Internalizing Kindness

In this season of giving, we are all thinking about what we can do for others. This is certainly noble and important. But we’ve also all heard the expression, “charity begins at home”. In particular, I’d like to focus on what Buddhists call “right speech”.

Traditionally, this concept refers to how we use language to avoid hurting others. According to the Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation, right speech is defined as “refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and meaningless speech”.  An abbreviated version of this definition can also be as simple as “speaking truthfully and helpfully”.   In a recent article in Tricycle magazine titled “If the Buddha Were Called to Jury Duty” by Mark Epstein, the author writes, “Conventionally, right speech refers to how we speak to others, but I also believe it can help us pay attention to how we speak to ourselves.”  This got me to thinking about self-talk and how we treat ourselves.

It is safe to say that all of us without exception have some kind of internal dialogue going throughout each day.  For most of us it is, in fact, a pretty constant companion from the moment we wake until we fall back to sleep.  The most common reason people give for their perceived inability to meditate is that they can’t quiet their constantly chattering minds.  Those of you who have a meditation practice know that this is not really what it’s all about, but I’m going to leave that aside for now and focus instead on the internal dialogue itself.

Throughout this blog I have often pointed to the fact that we are our own harshest critics.  In fact, most of us would never treat other people the way we routinely treat ourselves.  We hold ourselves to impossibly high standards and then mercilessly berate ourselves when we fail to reach them.  The fact that they were unrealistic to begin with rarely enters the conversation.  We compare ourselves to others who we are certain are doing better and tell ourselves we are failures because we can’t measure up.  Or we will find some external source to blame.  In other words, we could have been perfect if it weren’t for ______ (fill in the culprit du jour).   Most of us are doing the best we can with what we have to work with in any given moment.  And none of us – without exception – is perfect.  But instead of acknowledging that fact and moving on, we will often poke and prod at the wound of our inability like a toothache and just keep reinforcing that negative perception.  The “should haves, could haves, would haves, ifs, ands. and buts” are rerun ad-nauseum in our mind’s eye until we feel incapable of doing anything right.

It is interesting to me that it seems almost like human nature to focus on the negative.  During my years of teaching and training, whenever evaluation requests are distributed to participants, 99% could come in saying “this was the best course I ever had in my life”.  But then 1 person says, “This was horrible.  A total waste of my time.”  Instead of focussing on the positive majority, trainers will inevitably worry about the 1 or 2 instances of negative feedback.  As the expression goes:   negative experiences cling like velcro while the positive ones repel like teflon.

Turning negative thinking into positive is a practice.   There are many articles that tout this concept.  For example positive self-talk is used by athletes to improve performance. According to Psychology Today:  “Positive self-talk is not self-deception.  .  . Rather, [it] is about recognizing the truth, in situations and in yourself.  .  .  One of the fundamental truths is that you will make mistakes.  To expect perfection in yourself or anyone else is unrealistic.”  The Mayo Clinic suggests that positive self-talk can help relieve stress.  This article presents some ideas to help you practice.  For example, if you are thinking “I can’t do this because I’ve never done it before”, you can change that to “this is an opportunity to learn something new”.  Or “this is too complicated” can change to “I’ll try it a different way.”  Or “I don’t have the resources” can become “maybe I can get creative – necessity is the mother of invention.”  Of course, there are more, but you get the picture.

So to bring this back to the season we’re in and to my favorite topic – mindful movement, if you find yourself lamenting lack of time, funds, patience, skill or any other perceived shortcoming, recognize this as an opportunity to practice turning the negative self-talk around.  Remind yourself that all of the generosity you want to express during the holidays needs to begin with your own self-compassion.  You can’t give what you haven’t got.  If you don’t take care of yourself first, you will be no good to anyone else.  Be kind to yourself and everyone around you will benefit.

 

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The Way Forward

In last week’s blog post I talked about acknowledging changes in our lives and finding the resilience necessary to accept the changes and adapt to the new reality whatever it might be.  Acceptance is the first step toward moving forward.  But what comes after that?  Depending on the type of setback, it’s length, your age and a host of other variables, the next steps will be different for each of us.

