Mindfulness at work

Recently, I was asked to speak to the Great Lakes Region Virtual Retreat for Research Development Professionals. The conference, hosted by the Indiana University Office of the Vice President for Research, took, as its theme: Research Development in Pivotal Times and our session focused on Covid-19’s impacts and opportunities.

            In a former life I was a tenured faculty member and a college administrator and that means I’ve had the privilege of working with research development professionals at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, Butler University in Indianapolis, and, most recently, Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. One thing that always stood out to me about the role that people in your line of work occupy is that you are always in the middle. You are always the link connecting granting agencies to faculty and administrators—in brainstorming sessions, in calls with program officers, in meetings about draft after draft of a proposal —you are constantly in the position of clarifying and translating, mediating and managing and not from a position in the hierarchy that gives you a lot of authority.  Your work often epitomizes the experience of having an enormous amount of responsibility but not a commensurate amount of power.

            It seems to me that people really ought to be nicer to you!

            Into this already challenging work, comes COVID-19. The impact on your workplace your work practices has probably been enormous and as colleges and universities have suffered significant financial challenges, your work has become more essential as the stakes and the pressure rise.

            Again, I say, people should be nicer to you. But just in case you think that’s an unrealistic expectation, I’m going to offer you an achievable alternative: being nicer to yourself. Contradictory feedback, condescending colleagues, impossible deadlines—those things aren’t going away. Being in the middle managing people’s expectations and personality clashes—they’re here to stay too. What can change is how you think about yourself in relationship to those challenges.

            In my work as a life coach, I often draw on my training in interpersonal communication to help my clients navigate relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. But the additional work I’ve done to understand mindfulness always comes to the foreground because, ultimately, it is the relationship we have with ourselves that has the greatest impact on our life and our life with others.

            And I would argue that intrapersonal communication, the way we talk to ourselves, is the central component of mindfulness. The word mindfulness comes from Western interpretations of Buddhist teachings and simply means: bringing our awareness to the present moment without judgment. That’s a pretty straightforward idea but if you’ve ever sought to practice mindfulness, to bring your awareness to the present moment without judgment, you know that it can be devilishly difficult to achieve.

            Then why is it a worthwhile goal? Because mindfulness brings us greater internal peace: and being peaceful within ourselves allows us to bring more peace into our relationships with others and the world. Being the source of greater peace in our fractured, polarized, conflict-ridden world seems to me something all of us might want to strive for.

            Why is achieving mindfulness so difficult, what gets in the way? Simply put: Our thoughts. Each of us has developed habits of mind that not only take us out of the present moment but also create what Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach calls a veil—a veil between us and other people, a veil between our understanding of our authentic self and the social self with which we typically face the world.

            What kind of thoughts am I talking about? I’m talking about the internal voice that is our constant companion. The one Martha Beck describes as either a dictator or a wild child. The dictator is full of judgment, is quick to criticize, the opposite of Mary Richards, who could “take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile,” the dictator can take the best day, the happiest day, the day full of love and ease and plenty and remind us: the other shoe is going to drop, they’re going to see you’re a fraud, don’t get a big head, this worked out but it would have been even better if only you had . . .

            The wild child is the dictator’s partner—it’s the voice of pure need who wants nothing more than a nap, a hug, and a piece of chocolate. It’s you at the end of a long year that was in reality only a month, an exhausting month that was only a week, a grueling day that was only an hour. The child is the perfect target for the dictator. The more it needs the more the dictator criticizes it for what it needs.

            The first step in a mindfulness practice is to begin to notice these voices. Noticing, in a Buddhist sense, that you are not your thoughts, you are not these voices but you are the authentic self who is the witness to these two voices.

            I want to describe a practice that can help you start to notice these voices, to become a student of your own mind, to put a little space between you and those voices.

            Using the alarm on your smart phone set it for two or three random times of the day. When it goes off, ask yourself two questions (maybe even take the time to write out the answers):

            How do I feel in my body?

