Sunday, September 22, 2013

Make nice

Flags at half mast to honor and remember the people who died in the mass shooting at the U.S. Navy yard last week. This was taken at Union Station in DC.

It's instinctual to admire those among us who are tough, strong, fierce. We look up to those who can leap over tall buildings in a single bound. We love our superheroes in every one of life's arenas. We buy in, at a primal level, to the idea of survival of the fittest. Even med school is a kind of hazing, the way they work those people around the clock, to weed out the weak among them, I guess. Because working 24 hour shifts has nothing to do with being a healer. It's only about being a bad ass. Even doctors are supposed to be bad asses. So weird.

It's my belief that the natural, instinctual longing to be safe (the reason we admire strength and toughness) has chipped away at our belief in the value of gentleness.

  1. 1.
    (of a person) mild in temperament or behavior; kind or tender.
    "he was a gentle, sensitive man"
  2. 2.
    moderate in action, effect, or degree; not harsh or severe.
    "a little gentle persuasion"
    synonyms:lightsoft More

  1. 1.
    make or become gentle; calm or pacify.
    "Cobb's tone gentled a little"

Mildness is not well rewarded in our society, is it? They say, When things get tough, the tough get going. OK. But, though in a street fight it's best to be the strongest and toughest, being a tough guy does not always bring out the best facets of humanity, right? Cultivating gentleness, on the other hand, helps bring out the best in us when we aren't in a street fight. Please remember, most of the time, we are not engaged in battle. Our actual lives are not like the movies. Must we always be hard and tough? That's no way to live happily, if you ask me. C'mon.

Fortunately, there are many tried and true paths that help us cultivate gentleness. All of these practices involve settling down and becoming, in one way or another, contemplative. Meditation, yoga, the martial arts, and community service are examples of practices that help us develop gentleness.

There are little things you can do to become more gentle. For instance, think about the times of day when you feel most fragile, maybe first thing in the morning. Many people are a little raw, fresh out of sleep. For them, spending a few minutes stretching or breathing, snuggling or quietly remembering dreams before leaping into the fray of their busy lives helps launch the day with gentleness. That old saying, she woke up on the wrong side of the bed, sometimes refers to the harsh way many people start their days. Startled awake by an obnoxious alarm clock, they immediately jump into the shower, gulp coffee and worst of all, turn on the news. Who can feel relaxed and refreshed, ready to face the day, after an assault like that? Yikes.

Of course there are those who bounce out of bed at 5:00 a.m., chipper and good to go. For those folks, evening might be a time when some gentle, quiet moments would be kinder than sitting in a noisy bar, bellowing over the grinding beat of dance music.

Do you have an afternoon slump period? You aren't the only one. That's why people sit down for tea or take a nap. Even stepping outside to breathe some fresh air for a few minutes is a practice of self compassion, a gentle way to take care of yourself, to remind yourself that in addition to being a bad ass, you're also a creature of flesh and blood. Even small moments of self compassion help us embody and remember how to be kind not only to ourselves.

In some ways, we take very good care of ourselves. But being a bad ass is not the best course of action in most circumstances. We are a very emotional species. We need kindness, we need tenderness, from ourselves and each other. It's every bit as important as exercise "boot camps," harsh detox diets and personal trainers, believe me.

May your mind be spacious and your heart be soft and kind.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Pre-Existing Conditions

When people say "my back went out," what does that mean? It's an old fashioned phrase. I like it. No doubt it means something different to each individual. I think it means the person didn't notice -- until it was too late -- the twinges, tightness or discomfort in his or her back, or noticed and decided it was nothing and would go away on its own. Whatever is out of balance gets a little worse, then worse still. One day the situation passes a tipping point which is what people mean when they say their back "went out."

The sensation of pulling or tightness, soreness or uneasiness indicates something isn't quite right. I am a big fan of the wait-and-see school of healing, for non-acute conditions of course. If I broke my arm I wouldn't wait to see if it would heal on its own, but a little twinge? I might do some stretching, get a good night's sleep, and hope for the best.

When the back goes out, there's no choice but to address the situation -- rest or stop doing something strenuous that makes it worse, go for bodywork or acupuncture -- you know. When it gets so bad you can't ignore it, that is the first stage of healing.

Healing is dynamic, often dramatic. To disorganize the pattern of dis-ease requires a time of chaos. That chaos is almost always painful. In the case of colds and the flu, the fever, sneezing, nose blowing, coughing, diarrhea and throwing up disorganizes the foothold of the offending virus. The symptoms are not caused by the virus, but are part of human immunity. Sometimes the immune response is gentle, but sometimes it can be quite violent. Sometimes, in order to shake off a potent virus, all of life's routines must be interrupted, or so it seems. We call in sick, thrash around in bed, leave trails of used kleenexes all over the house. Every pattern is disorganized. When the virus has been dispatched, we rebuild our lives from what seems like scratch.

Divorce, quitting or getting fired from a job, moving house or to a new location, and other dramatic changes of life situation serve to dislodge stale patterns that are no longer balanced or healthy. I see these experiences in the same light as catching a nasty cold, or suffering when the back goes out. The unhappy accidents of life serve a purpose. I believe this even as I curse these situations when I have to endure them.

Is there something going on in your life or in your body right now that feels like a minor, nagging discomfort? Is there a sense of tightness, restriction, staleness or decay in your muscles, sinuses, relationships, job, house? These are the pre-existing conditions that point in the direction of healing and balance. These are clues that can help you see where you're slipping out of balance.

I have no idea whether it's possible to avoid the calamities that bring a pre-existing condition up to the surface, but I hang on to the hope that if I pay close attention, I'll be able to perhaps, maybe, nip in the bud some of the looming catastrophes that make up the narratives of every human life.

I am such a dreamer. But it can't hurt to try.

Be well. Shalom.