Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Wisdom in the Vet's Bathroom  

A lot of crazy stuff is happening out there right now. While I contemplated this post, a critical voice erupted in my head that sounded something like, "Are you really going to write about your dead cat when the world has so much unaddressed injustice and violence?" Thankfully I snapped to my senses. That is precisely what I am going to do because, at the end of the day, what matters most in this life is making and sustaining connections to this living and dying world. Chopper (aka Choppy and Chopperpants) taught me how to do that and so much more. So this post is a tribute to him--one of my greatest teachers--with photos to boot.

Acceptance

Chopper came to me with no whiskers in the summer of 2004. He and his litter mates had been abandoned by a stream soon after birth and most of his siblings drowned. His living sister chewed off his whiskers during this time so he only had short stubbles on his face when I adopted him from a local rescue organization. Unsurprisingly, this early trauma made Chopper pretty needy. I rarely could sit down without him wanting to be on my lap. Initially I would get frustrated by his insatiable desire for affection and frequent talking, which I interpreted as, "I'm here! Love me!! I'm here!!! Love me!!!!" I found it difficult to accomplish things, like typing papers for graduate school, with him standing on the keyboard.

 

On My Lap and All Zipped Up

 

Over time, however, I came to see him and myself more clearly. When I stopped doing and gave him my full attention, he did not need so much. With a little maneuvering, he could get the touch he craved, and I could still complete the tasks at hand. Perhaps more importantly, he helped me to pause more and observe myself. Frequently, I was caught up in worried thoughts. His furry self (my partner said he was the softest cat in the world) brought me back to the present moment. He reminded me to rest and receive the comfort of his noisy, unremitting purr. When I stopped trying to be somewhere else with someone else, grace came in the form of Chopper, as well as acceptance of and gratitude for what I have in this life, right now.

The Ability to Receive Love

With my former, incessant craving to be and do better, I focused much of my attention on the external world. I should be working harder, loving better, giving more, all to get some desperately sought-after approval and recognition from others. Chopper was not having any of this self-defeating performance. I could be in the foulest mood, and he still gave me the look in the above photo. I often half-joked with my partner that he could never gaze at me the way Chopper did. Try as I might to push him away, like I did with everyone else who got close to me, he just kept coming back with those big green eyes and pawed at my face until I rubbed his chin. He wouldn't even bite my hand unless it was disguised by a blanket. That fierce and gentle love again instigated a pause. Maybe I could lower the fortress I had built to protect myself from rejection and heartache and at least let Chopperpants in. He wouldn't hurt me. And he didn't. With his patient determination (and, admittedly, significant therapy), I learned I was worthy of love and that vulnerability opens the door to intimacy, understanding, and so many other good things.

 

A Typical Pose

 

The Capacity to Stay

Almost three years ago, I found a lump near Chopper's jaw. A biopsy revealed he had Hodgkin's-like lymphoma. The third time a tumor appeared, my vet said he should go to an oncologist. The oncologist tried one kind of chemotherapy. When that stopped working after a couple of months, he tried another, more aggressive (and expensive!) form that required 16 treatments. Chopper hated the car rides across town to the clinic, but he was his perky, kind self once there. Apparently he was the only cat who didn't hiss at and try to bite the veterinary staff during the blood draws.

He lost his whiskers for the second time in his life. When I grabbed my car keys, he would hide. But he endured the treatment to its completion, and we all hoped he would have at least a year of remission. No such luck. Three months later, I was back in the oncologist's office after finding another tumor. The doc said he didn't want to give up yet. We tried a third kind of chemotherapy that I could give him at home. I arranged for him to get the necessary blood work done at a nearby veterinary office, as he began to howl and throw up when we arrived at the oncologist's office. Propelling such anxiety for short spells of remission stopped making sense.

 

Chopper Not Loving Being in the Car for a Cross-Country Move (June 2011)

 

When another tumor reappeared this past May, I called off the chemo and weaned him off the steroids he had been taking. He stopped being afraid of my car keys and resumed being his playful, cheerful, talkative self. He would serenely sit on my lap while the lovely Carrie Donahue put acupuncture needles in his back, and he did not balk at me shoving supplements down his throat twice a day.