            This first question, how do I feel in my body is critically important to becoming a student of your own mind. Developing greater bodily awareness is important because the body is our early warning system. Even if you tend to think of yourself as always up in your head, always thinking, always lost in your own thoughts, technically, you still have a body. And your body really is responding both to the external environment and to what’s going on in your head. Anxiety, stress, fear, anger, joy, happiness, elation are all felt in the body. As we develop greater awareness of where we feel what we feel, we start to notice our physical reactions sooner, start to understand that the physical sensation is the precursor to where our mind is going to go and where my mind goes my words, my interactions with myself and others follow.

            The second question is: What is my mind doing? It’s not “what am I thinking about?” but what is my mind doing? The goal isn’t to identify the content of our thoughts but the affect, the habit, the verb.

Am I fretting about a project, am I rehearsing a conversation I need to have with a colleague, am I berating myself for a mistake?

After doing this a few times, here are some things people notice.

            We start to notice where in our body we carry tension, anxiety, and fear as well as joy and happiness and relief.

            We notice that our mind is often in the future or the past. We find that our thoughts have wandered off and are busy reviewing our behavior, especially interactions we’ve had with others. We are revising those interactions in the spirit of “If only I’d said. . .” We are frequently rehearsing interactions we may have in the future or that we’d like to have but probably won’t.

            Think of the many, many meetings you attend. In addition to leaving with a longer to-do list, how often do you leave playing the conversation over and over-cringing at the places where colleague seemed condescending, where you received contradictory feedback on a proposal?

            We notice how often we get caught up in the habit of judgment. Much of this is pervasive self-criticism. No behavior is too big or too small to escape the dictator’s critical eye. I trip walking up the stairs and my first thought is, “I’m so clumsy. What’s wrong with me?” A grant proposal is successful but all you tell yourself is, “Yeah, but I shouldn’t have spent so much time on it.” Or reviewers’ comments come back, 90 percent are positive but it’s negative ones that seem to lodge in your soul.

            But the judging eye also looks outward. Try this sometime. Take a walk or a drive and try to notice what’s in your environment without giving it thumbs up or thumbs down. Can you look at a tree, a house, another driver without thinking “That’s a beautiful tree,” “That an ugly house,” “That’s a terrible driver.” Now try it at work—listening to understand, not refute, speaking to be understood not to defend.

            I’m not criticizing the act of judging. I’m saying that if it is the default position for me in all situations, then I’m over-using it. And, more than that, I’m creating a veil between others and myself that may or may not be necessary and may or may not be helpful. Constant judgment narrows my view and prevents me from seeing the whole picture.

            Finally, we notice that taken together the tendency to focus on the future or the past combined with the pervasive self-criticism is the real source of anxiety and reactivity or as the Buddhists would say, “suffering.” Specifically, as we listen to the voices of the child and dictator we begin to recognize the stories they tell us over and over again about who we are, about our limitations, about our failures. Have you ever noticed how little time you spend reminding yourself of your successes?  We realize that we are not seeing things as they are but through the eyes and the stories of the dictator and child.

            The impulse as we come to notice these habits of mind is to push those voices down, eliminate them. Well there’s good new and bad news. It is the case, that few of us will reach enlightenment. That means we’re stuck with these voices. That’s the bad news. The good news is that taking another essential principle of mindfulness and applying it to those voices can alleviate the suffering those voices cause.

That principle is lovingkindness or compassion. The dictator’s methods are poor but the dictator’s impulse is always self-protection.  The child’s needs may be articulated melodramatically but the truth is there are time when we need a nap, a hug, and a piece of chocolate.

            When I challenge clients to address their relentless self-criticism with compassion so that it loosens its grip on them, they tell me they’re afraid to let it go because they’re convinced it’s essential for their success. That’s the dictator’s story:  unless the dictator is constantly on your own case, you’re going to fail, it’s all going to fall apart, you’re going to wind up alone, and broke, and miserable.

            I asked a client once what purpose her anxiety and continuous self-criticism served, and she said, “Hey, it got me the editorship of the law review.” Okay, but think of the energy required to be in this state of constant vigilance.

