I didn’t actually ask the waiter that, because I knew there were would be kale on my pizza. I ordered it anyway.
So, as I munch a slice of vegan kale mushroom pizza— which tastes better than it sounds, at least it isn’t gluten free—I ponder the strange relationship I have with this tenacious vegetable.
I kind of hate the 90’s nutritionist who decided this tough, stringy, bitter leaf was a grand way to pump up iron, calcium, fiber, and some other important minerals, like spinach, only better, so the health blogs write— and besides, no one every gets E. coli from kale, do they?
At one point, my husband ate kale smoothies for days, then got diverticulitis and blamed the kale. You know, that logic where A, and B, so therefore C. Now he says he is preserving the health of his gut by avoiding kale, unless I sneak it in without him knowing. I do, because, well, green stuff.
Sometimes I love it, eating bowls of massaged kale leaves with gusto, or polishing off an expensive bag of kale chips smothered in ground sunflower seeds, oil, and salt. Yum. I throw a handful in a nice minestrone, and sometimes green up our morning smoothies with a leaf or two. And, order in up on pizza. Not bad, actually, crispy.
The only vegetable that grows with stubborn resilience in my tiny potted garden is, you guessed it, kale. I think there may be a plant or two out there that is older than my dog. I just keep yanking off leaves and the ever present kale pops out another leaf, no matter how many slugs or birds yank chunks away. I wonder if kale will be the post apocalyptic veg of choice. Little ground roasted cockroach on your artisanal kale chips, my dear?
I searched kale recipes on Elephant Journal, and the most popular did not include the word kale until the end — starting with the words ‘vegan’ and ‘kale’ is death to a recipe apparently. It’s like a nice mom offering you an ugly casserole, with a shrug saying, “Well, at least it’s healthy!” The most popular recipes start with the word, “Delicious” and “Quinoa”. That made my husband laugh— “Really?” He shook his head, “How can anyone use the word delicious and kale in the same breath? Is that like saying “Arnold Schwarzennegar” and ‘tender” in the same sentence?”
Sorry, I shuddered a little bit too. Back to kale.
Indulging in a $7 dollar bag of kale chips hurts my heart, so I have decided to give making my own kale chips a try. I buy a bunch of organic kale at the neighborhood co op, since I only have about 10 holey leaves out in my winter garden. I pick up bulk sunflower seeds, almond meal, olive oil, garlic and salt. That’s it. Massage those leaves with all the strength I can muster, dust with the seeds, nuts, garlic, salt, (grind up the seeds with the garlic and salt) roast 40 minutes at 325, and voila, chips! Ok, that’s stretching it. Crunchy slightly nutty leaves! Not bad. And I only spent about $10.00. Upside, this pan of roasted vegetable matter will last 2-3 days.
I will eat all of it to protect my husband from diverticulitis. I’m just that kind of gal.
The first time I watched the movie, My Octopus Teacher, I admit I made fun of it. Called it—The Octopus Lover— and turned it off. I realize now I was uncomfortable with male gentleness with a marine creature. Instead of investigating my reaction/opinion, and wondering why I felt this way when I watched obvious and pervasive male tenderness— I just forgot about it.
Then a friend told me how much she loved the movie, and we watched part of it together. I began to truly see, which is what happens when we approach subjects with openness and willingness to stop cherishing our opinions, no matter how strongly we thought we held those ideas. I found myself mesmerized by the mystery, the beauty, and drama of the relationship between man and animal.
To feel gentle and tender requires being in awe, wonderment, appreciation, for the transitory nature of things, inviting a sense of soft delight at the events of this moment, and no other.
To be truly tender, I understand at a deep spiritual level that this event, relationship, person, or animal will not always be here and neither will I. Can I bring this gentleness to myself? Will it change how I see tenderness in others?
Elvis crooned it sweetly, “Love me tender….love me sweet…” What if instead of imagining a thirst trap sexypants man singing, I imagine singing this in the mirror. To myself. About myself.
Geez. That sounds so weird and silly.
I found Elvis and his guitar gently singing online and I stood in front of a mirror, hands on my heart. Swaying, in my slightly off key voice, I sang away. It felt silly at first, uncomfortable, but then, I felt a surprising tingle down my spine, a little tear forming in my eye, lump in my throat, and the sweet slipped down to my bones.
I totally see why all those women in the 60s screamed, sobbed, and tossed panties at Elvis. Tender is powerful.
The next singer in the playlist slides into another version and I sway, hugging my sides, feeling self conscious even though I am alone at home— but now also writing so you can see me too, maybe, swaying all alone in my room. I try not to think about that, and instead, I listen, and I notice, every tiny and exquisite detail in the mirror, the curve of my jaw, the deep dimple in my cheek. I see with new eyes, like I have never seen this human before, been here before, and perhaps never will be again. This only a second or two, then the song fades, and I go check the screen, curious about the singer. There are so many renditions of this sweet lullaby, and this songwriter, a bilingual, pansexual activist, recorded this version just five years ago. We still need us some Love Me Tender.
