This weekend I toasted my finger along with my bread. In a moment of utter mindlessness while flipping slices I actually touched the heating element and crisped myself. I can’t even blame my children for distracting me—they spent the night with their grandparents and Richie and I were enjoying a blissful weekend morning alone.
“What was I thinking?” I wondered as I ran cold water over the angry burn. Now several days later it still hurts—especially when I wash the dishes and my band aid gets soggy and slips off. Left untended the pain functions like a little anti-mindfulness bell in my mind—frequently drawing my attention back to my misstep and my concurrent frustration with the situation.
Most days I feel like I know enough about meditation to get myself in trouble. Meaning I know what it should look like: “breathing in I dwell in this present moment, breathing out I smile” —but not necessarily enough to live out that knowledge. This has me wondering…
When we miss the moment how do we catch up? When we burn ourselves or yell at someone we love or make a purchase we regret—what’s next?
Enter “Compassionate Self-Observation.” Compassion is the key word.
Most of us observe our mistakes and then let loose the pack of dogs known as the inner critic. Ironically, as therapists and self-help teachers have known for decades, this practice does not actually lead to change or growth. When we stir up our shame or sense of regret we actually reinforce the “mistake” rather than redeeming it.
The hard things in life — ranging from little things like stubbing your toe to big things like realizing one day that you don’t like who you have to be to do your job — these are really invitations: to stop, to breathe, to discern next steps, and to take really good care of yourself while you listen.
Self-care, it turns out, is actually a much more effective way to enable our inner growth than berating ourselves. For me this looks like putting a lovely herbal balm on my wound, wrapping it in one of my kiddos band aids and claiming that moment to return to center: “Breathing in I care for myself—breathing out I smile.” Every time the pain bell goes off in my head I try to stop and notice it and welcome in the fullness of life. Yes I burned myself in a kind of dumb moment this weekend and yes yesterday I yelled at my four year old to get her shoes on and who knows what I might do today, but I trust that a growing awareness of these moments and compassion with myself will lead me forward on the path to living a fuller, richer life.
And this leads to the next lovely lesson. As we care for ourselves around our missteps we build up our capacity to catch the moments of our lives as they come down the pike. So that rather than missing them and wondering how to repair our bodies or relationships we can instead catch the good stuff and avoid some of the bad stuff. Because despite our frequent sleepwalking stance, life keeps delivering more beauty, meaning, and opportunities in the present moment. As we learn to breathe and have compassion we catch the moments that are coming our way. I know I’m managing to do this when I really see my husband as he makes a warm breakfast for the family and I touch the love in my heart or I hear the flock of birds which have landed in the trees in our front yard and revel in their wildness and proximity to my life.
Compassionate self-observation is not “airy fairy” or “new agey.” It is the means through which we cash in on our suffering by coming out the other side with enhanced self-knowledge. It is a powerful tool for inhabiting your own life and building your inner capacities to hold joy and peace. And truthfully don’t we all need a bigger reservoir of those?
What ways you might practice compassionate self-observation and self-care today?
I envy people who experience dramatic “aha” moments in their lives. For example, a leadership coach whose work I enjoy talks about a particular moment, when packing for a business trip and debating whether or not to include a swimsuit, that she declares “no more!” to her own inner critique about her body. And it would seem that she really did turn a corner that day—never to return to those same self-defeating patterns.
Now I’m familiar with the experience of a flash of inspiration—a connecting of the dots which excites and opens a new door in my thinking or creating. But do those things really happen in spiritual life? Are there levels in the process of cultivating an awake consciousness from which we don’t backslide?
I’d like for this to be true.
My own process as I observe it tends to be much more organic and unfolding: a spiral which feels as though I travel again and again over the same ground—circling like a camper who has lost her way out of the forest.
Now likely there is something to say about this camper and the spiritual journey. Something about how we circle, not exactly in the same place, but on a deeper register over the lessons we most need to learn. So that what feels like being lost is in fact– what? If not being found exactly then at least walking with the knowledge that ones steps are not in vain.
But today I wonder about these aha moments because I think I had one last night. Flipping through a magazine passed on to me on a recent trip I come to the final page—a lovely photo and reflection by Kimberly Button, an Orlando-based green consultant. I read her bio and discover she has also written a book called The Everything Guide to a Healthy Home.