            So as you become a student of your own mind, as you are able to notice those voices a new habit I urge you to develop is to pause, to acknowledge that you are hearing the dictator or wild child, to address that figure with compassion. “I hear you, I know you’re afraid, I know you mean well. It’s going to be okay. I’ve got this.”

            Oh, dear. Does that sound too touchy-feely?  If it does, let me suggest a purely pragmatic reason to try it.  

            Your energy is going to get expended no matter what. This way of proceeding allows you to expend that precious resource in a way that has the potential to improve the situation you’re in. When we enter situations with those inner voices unchecked, we don’t listen as well as we need to, we don’t understand and comprehend our situation as well as we need to. We aren’t seeing the reality of the situation. We are seeing through the veil of our dictator’s fear and negativity, our wild child’s fatigue and neediness. We are less open and more defensive, more reactive and less thoughtfully responsive.

            The challenges inherent in your work may not be caused by the COVID crisis but many are surely exacerbated by it and new ones have arisen. A final suggestion as you approach any situation where the habits of judgment, fearful and negative thinking, or self-criticism arise:

            Three deep breaths. Not just any three breaths but those suggested by mindfulness educator Laurie Cameron.

            Breath one focus on the sensation of your breath entering and leaving your body

            Breath two notice any place in your body where you feel tension and relax

            Breath three set your intention for this moment—to be calm, open, compassionate

            It takes almost no time and I urge you to give yourself permission to be calm, open, and compassionate even when entering a situation that in the past has been stressful.

            What I’ve talked about today is more than enough to get you started on a mindfulness journey if you’re so inclined. There are several excellent books about mindfulness that I’ve put them into the chat.  It’s important for me to say that even after reading them, I often struggled to focus on the present, to let go of the negative stories that I’d told myself for so long. I often felt frustrated and like a good academic I would think, “Why this is this still so hard. I’ve read the books!!!”

            That’s the thing about mindfulness. Easy to understand but understanding is not the same practicing. Each moment is an opportunity to practice. We won’t always succeed but over time will learn to accept too—and to treat ourselves with compassion when we succeed and when we fail. My favorite meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says, “Compassion that does not include the self is incomplete.” Don’t leave your self out. Be kind to you.

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

Ruth King, Mindful of Race

Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True

Banana bread

As we stay home to stay safe, many of us have done a lot of baking. That was my plan on Monday afternoon. Banana bread—I follow a good recipe but I just want to say a little cardamom and a little ground ginger give it a deeper, richer flavor. I went to cupboard and pulled out the flour and sugar, each in a clear plastic canister. I looked at the flour and wondered if I had enough. So holding the canister slightly above eye level I gave it a good shake and soon the left side of me was covered in the half wheat half white combo that I like so much and a large mound of it had settled at my feet.

I’m confident I would have won $10,000 from America’s Funniest Home Videos if anyone had been around to record the moment. But I wasn’t laughing just then. As I stood there I felt tears in my eyes, I felt tension in my chest, I felt heat throughout my body. My first thought was a curse word. My second was a question. Who failed to close the canister lid tightly? Alone in the house there was no one to yell at or to help me clean up the mess. That was a good thing because it gave me time to stand still. And that was a good thing because I needed to figure out how to move without making the mess worse and because I wasn’t just feeling the rise of anger within me, I was watching it and being curious about it. This is not an argument against anger. It has an important role to play in our lives. But in this situation, although I felt it, I also wondered what purpose it could serve.

A lot of different thoughts went through my mind as I watched myself reacting. I thought about how much I wanted the unclosed lid to be my partner’s fault. I wanted to blame someone other than me. And I thought about being a kid. My siblings and I had one mantra: Don’t tell mom. Because no one ever wanted to be to blame for whatever inappropriate thing was going on. I noticed that I felt defeated—now I didn’t have enough flour to make banana bread (and judging by the amount on the floor, and on me, there had been plenty). But going to store is no longer and easy proposition and once I get there, flour isn’t always available. I felt wasteful and careless—two cardinal sins in my family. Observing all the tentacles of my reaction to this trivial mistake, I realized that the feeling of defeat was the one most likely to linger. This is a habit of mind that is absolutely central for me. Suddenly I saw myself giving up on the afternoon. Throwing myself into a chair, cursing and grumbling, overwhelmed by that familiar feeling that I can’t do anything right.