My friend and I talked about gentleness, about how strange it is to see this in public— what seems such a private thing, something reserved for caring for the very young or the very old. And yet, so many philosophers and poets write about the power and strength required for gentleness, the active cousin of compassion. I looked at poetry on the subject of gentleness, and while there were so many— most of them talked of gentleness toward others. Just when I was about to give up my google search for gentleness for self, there it was, a quote from my beloved writer/teacher Pema Chodron.
“There’s nothing more important on our spiritual path than developing gentleness to oneself.” – Pema Chodron
Nothing more important. Whew. So how do I develop this tenderness that Pema says is so important? Self love and self care are becoming ubiquitously meaningless online, synonymous with bubble baths and breakfast wine. Maybe we confuse soothing or addictive behaviors with deep care, true gentleness and kindness for ourselves because it makes us uncomfortable. Like me turning away from the gently caressing of man and octopus.
Nothing wrong with a little chocolate ice cream, but the path to spiritual growth, authenticity, and conscious compassion isn’t paved with bubbles—alcoholic or bath variety.
So its about to get real down here.
If I want to open myself to more gentle tenderness, maybe I investigate how I am not gentle?
I scratch my side while I think about this, and touch a roll of fat above my waist. “Yuck.You should work out more, lazy.” Yep, that was the voice in my head. She could bitch slap the tender right out of you.
I start wondering how many negative/judgey thoughts zip through my head on a daily basis. I starting keeping track and lost count after about 50 judgey thoughts. That was before lunch.
The voice in my head uses the words—-should, need, must, all the time. Always and never are huge in her vocabulary too. Why can’t you, and You Used to be able to… also fairly constant in her stream. Name calling too. I would be astounded and horrified if this shit stream was out loud to friends and family.
I realize all of this negative, judgey language colors everything I do and makes real change— real tenderness— beyond my reach. That old nugget, “love all as you love yourself, treat others as you treat yourself” never really got me in the gut. Nice platitude, but really?
I believe Pema— that true love starts with my own dear heart. So if I truly challenge all this negative judging as poison to my soul, body and heart, and demand a new path for myself, I deserve it, so can you.
I can alter the course of my life. So can you.
I can, as Pema says, deepen my spiritual path— and no app, guru or religious structure can do it for me.
So, I put one hand on the back of my head, cradling it, belovedly, and one palm on my forehead, warm and tender. And I breathe. I imagine the energy flowing through my head, sweeping the nasty voice along in the current, right out to sea.
And whenever she manages to swim back and whisper mean things in my ear, I will channel a little Elvis, and dance around the living room.
When I was a kid, I stood at the doorway of my bedroom, took a deep breath, flicked the light switch and leapt to my bed. To avoid the bed monster’s snatching claws, right? I lay still as the dead, listening to my own breathing, the pounding of my heart, not daring to move.
I don’t know how long it took for sleep to take over, sometimes I lay there for hours, staring at the patterns in the wood of my bed’s headboard, or the shifting shadows on the ceiling. I lay there watching the shadows morph into devil horns, twisted trees, and hunched backs of the undead until I finally gave in to sleep.
In my defense, we owned three cats who chased my feet from under the bed, embedding those tiny claws in whatever flesh they could snag. Some monsters are real.
I don’t leap from my doorway anymore, but I sleep curled on my side, my face to the door. Habit. I don’t analyze it, I just fall asleep that way.
I take my dog for a walk around my neighborhood in the dark early morning. Holiday lights twinkle from many houses, framing buildings in pink, red, green, blue. I love those little twinkly lights, little stars we put on strings and trundle out, winding around our homes when the skies get darker and colder. Reminding us that the light is returning, as it does. That darkness isn’t permanent.
My heart pounds a bit as we walk into the small wooded area between homes, the young me takes a big breath with the older/wiser me as we walk confidently into the dark. Some monsters are real, so I wouldn’t take this walk without a noisy barker on the leash. And I am careful, these woods are framed with porch lights, and neighbors. Also, furry Emma would defend me to the death. Or we would both run away, more likely.
Confidence grows with perspective, wisdom, experience, and generally I am able to breath with fear, feel it in my body, allow it to make it’s journey through me unfettered. Mostly. When I can’t release the grip of fear, I breathe, and breathe and watch the sky.
A friend said the other day, “Have you noticed the skies are darker now? I mean, than ever?” I nodded. A collective darkness of worry, fear and anxiety about our future on this planet colors our perspective, infecting the air with fear. So much more insidious than a virus.
So, yes, the skies are darker now. What do I do? I breathe. I feel my feet on the solid ground. Allow my own earthiness to meld with the strength and surety of muscle, bone, dirt. Just in this moment, I am ok. I remember things I love. My dog. Walking. Morning coffee. And if I am not convinced, I tap my forehead, my chest, my arms, my legs— sending a rhythm of movement through me like the morning winds.
Even on a morning when the clouds are thick grey blankets squashing the light, if I really focus, I see them move. There is no solid. Not in the sky, not in me. I know there is always blue above the grey, and this perspective helps fear to move. Remembering that all weather arises, abides for a time, and dissolves is freeing. I don’t have to attach to any of it.