Then he began having trouble breathing. We started the steroids again. Another tumor appeared and quickly enveloped his throat and chest. The tumor eventually became infected and made his breathing extremely labored. On January 7, 2015, Carrie came over to our house and euthanized my beloved cat who was, at that point, gasping for air. He died peacefully in my arms, and I am forever grateful to Carrie and thankful I had the resources to let him go in this way, before he could no longer breathe.

 

Brothers, Since Foster Care

 

Why am I recounting the details of this sad tale? Because I had no idea I could witness such suffering without fleeing the scene (which is my favorite definition of compassion) until I experienced Chopper's prolonged struggle with cancer. I frequently wanted to bury my head in the sand and avoid the painful parts of his illness, but I didn't. I sat with him. I loved the shit out of him. I let him go. I never want to go through this process again with a pet or human being, but now I know that I can. And that makes all the difference. May you rest in peace, sweet Chopper.

to live in this world

you must be able to do three things to love what is mortal; to hold it

against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go

--Mary Oliver

Mr. Green Eyes and Pink Nose

That Brutal and Wondrous Teacher Called Loss

People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That's not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn't understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you're given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.

--Pema Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty

Right on time, life has delivered another one of those lessons that rips the shield right off.

Credit to I Can Has Cheezburger?

This past summer, on the cusp of turning 39, I was honest with myself and my partner: if I didn't at least try to have a baby while I still could, I would feel deep regret. Being the loving, supportive person he is, he jumped on board, and we began what some would call a fertility journey. I would call it another fucking growth opportunity (AFGO for short).

For anyone out there with ovaries who has struggled through this process of trying to generate a living being in your body, I first want to say, "I'm sorry." I'm sorry we live in a society that still treats women's bodies like objects for sale or hire and happily assigns blame and shame when the baby-making process goes awry. So many U.S. blogs, books, and medical sources focus solely on what individual women need to do to make their bodies a cozy sanctuary for a new life. You have stress? Lower it! Never mind if you work in a soul-sucking institution or have a boss breathing down your throat. Just put on that cape and make it go away. And if you choose not to lower your stress and experience a miscarriage or complications? Well, that's your own doing.

For those of us who struggle not to blame ourselves when life takes an unexpected, difficult turn (and most women I know fit this bill), these messages of individual responsibility are at best not helpful. At worst, they enter our psyche and wreak havoc on our ability to protect and nurture the one life that is truly our own. Of course we need to take responsibility for our actions and choices. But we do not live in a vacuum. We shape and are shaped by our environment and the people in it. Interdependence and imperfection are the rule, not the exception, for our fumbling human selves.

I recently had my second early miscarriage. The day before it happened, I had an exceedingly stressful day at work. The self-criticism alarms started blaring and quickly rose in volume and intensity. Not only should I have handled the previous day differently, but I also should have treated my body better all the years leading up to this moment.

Thankfully, I have some really good feedback systems in place, which gave me some much needed perspective. First and foremost, I have a partner who witnessed my sadness without trying to fix it. Instead, he gently stroked my hair, listened, and was present. His only suggestion was that I not be so mean to myself. I am very lucky. I also have a wonderful doctor who immediately told me this kind of thing happens frequently and was not my fault. I reached out to some friends who have been through this process, too, and they offered loving words of support.

In addition to drawing on these and other external resources, I have gone inward and used the self-compassion and mindfulness skills I recommend to my clients. When I've asked the inner critic to step back, I've discovered several important things. For example, I see that the chronic stress and fatigue associated with years of climbing an unending achievement ladder were not consciously and freely chosen. I was doing the best I could with what I had in some pretty unforgiving environments. While I continue to acknowledge and seek to transform the numerous privileges I've received in this lifetime for no good reason (e.g. my skin color), I have stopped denying that I also suffer. So I can say and actually mean that this most recent loss was real, as is my grief about the years I spent trying to be somebody other than who I am. I thus have begun to believe for real that my ways of coping with that inauthenticity--such as working too hard and drinking too often for too long--were attempts to get through this life in one piece. Even if I did irreparable damage to my body, I can forgive my younger self for not being able to find a way to take better care of myself then and feel grateful that I am able do that for myself now.

Regardless of how this AFGO turns out, it has already opened me. And that is a gift, despite the heartache included in the wrapping. For all you wannabe parents out there, I wish you ease and enough space for all parts of this experience. To borrow again from Pema Chodron, “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy."