I saw it. I recognized it. I didn’t stuff it down. I didn’t berate myself for its existence and as I watched it, its hold on me started to loosen. I cleaned up the mess. I left the banana bread project for another day. I saw that I could be happy despite not being perfect and so I was. Not as happy as I might have been with a fresh loaf of homemade banana bread but enough to not poison the atmosphere of my mind and my home.

Two pieces of paper

There are so many ways to get to know a new city when you move. You can drive yourself places, even when folks offer to pick you up. You can get a post office box and learn multiple routes to the same location. Or leave your car parked on the street and attract someone who smashes the window thinking a blanket in the backseat of a 12 year-old Toyota Corolla is hiding something valuable. It wasn’t but auto glass replacement services are in a part of town I had yet to visit. Fortunately, the service was fast, competitively priced, and, as I’ve observed, like so many businesses in Tacoma, conveniently located next to a coffee hut.

I’m not going to say I hate moving. I’m going to say it’s a challenge to my equanimity. Also, it reminds me of living through the aftermath of a tornado. When an F3 tornado blew through the college town where I once lived, my department colleagues and I were moved, along with three other departments, to a FEMA trailer for the final weeks of the semester. And the summer break. And the first several weeks of the fall term as windows and ceiling tiles and carpets were replaced throughout our building. Despite my ability to see the big picture and know that I was one of the fortunate ones, I found myself struggling to accomplish the simplest tasks as the feeling of a world turned upside pervaded every aspect of life, particularly in the FEMA trailer. Holding two pieces of paper with no greater desire than to find a way to keep them together, I could find staples but not a stapler, tape dispensers but no tape, binder clips but not paper clips. There were no small tasks, familiar routines, or easily fulfilled needs.

The memory of those weeks has been my near-constant companion in the wake of our recent move from West Central Illinois to the Pacific Northwest. I knew from previous moves what it feels like to try to learn names and faces, places and routes, as quickly as possible in order to connect with others, pick up the mail, and replace a smashed car window. But I’m a few weeks in and still feel as if I have either aged 10 years or returned to infancy—taking naps, going to bed early, and sleeping late. My brain is overloaded as, to quote Miss Carly Simon, “even the simple things become rough.”

After the tornado, my apartment building was condemned and I moved into the second bedroom in my mother’s apartment. I was grateful for her generosity but had no intention of staying a minute longer than necessary. I was excited when a nice apartment became available. But I made no move to move. This went on for several weeks. My mother and I finally realized that the disruptions caused by the tornado had taken a toll on me. Despite the shared bathroom and tiny bedroom, I was having a hard time leaving the safety and comfort of her loving presence. Living with her made at la east few aspects of my life simple, familiar, and easy. These many years later, I seek to be my own loving presence—kind, patient, and compassionate toward myself, and others, here in my new world.

Courageous waiting

I think of myself as a very patient person, far more patient than many people I know. I attribute it to a childhood spent waiting for others. Throughout first and second grade, each afternoon, I trudged from the elementary school to the high school, sat on the bench outside the principal’s office, and waited for my sister’s school day to end. Our house was across the street from the elementary school but my mother didn’t want me to be home alone. When my siblings weren’t available to watch me, I spent many a school holiday sitting quietly reading or doing homework at the clinics where my mother worked. Years later, as a teacher, I was a champion at wait time—that time after a question is asked and before anyone puts a hand in the air to answer it. I could sit for minutes smiling encouragingly and never betray the slightest impatience.

