Archive for the ‘Awareness’ Category

The rest of that saying goes “plus c’est la même chose,” which means essentially that “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” Every language seems to have some version of this expression, a resignation of sorts to the fact that people and situations can seem virtually immovable in many cases.

I have thought of this expression a lot lately, about how little I seem to have changed since I was a young girl. And how many of us also see familiar glimpses of ourselves as children as we go about our adult lives? The other night I was leaving an Italian class with a classmate, a successful lawyer and mother of grown children. She told me that she probably would not be returning because she found it too frustrating and intimidating to be among people she perceived as much more advanced. “I haven’t changed a bit since I was a kid,” she said. “I’m still so hard on myself.”

Like my classmate, my self-judgment doesn’t seem to have budged since I was a girl. I have a clear memory of sitting at our backyard picnic table the summer following 2nd grade. My father, a math teacher, was teaching me 3rd grade math that summer to prepare me to skip a grade in September. Each morning we sat at that picnic table and he taught me one lesson after another. And through clenched teeth and a protruding bottom lip, I pouted and struggled and fought my way through, not because I didn’t like what I was learning, but because I thought I should be “getting it” quicker. My dad told me, “It’s only easy if you already know how to do it,” the implication being that one must tolerate a certain amount of discomfort to make the mistakes necessary to learn.

Flash forward 30 years and it might seem that not much has changed. As I go about starting a business, I am facing a lot of new things, things that will allow me to conduct my business effectively. Things about which I would much rather remain ignorant. Things that elicit extreme emotions and mental choruses of “You’re stupid,” “You’ll never get it,” “This is beyond you,” “Everyone else got this on the first try.” Financial software, manipulating social media to be more efficient, iOS7. Hell, setting up our new printer had me stomping my feet such that the felines went a-scattering. We call these my “technology tantrums” and can usually laugh about them, but each one brings me back to that picnic table, to my vicious self-judgment and relentless self-criticism.

One thing that has changed, however, is the ability to notice myself taking a technology tantrum, to step back long enough to say “Hey, that thing is happening again where I feel uncomfortable because I don’t understand something yet. I should be gentle with myself and allow myself the space to learn something new.” In a way, flashing back to my 7-year-old self allows me to soften a little, to bring her some comfort, and to remind her to go easy on herself.

image credit

Read Full Post »

One of the main goals of writing Drinking to Distraction has been to open up the conversation about addiction. Just saying out loud (or writing out loud) some of the situations, reactions, habits, and thoughts that have surrounded my alcohol use and the desire to escape my reality took the “charge” out of them, made them a little less scary and helped me feel less alone.

Even though I didn’t go the AA route, I have a great appreciation for what AA is and does. “You are only as sick as your secrets” is a favorite AA saying that speaks volumes. Specifically it gets at the power inherent in acknowledging, discussing, and accepting even the things for which we feel the most shame and guilt. Put simply: to speak your truth.

Oftentimes it is the addict or alcoholic who garners the most attention, help, and opportunity to speak his or her truth. Meanwhile, the people directly surrounding him or her can be forgotten. But they are no less affected; and in no less need of help. Spouses and partners in particular deserve the opportunity to speak their own truth, but they don’t always get it.

That is why I’m writing this post. Kimberly Langenbach, a doctoral student at the California Institute of Integral Studies and a friend of mine who was personally and deeply affected by her husband’s addiction, is doing important research on second-order change in the spouses and partners of substance misusers – specifically how spouses and partners of addicts experienced emotional and behavioral changes in their own lives. Her research will provide a rare but much needed opportunity for some spouses and partners of addicts to take a closer look at how the addiction of the person closest to them affected their own lives. Perhaps this research will even change the help and resources that are offered to spouses and partners of addicts.

Information about the study can be found here. Kimberly can be contacted directly here.

What you can do:

  1. If you are a spouse or partner of someone who is or was a substance misuser, you can contact Kimberly directly.
  2. If you have struggled with addiction yourself, you could provide your spouse or partner the opportunity to explore his or her experience.
  3. If you know of anyone who is the spouse or partner of someone with addiction, you can pass Kimberly’s information onto him or her.