 

 

 

Unfinished Conversations

As of late, unfinished conversations abound in my life. I have had clients seeking peace and forgiveness via dialogues with departed family members as well as those who are alive but inaccessible for any number of reasons. I also have been reckoning with my own unfinished conversations, particularly with someone who died at their own hand. With gratitude, then, I came upon Robert Lesoine and Marilynne Chophel's Unfinished Conversation: Healing from Suicide and Loss. For those of us feeling adrift from an unexpected loss or any relationship that raises a storm of emotions once we give it attention, this book provides amazing resources. In it, Lesoine allows us to witness his grieving process following the suicide of his best friend. He illustrates the panoply of emotions that spiral in and out of his immediate experience--sadness, outrage, fear, regret, guilt, loneliness, and abandonment to name a few--as well as his gradual move toward curiosity, acceptance, and letting go. Lesoine's written dialogues with Larry facilitate this journey and, as he notes, rekindle a connection with his deceased friend.

His co-author Chophel, a trauma specialist and longtime therapist, contributes additional tools for healing throughout the book. For example, the following "Getting Real Journal Exercises" focuses on working with remorse:

Getting real with yourself means noticing--with courageous honesty--your actions and feelings, even difficult feelings such as guilt and genuine remorse. Write a dialoge in which you express your regrets and see what the response of your loved one might be. Write a scenario in your journal in which you and your loved one both take responsibility, make amends, and experience deeper understanding and reconnection with each other.

I was moved by the authors' creation of space for whatever arose for Lesoine and their insistence that grief does not come in right and wrong forms. I also appreciated that the book followed Lesoine for over a year, giving me a window into how my own grief might shapeshift across time, if I allow it to do so. I found his continuous opening toward Larry and himself particularly beautiful. Toward the end of the book, for example, Lesoine desires to let go of his suffering by forgiving Larry and himself. As he writes,

Eventually, I come to recognize that to truly heal, I also need to directly ask for Larry's forgiveness. Larry, my friend, for all the ways I may have caused you pain through my judgment, outrage, hurt, and confusion, for all the ways I acted or failed to act, I ask for your forgiveness. For all the ways I pushed you out of my heart and made you wrong and bad, for all the ways I judged and was critical of you, I ask you now to forgive me. Please my brother, forgive me.

 

And I need to forgive myself as well, for all of the shame, self-judgment, and reactive anger; for the ways I have abandoned and not cared for myself; and for the relentless critical self-talk and guilt that have plagued me since Larry's death. In order to truly heal, I have to be willing to let all that go and welcome myself back into my own heart, as if welcoming home a guest who has been away for too long. I need to say, 'I forgive you,' to myself.

Upon reading this book, I found my own heart releasing its grip on the pain of the last few months and embracing the words of poet Rabindranath Tagore, which Lesoine includes in the epilogue:

Peace, my heart, let the time for

the parting be sweet.

Let it not be a death but completeness.

Let love melt into memory and pain

into songs.

Let the flight through the sky end

in the folding of the wings over the

nest.

Let the last touch of your hands be

gentle like the flower of the night.

Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a

moment, and say your last words in

silence.

I bow to you and hold up my lamp

to light you on your way.

Letting Go of Addiction

Recently I gave up coffee. I was a serious coffee drinker, having developed an addiction to it as a graduate student that I actively nurtured for over a decade. The idea of not having a giant cup of joe (well, several cups in reality) upon getting out of bed in the morning seemed both cruel and ludicrous. Why, then, did I quit this amazing source of liquid caffeine? The primary catalyst was a wake-up call from my partner on the heels of a major loss. An unwavering appeal from an acupuncturist to quit all forms of coffee soon thereafter sealed the deal. Sometimes we need those outside ourselves to hold up a mirror before we can clearly see what is reflected back at us.

I had been plugging along, jittery as hell, through graduate school, a three-year stint as an academic, more graduate school, and, finally, my beloved new career as a psychotherapist. Through much of that time, being on a caffeine-enhanced edge had its benefits. I could not sit still very long--or sleep very well--and so worked a ton and pushed my body to its limits. Accordingly, I accomplished a lot and consistently received the external validation that I used to crave even more than the caffeine. Plus coffee went hand in hand with the beer I also started to drink in graduate school. The alcohol facilitated winding down at the end of the day, after so much coffee consumption, and eased my anxiety about the many tasks left undone, particularly when I was a tenure-track professor. It also muted a deeper, more insidious sense of inherent deficiency.