That’s why I’m dissatisfied with my current state of mind. I’m waiting for people I don’t know to make a decision that could have a bit impact on my life. Regardless of the outcome, I just want the waiting to end. To paraphrase the Pointer Sisters, I’m so impatient and I just can’t hide it. I’m about to lose my mind and I just don’t like it.

When I reflect back on my experiences teaching, I know I truly was comfortable waiting because I trusted the students and believed that most of them were thinking about the topic at hand and formulating their contribution to the conversation. My trust and patience were almost always rewarded. I also trusted myself. I was confident that no matter how the students responded I had the ability to address them skillfully and appropriately.

In a recent meditation talk, Tara Brach discussed courageous presence. She encouraged her listeners to notice what’s happening and allow it. I’m trying to do this by paying attention to my discomfort and anxiety with this waiting time. She also notes the importance of connecting to our feelings of vulnerability with interest and kindness. I realize that, in contrast to how I felt when teaching, I am afraid that I won’t know how to respond to the uncertain future. I’m trying to accept that without judging myself. Finally, Brach advised responding from our wisdom and from our heart. When I do that I observe that I’ve been through many big changes before and I’ve always found my way. It hasn’t always been easy but I’m still here—waiting and trusting myself.

Thanks, Mom

I noticed two women walking ahead of me into the yoga studio and once inside, I recognized my classmate Denise but not the other woman. Overhearing her conversation with the instructor, I decided she must be Denise’s daughter. One look at Denise and I knew I was right. She gazed at the woman with unabashed joy. I know that look. In the last twenty years of her life, I saw it on my mother’s face every time she introduced me to a neighbor or friend, and in her final years to every staff member at her independent living and later assisted living facility. She’d take hold of my hand, look at me and then at the other person and say, “This is my Mari.” Watching Denise beaming at her daughter the way my mother once beamed at me I felt a little dizzy and suddenly alone.

Like many mothers, mine was not the “Angel in the House;” no meek, passive, sympathetic woman. She was angry, thin-skinned and judgmental. Being treated with disrespect or unkindness made her furious but she also believed herself to be so deeply damaged that she deserved whatever pain life brought her way. I had an epiphany about her when I was a teenager. It dawned on me that what I had always seen as her towering anger was actually fear. For most of her life she felt overwhelmed and overmatched by her enormous responsibilities and she never believed her efforts were adequate. I was grateful for this insight because it lessened my anger towards her but it didn’t make it much easier to live with her. In my twenties my independence created much needed space but her relentless self-doubt, critical attitude, and anger about the past still created a toxic environment when I visited. I remember hoping that someday I would know her as a person not ruled by fear and insecurity.

One of the great joys of my life is that I did come to know her when her fears had greatly diminished. Her insecurity never left her but once it was no longer fueled by fear she was able to see her life more clearly and with gratitude. Her immense intellect, her fabulous sense of humor, her compassion all came to the foreground. My friends loved to talk with her about politics, her caregivers sought her out for advice and understanding, but I’m the person who benefited the most. No longer burdened by a harsh, judgmental attitude, she truly appreciated and admired me

Four years and one week ago my mother called me to her bedside, took my hands in hers, and said, “I adore you.” When she died several hours later, I knew the memory of this moment would sustain me even as it reminds me of what it means to lose the person who is your foundation. No one else will ever look at me as she did in that moment—love yes, but more than that a deep understanding of who I have become.

It is with immense gratitude that I tell the story of my relationship with my mother as one where two people allowed each other, and their relationship, to evolve.

Love and basketball

I’m not athletic, I didn’t grow up playing sports and yet, I know a lot about basketball. I’ve been to innumerable college games—women’s, men’s, Division I, Division III. I’ve attended both the women’s and the men’s Division I final four tournaments and I’ve seen so many games on television I’m convinced I could provide color commentary in the unlikely event that I was required to do so. Am I saying I like basketball? No. Truthfully, if I never saw another game I wouldn’t notice its absence from my life. However, my partner loves basketball plus I love my partner equals I watch a lot of basketball.

