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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Choosing Assistance

There are times in all of our lives when we need a little help from our friends.  Yet some of us have a hard time acknowledging that.

Last week I was talking with a friend who was commenting on the struggle she was encountering with some home repair projects she was trying to complete on her own.  Any of you who have attempted something similar, especially after the loss of someone you relied on to do these things, will recognize the dilemmas these tasks present.  It can seem like an overwhelming chore looming over you like a black cloud. You find yourself succumbing to the procrastination mantra:  I’ll do this when ________.  Fill in the blank with any mythic event in the nebulous future that will somehow enable you to handle this on your own.  As we talked, we both wondered why it was so hard to accept that sometimes you just can’t do everything all by yourself.  And, in fact, there are times when it is better not to even try.

Our culture has ingrained in us this mythical idea that self-sufficiency is the ultimate noble goal.  We need to be strong and face all of our challenges by ourselves.  This concept seems to be in our national DNA.  In fact, our society carries it to such an extreme that we get upset with people who we perceive as “not carrying their own weight”.  You can see this in the current debates raging around us, particularly when it comes to social services.  Policies are built with rules that will prevent the “undeserving” from obtaining services.  This means that arbitrary moral judgments need to be made about who is or is not deserving.  Sometimes following those rules is so daunting that even the “deserving” can’t get access to services.  Thus everybody complains and nobody benefits.  Somewhere along the line we have lost the sense of community and common good.  Or worse, our sense of community has become so distorted that only certain people are allowed to join.  If they don’t meet the requirements they become outsiders, not worthy of our generosity or even compassion.

This scenario may seem extreme, but I think you all know what I mean.  Still I can hardly profess to having the answers to all of the world’s problems.  One thing I do know, though, is that we can all do a better job of accepting our own limitations.  Sure we’ve all heard stories of people overcoming impossible obstacles to achieve some amazing goal.  Those stories can be inspirational.  But too often we forget that these are the exceptions, not the rule.  When we find ourselves unable to accomplish similar feats we can easily become discouraged, focusing on perceived inadequacies rather than recognizing that we, too, each have our own amazing skills.  Instead we withdraw into our safe little cocoons afraid to let anyone know that we might not measure up to the impossible standards we set for ourselves.  And – yes – we impose these standards on ourselves.  You can try to blame outside circumstances, but ultimately we make our own rules for acceptable behavior.

Let’s all engage in a little thought experiment.  Look back in your own life and try to find at least one achievement or experience you have had in which you accomplished something that you didn’t think you could do.  My guess is you’ll find something.  Probably more than one thing. We have all faced struggles and challenges.  Chances are, too, that each of these has been a learning experience. This is something that the “vulnerability expert” Brene Brown talks about in her speeches and writings.  Her message is that even though we think that putting on a brave face is what is expected of us regardless of how we feel, it actually takes more courage to acknowledge that not being perfect isn’t a measure of self-worth.  In an interview with Krista Tippett on the program “On Being” Ms. Brown said, “the most beautiful things I look back on in my life are coming out from underneath things I didn’t know I could get out from underneath. . . the moments that made me were moments of struggle.”

So needing help on occasion doesn’t mean inadequacy or even failure.  What it means is that each of us has certain gifts, but no one is always good at everything.  We can fall into the trap of thinking that other people have it all figured out, but somehow we missed the boat.  We are obsessed with perfection.  Interestingly, though, perfection itself is in the eye of the beholder.  There is no hard and fast definition of perfection that works for everyone.  I like the Urban Dictionary’s definition: “an impossibility, something unattainable, something that cannot be reached..ever.”  Even the Cambridge English Dictionary defines perfection as “the state of being complete and correct in every way”.  Does anyone know of any person or thing that meets that consistently meets that definition?  Of course not!  And yet somehow we expect it of ourselves.

Here’s another thought experiment:  think of all the times when you have helped someone else.  Usually, you feel good about helping and give your assistance freely.  You feel glad that you were asked for your help.  Why not spread those good feelings around?  When you ask for help you are giving someone else the opportunity to experience those good feelings.  So instead of feeling needy, you can actually feel altruistic.

All of this can, of course, relate to my favorite topic – exercise.  Sadly, I still hear people say that they don’t want to come to a class because they are sure everyone is going to point and stare and laugh because of their inability to be perfect.  There are, of course, many flaws in this viewpoint not the least of which is that everyone starts somewhere and even people with innate abilities were not born experts.  All attempts, no matter how rudimentary, are opportunities for learning.  So give the people around you credit for their willingness to support and help you along your journey, wherever you are on that path.  Accept their help at whatever level it is offered. You might be surprised to learn that none of them is perfect either.