As I've written previously, a lot of healing can and has come from self-acceptance and the understanding that imperfections actually serve to connect our vulnerable human selves. I mean, who wants to hug perfection? You might mess it up! Moving toward lovingkindness and away from self-judgment greatly decreased my desire to numb out with a beer or two.

Unfortunately, changing our beliefs does not necessarily eliminate the anxiety coursing through our bodies. I come from a family chock full of anxious types. A backward look, through more than one generation, bolstered my decision to quit coffee because in the various cases of alcohol and drug abuse, obsessive compulsive behaviors, perfectionism, rigidity, and stubbornness that I found, I could see the legacy I inherited. As epigenetics has revealed, stress and trauma can affect the gene pool for three to four generations. All of this is to say that an historical glance at my family system supported a decision to halt the incessant self-blame for my anxiety--I was predisposed to this shit after all!--and call on the power I actually had to alleviate my own suffering.

The fact of the matter is that coffee contributed to a sped-up, fearful, hardened self that I no longer wanted to inhabit. More pointedly,  I experienced a fair amount of emotional reactivity while using coffee to weather my long days, which was brought home to me in the face of an unexpected death that profoundly shook my personal and professional worlds. I am grateful that my partner risked expressing concern about my coping strategies during this time of intense grief and raw vulnerability. That care challenged a misguided sense of resilience I had been carrying around: "I will push through this pain." Letting go is different than fighting or giving up, and this tragedy flipped my palms up in a gesture of surrender--to the inevitable sorrow accompanying loss, uncertainty of life, and impermanence of being.

Once I allowed myself to hear the love behind the request to stop inhaling coffee, I could see the remnants of a divided life that I still embodied. Despite the energy and time I had poured into undoing the conditions and habits that fed a deep fear of failure, I had not yet attuned to the embodied aspects of my daily reality. The abovementioned difficult loss presented an opportunity to be more open and honest with myself about the parts of my life that were not working all that well.

I have long aspired to be present to this life and the lives of others, and I can do that more readily when I feel calm, grounded in my body, and well-rested. I may not be able to accomplish as much or create a spurt of short-lived energy to get through something without the false refuge of a 20-ounce coffee, but I can tell you this:

My fears feel less overwhelming. Breathing comes easier. I sleep more readily and restfully. My yearning for an alcoholic beverage at the end of the day has dramatically dwindled. The regulation of my emotions--particularly when I confront something upsetting--requires significantly less effort. I am in greater touch with what is happening in my body and therefore can respond more appropriately to sensations like exhaustion, hunger, and pain.

Weaning myself off coffee over several weeks with the help of half-caff and decaffeinated beans seemed to diminish but not completely eliminate the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. Nevertheless, we human beings are amazingly adaptable when we allow rather than resist our experience. Not battling the fatigue, headaches, and flu-like signs of withdrawal helped them to move through and out of my system in a couple of weeks.

Perhaps some day I will be able to have an occasional cup of coffee and savor it. For now, I can accept that my particular family legacy and high doses of caffeine are not a great pair and, so, gently and patiently let go of that over which I have control--my addiction to coffee.

On grieving suicide

A very wise mentor explained the paradox of being a human being who continuously loves another, despite the pain of that love, with two Adrienne Rich quotes:

Save yourself; others you cannot save.

The waste of my love goes on this way trying to save you from yourself.*

When someone we love consciously chooses to end their life, how easily we turn on ourselves. "Why didn't I see that as a red flag?" "I should have reached out more." "If I had done something differently, s/he would still be alive." In the stages of grief model, such words represent a kind of bargaining with the reality of our loss. We want to make sense of this tragedy and our role in it.

When we are able to observe these thoughts as part and parcel of our experience with which we do not have to do anything--when we can accept them as elements of this kit and kaboodle called life--a little more breathing room emerges. Those moments when we reject our experience is when our stories of deficit and decay take over and diminish us. We begin managing. Controlling. Doing. Organizing. Performing. We channel our energy toward shoving all that pain--the pain that feels like a tidal wave we cannot possibly survive--into some kind of bottle. We turn away from the belief that the universe can hold us and our pain, if we allow it to do so.

