favorite books, Moby Dick: “Truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”

Herman Melville was a genius, truly. His book, which upon first glance might seem to be a long-winded tale about a crazy captain chasing a fish, is an epic study in contrast, from the patchwork quilt Ishmael shares with Queequeg seen against the tattoos that cover the savage’s body to the good and evil represented in the battle between Ahab and the White Whale.

The quote made its impression on me when I was 17 — and it stays with me to this day. You don’t truly appreciate the good, desirable, blissful things if you aren’t able to compare them to the bad, undesirable, and painful ones. The idea expresses itself in every area of human life — relationships with parents, siblings, lovers, spouses, friends, children; your work and the amount of play you can find in it, or the balance of drudgery and satisfaction; the way you choose to take care of your body and your health (you need to do the work before you get to feel that runner’s or yoga high).

We all want to be in the blissful, happy place, but you never truly make it there if you haven’t first found your way through the painful, dark places. It sometimes seems easier to just avoid those places, but if we do we don’t get to experience the really great stuff.

It’s all one big experience, this life. If you really want to feel it all, the only choice is between engaging or not.

And though it’s frightening to open oneself up that way, the idea that everything is connected, intertwined, and can’t authentically exist without its contrasts is comforting. Kind of like a warm patchwork quilt.