This week’s challenge

A few months ago, I wrote this on a post-it note: “I make the firm intention to keep my commitments to myself.” The commitments included writing this weekly blog, a consistent meditation practice, and a regular yoga class. Things were going well for quite a while but these last two weeks have been difficult. It’s reminded me of that joke, “I was trying to take one day at a time but then the days stared ganging up on me.” Last minute travel to help family required 16 hours in a car, a roller coaster of opportunities for KPCK along with the regular work of planning, preparing, and serving meals, coaching new clients, much to my delight, and the immensely helpful and time-consuming certification process for my coaching program—all things I value and freely chose. I managed them but the list of things I’d also hoped to address grew longer.

Last week, when things started to get hectic, I gave myself permission to post my blog on Thursday instead of Wednesday. My experience with writing has often been marked by anxiety and failure to write so my commitment to a particular day to post was important. Last week’s one-day delay felt like a risk but I didn’t freak out and get stuck in a vortex of self-loathing over it.

This week, I don’t feel busy; I feel overwhelmed by competing demands. And now it’s Friday and I didn’t give myself permission to delay posting this week, I just didn’t write anything I felt good about. I feel that vortex of self-loathing opening up just over my shoulder.

This is the time to lean into self-acceptance but just writing this sentence causes tears to flow as I realize I am angry with myself for being angry with myself. How often I have noticed others doing this same thing and thought, “Oh, that’s no good. We aren’t working on self-acceptance in order to give our ego another reason to thrash us.” Fortunately, just remembering that opens a space inside me and I am watching myself, observing my thoughts and feelings rather than simply identifying with them. Suddenly, my ego’s grip on me loosens and it’s no longer whipping me around like a rag doll. I bring myself back to the present moment, the only one that matters.

Practice has nothing to do with perfect

The outdoor Christmas market in downtown Chicago the Saturday after Thanksgiving—who would expect it to cause suffering? Probably anyone who feels overwhelmed by a large crowd packed into a small space. But my partner and I had been before and wanted her niece to experience it. Laura took the lead, her niece followed, and I was happy to let them choose where to stop. Unfortunately, at a stall with European candies, I made a tactical error. We all three waded through the crowd for a closer look but I turned my head to examine an item for several seconds. When I looked up they were gone. I scanned the crowd expecting to spot them easily as I couldn’t imagine they’d gone far.

But I didn’t see them and as the seconds passed I felt my chest tighten and my jaw clench. More time passed and a roaring voice in my head let loose. “All I did was look at something for a few seconds and they abandoned me without a backward glance! Why can’t I find something interesting without being punished for not following along like an obedient dog?” I am the youngest of six and I was so routinely overlooked that family stories were told about all the times my mother and siblings forgot to notice my existence. My five, six, ten-year old self was standing in that Christmas market in Chicago. She never found those stories funny and she wasn’t laughing now.

You can’t imagine, or maybe you can, how much I want this to be my partner’s fault.But it’s hard to know how far down the rabbit hole we need to go when we try to blame others for our feelings. My partner’s to blame for not noticing me stopping to look at candy, but I’m to blame because I stopped following closely behind them, or is she to blame for wanting to come to this crowded market, or am I to blame for agreeing to it, clearly the people who manage this thing are to blame for poor crowd control, and Chicago’s to blame for sponsoring the market, the weather’s to blame for being so nice that a lot of people came out to shop, and when you get right down to it, Jesus is to blame because this whole thing started with his birthday. Of course, no one is to blame. There are only facts: I am in a very crowded place and I can’t see my people. No one did anything wrong, not even me.

Despite the roaring in my head, I was able to make a good decision. I moved slightly away from the candy stall to a more central space and stood still. Within three or four minutes I spotted them. As I approached, my partner’s niece called out, “Oh, she found us!” The incident ended but I struggled with the feelings the brief separation evoked. Now in addition to feelings of abandonment and anger, I was upset with myself for being so reactive. Wow, was it hard to slap a smile on my face and keep moving through that crowd.

Eventually the feelings dissipated enough or were sufficiently stuffed down that I was reasonably pleasant for the rest of the trip but when I got home I fell apart. It wasn’t just the market. The travel had disrupted my routine—a missed yoga class, no meditation, no inspirational reading. And initially, I wondered if traveling was just something I’m bad at because I can’t maintain the practices that help me stay in the present. Fortunately, a conversation with my coach was on my schedule for Tuesday and her kind wisdom helped me face a deeper challenge.

My ego hijacked me—it took a perfectly normal occurrence and blew it up into a terrifying trip down memory lane. In that moment my partner didn’t abandon me I abandoned me.

In the last few months I’ve thought a lot about the practices I’ve developed. One day it dawned on me why people go to church or read their religion’s holy texts over and over. Practice. We’re practicing so that in bad moments the clarity and equanimity that come from faith are available to us. I sit in quiet contemplation of the knowledge that I Am so that when the world around me and within me starts to fly into a thousand pieces, I don’t fly with them. Clearly, I need a lot more practice. And that’s okay.

Lost and found

The first time I volunteered at Knox Prairie Community Kitchen’s twice-monthly free dinners I was nervous. We were given good instructions but I still felt unsure of myself and when the church basement filled with more than one hundred strangers, my muscles tightened and my pulse began to race. As the evening wore on I filled water glasses, cleared away plates, and relaxed enough to commit to returning in two weeks for the next dinner.

For several months, I showed up at 4:45 p.m. and listened to instructions urging us to treat everyone as we expect to be treated and to get all the food waste off the plates. I poured coffee, found extra napkins, brought dinners to those with limited mobility, and pushed all the food waste off the plates. When the last guest finished, I sometimes stayed to help clean up but most often I headed home. As I walked to my car, I would feel as if I was returning to my body. Spending two hours thinking only of the task in front of me, only of the people who needed my help, there was no space in my mind for my normally obsessive attention to myself. My ego was on a holiday. But our egos aren’t interested in time off.

KPCK is like a lot of all volunteer-run organizations—if you stick around long enough they put you in charge. Within a few months, I was the one providing careful instruction on how we treat our guests and how to clear a plate to satisfy the dishwashers. I arrive in early afternoon to help cook and I stay until the last dish is returned to the cupboard.

I enjoyed these responsibilities until I didn’t, until I became completely identified with my role in the group. When that happened, my ego became a howling chorus of complaints, blame, and criticism: volunteers leave too much food on plates, guests go to the dinner line before I’ve directed them to do so, another Board member disagreed with me. The time I spent with KPCK was no longer a respite, a way to get outside myself but just another manifestation of my ego’s need to be center stage.

I’m trying to remember to pause, to pay attention when the controlled chaos of dining room threatens to overwhelm my desire to make these dinners a joyous occasion for the other volunteers and especially for our guests. Many of our guests experience alienation and isolation because their presence in the world makes the rest of us uncomfortable. I have the opportunity to make eye contact with each person who walks into that dining room, to make sure they know I see and recognize our shared humanity. When I lose myself in that moment, I am found.