The dog is eating now, I am drinking tea, looking up every few moments to see the progress of the sky’s light show. In these few moments, the space out my window has changed and changed and changed again. Those first slits of grey light widened into whitish lines slicing the clouds to pieces that drift away on the winds. A flock of dark birds, backlit, flit across the horizon in a messy V. The blush of sunrise lifts, coloring the spaces a baby pink. The masses of heavy whale clouds have lumbered on, the earth warms with the light, and now the flush of morning inks the wide horizon and the blue grows intense, as if the world was blinking, stretching, sun tapping on sky’s shoulder, “Wake up.”
I sip my tea, Emma circles the rug, sniffing, and settles into a small ball to snooze. Now the pink, orange and white light dances, showing off in a saucy firework show. There is still a stubborn grey fog settled around the land, we live in a wet place, and fog is persistent, only lifting when the earth is warmer. I busy myself with syntax and editing, a few minutes to refill my cup.
I look up, now a dark blanket is spread across the sky, skinny edges closest to the horizon silvery white. Another cloud of birds wing across my vision. Arise, abide, dissolve. Arise again. Clouds, seasons, days, lives, moments.
Emma has moved to the couch, resting her head on a cushion. In her vision, she can keep a watchful eye on me as I sit at the counter, typing. A longer walk is most likely in her future, so keeping an eye on my movements is paramount. She knows, I will stretch, move, get up, and put on my shoes. We will walk into the shifting light, maybe with rain boots, (me, not the dog) maybe not.
And tonight, when the darkness settles, the outside lights will blink on, Emma will settle back to rug, a candle will be lit— a little bit of sun in the night— and a sigh will form as we breathe with it’s glow.
In one of the first episodes of Ted Lasso, Coach Lasso takes aside a despondent player —who just missed a great shot—and says, “Do you know what the happiest animal is?”
The player looks perplexed, “No.”
Coach says, “The goldfish. Wanna know why?” The player stares at him. Coach smiles, “Cuz goldfish have a ten second memory,” he winks, leans in and pats the player’s shoulder, “Be a goldfish.” The player stands there, nonplussed, but Coach just pats him, and says, “Yah, he’ll get it.” Coach keeps smiling, as he does, throughout, and off this Emmy nominated series goes, weaving comedy, yearning, kindness and heartbreak in my new favorite show.
The main character, Ted, is set up to fail. He is doing an impossible job— asked to coach a B league soccer team in England, when all he has ever coached—or played, for that matter, is American junior college football. He isn’t dull or incompetent, he is bravely making a choice to keep his positive outlook. This is no Pollyanna, this is a brave man that is humiliated publicly over and over and over, who could easily slide into murderous mayhem and we might have expected his snap to violence. It doesn’t happen, and while you might think this is a recipe for pablum— a boring show about boring, smiley caricatures, it grows on you slowly, choice by brave choice.
In Ted Lasso’s hate filled world, he resists— not with stubbornness, meanness or by reigning down revenge (like one character does), he resists with kindness. To himself, to others, friends and enemies. Ted shows the real toll this ever-present-kindness-in-the- face -of-hate takes on his soul. We see just how deep his bravery goes, and how much he must find the support of others to keep navigating the raging rivers of his world where all the rocks are stacked in his path and his oar is broken. Be a goldfish, the same player later tells others. Those words caught me, maybe they will catch you.
Life right now seems like an impossible job IRL. I am so bone tired, how are you holding up? Tired of wishing everyone would just do the kind thing, say the kind thing, get together and stop hating and judging? Whew. Life now in the second half of 2021 is an angry river, and with this second wave or twelfth wave of Covid, who can keep track anymore, we need help, support, a kind shoulder to lean on. How do we navigate this mean, angry world and find joy? Hope? Peace? Are those still a thing?
The quiet news is— what Resistance fighters in WWII knew, that every activist against hate and division throughout history knows, is this; we are more resilient than we know. Let that deep historical truth sink into your bones.
They whisper to us; we were born for this time, and the resilience and kindness we can stitch together will be, can be, must be— powerful.
Please forgive my not giving credit, a wise writer wrote that kindness is an act of resistance. So how do we ‘be like that goldfish’, when everything around us is shit that hit the fan and just keeps flying, and it gets shittier every day? We are all living in 24/7 fight or flight mode, our stress responding sympathetic nervous system on high alert. We may look like we are moving through our lives with some degree of normalcy, but maybe we find ourselves multitasking into brain oblivion, tossing and turning at night, healthy habits becoming obsessive, we might snap at our kids out of the blue, scroll Instagram/YouTube/Tiktok for hours, or maybe just never put the phone down, sharing dog dancing videos late into the night, (this is sounding very personal isn’t it?) A little forgiveness for me and you, please.