I write today to come back from that place of refusal. To remove my armor and recognize that enough love already resides within to return to the land of the living, where joy and peace accompany the anguish and sorrow. I can choose to live from the inside out--to save myself, for I cannot save others. The waves will continue to come from all directions, but now I know I can bear them. I can even flow with them. On this day of Thanksgiving, when I desperately want to turn toward rather than away from my loved ones, I listened to Tara Brach's interview of Frank Ostaseki, the founder of the Metta Institute.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sml6Z0TMx1k#t=1403

How grateful I am for his wisdom:

Welcome everything. Push away nothing. We don't have to like everything that comes. We just have to meet it...We have to discover something in ourselves that's capable of that kind of welcoming.

What is that something within? I have no doubt it is the ability to practice love. Self-love is not selfish. It saves us when we feel so powerless to save others. It is the thing our grieved one could not find, even though it was there all along, which is the largest source of my anguish. "You stubborn fool! You belonged. You were loved. You touched so many lives. Why, oh why, did you turn a blind eye to yourself!?"

Right now, in this instant, we can halt that line of questioning and turn inward, toward the life still here, with compassion. I find great solace in Ostaseki's rendering of compassion:

Compassion isn't about taking away people's pain...Compassion is that capacity that allows us to stay with what we would otherwise like to get away from, until the real truth, until the real causes of that suffering show themselves. The presence of compassion is that it allows the defenses to fall down. When the defenses fall down, we can see the real causes of the suffering, and we can be of some help.

Such compassion creates the ground for the seeds of belonging, connection, and love to grow. "Why" questions, like the one above, too often engender shame with their incessant and exhausting quest for causes. They tend to breed more controlling. More resistance. More internal warfare. I find "what," "how," and "when" questions more interesting. They present opportunities to connect the mind with the heart, to come back to our embodied experience and the present moment, to arrive at an understanding rooted in love, not rightness.

My own inquiry process goes something like this: What would I have to feel if I stopped bargaining with reality? Oh, there is pain there. I am suffering. It's okay. I pray: May I feel peace again soon. May I remember the love that is here and all around me. May I take myself into my own heart and mind and love this life no matter what. May I embrace every living and dying part of this universe. May I offer my love whether it is accepted, rejected or met with indifference.**

Ultimately, we all must find our own pathway to a love in which we can finally rest. There is no script to follow. We certainly can turn toward friends, family, and professionals for support, and I hope we choose to do so. Isolation, after all, begets more isolation and disconnection. But we cannot force this love to manifest, and we cannot force others to find it. Our grieved one took our breath away with that searing truth. We can, however, listen to others' stories of encountering the love within for some guidance. Here is Ostaseki's:

The most extraordinary thing was discovering the love of my own being...I became much more intimate with it. And that love opened me to a certain kind of trust. Not a trust in others' behavior...It was really a trusting in the unfolding of things. All the things that we imagine we're in charge of. That trust became an abiding trust...It was a deep rest...My whole being at rest. A certain kind of seeking, a very subtle seeking, just stopped.

As I attempt to allow all of the preciousness, precariousness, and pain of this life into my mind, body, and heart, I can feel my inner fire returning to the glow it had before this devastating loss. Slowly by slowly. At times, I sense the vastness of warmth and light that fire can offer. If I let it.

I happily cede the final word to Danna Faulds:

Birthright

Despite illness of body or mind,

in spite of blinding despair or

habitual belief, who you are

is whole. Let nothing keep you

separate from the truth. The soul

illumined from within, longs to

be known for what it is. Undying,

untouched by fire or the storms of

life, there is a place inside where

stillness and abiding peace reside.

You can ride the breath to go there.

Despite doubt or hopeless turns of

mind, you are not broken. Spirit

surrounds, embraces, fills you from

the inside out. Release everything

that isn't your true nature. What's

left, the fullness, light, and shadow,

claim all that as your birthright.

 

* The first quote comes from "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law," the second one from "For the Dead."

** Frank and Tara have some wonderful prayer words in their talk on which I am heavily drawing here.

 

Fear as our anticipation of loss

Fear is the anticipation of loss.

--Tara Brach

Perhaps you see the above quote and think, "Duh. Tell me something I don't already know!" Or perhaps you see those six words as a gateway to unraveling a lifetime of fleeing, fighting, and freezing. The latter was my experience.

Fear threads through so much in U.S. society. Right now, for example, our public eye seems attuned to the triple threat of a war with Syria, yet another mass shooting, and Miley Cyrus's VMA performance. I am curious what happens when we frame these events as haunting reminders of loss and ask the question, What am I afraid of losing if we attack another country? I watch the news? I read another scathing critique?