Spring was beginning to tease our senses last week when my partner came across the women’s Division I conference tournaments. Some were of more interest to her than others but several came and went on our television screen throughout the day. As we were making dinner she remarked on a particularly competitive game that was about to start. That’s when I remembered our discussion from the day before about saving the last two episodes of a show we’ve been streaming to watch that night. I didn’t say anything about it but I could feel a sulking presence enter the room.

As we ate dinner she remembered we were going to stream the show and said, “Oh, we can switch. We don’t have to watch this game.” This game was between two exceptional teams and the score was close. I was immediately aware of my impulse to play the martyr. “Oh no, that’s okay,” dismissing our previous plans and continuing to watch the game with her while silently recounting all the ways I give in to her preferences. Instead, I shrugged and said what was true, “These games only happen once a year. We can watch Newsroom tomorrow night.” Around halftime I took a break to work on a puzzle in the dining room but returned for dessert and the thrilling conclusion where the Stanford Cardinal surged and the Oregon Ducks faded. Order was restored as the Cardinal avenged the smack down the Ducks handed them earlier in the season. I may not care much about basketball but I can appreciate a good narrative arc.

Like everyone else, I have a “What about what I want?” self who is never happier than when tracking who gets what when and how often. I know I haven’t seen the last of her but in this moment when I saw her coming my way I let go of counting wins and losses.

A lot like me

Last week I read something a person I used to be close to wrote several months ago; something she probably thought I’d never see and it really hurt my feelings. Initially, I was also startled by it and kept trying to figure out why she wrote it. Then I progressed to thinking of the mean things I’d like to say to the writer and to others indirectly involved in the situation. My old habit of rehearsing conversations I’ll never have was in high gear and I had a keen desire to call two of my closest friends and tell them all about it.

When my partner came home from work I told her about it. She was surprised by what was written and she asked me a few questions. And that was strangely satisfying—having a calm discussion about the situation and my feelings. In fact, I was able to do something I’m pretty good at which is seeing a situation from the other person’s perspective. It’s a skill I suspect I developed as a child when I often felt caught between the competing narratives within my family. I thought a lot about the history of my relationship with the writer and how what she wrote fit into that story. It started to seem less like an effort to hurt me, especially since she probably thought I’d never read it, and more as an action consistent with who we are to each other now and how we see ourselves in relationship to the issue she wrote about. I also thought of moments in our relationship where she might have interpreted my behavior as hurtful. None of that took away my initial response to her writing but it created a calm space in which I live with it.

The next day at yoga the instructor (a fabulous substitute), asked us to start by running our hands over our arms and legs and torso sloughing off any negative feelings, anything we were holding on to. I thought of my hurt from the day before and happily sought to shed it. When I went home after class, I thought again about the urge I’d felt the day before to share my story with my friends. I realized I no longer felt that urge and that’s when I caught sight of a figure looking at me over her shoulder as she walked away from me. She was no more than the silhouette of a person who looks a lot like me. She didn’t say a word but I knew what she was thinking: “I thought we would be together forever.” I can understand why she feels that way. When someone hurts me she’s always been there to argue my case, to condemn the other person, to polish my version of events as I prepare to share the story with friends who also take my side, validating my anger and my pain. She saw that I was done with yesterday’s story and I had no need to work on it or share it further. I call on her less often these days and when I do it’s for shorter periods of time. To paraphrase Sara Gran, it seems that the days of memorializing everything that hurts are over.


My mother’s best friend was born and raised in a brick house on a tree-lined street. At nineteen she married the widower next door and moved into his home where they raised five children. When she died, in her mid-60’s, she had never lived anywhere but those two houses. It’s hard for me to imagine a life lived within such a small geographic space. I’ve lived in four states and eight cities, held a dozen jobs, and found new friends, new favorite restaurants, and new paths to walk many times over.

I’d like to think that my ability to cope with major life changes means I’m a whiz at coping with the small changes of daily life. I’m not but I don’t think the problem is change.