We participate in whatever addictive patterns help us not deal with life, because our survival brain says so. When we are stressed, we can’t help but listen to this ancient animal brain; it has been doing that survival thing for millenia. It takes a commitment to be a goldfish, to let go, and let go, and let go again. It takes a determination to come back to what Pema Chodron, American Buddhist leader and author writes, is our warrior commitment. She writes,
“It is only to the degree that we become willing to face our own feelings that we can really help others. So we make a commitment that for the rest of our lives, we’ll train in freeing ourselves form the tyranny of our own reactivity, our own survival mechanisms, our own propensities to be hooked.”
So if I acknowledge my many triggers, stay present with my own discomfort, return to my commitment to my values, develops my friendliness toward myself. No judging, I just keep pivoting like the wise goldfish, breathing big bubbles, and letting go.
What I do want to remember is that humans developed a fabulous frontal brain/the prefrontal cortex designed for insight, creativity, compassion, resilience, confidence, and hope. Bring your fingers to your forehead, gently rest there. Know that this is the human brain that built Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, add your favorite activist to the list. Awareness is the first step! I want my thinking brain, full of compassion, creativity, and drive to be in charge.
Our stress response brain has a negativity bias. Its a survival instinct, with a good intention, to remember the bad things that happen so we can respond differently, but we are charting new scary waters every day, aren’t we? Raise your hand if you survived a global pandemic at some other time in your life? Global climate crisis? Anyone?
Ok, so instead of flapping fins in place, gasping and twirling in the murky deep, if I can choose to breathe, return to my vision, my values, resist the urge to hang out in the muddy waters of blame, shame, victimhood, and ask myself a question or two about what I am actually feeling. “Thanks for asking, I’m feeling desperate because the world is ending!”
Next question for my inner self; “Is that absolutely true?”
Let my own sweet goodness deeply assess my feelings; finding fears, sadness, grief, anger, a little shame hiding down there. Ok.
Pema writes, that we will be triggered again, we will fall into self judgement and anger again, but we can bring awareness to that with these simple goldfishey steps:
1. Come into the present. Quick and gentle, notice what’s happening with you right now. Avoid the narrative if possible, rest in sensation.
2. Hands to your heart, for a little self care, coming home, take a lovely big breath and lift your eyebrows (try it, see what happens). This simple movement quickly brings us out of survival brain, rests our fears for a moment. It is a moment of acceptance. We can’t love what we don’t first accept and respect.
3. Maybe saying words in your mind to deepen that acceptance, “This is my experience right now, and it is okay. I am safe, in this moment.” Breathe.
We can swim into clear waters of our authentic, true, selves where we don’t have to create or maintain empathy, it just naturally lives there. In the water. Where we are all goldfish, breathing together, choosing to keep swimming, to pivot in our swim, letting go of our attachment to The Yuck, every 10 seconds or so, remembering that we are swirling around in the reverie and ecstasy of our own loving warrior lives.
We talk now of the word other as a verb; othering–used to define treating people as different or inferior based on personal opinion, belief, or culture. It is that judgey social media voice that you find everywhere; from cooking blogs to twitter feeds; keeping the narrative all about who is right and who is wrong, what is good, what is bad, and then deepening the destruction of this mindset with the widening spiral of social media amplification.
We now feel the need to share our opinions as if they were deep knowledge, even if we just read this opinion from some reddit post of j_man32. If I see it online, it must be true, which we know isn’t true, but if it agrees with my predisposition, I feel totally justified somehow in judging whoever or whatever: black, white, men, women, nonbinary, conservatives, liberals, right wingers, whatever whatever, whatever.
Can we acknowledge that this othering can be the voice of collective trauma and the only way to heal is to turn towards each other, not away, and turn in with kindness, to really deeply listen to each other, making space for all of us?
Turning in, not turning away is the action of courage. It is needed, it is necessary, it is the only way to heal collectively.
Maybe this othering happens closer to home. In what ways am I, are we, othering ourselves? I would venture to say there are ways we do this othering that seem ok, like self-deprecating humor. Like the tik tok vid of the white middle aged woman in her car telling us she is having fruit salad: actually she is having wine for lunch, in her car. LOL!! But isn’t this disguised othering? Isn’t othering another way to say suffering? I read a phrase from Jack Kornfied: Can we learn to be kind to our suffering? Can we offer these words in our meditation; “May all beings be kind to their suffering, may all beings (including myself) accept and free ourselves from our suffering?”
Can I open to the possibility of a less grasping chokehold on the parts of myself I don’t want to see, don’t want to remember, wish weren’t, wasn’t, didn’t. The blame and shame that surrounds traumatic experiences act like a dark suffocating fog. I need the fog to clear. So can I be kind? Breathe? Accept? Then maybe the silent fog lifts and I can be in a space of maybe. A space of letting go of othering, finding room for collective, interconnected healing. Grace.
I walked toward the beach this morning, and as I descended the wooden steps, I noticed a large male bald eagle on the post at the end of the stairs. He fixed one golden eye on my progress. I slowed, respectful of the power of his talons and slicing beak. Actually, I don’t know that it was a male. Female bald eagles have the same qualities, same talons and beak, same strong wings, same instincts, the same calm awareness of their surroundings, all in their golden eyed radius. The eagle stayed as I slowly walked down, longer than usual, when I get too close to a wild animal. I was only 3 or so yards away when it finally lifted its large wings and flapped toward the beach. I wondered at its tenacity. What was protecting from this guarding perch?