Read Full Post »

I have been on vacation in Sicily for the last week and, as always, I am struck by the stark contrast between the raw beauty and sensuality of the place and a sense of disconnectedness between the people and one another, the land, the public spaces, and the natural resources. Here, as where I live in New York City and anywhere else I have traveled, we seem to forget how we are connected to one another, how our actions and words have consequences, our inherent interdependence. This contrast is magnified by an awareness of current suffering – developments in Syria, the fall of Detroit, soaring obesity and diabetes and cancer rates, and any number of issues that raise my anxiety levels to the point of overwhelm, helplessness, and hopelessness.

Oftentimes, when I reach such a point of delusion, something happens to shift my awareness just slightly, and to cause my heart to open rather than to shut down. That something happened last night.

My boyfriend, his cousin, his cousin’s cousin, and I met for a late-night drink (a non-alcoholic bitter for me) in Messina. Afterwards, we went for a little stroll along the water to see the restaurant where my boyfriend’s cousin works as a chef. It was late and I was ready to go home but we continued to walk out on a little stretch of the dock that allowed access to the boat slips. On our way, we encountered a beautiful cat, whose name I learned was Romeo. At that point in the evening, about 2 am, when my Italian language skills had reached a point of fatigue, feline seemed the only language I could understand. But I hesitated to reach out to him because my boyfriend had commented just two days earlier on the fact that I was more interested in the stray cats in Syracusa’s archeological park than I was in the 2500+-year-old ruins.

As we came back from the boat slips, we were greeted again not only by Romeo, but also by about 10 other cats, including kittens as young as 4 and 8 weeks, the parents probably not more than a year old themselves. It has always been difficult for me to handle outdoor cats. I understand that felines gingerly walk the fine line between wild and domesticated, that they probably fulfill their cat-ness by surviving outdoors. Still I always want to take them in, to give them a home. And I can understand how people become animal hoarders, how they just want to save one more. We stayed with the kittens for a few minutes. In my head I was rationalizing how the mild temperature, abundance of fish, and mostly friendly caretakers contributed to a life worth living for these homeless creatures.

Just as we were about to leave, I heard a cry. At first I wasn’t sure if it was human or animal. I walked to the limits of the dock, where a gate prevented me from going any further, and saw two of the older cats looking down into the water, where the concrete dropped off steeply. The cries grew louder and more desperate; it was clear they came from one of the kittens. I didn’t want to hear the cries. I didn’t want to feel what I felt when I realized a kitten had fallen into the water below, with no way to climb back to safety, that its mother was looking on helplessly, much the way I was, gripping the gate. Then the cries stopped.

A kitten just drowned, I said to the guys. They protested, especially my boyfriend who would rather protect me from any upsetting thoughts than allow me to think about an animal’s suffering. It just drowned, I said again, and I just stood here. For a moment, I felt a surprising sense of relief wash over me – relief at the idea that whatever suffering a small animal was experiencing had just ended abruptly. But then I heard it again and saw movement in the water. The kitten was swimming away from where it had fallen, further out into the water, but in the direction of the walkway we had access to.

As I realized what was happening, I turned around and expected to find the guys standing behind me motionless, exchanging impatient looks, as I was help rapt by the drama of an insignificant being unfolding before me. But instead, I found that one of them had stripped off his shirt, was prepared to dive, and was scaling the fence that separated us from the drowning kitten; another had gone in search of a net to draw it safely from the water; and my boyfriend preceded me down the walkway in the direction of the struggling kitten.

I got down on hands and knees and crawled out on the walkway, trying to call it toward me, seeing how it could barely keep its head above water, and that it was clearly torn between the terrors of the water about to swallow it whole and the giants clamoring to get at it. Something allowed it to come closer, though, perhaps the current or its own last efforts, and my boyfriend was able to extend himself to the point of toppling into the water, to catch a few hairs on the edge of the kitten’s foot and draw it in. He handed it to one of the others, who lifted it out and brought it to safety.

The kitten was limp and appeared to have already drowned. Some of the water it had swallowed was coming out of it’s mouth in a foam and it had defecated in that final way the body has of letting go. One of the guys held the motionless kitten with its head down so the rest of the water could come out. But it was gone. Dead, I thought, and again felt the relief of the end of its suffering. At least it didn’t get swept out to sea, I thought. At least we did what we could. At least we tried.