Over a year ago, I started going to a yoga class two or three times a week. With few exceptions the same woman taught each of those classes and when she wasn’t able to be there, class was cancelled—when she went on vacation last winter, when she was sick over the summer, when ice made her driveway impassable a couple of weeks ago. So I was surprised when she announced that a substitute would teach last week’s classes while she was out of town. Of course, I was glad to be able to go to class now that my commitment to yoga borders on an obsession—a day without yoga is like well a day with a very tired, dragging butt. I no longer have to psyche myself up to go or reward myself for having gone. I still prefer the back row but don’t panic if I’m stuck up front. So why did I spend so much of the class taught by the substitute in a funk?

On the drive home l replayed the class in my head. At one point we were in forward fold and she asked us to move to a plank starting with our right leg. I stretched my right leg back and waited for her to direct us to move our left leg back. I waited and waited then noticed the women on either side of me were already in plank. The regular teacher goes from forward fold to a lunge, not a plank, and if she tells us to move one leg at a time she’ll then cue us to move the other leg. I recalled feeling uncertain moving from the forward fold to the lunge/plank and then feeling foolish for not moving to plank on my own. Those were my feelings—uncertain and foolish. But my thoughts were having a different experience. My thoughts were angry criticisms of the substitute. I was mad at her for not using the same verbal cues and strategies for moving from pose to pose as the regular instructor.

I was headed down a related path with my new computer. I was as excited as a five year old the night before her sixth birthday anticipating its arrival but once it got here I was scared and anxious. Unlike the yoga class, I wasn’t surprised by my feelings because with technology I often fear failing to understand instructions and am convinced I’m going to break it. I found myself doing a lot of deep breathing every time I had a new task to complete and was exhausted by the time I finished setting it up.

Paying close attention to these two experiences helped me see that change, in itself, is not the source of my discomfort. It comes when I resist what necessarily accompanies change—struggling to understand, being out of sync, getting lost. So instead of looking outward, looking for someone or something to blame, I am acknowledging my fear and anxiety then taking a deep breath and savoring the exhalation, the pleasure that comes from letting go.

Cinnamon toast

There’s a restaurant we love because it serves cinnamon toast that is vastly better than what we make at home. A friend recently sent us a gift box of spice blends to make dip or top sandwiches and one of them is cinnamon sugar. Right, it’s not a complicated combination but having it ready to sprinkle inspired me this week to try to get closer to the restaurant’s version.

I did not start the week expecting improved cinnamon toast to be the highpoint. According to my calendar, I was going to finish a blog post on Monday, go to yoga on Tuesday, welcome my brother for a visit on Wednesday that would include a trip to the food bank and meal preparation and service for the local community dinner on Thursday, an appointment in Iowa City on Friday, and meetings with clients throughout the week.

Instead, on Monday I spilled a glass of water that took out my laptop. Extreme cold and ice cancelled yoga, my brother’s visit, the food bank pick-up, the community dinner, and my trip to Iowa City. The only survivor was meeting with clients since most of those conversations happen over the phone. What had been a relatively busy week became three nearly empty days exacerbated by partner’s absence since her flight to a conference in Atlanta was merely delayed.

This quantity of unexpected free time is not my friend. Alone, trapped in the house by the weather, an infuriating news cycle, and a ruined computer put me in the cross hairs of those two voices I so often hear howling in my head.

Martha Beck calls these voices the dictator and the wild child. While the dictator second guesses our decisions, reminds us of past mistakes, and warns of looming catastrophes the wild child is the voice of pure need—helpless and overwhelmed. Most of us hear voices like this and either get carried away by their constant presence or try to silence them by shoving them down. Beck asks us, instead, to notice that in her totally inappropriate way, the dictator is trying to protect the wild child from harm and that the wild child is simply trying to get her needs met. Notice this, Beck encourages, and cultivate an attitude of loving-kindness toward them.

It’s great advice and I’ve made a lot of progress in seeing when these voices are working on me. One thing that’s helped is that I can picture them. My internal dictator is an imposing woman whose reproaches and protests are communicated at an operatic pitch. The voice of pure need looks like a dirty rag doll. She doesn’t talk she just wants.