I reached the beach, and there, half way between the waves and the cliff side was a brown, furry carcass and two bald eagles pulling up pieces of meat. I wondered, horse? Goat? Deer? As I slowly walked diagonally up the beach, careful about getting to close to those ripping beaks, I noticed a couple of crows holding vigil a few feet away. Ten yards up the beach, on a skeleton of a tree, seven eagles perched. Seven! Spotty young teenagers, maybe a year or two old, two adults with fully white heads, maybe a couple. Another eagle on a rock 20 or so yards up the beach. I was getting a little creeped out. My curiosity was stronger than my fear, though, because the situation was so calm.
Who were the ones eating? The elder couple? All was still and silent, no cawing, no chittering, just holding space. There was no urgency, no sense of scarcity, just waiting. Being. Watching and listening. A sense of order and respect amongst these beings. A sense of interconnectedness in earth, sky, water, and wind.
The eagle guarding the space flew in a large looping circle over our heads as I continued slowly on my way, stopping occasionally to look around for other birds. I might have felt a bit of Hitchcock inspired fear, but I didn’t. All I felt was a sense of reverence, as if I had stumbled upon a holy place. My heartbeat slowed, my footsteps matched the rhythm of the surf, and I made my way up the beach.
The two birds feasting slowly took flight, circling high above me toward the cliff side as I meandered. I wondered how close I would get to the bird family in the tree, before I spooked them to action. I got closer, they stared at me. I walked, slow but steady, they just kept staring at me. I stepped closer, now about 10 yards away, and crossed that invisible border of too close; with an easy grace, they all rose as one. The youngest chittered, complaining the loudest. I smiled, thinking of trips with my young, whining teenagers.
The carcass now 10 feet behind me, the birds began to settle back, the guard at the post, the crows a few feet from the dead sea lion, as it turned out to be. The birds landed back in the tree. The two eagles who were eating the seal meat did not return. All was silent as I kept walking, just the lullaby of the surf. Every 3 or 4 yards I turned back to see who was eating. No one. They waited. Respectfully, maybe waiting for the elders to return. Or not.
What I saw was not the “survival of the fittest”; a dramatic and violent patriarchal narrative. What I saw was not the feeding frenzy that is social media. Destroy or be destroyed seems to be the online motto now. Not just online; at a busy intersection in a very white, upper middle class town in the Pacific Northwest, with PCC (expensive organic food store) on the right, and equally expensive restaurants on the left, where all the housing prices are over a million, on one corner– one group of white haired liberals had signs that read, “Black Lives Matter!”, and on the opposite corner, another white haired group screamed back, “All Lives Matter!” while they waved their huge flags. All the screaming was accomplishing nothing; useless othering creating noise and more rage. I would say they were cawing like crows, fighting over trash, but now I feel differently about crows.
What I saw on the beach was a family and community, taking care of each other in a spirit of abundance and respect. The dead, the living, the waves, the wind, and me. All holding space for this wonder, this dance of life,
Now, I am completely aware that I could have told this story as a terrifying, bloody narrative. My perspective is beginning to shift; leaning away from that place. “There is no good nor bad, only thinking makes it so,” Shakespeare wrote five hundred years ago. I know, you may be thinking– but what about all the problems of the world? If we don’t hold people accountable, then how do things change?
What if we begin to ask: How can we heal together?
Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Desmund Tutu, all men who witnessed great suffering for themselves, their people, their cultures, walked paths of compassion for all. Speak honestly of suffering, they said, then choose forgiveness. In Desmund Tutu’s book, The Book of Forgiving, he speaks about the seeming unending ability of humans toward creating ways to cause pain for themselves and others, but also, “There is an innate ability to create joy out of suffering, to find hope in the most hopeless of situations, and to heal any relationships in need of healing.”
Shouting into the void doesn’t do anything but create endless raging reverberations. Watching, listening, honestly holding and caring for our own emotions, then using the space created to solve our problems creatively together. Suffering, death, life, hope and healing are all entwined endlessly like a beautiful DNA spiral. We can turn together towards the light, we can heal collectively, it is our birthright.
If we are awake 14-16 hours a day, then hypothetically this means we are getting a healthy 6-8 hours of sleep, then doing the math to really figure out what “I’m too busy, I don’t have time for that” really means in a daily life may be pretty revealing. Are we too busy for wellness? To be our authentic, messy, creative human selves?
I realize I am writing from a place of privilege, I don’t work 2 or 3 jobs trying to provide for my large family. I don’t have to take buses or public transportation across a city in order to work minimum wage, or hustle kids to daycare, school, or activities. I realize that my calculations of the time in my day is very different for others. With all respect, I would venture to say, even if the available minutes are less, there is room in a day for mental health, body/mind wellness, joyful creativity, and healing. Maybe just a few. Maybe that’s enough.