For some of us, the idea of returning to any kind of routine might seem impossible.  The change feels so great we may feel like the darkness is permanent and unyielding.  We can easily sabotage ourselves and become our own worst enemies.  For example, if you’ve fallen and suffered an injury you might develop a debilitating fear of a recurrence.  This might keep you from making even simple moves toward regaining your strength.  We’ve all heard the expression “get back on the horse that threw you”.  This can be a totally daunting prospect.  And, in fact, might not be appropriate in all cases.  Still, inertia can become a wall and finding a way through or around that wall can be overwhelming.  In previous blog posts I’ve often talked about the difficulty of resuming activity, especially exercise, after being away for a while for whatever reason.  Of course, it is important to take steps to avoid the circumstances caused the fall, but that shouldn’t become an excuse to stop you from all activities.

On the flip side of that coin, there are those of us who throw caution to the wind and get back on that horse way before we should.  Perhaps we have not fully recovered from the injury, illness or whatever precipitated a change in our lives.  Some of us might even have the hubris to believe that our case is special and the usual rules don’t apply.  This type of thinking might lead one into that “danger zone” referred to in an earlier post when your energy begins to feel restored and you start to feel like your former self again.  This is a place I know all too well.  The desire to return to the way things were overshadows the reality of the way things are.  Returning too quickly can lead to discouraging setbacks.  At best, the process of recovery will take that much longer or, at worst, may be jeopardized altogether.

Actually both cases call for the same prescription – courage, patience and above all the decision to go on with your life taking whatever baby steps are necessary to follow through on that choice.  Interestingly, in my opinion the same leap of faith is required wherever you’re at.  If you are the fearful type described above, the decision means taking that first dangerous step back into your life no matter how scary that might be.  If you want to start moving again, the first step is the hardest.

After my back surgery a physical therapist gave me some exercises to do right away.  They were pretty simple movements, but they were difficult at first.  Among them was the suggestion to walk for 5 minutes several times a day.  For a person who used to run ultramarathons that might sound easy, but just getting up and overcoming the initial stress of moving was itself a formidable task.  My doctor had given me the simple instruction, “If it hurts, stop; if you think it’s going to hurt, don’t do it.”  Sounds reasonable enough, right?  For the fearful person, that initial hurt might be enough to encourage stopping altogether.  In fact, I even found myself thinking I would never overcome that initial discomfort.  But what I discovered was that if I just got started, I would eventually start to feel better.  If I began to feel pain I stopped for a few minutes.  The pain would usually stop and I could resume the walk.  Or I could simply try again later.  I would set a timer for 5 minutes, stop it when I needed to wait for pain to subside and start it again when I started walking again.  It might take me half an hour to do 5 minutes worth of walking but I quickly learned that the more I walked, the easier it got.  I noticed too that once I got going and my body adjusted to the movement, the initial soreness would usually subside.

Our bodies are made for movement.  Fortunately, the medical profession has recognized that movement following a trauma like surgery is actually beneficial.  Anyone who has had surgery recently knows that patients are required to get up and move as soon as possible.  Although rest and sleep are important to the healing process, retraining your body to move as much as it can is also essential.  Still it’s not easy to overcome the many excuses that loom in front of the starting line.  That’s where the decision-making process comes in.  Making that decision to try to move even for a few minutes takes courage.  Beyond that is the resolve to follow through even if it the first few efforts are unsuccessful.  I knew the physical therapist would not have told me to walk if it wasn’t the right thing to do.  But I also knew I had to abide by my doc’s advice and stop if it hurt.  Even that was hard for me having been a person schooled in the old notion of “no pain, no gain.”  So both starting and stopping required decisions.  I had to consciously remind myself that extremes in either direction would not help my recovery.  That meant believing that I would, in fact, recover and that the directions given provided the road map to get there.

Bottom line – moving forward is not rocket science.  Have patience and be kind to yourself.  Do what is recommended and stick to it until you’ve healed.  After that be mindful in all your activities and avoid being careless, head strong or just plain stupid.  If it hurts, stop; if you think it’s going to hurt don’t do it.  That’s not an invitation to do nothing.  It just means pay attention.  Simple, right?  But not easy.

Making the decision and taking that first step is the hardest part.  Especially if you’re not used to moving in the first place.  If you keep at it, no matter what you are doing will get easier.  Although we often think of stress as a negative, your body needs a certain amount of stress to adapt to a change.  The trick is to know when to back off.  As acknowledged in last week’s post, life may be different after a set-back.  Those differences need to be honored.  But that shouldn’t be a license to drop out.  No matter what has changed, there will still be things you can do.  Give those positives a chance to shine and they will lead you forward.