“Oh—what a great book!” I think. It sounds like exactly the kind of book I would like… and I’ve never heard of it. And then, without any reason, an “Aha” moment is born in me. And something true settles deep in my heart—the realization that, quite simply, the world is full of people doing interesting things.
I recognize that this is not such a mind-blowing observation. But woven within it for me was a sense of release, of freedom almost, as I meditated on the many, many people working in a multiplicity of ways to enhance our world. And my part then becomes much easier– just sharing my little piece of truth.
To that end, I have been getting more serious about writing (next month’s agenda in my 2013 happiness project) and dreaming about book contracts. And I realized that, without even meaning to, I was holding out a little bit of self-satisfaction for if I manage to do that. (The Everything Guide to Crafting Home Rituals!)
And I realized, that’s not the way it has to work—nor the way I have to live. Even if I get a book published, I would just set a higher goal and shift my attention to it and hold out on feeling reallyreally proud of myself till I reach that goal.
My aha moment was an invitation off this carnival ride— The Carousel of Delayed Happiness. Instead I want to soak up the joy and meaning in all that I am currently living. To notice the shadows in my office as the sun moves behind clouds and out again. The sound of wind on this unseasonably warm day and the way it causes the heart mandala Perl and I made together to sway. And the satisfaction I find building a new venture one relationship at a time. And in the process to notice and nod to my impatience toward all that is unfinished in my life even as I unwrap its fingers from my lungs and take a deep breath.
Now only time will tell as to whether I am able to hold onto this aha sentiment and continue to live out of it. I’d like to.
Wondering what “aha moments” have found their way into your story and how you might hold onto them?
When I was in grad school I had friends who used to schedule their lives in fifteen minute increments to take care of their needs and wants around the demanding class schedule. At the time it seemed crazy to me and just evidence of an overworked and harried lifestyle. Anything worth doing I thought, even in the realm of self care, takes longer than fifteen minutes: eating a proper meal, taking an exercise class, enjoying a reciprocal conversation with a friend.
But lately I’ve had the opportunity to revisit this idea. My life has presented me with several awkward windows of time; a few extra minutes between scheduled activities and I’ve started to take advantage of them as micro self-care units.
For example, yesterday my husband and I needed to swap the car. We are a one car family and even though he can bike to work most days, when he has meetings we often have to figure out some way to exchange the car mid day. Yesterday after dropping him at the office I was left with 20 extra minutes before I needed to pick up our girls at preschool. Not enough to go home, barely enough to stop at the grocery store. What to do?
So I let my mind wander on the things I like most and impulsively turned my car into a church parking lot with an outdoor labyrinth. This place isn’t far from our house, but I rarely go. Its not the sort of thing that would seem worth a trip on its own.
Yet what comfort I took from these few moments out in nature—walking an ancient meditative path. Some people carry questions in their minds while they walk in and find they are able to see their way to an answer on the way out. I try to turn off my head and just trust the path. Usually right about the time I start to feel irritated that it is taking too long is when I’ll be led to the center. Though labyrinths are often tucked away on the grounds of churches or monasteries they are frequently open to the public— this world-wide labyrinth locator can help to find one.
Now sometimes when I have a few moments I choose to sit in my car and check emails on my iPhone, and that’s OK too. Just acknowledging to myself that it is a choice and one I make consciously can itself change my experience of the time however I use it. But now that I’ve started experimenting with this new micro self-care idea I’ve found other opportunities: using the ten minutes before an appointment at our chiropractor to walk twice around the block and taking advantage of a half hour gap between drop off and when the school office opened to to enjoy the nature preserve by my son’s school.
For me the key is to just seize these little intervals if and when I feel the nudge. I try not to evaluate it while I’m in the middle of it, asking myself “is this worth it?” “Is anything happening?” Instead I just trust the experience and then pick back up with my regularly scheduled day.
But later when I drift off to sleep and think about the moments and the places I felt most alive that day, often these little intervals will bubble to the surface. They are soul food and a brain massage—activating dormant neurons and stimulating my senses. Now I kind of can’t stop.
I wonder where and when you might find micro opportunities for self-care?
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