So here’s my thinking. In my scenario, I am awake about 15 hours on average– let’s say 2-3 hours for feeding myself throughout the day, cleaning, dressing, tidying up. That sounds like a lot, but now I have 13 hours in my daily time budget. If I spend an average of 4-6 hours a day working on my business, networking, creating content, learning, practicing, writing, I am down to about 7 hours. A couple of hours a day to care for the household, plan menus, clean, etc. Now 5 hours– 2 hours to walk the dog a few times, down to 3 hours. Let’s say I need to add an hour to some of all the above, so maybe I have 2 hours left in my time budget. This is 120 minutes. Hence my estimation of having at least 100 minutes a day for: resting, meditating, doing yoga, staring at a flower, creating something silly, pretty, or ugly. Sending a handwritten note. Giving my hubby a back massage. Harvesting a luscious ripe strawberry and gleefully eating it. Joy stuff.
Truth bomb: I really looked at the settings of my phone today. Usually I swipe through it, not wanting to know the truth. Here it is, in black and white. Today, a light day phone wise, since I have been writing most of the day, I have picked up my phone 15 times. 15 times! First pickup: 3:52AM. Yep. Total time (and it’s only 2 in the afternoon) 2 hours and 43 minutes. That’s 163 minutes. In case you think I could have been reading important email or getting directions, my phone breaks it down into categories. Yesterday in Social: 1 hour and 11 minutes, most of it was Instagram. Hundreds of minutes just in the last two days. My daily average in the last week was 3 hours and 21 minutes. DAILY. I picked up my phone 160 times in 5 days time. I dare you to do the same fact finding. Then give yourself a little hug. Some kindness. Judgement just makes addiction stronger.
Now, it is time not for judgement, but for compassion. This little handy machine was designed for addiction. For dependence. The sole purpose of my tiny hand computer is to be absolutely necessary in my life in nearly every moment of my 24 hours of existence. Everything in our culture now is connected to this interweb of necessity, for getting and keeping my virtual attention. Want a reservation or order take-out? Directions? Quick messages? Pay a bill? Checking on friends posts, so you can heart or emoji it up? Does anyone use a cell phone to actually call anyone?
It is the system and culture that created this, and we won’t know for years and years what the actual cost to our humanity might be. At the very least, it is a mindless time suck. A habitual pattern to soothe my nerves, but not to heal. It keeps me in this pattern of addiction, and creates that justifying voice that says, “I don’t have time for meditation! I’m too busy!”
Unfortunately it is me that has to put the damn thing down. Big sigh.
Time to look at the sky. Time to walk outside and remember to breathe deeply. Time to be accountable to my own lovely, joyful self. 100 minutes. Those minutes are mine to squander or to celebrate. My choice.
Fun facts for the day: Barracudas swim up to 36 mph, weigh up to 100 pounds, have incredible vision, and use their face full of sharp chompers to consume hundreds, nay, thousands of unsuspecting, sparkly fishies. These fierce predators hunt along the coastline, in tropical waters, where chubby, glittery, vampire-skinned tourists swim lazily along.
Did I just put a huge brake on your Polynesian vacay fantasizing?
Not to worry, my friend, your literal chances of being eaten by a barracuda are….wait for it…. none. Yes, yes, I know, you were scarred by Nemo’s mom being eaten by a barracuda, but according to the world-wide interwebs, Nemo’s dad just quickly shifted genders and became DadMom. So no worries.
Yes, I know, barracudas have those terrifying sets of endless teeth. Yep, they’ve evolved over 500 million years. Yep, Nancy Wilson of the rock band Heart compared ruthless record producers to this ugly fish. Just that predatory!
Truly, truly, dear one, if your nervous system is getting kicked up right now what with all the countless scary things out there in the world, including (insert drumbeat from mega rock hit Barracuda right here) predatory fish, I’m here to remind you, it’s just bath water.
Guess what else is badass, minus the endless teeth? The human brain and nervous system.
Guess what can crunch to oblivion any sparkly hope, blossoming resilience, and fragile self-compassion? Also your nervous system. Let me explain.
Our automatic survival brain; the ancient animal brain, is designed for survival. That is it’s sole function. It was not designed for the constant tech input and stress of living with 7 billion other humans. So, on high alert most of the time, these interconnected neural pathways cause overwhelm, triggering depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, constant irritation, feelings of “stuck-ness” and a host of chronic health conditions. What I didn’t realize, and maybe you either, is that we are reacting from our survival autonomic response most of the time, it drives our decisions, keeping us in patterned thinking. Causes us to second guess our creative impulses, make excuses, or get judgey and irritated. Or buy that cute outfit in three colors.
To this ancient part of our nervous system, patterns are survival, better to know the demon in the room, than wonder about possibilities outside. This drives our needs/addictive patterns, because even though we know that clinging to pleasure and avoiding pain isn’t sustainable, our nervous system clings to patterns. That is all it knows. Just a blind system.
Disclaimer, I am not a brain doctor, but I have played one on TV. JK! I do, however, have carried a pretty destructive pattern of beliefs, addictions, and mental suffering stretching way back, oh, about a half a century. Also, a pretty recent vow to fall deeply, madly in love with my blind barracuda mind.
