No unsolicited feedback. No cross talk. Patience. Listening. “Respect,” I say. Then I realize it is inherent in most of the items already on our list. What kind of culture do we want to create for our class? By the time everything is written on the white board my spirits have sunk. I think I am just tired. The first night of this self-compassion class there is a lot of material to cover. When we take a short break, I go outside into the warm wind. I lean over from my hips, stretch my spine. I stand and swing my arms, turn from side to side, loosen my neck, my shoulders. I understand I am not just tired. I am discouraged by the list of guidelines for our behavior because I am afraid I won’t be able to honor them. I am afraid I will blurt things out, hurt people’s feelings, break the rules. I am afraid my bad behavior will make the space unsafe. I am ashamed in advance. The teacher said we’ll make mistakes, I tell myself. But her voice was casual, and I know for me it is not casual. It is a big deal. I move near the edge of the balcony and face northwest. I stand still and take in the long stretch of desert before me, the mountains in the distance, the smog. I feel the warm wind on my face, my arms. I let the fear and the shame seep out of me, be swept away in a warm gust of air. Later, I walk home in the dark. I stop on the sidewalk beside a small square block of undeveloped desert. I look up at the moon and Venus in the sky. I hear traffic in the distance. The half moon shows the contrast between the sand and dark lumps of brush. I scan for coyotes. I stand for a long time looking out at the quiet, moonlit field. I feel safe, satiated, washed clean.
The psychic reading was so disturbing I had to do a cleansing ritual the next day. She came highly recommended, so it took me by surprise. I’m not sure I’ve finished sifting through it in the three weeks since we spoke on the phone. She rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning, and part of me wonders if I should have ended it right from the start, if that would have been the best way to take care of myself. But I didn’t. Early in the call I told her I was feeling defensive, but nothing changed. She told me I was intuitive and intelligent. But the rest felt like what I wasn’t doing or what I was doing wrong. The morning after the reading I tried to sort it all out. I’ve always felt validated and encouraged by a psychic reading. This one just made me feel bad. Most of it seemed true, but much of it felt unimportant, or it didn’t resonate, didn’t fully lodge in me. The way it was delivered hurt me. I cried it out. Then I got my rattle and burned some sage and sang a little song. I danced about my trailer, shaking my rattle, waving the burning sage, singing my exorcism. May I be clear of this. May I know what to take forward and what to discard. May I be cleansed of what feels wrong in this. The best I can tell, she was mixing up her own opinions with the information she received. I think much of what she told me was accurate, but I question the depth of it, the value. She insisted my father had a mustache. How could that matter? She told me I was lost, and maybe I am. But I didn’t feel a connection, didn’t feel any compassion. I think somehow she shamed me, but I understand another person, a person wired differently, may not have felt this way. The best parts, I think, were not getting lost in blaming her, and in trusting myself enough to honor my feelings, to reach for healing. And I trusted my instincts enough to take care of myself. When the notes she took during the reading came in the mail, I started to put them on the fridge in case I needed the reminders in the future. But I reached for the wooden matches and burned them in the kitchen sink instead.
In the midst of all my “bad behavior,” all my spewing of anger into the world, I begin to try to acknowledge my “victories,” even the small moments. It feels important to recognize and value the times when I am able to stop my “bad behavior” from escalating. And not just being able to stop myself from erupting but also from sitting stuck in my story about how I’m being wronged. (I can see progress especially on that front. I tend to notice more quickly and turn myself aside from my stories, not dwelling in them, not feeding them.) Last week at my mother’s, I realized I wasn’t as awful as I’ve been before. I had to laugh at myself for that—talk about setting the bar low!—but I figure it’s akin to Larry Yang’s descending intentions that end with, “If I’m not able to do no harm, may I do the least harm possible.” I did less harm this last time, and even though I know things like this aren’t linear, and I may do more harm again in the future, the fact that I did less harm on that one visit still counts. And I want to celebrate the still rare times when I get all the way clear, when I let go enough in the middle of a disagreement to really apologize, like the other day on the phone with my mother. “I’m sorry,” I say. And I sink into it and feel the true softening in me when I say the words, instead of just speaking them in a clean voice while I’m still holding on to it, still churning inside. When I was young, I knew letting go was the secret to everything. But learning how to let go is another story. I get embarrassed to be where I am with this after decades of trying. But I’m still trying. I’m not giving up. So that counts, too.