Another way into this idea that fear foreshadows loss is to consider the question: What would I have to face if I stopped running from (as well as chasing or numbing to) fear? If most of us pause--really pause--and explore this question with openness and curiosity, I am confident we will come up against various kinds of loss. Loss of job security or the job itself. Loss of a sense of control over our loved ones and/or ourselves. Loss of the story we have long told ourselves about how our lives are supposed to go. Loss of our health. Loss of a friend, family member, or relationship. Loss of our own lives. Just to name a few.

Fine. I fear loss. So what? The major issue at hand is how fear can shut us down so that we walk through the world as a shell of ourselves, missing out on the joy, peace, and wonder that accompany fear and loss. Although fear is a natural reaction to threat, the amazing human mind can use our thoughts to make fear a monster in a never-ending horror show.

When considering the extent of fear's power to suppress our happiness, creativity, and spontaneity, I find Jaak Panksepp's studies of rat pups particularly compelling. As he wrote,

In this experiment, young rats were first allowed five-minute play periods on four successive days, and then on the fifth, half were exposed to a small tuft of cat hair on the floor of their 'playroom.' During that session, play was completely inhibited. The animals moved furtively, cautiously sniffing the fur and other parts of their environment. They seemed to sense that something was seriously amiss...following a single exposure to cat odor, animals continued to exhibit inhibition of play for up to five successive days.

A small tuft of cat hair extinguished previously vigorous play even though the cat was nowhere to be seen. How many of us go through our days hidden and afraid in anticipation of a bogeyman that does not actually exist? And, again, what are we afraid of losing?

In my own life, I've recently come up against fear as the anticipation of loss in the realm of a beloved pet's illness. Like many people in the U.S., I rely on my domesticated creatures for comfort and simple love. I used to judge myself for doting on my two cats, but I think our material and emotional devotion to our pets in this country is a sociocultural phenomenon related to our growing sense of social disconnection and simultaneous craving for a connection with living organisms outside ourselves. Like Donna Haraway, I agree that we can learn from this inter-species encounter. As she wrote, "Today, I think we have an obligation to learn from dogs. I think that we can become better human beings by paying attention to the relationships we're in with dogs. Together we can not only survive, but flourish. We can learn to be present and to be real."

I'm going to apply her argument to my 9-year-old cat, Chopper, who has taught me to be more "present and real" in recent months on account of his struggle with cancer.

As I have deliberated what treatments to pursue and the likelihood that he will come out of this thing cancer-free, I have come up against an intense fear of his eminent death. I have wanted all of this to just go away and, at times, avoided Choppypants, as we lovingly call him, because the fear and sadness feel overwhelming. Yet Chopper keeps showing up (he currently is insisting on being in my lap), practically yelling at me to remember, "I'm here right now! Play with me and stop dwelling on all the bad stuff that might happen, down the road, in some story you're calling 'The Future.'" He is teaching me to stay with my fears and sadness--to allow them so they have the space to do their thing and then go on their merry way. After all, emotions have a biochemical lifetime of 90 seconds when we do not use our thoughts to create a lifetime movie.*

Chopper is also reminding me, "Love is what we were born with. Fear is what we learned here."** In unlearning my old relationship with fear, I am finding I can return to the love that was always here and is available in the furry mass on my lap right now.

*  I borrowed this tidbit of knowledge from neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor.
** These are Marianne Williamson's words.

Relating Boundaries and "Hell Nos!" to Self-Compassion

Love is the capacity to take care, to protect, to nourish. If you are not capable of generating that kind of energy toward yourself—if you are not capable of taking care of yourself, of nourishing yourself, of protecting yourself—it is very difficult to take care of another person. In the Buddhist teaching, it’s clear that to love oneself is the foundation of the love of other people. Love is a practice. Love is truly a practice.

So said Thich Nhat Hanh in an interview for Shambhala Sun. To me, this quote captures why we need to establish boundaries and honor our limits--our "hell nos"--in relationships. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself since a fairly long and winding path led to this connection between self-love and limit setting...