How about you?
I wish we were in a coffee shop right now, you and I, so I could send you a little wave of positive ju-ju, a little compassionate care from my eyes to yours, feeling the interconnection of all our broken, bent, and bothered hearts. So, may these words find their way to softly blanket your gentle soul. Did you just breathe deep? I did.
Back to the Blind Barracuda. Mine’s name is Bernice, by the way.
The Buddha had a name for his predator mind too- he called this demon Mara, the Destroyer. Buddha wrote, to our dismay, that Mara was ever present— particularly the self-doubt demon face, to the end of his illustrious life. Mara is the personification of everything that prevents enlightenment. All the causes of suffering. The root of this Sanskrit word means to cause death, wielding the weapons of lust, doubt, rage, and fear. As if one demon dude wasn’t bad enough, Mara had five barracuda-ish daughters with names like: Aversion, Avarice, Delusion, Pride/Ego, and Fear. What a lovely bunch.
Mara might have joined the Hindu narratives centuries ago, but still sticks around. At EuroDisney, on the Indiana Jones ride, Mara attempts to kill all those that look into his eyes. To look into his eyes is to believe his lying words and be destroyed. But what happens when we engage and focus, with calm, so Mara will look at us? We say, as Buddha did, “I see you, Mara. Swim away.”
I wondered what a blind barracuda would be like, in its most likely very short life. Reactive, maybe? Angry? Enraged? Blaming everyone and everything including itself?
Leaping to conclusions, assuming the worst, catastrophizing at every turn, grasping at addictive paths on an endless hunger for soothing. And, metaphorically speaking, chomping on anything in its path; even innocent, chubby tourists. That is anyone in the barracuda mind path: Loved ones, partners, parents, children, school teachers, customer service reps, the guy that swerved into this lane.
What sounds like logic in our own heads is really dressed up fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. Couple that with memory and our stuffed down emotional shit, our unhealed trauma, and we have what drives our behavior and thinking 90% of our waking hours. Or maybe 99%. We feel stressed out. Need to lay on the couch and binge watch anything. Or maybe joke about breakfast wine. Heart or comment on a meme, pretending that might heal something. Acting on a need to complain on that neighborhood app about dog shit. Again. Getting riled up about what might happen. We all have tendencies toward addictive patterns, even healthy things, right? Anything I attach the word or feeling, “need” to, is probably Mara/Blind Barracuda Bernice mind.
So, I see you. I see you.
True rest from all this chaotic and destructive energy is breathing with focused intention, sleeping deeply. Breathing, with focus, Walking in nature. Eating healthy food and water mindfully. Snuggling with loved ones. Moving; maybe yoga, qi gong, swimming, dancing, running. Sounds simple, but takes effort.
I learned, to my dismay, that just buying an app doesn’t mean I am really healing.
Bummer. What I truly require, is not only to identify my patterns of suffering, I want to see their purpose, intention, and give gratitude. This is my mind, my patterns, and only I can do this deep work. You know, the work that isn’t in an app or on a screen.
So I practice, breath by breath. Step by step. Getting support as I go. And if all that lovely healthy stuff gets interrupted by another swarm of blind barracudas— hello, Monday—then what?
Do as the Buddha did. He didn’t say it was easy, he said we begin again, and we begin again, and again.
So there is hope! Buddha, and me too– you too! We can be experts on facing our destructive, blind patterns. We can all look with curiosity and compassion and said, “I see you, Mara.” Turns out, identifying forces of destruction in our nervous system without calling up a narrative is powerful.
Not only that, but it is the first step to love. Yes, I said it, we all need love, even our blind barracuda mind. When I learned that these patterns aren’t me, just automatic ancient but blind response systems, then I began to wonder about my own inner essence; my true self, beyond my patterns– the part that can say, with curiosity and calm, “I see you, Mara.”
Then with breathing, really feeling the breath, getting in touch with my body experience, I experience healing. I build resilience, focus, calm, breath by breath.
No phone app needed, just the mind, resting on the breath, on the feelings in our limbs and in our hearts.
Then, identifying what lies beneath; that desire we share, to live, to thrive, to feel, to love; all this embodies healing, opens our eyes, peels away the teeth and scales and we see our true natures. We see that we are loveable, that we can love, even the icky stuff. We can look up, look around with gratitude and friendliness. Then, we know: the barracuda is just a fish, and the terrifying sea; just bath water, and we are all together, swimming, swimming, making our way home.
No disrespect to the many who are suffering now, but it is time for me to stop spinning in fear and worry and take a minute to find my feet. I am so damned tired.
It is easy to dismiss the idea that ‘oh just be grateful for what you have’ as a silly panacea that does nothing to make the world better. Standing around 6 ft. apart, definitely not holding hands singing Kumbaya with our face masks in place right?
