As we settle into sheltering at home during this pandemic, I am in awe of all that is emerging on the internet: free pilates classes, learning to draw/paint/dance, sing and drink beer (at the same time), poems and inspiring stories …. and heartbreaking ones. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of free concerts and self care checklists. There is so much good here - a smorgasbord of possibility. It kind of feels like I am standing in front of an Old Country Buffet but the spread is full of so much goodness, with a bit of jello salad here and there to keep it real. I am so grateful for this kindness. We are all looking for ways to manage our emotions and to not feel despair. And we want to help each other do the same. This is what it means to be human and to live in community. We are hardwired to stay connected to each other, whether 6 feet or 600 miles apart.
And it is also human nature to look outward as we try to free ourselves of discomfort.What is happening in our world has no precedent. How do we manage the enormity of this?
Several years ago, I was going through a particularly challenging time in my personal life. I was frustrated that my regular meditation practice did not seem to be making a difference in my emotional dis-regulation and I grew more anxious as I tried to find ways to not feel overwhelmed. I could label my emotions, I could practice holding them with curiosity as I sat on my cushion, but as soon as I ended my daily formal practice I was caught again in a painful loop of suffering. I reached out to others for support, but no words of comfort seemed to reach this unease. And then a second wave of suffering would emerge: critical self talk that was completely unrelated to my initial personal challenge. How could I, a psychotherapist who taught mindfulness skills, be unable to control this emotional rollercoaster?
Then I decided to read Dr. Kristin Neff’s book, Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. It had been on my shelf for over a year (interesting how often these books need to take up space on our shelves for a while before they catch our attention!). Kristin and her colleague Dr. Christopher Germer are the founders of The Center for Mindful Self Compassion, an international non profit organization devoted to the teaching of self compassion. Reading Kristin’s book was a turning point for me, both in my personal and professional life. In her book, Kristin writes about a moment when she was experiencing the kind of despair that is familiar to me and so many of you. She had just begun her research, and she describes how she was able to use the skill of self compassion to tend to herself in a way that radically shifted her relationship with herself and the difficulty that was in front of her. Nothing outside of her experience had changed, but she felt more supported and seen in the moment.
I was intrigued and also skeptical. But I was looking for something different so I started to learn and practice. Since that first reading, I have committed to deepening this work of self compassion. It sounds so simple (which is why I was skeptical).It is also the most challenging personal work that I have ever done. At times I can almost feel my brain doing what feels like intense weight lifting as I try to change old habits of thinking and feeling. The work reminds me of trying to learn Spanish in my 50’s: nothing sticks at first, and I have to repeat, repeat repeat. As a colleague of mine once said, “these habits in our minds are well-worn rat trails!” But learning to stay with ourselves, not abandoning ourselves during the most intense of times, can allow us to create an inner sanctuary, a home base that is always available to us. This is important work now more than ever: to become the holder and the held, to radically transform the connection we have to ourselves, to our communities and to the world.
Here is a brief video that I made describing one of the key practices that is taught through the Center for Mindful Self Compassion, the Self Compassion Break.
Self compassion break
And for more information on Kristin Neff and Chris Germer's work, please visit the Center for Mindful Self Compassion at www.centerformsc.org
When our kids were very young, my husband and I decided to purchase a little sailboat and create a new family activity that we hoped would meet all of our needs. Neither of us grew up sailing, but my husband had sailed with a friend and felt confident with owning a boat. I was not a strong swimmer, but we were hopeful that the learning curve would not be steep, and that soon we would be enjoying lazy weekend afternoons on the water. We were so optimistic. I don't have a lot of memories of the few outings during that summer with our boat, but I do remember the last one. It was a breezy Saturday afternoon and the sky was full of perfect, puffy clouds - a beautiful day. Once aboard, the wind picked up and we were quickly carried into the middle of the lake. I remember the fear rise within me and felt immediate betrayal as this tiny unfamiliar vessel threatened to harm my family. I tried to grasp anything that felt stable and strong in my immediate vicinity. My 6 year old son had the opposite reaction. He and my daughter were both strong swimmers, but for him, this experience was a far cry from swimming, and he decided that it would be best to resolve his discomfort by trying to jump overboard. In his mind, it was far more rational (and less scary) to be tossed about in the middle of the lake rather than endure the unpredictable behavior of the boat. My husband, the new sailor with limited experience in rough waters, was also scared and felt the full responsibility for the safety of his little crew as he held the tiller.
Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach presented a powerful talk online this week about how to work with our fear during the COVID-19 pandemic. She reminds us that fear is completely natural; an intelligent part of the human experience that tells us to take care. She says that the emotion of fear prepares us for what to do, in order to tend to ourselves and those we love.
On that little boat many years ago, I recall how each of us responded to our fear in such different ways, all in an attempt to take care - of ourselves and each other. And we did.
We are all learning to sail in uncharted waters at this unprecedented time. May we name this unease without judgment, and hold it now with compassion and awareness as we take care of ourselves and each other.
May you be well.
As I transition to online telehealth, I will be working on ways to stay connected via this blog. I will post videos and links and will be sharing them here. I have found Thought Field Therapy to be very helpful in managing anxiety and depression and I have taught this tapping technique to many clients over the years. Here are a few short videos that I have recorded that you can watch.