This week the tyrant wanted to yell at me about killing my computer, criticize me for not being more productive with my unexpected free time, and lecture me about what I ate. All the while the voice of pure need kept trying to drown her out by turning up the television while searching the house for junk food.

As I work to accept that I am not my thoughts and therefore, that I am not either of these voices, a third entity that Beck calls “The Watcher,” the consciousness that sees and hears these two voices, gets stronger. Observing these two voices with an attitude of loving-kindness is a powerful antidote. When they get going, I acknowledge them and encourage them to take a nap. I see the opera singer stretching out on a beautiful red velvet chaise lounge while the dirty rag doll curls up in the corner with a blanket.

While a quiet mind is a beautiful thing and one I strive for both in meditation and throughout daily life sometimes I need to fill the space left by the silenced voices. I pay attention to how I feel in my body and what those physical feelings are telling me about my mental state. This week, I said, out loud, “I feel sick to my stomach. I feel scared because I made a mistake and it’s going to be an expensive one.” I reminded myself, “In this moment, I am not in danger and I have successfully managed difficult situations before. I know what to do.”

When I feel reluctant to take the time to use evidence of my own competence to speak the truth to myself. I think about the time and energy it takes to be afraid and to fall apart. That renews my commitment to acknowledging the voices and addressing them with compassion and facts.

When I replace the voices of criticism and fear with my essential voice, the one who knows what I’m capable of achieving I make room for clear thoughts like calling a friend who knows what about a wet laptop, for gratitude because I have the resources to replace a 10 year old computer, and for the time to practice making better cinnamon toast.


Friendly skies

A few minutes after boarding a flight crowded with holiday travelers, I was reading my book when I noticed a woman standing in the aisle beside me trying to get something out of the overhead compartment. I leaned forward to give her more room and just then a heavy, sharp-edged object banged into my right shoulder blade. “Jesus!” I exclaimed. I looked at my partner who was sitting across the aisle and we both looked down and saw a metal water bottle on the ground. The woman grabbed it and began apologizing. The bottle was full and the whack did hurt but it wasn’t anything serious so I said, “I’m okay. I was just really startled.”

She went back to her seat and my partner asked if I really was okay. When I said I was she added, “Oh I wish I’d been quick enough to yell, ‘Is the reason for the season’ after you yelled, ‘Jesus.’” We both started laughing. A few minutes later a passenger was putting a bag in the overhead bin just in front of my seat, and another passenger helping him glanced back at me and said, “Let’s be careful, she’s already had enough trouble.” That set my partner and me into another round of giggles.

About an hour into the flight, I was standing in the aisle to let my seatmate out when I noticed the woman whose water bottle had clipped my shoulder trying to catch my eye. “I’m so sorry,” she said again and explained that she hadn’t realized the bag was open and that the bottle was at the front. She asked if she could buy me a drink. I declined “I’m really okay.” I told her again.

As I returned to my seat, I felt unsettled because I realized she had tears in her eyes when she was speaking to me. I know that in her situation, I might have spent the previous hour berating myself, replaying the scene, imagining how it might have been worse, and taking a trip down memory lane recalling other mistakes I’ve made and generally feeling like a shame-filled, miserable piece of crap.

A few weeks ago a friend and I were talking about shame. She read that some scientists believe shame is the only emotion that doesn’t have an evolutionary function. I can’t speak to its evolutionary value although there are neuroscientists who argue it has one. But if shame is distress caused by the conscious awareness of wrong or foolish behavior, especially when that behavior causes harm to another, my friend and I agreed we want to feel it. We also agreed that where we go wrong is in getting stuck in shame, in seeing a wrong or foolish behavior as the sum total of our identity.

Clearly, my fellow passenger didn’t intend for me to get a bruise on my shoulder. Like all of us, she had a moment where perhaps she could have acted with more caution or patience. But I regret not taking the time to ask her to be at peace, to have compassion for herself, and to stow her backpack under the seat in front of her.