Gratitude is my superpower
Hang on a sec, give me just a minute. Google the ‘transformative power of gratitude’ and you will find that when we pause and bring our overworked minds to sensation- like noticing the pressure of the feet on the floor, then noticing the breath travel through the body, maybe sighing out the exhale, we literally can’t be thinking about our fears and worries at the same time. Try it. Think about whatever is on your worry radar right now, just one, pick one, now bring your brain awareness— your inner eye —to the sensation of your feet on the floor. Really feel your feet, no judgement, stories or reactions, just let your mind rest on your feet fully; the toes, ball and heel. Try it, I will be right here when you get back.
If you were able to fully be with the sensation of pressure on the floor, your thinking mind was taking a rest. Maybe just a nano-second, but a rest, and that is exactly what our overworked minds need. A rest.
Even just doing that is terrific for the health of a nervous system, but I can kick it up a notch in the moment I am noticing my feet, by bringing to mind something in the last day or two that I am really grateful for. Anything, can be as simple as remembering enjoying the coffee my sweet hubby brought me. Bringing the same curious, open, non-judgey, non- storytelling mind to that moment, really trying to remember the feelings around that moment, maybe even visualizing it, if I can. Seeing my husband’s smiling eyes, the warm cup in my hand, that first whiff of coffee, chocolate and cinnamon. (Yes, my morning latte is the bomb) Bringing my awareness back to the pressure of my feel on the floor, feeling gratitude for that moment, my nervous system is getting a double pump of serotonin and dopamine, not only resting, but feeling happy and healthy too.
Dr. Randy Kamen writes, “Research shows that recording experiences for which one is grateful for only two consecutive weeks has lasting positive effects sustained for up to six months.” My brain will go back to doing what my brain does, but if I can find small moments throughout my day to feel, notice, remember with gratitude and breathe, I am building resilience and health, one moment at a time.
Maybe try this nervous system hack for yourself. You have the tools, no fancy app needed, just breathe, notice your feet, remember something you are grateful for, really feel it. Take a breath or two if you can, and notice how your nervous system is feeling. Maybe we can’t solve all the worlds problems, but we can get a clearer, maybe healthier brain, heart and body just by noticing our feet. Pointed in the right direction.
Remember that kid’s game of Mother, May I? A line of fidgeting kids stand across the field from ‘mother’, the game leader. ‘Mother’ calls out a direction, like ‘3 baby steps forward’, and if someone moves without asking , ‘mother may I?’ they are out and return to the line. The one who remembers to ask for permission with each direction and takes the longest steps to reach the line tags mother and gets to be the leader for the next game.
I spent a lot of my life at that line, sometimes waiting for permission to dash ahead, following rules, breaking rules, making my assumptions about what is required, needed, or wanted from others to get ahead, to win, to reach success. My head spun with anxiety as conflicting assumptions and stories about what others needed swirled in my tornado mind twirling with my own negative thoughts about myself. It’s exhausting being me.
I have tried for years to sit and meditate- which for me meant torturous silent mind moments. SO hard for me. My mind isn’t designed to just sit there, focused on the void. A few minutes maybe, but never the twenty or thirty minutes my counselor talks about. Sitting thinking about nothing for 30 minutes? Crazy impossible, and not gonna happen.
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have repeated studies about the effects of mindful breathing, movement and meditation on PTSD, high blood pressure, dementia, depression and anxiety. The interesting thing is that regular mindfulness practice, in whatever form patients use makes a difference in the body and mind. The question researchers are asking now is how to use mindfulness or meditation as a prescribed therapy. How often? What types of mindful breath and/or movement are the most effective? Which have the longest lasting results?
One type of meditation or guided practice that they studied had extraordinary results. It has a long history in many cultures, and it begins with the words, “May I.”
I was taught a version of this guided practice in my yoga teacher training, and I have seen it several times over the years in mindful practices. It is often called loving kindness meditation. I have a hard time with this one too, I tried to use it with the yoga classes I teach, but honestly it felt a little false and uncomfortable. I thought it was because it has Buddhist roots, and religion in any form is a bit uncomfortable for me. Then I realized that my discomfort comes from my own deeply imbedded belief that I am not loveable. Oh, I am ok-ish. I have some good qualities, but seeing myself with all my bits as the beloved?
Opening up honestly to genuinely loving myself as I am, as I was, and as I might be seems wrong, and felt just plain impossible.
So, like I do with any practice, I try again, with a new focus.
Can I truly ask myself permission to be loved?
I repeat the words of the guided practice and really focused on the words ‘may I’ which are repeated over and over, for myself and for others, ‘may I..”, ‘may you..”, ‘may we…” and I feel a softening with that word, ‘’may…”. May allows for..it makes gentle space..I feel my shoulders release a little. Maybe I can give myself permission to open just a little more, find a little bit of judge-free mind. Maybe I am a little more lovable and loving and loved than I have held in my head for so long. Maybe I can love this interesting, conflicting, confusing, creative person that I am, that I was, that I will be. And as I maybe add space for that, I open just a little more to love. Maybe. May I?
PS. There are so many versions out there of this guided practice, Tara Brach has a lovely one, Thich Nhat Hanh recorded and wrote about it nearly 50 years ago, and now in the Radical Self-Love Decade, loving kindness meditations can be found all over the internet. Here is my version. May you open, giving yourself the love you richly deserve.