I’ve lost my knack for fitting things into my day. I don’t know if I need to worry. I find myself tallying up the things I’ve done, as if I now need to be productive even on a Sunday. I wonder when I’ll be living again in an organized, tidy home with clean windows. Today I feed the birds and sweep the courtyard. I cook black-eyed peas because they’re on the list of legumes I am allowed to eat. I don’t want to push myself. I’ve pushed myself for decades. Surely that’s enough. I pick off all the deadish leaf twigs from the Mexican birds of paradise, and the happy bush remaining lifts me up. Such a small thing. In between my little chores I read the free book I found at the library, Queen of Dreams. I leaf through the Sunday paper. In the “Travel” section there’s a photograph from the country of Malta that makes me want to walk to the edge of the old city, stand with my hands on my hips, eyes across the sea. In the tiny laundry room at my trailer park I start the water in the washing machine, pour in the soap. I walk outside to let it fill before I add my clothes. My sandals crunch across the gravel until I am shaded by a fat, short fan palm in a neighboring yard. When I am out of the sun, I turn south. And there is the waning half moon to greet me and a hawk making slow circles in the sky beside it. I watch until he disappears. I think, maybe everything really is okay. Maybe I am doing enough, being enough, just as I am.
I need to find a way to touch my refuge when I am in the midst of disturbance. The sweet part is knowing that, given enough time and space, finding my refuge has always been easy for me. That connection, that peace, arises organically. (Or maybe when I am not disturbed I settle into it.) But how do I learn to find it when I’m startled? Or when I’m resisting what is??!!? Lately I watch myself unable to stop, my mind in a flurry. I think I tend to live in that flurry when I have too much work or stress. I don’t know how to stay connected to myself without the luxury of time alone, large swathes of it to land again. Without that, I manage to touch down for moments, in sitting practice, writing, doing yoga, when I hear a raven caw or a coyote bark. And in a stressful time, a time of disturbance, I believe these are moment of genuine connection both with myself and my world. I am able to feel that solace. But then something happens outside me, or my mind returns to a source of agitation, and I am disturbed again. It’s tempting for me to feel disheartened. But I’m going to keep reaching for kindness instead. I’m going to grab for that “sweetheart approach” whenever I remember, even when I’m already roiled, even when using it doesn’t seem to make a dent in things. I’m going to believe turning toward myself with that sweet reassurance, reaching for a connection with myself and the world around me—I’m going to believe that’s my way forward, my way in. I’m going to believe in my effort. I’m going to let it be enough.
I read Sylvia Boorstein’s Happiness Is an Inside Job more than once. Toward the beginning, she describes how she talks to herself when she gets startled. Sweetheart,” she says, “you are in pain. Relax. Take a deep breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.” I have read this before, but one day it clicks in. I become startled so easily and so often. I begin practicing with this. I try it out right away when I get a disturbing email from my work. It keeps me from spinning out into stories about what I’m being asked to do, mostly how it’s “not fair.” (They still arise, but I don’t dwell in them.) It makes so much sense to me. There is a bit of the, “Duh!” about it for me. I have been trying to learn how to not be reactive to people, to reach for kindness. But of course I need to re-establish my connection to myself first before that becomes possible. I practice the sweetheart approach again and again. I am so excited, certain I have found a way to interrupt my autopilot after all these decades. Later I discover I am still not very good at this in the heat of the moment when other people are involved. Maybe I need to learn to catch it still in the startle, in the fear. Maybe when I get to the anger it’s too late. I am deflated. But my optimism ekes back in. I know I’m not giving up.
I am standing in front of the automatic doors when the train arrives at the station. My mother is sitting on a cement bench beside the track watching the train pull in. She is six feet away. When the doors don’t open, I pound on the window. She looks up. I have some crazy unformed idea she might call out to a conductor outside the train, tell them her daughter is stuck in the last car. Instead I run upstairs. “No! No!” I yell. And, “Wait!” When I find the conductor in the next car, the train is just beginning to pull away. He won’t do anything to stop it. “This isn’t an emergency,” he says. I scream at him and apologize in the same breath. I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t reach my mother on her cell phone, and I can’t calm down. An hour and a half later I am at her house in the foothills, but my heart is still pounding. That night I play those moments over in my head, the shock of watching her outside while I’m trapped on the train. Why did this happen? Maybe because this was not about me. It wasn’t personal. I got to watch my body dump crazed amounts of adrenaline into my system. I remember when I was 24 and my stepfather had a seizure in the middle of the night. I was incoherent when I dialed 911. And even though this is not me yelling at the bus driver, even though this is not me yelling at the notary public, there is something reassuring about the idea of all that adrenaline messing with my mind, as if, just maybe, it’s not completely my fault. Something cracks open in me, a small fissure, a glint—the beginning, I hope, of acceptance.