When I first awoke to the idea that self-love was more than a cliche in a ballad fabulously sung by Whitney Houston, I started looking more closely at my relationships.

http://youtu.be/IYzlVDlE72w

Lo and behold, I was violating my own principles left and right. Although I deemed it a personal shortcoming if I took my frustrations out on my partner, was critical or judgmental toward them, or was otherwise less than perfect (i.e. being human), I had lots of excuses up my sleeve--and experienced plenty of resentment--for their hurtful behavior toward me. I also expected myself to be ever more accommodating of their wants and needs, regardless of whether or not my partner shared that expectation.

Then, on the advice of a therapist, I read Harriet Lerner's Dance of Anger and learned the concept of de-selfing:

Obviously we do not always get our way in a relationship or do everything that we would like to do. When two people live under the same roof, differences inevitably arise which require compromise, renegotiation, and give and take...[De-selfing] occurs when one person...does more giving in and going along than is her share and does not have a sense of clarity about her decisions and control over her choices. De-selfing means that too much of one's self (including one's thoughts, wants, beliefs, and ambitions) is 'negotiable' under pressures from the relationship.

"De-selfing" offered a serious wake-up call. I realized I had taken on the belief, hook, line, and sinker, that pursuing my own dreams was selfish. Thus uncovering my own thoughts, wants, beliefs, and ambitions became a new goal.

Because I was not very practiced in such self-study--I was much more accomplished at judging myself for being self-centered!--I turned to Charlotte Kasl. Her book If the Buddha Dated had lots of gems, including an exercise on setting bottom lines, or "hell nos." Her words illustrated how the act of self-compassion intertwined with the act of putting one's foot down:

Because we want to find the luminous essence within us, because we do not want to repeat painful lessons of the past, because we love ourselves fiercely and want to find a partner who is kind and loving, we commit to what is often called a bottom line. Setting a bottom line means naming the behaviors you will not tolerate in a relationship. Period. Nonnegotiable. If someone crosses the bottom line we stop seeing them--no rationalizing, no excuses. Likewise, we set a bottom line for our own behavior--making excuses for the other person, ignoring responsibilities, sacrificing our values to keep the other person. Honoring our bottom line tests our spiritual resolve.

What I find particularly insightful in this quote is Kasl's emphasis on behaviors. When we set bottom lines with a Buddha-like heart, we are not demonizing, shaming, or blaming others. We are acknowledging that certain behaviors do not contribute to our well-being, whether they are enacted by others or ourselves. We can set bottom lines and still forgive others and ourselves for the harm they/we cause, especially since that harm oftentimes results from a lethal mixture of confusion, judgment, and shame rather than intentional meanness. The difference is that in addition to forgiving, we respond differently to our own pain by no longer making excuses for others and ourselves.* Re-enter from stage left Harriet Lerner with her lovely depiction of responsibility as response-ability:

By 'responsibility,' I do not mean self-blame or the labeling of ourselves as the 'cause' of the problem. Rather, I speak here of 'response-ability'--that is, the ability to observe ourselves and others in interaction and to respond to a familiar situation in a new and different way. We cannot make another person change his or her steps to an old dance, but if we change our own steps, the dance no longer can continue in the same predictable pattern.

I regret to report that responding in "a new and different way" does not prevent loss or pain. Indeed, if our predictable pattern is predicated on de-selfing, we have likely established and maintained ample relationships that deplete rather than nourish us. Therefore, as we start to create emotional boundaries and limits that safeguard and strengthen us, we will likely provoke a reaction in those who are used to us giving in and going along. When we change the dance, we may lose the relationship. That is where the spiritual resolve that Kasl mentions comes in, as well as the words that opened this post. After all, the more we are able to generate energy that takes care of, protects, and nourishes us, the less we will need to negotiate away important parts of ourselves for the sake of keeping a particular relationship. What is more, we will have freed up energy to become more and more skillful at practicing a love that feeds us, those we encounter, and the surrounding world.

The great news is that such energy tends to attract people. Additional good news is that with cultivated clarity and compassion (practice! practice! practice!), we are much more likely to enter into and sustain relationships that are mutually beneficial and life-giving. As for the times in our lives when we feel all alone and so set out to violate our hell nos, we can turn to the immortal words of Tina Fey for inspiration:

May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers.

* Here I am drawing on the wisdom of Brene Brown: "When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice. For our own sake, we need to understand that it's dangerous to our relationships and our well-being to get mired in shame and blame, or to be full of self-righteous anger. It's also impossible to practice compassion from a place of resentment. If we're going to practice acceptance and compassion, we need boundaries and accountability."