The dead kitten lay on its side, sodden, still, and not weighing more than a pound. I stroked its small body, and tried to imagine that there was some movement or warmth coming from it, when I heard a small cry, and saw a little movement of its head. By that point, one of the guys returned with some paper towel and we began to dry it, to massage it back to life, to clean up the mess of dying. As the little thing regained consciousness, it loudly protested the vigorous massage. The other cats came closer than they had earlier, perhaps no longer viewing us as a threat, to get a look at the commotion.

I watched as the other kittens played, tackling one another and rolling around by the edge. This happens every day, I thought. One of them falls into the water and drowns, or gets too close to the street, or crosses the path of someone who has forgotten his or her basic goodness. And life goes on. I felt helpless and thought, There are too many to save. There is too much suffering in this world. What is the point of trying to help when there is no way to succeed?

The kitten continued to be gently but firmly reinvigorated, this little thing that perhaps no one would have missed. We left him loosely wrapped in some paper towel, a safe distance from the edge of the dock, so that his mother could attend to him without onlookers. Maybe he survived the night. Or maybe the experience was too much for him and his small body gave out after we left. I don’t know for sure. The mixed emotions of knowing we had done what we could and recognizing that his little life was now back in the hands of a harsher reality weighed heavily on my heart.

Rather than a sense of relief at his rescue, I felt pulled to let go of hope for a happy ending and also a small sense of having done something important. I could have pretended not to hear the cries. The guys could have remained unmoved, emotionally and physically. But we all chose to make a difference in a small life by allowing ourselves to feel something. Holding these mixed feelings simultaneously is a tricky thing. In the end I was left with the confidence that it still matters to try, to make an effort, however small and seemingly insignificant. That many small efforts could lead to something greater. That we can always try to be the person who would save a drowning kitten in some small way every day.


image credit

Read Full Post »

It is difficult to describe how much I love “Orange Is the New Black,” the new Netflix original series based on Piper Kerman’s memoir about her time in a women’s prison. I binge-watched the 13-episode series over the course of several days, such that when I was forced to leave my apartment, I had the vague feeling that I needed to watch my back and carry a shiv made from a Gillette Venus.

In the series, Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), a WASP-y Smith College alumna who 10 years earlier sewed her rebellious oats by dating international drug cartel employee Alex (played by Laura Prepon), is serving a 15-month sentence for having one time transported a suitcase full of drug money. New to prison, Piper, who recently became engaged to conventional Larry (Jason Biggs) and was working with her best friend on a line of high-end bath products to be sold at Barneys, feels understandably like a fish out of water, a debutante in the ghetto. Initially, she can only see the differences between her fellow inmates and herself, but soon their similarities begin to emerge.

What drew me into the series were the no-holds-barred belly laughs – picture Piper avoiding shower-floor foot fungus by crafting slippers out of maxipads because she can’t yet purchase flip flops from the commissary. But what hooked me were the flashbacks depicting the stories of Piper’s fellow inmates. Between the lovably crass punch lines (a used tampon sandwich, for example, or the ‘tit punch’), the series highlights the story behind each character, her humanity and suffering. Like the character of Janae Watson, who had a promising track career but whose ability to outrun the boys meant that none of them ever caught up to her; when a guy finally did show her some interest, he turned out to be a criminal, and she landed in prison after the two of them robbed a store and only she was caught (waiting for him to catch up).

The juxtaposition of my assumptions and stereotypes about women in prison (or anyone from whom I might feel “different”) and the very familiar emotions and traumas each character experiences set me back on my heels. In the series (as in real life), though it can be easier to put a person in a little box with a label on it, something usually happens – a revealing word, a moment of vulnerability – to signal that there is a vastness, a range of emotions and experiences, that I don’t know about. These glimpses into the individual back-stories reminded me of this Cleveland Clinic video that poses the question:

If you could stand in someone’s shoes, hear what they hear, see what they see, feel what they feel, would you treat them differently?

Many of us have the tendency to see ourselves as the protagonist, the hero or heroine, in our own story, while everyone else plays a range of supporting roles. Stepping back even a little allows us to see how flawed this approach is, to see our interconnectedness, our interdependence, or as Thich Nhat Han says, our inter-being. Since we can’t know for sure the back-story of every stranger we encounter, what if we were to imagine him or her as having experienced similar joys, losses, and traumas as ourselves; and from that place, perhaps extend him or her a little more kindness.

In Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chodron writes:

It’s said that when we make this commitment [to care for all beings everywhere], it sows a seed deep in our unconscious, deep in our mind and heart, that never goes away. This seed is a catalyst that jump-starts our inherent capacity for love and compassion, for empathy, for seeing the sameness of us all. So we make the commitment, we sow the seed, and then do our best to never harden our heart or close our mind to anyone.


image credit

video credit

Read Full Post »

The other day I was walking to my new gym with a serious case of gym-timidation. I imagined that the other members would all be younger, prettier, and fitter than me, and had therefore procrastinated most of the day. Finally I could delay no longer. I put on my sneakers and headed out, tail already between my legs. About a block before my destination, I was stopped by a young man who asked, “You going to work out?” You might ask why I even acknowledged such a question, and rightfully so, but I was still receptive to any and all distraction standing between me and sweating among the beautiful people.

Besides, he was just brimming with confidence. When I told him where I was headed, he responded that he used to work there as a physical trainer. He didn’t just work there: he dominated (!), such that the management had to redistribute clients among the other trainers so that they weren’t just sitting around while he worked out one adoring customer after the other. He was the best. And since he had broken out on his own, he shared, he was working only with the “elite, elite, elite.” Every time he said this, he made a horizontal slashing movement with his hand that reached higher with each repetition: elite, elite, elite.

My intimidation receptors already primed, I initially took all of this as truth. I didn’t question his presentation, his story about himself, his superiority, because his words and manner were so convincing. It took me a few moments to realize that this apparently confident young man was in fact standing on a street corner, wearing dark glasses, with no formal business presence to speak of online or elsewhere, accosting strangers with his pitch. After extricating myself, I walked the final block to my gym wondering, is that real confidence?

I think about confidence a lot these days. I’m starting a business and am riddled with self-doubt. I realize this doubt is based on fear and uncertainty rather than reality, but I feel torn between a fake-it-til-you-make-it approach and something different, something that would allow me to access confidence more genuinely, from within.

In the November 2011 Shambhala Sun magazine, Sakyong Mipham wrote about having confidence in our basic goodness, which is probably where it all begins:

The energy of splendidness comes from being fully present in whatever we do. My father, Chogyam Trungpa…put it this way: “You are not hiding anywhere.” Hiding means our splendidness is obscured by embedded habitual patterns. One characteristic of hiding is that we are always self-observing. Self-observing comes from not trusting our inherent goodness, and therefore keeping the reins tight on our mind….”Not hiding anywhere” means we have reduced and lightened our embedded habits and tendencies, which allows us to shine.

This concept of no longer hiding resounded with me deeply. In taking this frightening step, I am risking myself in a way that wouldn’t be necessary if I were to keep working for someone else. Being my own boss requires that I take ownership of my decisions, that I make my own mistakes and learn from them, that I blaze a trail rather than following one that has already been worn.

The last time I felt this way – the last time I tentatively came out of hiding – was when I quit drinking nearly 6 years ago. The first couple of months that I approached life without the buffer of alcohol, I felt barraged by reality. That overstimulation took on a physical presence in the form of anxiety, a vibratory sense in my fingers and lips, a slight quickening of my breath, occasional light-headedness. Little by little, I grew to accommodate the stimuli I had previously softened with wine or liquor, at first through less productive means – shopping, eating, and your garden-variety dry drunk behavior – and then through more sustainable approaches: creating space, acknowledging my pain and discomfort and learning to lean into them with kindness. Gradually I grew more confident in my ability to navigate life sober.

Susan Piver recently wrote:

Confidence actually begins with lack of confidence. Without the latter, we would have no idea what the former meant. In some way, when we lose our confidence we could imagine it not as the first step into the pit, but the first step out of it. Just as light would not exist without dark, confidence would not be possible without lack of confidence. So, to begin recovering self-confidence, a great first step is allowing yourself to lean into your doubt.

If confidence begins with lack of confidence, then I got this. As I make my way on this unpredictable path, rather than putting on a false face, I am not ignoring my doubts, fears, and anxieties, but not deferring to them either. And gradually, my hope is that I will gain the type of confidence that is quiet but authentic, one that doesn’t need to proclaim itself on street corners. One that is born of the basic goodness we all possess.


image credit


Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 710 other followers

Powered by WordPress.com
%d bloggers like this: