Who would have thought that at 47 years old, I’d become a political activist? Yet here I am, marching, protesting, visiting my state legislators at the Capitol and my federal legislators at their local offices, calling politicians, writing politicians, attending activist meetings, and getting my activist game on. Full court press and balls to the wall, y’all. Continue reading
Core Value #3 Compassion
It’s so timely that (in my alphabetical, Virgo way of organizing my values – Awareness, Community…) compassion is up next, because I had this interaction with myself just yesterday and it reinforced how much I (still) need to work on cultivating this value.
Here’s what happened.
Walking out of the grocery, I passed a woman who was about my age (not a spring chicken). She wore a crop top that bared her entire stomach, and she obviously hadn’t been doing 100 crunches a day or starving herself.
My first thought was, ‘Wow, I would never wear that in public.’ And, had I been with a friend at the time, I’m sure I would have actually said those words out loud, rolled my eyes, and laughed.
Two seconds later, I thought, ‘You know what? You go girl, with tummy hanging out. Yay you for accepting your body as it is and just putting it out there….although, I would never do that if that were my stomach.’
Truth be told, my stomach doesn’t look much different, and that’s being generous to myself.
Then, less than a minute later I thought, ‘Wait, what am I thinking? I am part of the problem. I’m the one with the attitude that the only people who should be allowed to bare their midriffs are 20 somethings with 6 pack abs. I’m the one feeding the stereotype that only a certain body type can be exposed in public. I’m tearing down a woman I don’t even know because of a stupid T-shirt?! What is wrong with me?!’
This, my friends, is a perfect example of me not practicing compassion. It’s me being judgmental, critical, and unkind. Oh, I have my work cut out for me.
And what happens when I’m not compassionate? I suffer. Whether it’s not being compassionate with others or not being compassionate with myself, the end result is the same. I end up unhappy, because I create distance and separation.
Compassion is an unqualified and all encompassing kindness that diminishes differences. It recognizes the interconnectedness and inherent self-worth of everyone (Namaste, y’all!). So when I’m acting compassionately, I accept people as they are rather than how I want them to be, which is always a recipe for disappointment. I accept people who believe differently than me, look differently than me, and act differently than me. In essence, I stop resisting others, which is tiresome and futile. I stop being ego-centric, forcing people to fit my admittedly small view of the world. And, I start opening up and embracing others. In essence, I soften, rather than sharpen, my hard edges and allow myself to connect to others. When I do this, I am my best self, and what’s better than that?
Dr. Emma Seppälä (Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education) made this cool infographic on the Scientific Benefits of Compassion.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how I spend my emotional energy. When I’m walking down the street and a person bumps into me and doesn’t apologize (which is a daily occurrence here). Or I’m parking my daughter’s bike and someone yells at me because of the way I parked the bike (sigh, true story). Or when I’m wearing my Birkenstocks and it starts pouring rain and my shoes are ruined (this has happened to two pairs of Birks since I’ve lived here).
At times like these, I want to say, “What the fuck?” or “How dare you?” Those are my automatic thoughts, and they are indicative of the kind of behavior that usually follows. Yep, I can be a real bitch. And, it’s precisely at times like this that I need to be cognizant of my emotional energy and how I’m spending it.
I know that I’m not the worst person out there. Not by far. I’m rarely angry or cynical, and I’m not a diva, expecting people to cater to me. Still, I have my moments. Who doesn’t?
When I start to feel shame or anger or pride or condemnation, unconditioned responses kick in. I start thinking, “I screwed up” (shame) or “You screwed up” (anger) or “I’m better than you” (pride) or “You’re worse than me” (condemnation). I generate this negative energy and then I put it out there in the world.
This is the energy I’m growing. This is how I am choosing to spend my energy. Whoa. Wait. Stop and let me get off this crazy train right now!
I want to start spending my emotional energy wisely and mindfully. I want to do this, because one of my values/goals is to develop resilience so that I won’t get emotionally upended by external events, going hot and cold depending on what’s happening in my world.
Life is unpredictable, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay safe and for things to be okay, but the reality is that we have no guarantees. Illness, death, accidents, rude behavior – this stuff happens all the time. Shit happens. The boat gets rocked. On a daily if not hourly basis.
So when life throws me something unexpected (and possibly unwanted), I am working on taking a moment to recognize my automatic thoughts – @#$&! – and trying to change them to something less selfish and more compassionate – just keep smiling and let it go.
I also want to be aware of what kind of energy I’m expending. I want to feed and grow positive, not negative, energy. I believe in karma, that our actions have real effects, right now.
We don’t exist in a vacuum. We exist in relationship to ourselves, to others, to the world. So when we do something, it has an impact on someone or something else. This is why being aware of your thoughts and actions is so important.
Karma is a bitch, but only if you are. So put out the energy, the attitude and actions, that you want to get back.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
The truth of the matter is that each of us chooses the life we live. We choose to be happy or sad. We choose to be content or angry. We choose to take responsibility for ourselves or we blame someone else.
I’m not saying that making the right choice comes naturally, nor is it necessarily easy to do. But, in every instant of every day, we have a choice to be the way we want to be.
Life doesn’t just happen to us. It happens because of us, because of our choices.
How do I make my life, my everyday experience, what it is that I want it to be? Especially when I have a million errands to run, work to do, and a small child to mind? By setting an intention, letting go of negative energy, and practicing self-reflection.
Set an intention.
Every morning, I try to take time to think about what part of my self, a part that is rooted in my values, I’d like to grow. Today, do I want to be kinder? More peaceful? More mindful? Whatever it is, I think about simple ways that I can live that way just today. For example, if I want to be kinder, I tell myself that I will smile at everyone I meet.
Once I’ve thought about my intention, I articulate it. May I be kinder to others. May I smile at strangers I encounter. When you set an intention and articulate it, you commit yourself to doing things that will help you realize the intention. The intention is both the end and the means to the end.
Let go of negative energy.
Anger. Judgment. Resentment. These emotions may be natural, and they may play a role in protecting you from harm, but I’m talking about physical harm, not harm to your ego. It’s hard to let go of negative emotions, but I don’t want to give them space in my mind. When I do, it wears me down, exacerbates negativity, and prevents me from being my best self. Lose-lose.
So, I take some deep breaths and go back to my intention. It’s likely that if you want to manifest your intention, holding onto negative emotions will prevent that from happening.
Our lives are often so busy that we can lose sight of the present moment and get overwhelmed with everything that needs to get done. Feeling overwhelmed leads to anxiety, stress, and emotional paralysis. So, it’s important to create time in your schedule to center yourself.
How you choose to do this depends on what works best for you. I meditate, run, and write. That’s what I need to do to take of myself. Maybe for you, centering yourself is working in your garden or relaxing with a good book. Whatever it is, take time to do it daily or thoughout the day. It will help you regroup and reenergize, allowing you to keep going with a calmer presence.
I try to return to my intention throughout the day. Sometimes this means I wear a certain bracelet or set my iPhone alarm to go off to remind myself to stop and contemplate how I’m doing. Have my words and actions supported my intention? Are there things I could or should have done differently? Asking myself questions like these makes me more aware of areas where I still need to work in order to reconcile my intention with my behavior. It’s all about becoming more aware of who you are and who you want to be. Reflect, develop awareness, grow up yourself.
My life is my choice. What I say, what I do, how I orient myself, and how I respond to others. My life is my choice. I don’t always make the best choice, but it’s a practice I work on daily.
A few years ago, my sister told me that she had stopped watching the news. She said she would turn on the TV, watch 30 minutes of reporting on violence and despair, and get paralyzed. How can one person make any difference? How can anyone effect change on the other side of the world, for people we may never see or talk to or know?
I’ve found myself recently going through something similar with respect to living ethically.
Okay, it’s easy for me not to kill anyone, but the day-to-day details of living ethically are, honestly, quite challenging. Is there anything I can drink or eat or wear or buy that doesn’t kill animals, produce more plastics, or exploit workers?
I already do so much. I don’t own/drive a car. I use my own grocery bags. I recycle everything. I eat mostly vegetarian and often vegan. Blah, blah, blah. But it doesn’t seem like enough.
And I read in the New York Times last week that I can’t even get a pedicure in good conscience anymore. Salon workers are underpaid. They work daily with toxic chemicals, which are unregulated in their work, and, as a result, have higher incidences of cancer.
So the other night, this is all spiraling out of control in my head, and I told my husband, “What are we supposed to do – eat only fallen fruit and wear leaves that are still attached to the vine?”
How do we live in today’s world and do it as ethically as possible without going completely nuts trying to figure out everything we need to do in order to live ethically?
After a few deep breaths, a good night’s sleep, and some Internet research, I found the answer I sought. It came from Carroll Muffett, deputy director of campaigns for Greenpeace. He wisely said, “Even for the best-intentioned person, it is impossible to make ethical choices about everything.”
We simply cannot do everything right all the time and exist in our 21st century lives. It’s just not possible. I can’t do my job, take my daughter to school or even survive a winter in Bavaria subsisting on fruit that might fall from nearby trees while cloaked in leaves.
So what can we do? The following are my top three things to make living ethically somewhat manageable.
- Prioritize what’s important. There is no instruction manual for how to live ethically, and sometimes 2 things will be in conflict and you have to choose one. Like let’s say you’re committed to buying local, organic produce. But one day you’re at the market and, for whatever reason, you have to make a choice. Either you can buy local or you can buy organic. Which do you choose? Something has to come first. So decide what comes first for you, where your priorities are.
- Put 1 or 2 things into practice. If you’re overly ambitious or set your goals too high then you’ll be likely to get frustrated easily and give up. What are a couple of things you can do today and actually achieve? Just for today, can you not eat meat? And if you can do it today, can you do it on a regular basis (once a week, three times a week, whatever seems doable)? If you can commit to that (or walking to work or whatever it is you can commit to) then put it into practice.
- Don’t beat yourself up for mistakes. Life is messy and complicated and things aren’t always black and white. You’re not always going to be able to make the best decision, because you’re not always going to have the information or resources you need to make the best decision. If my 6 year old is screaming because she’s thirsty and our only option is to buy something in a plastic bottle, then that’s what we’re going to do. So don’t get worked up about what you could have or should have done. Just do the best you can with what you’ve got to work with.
The bottom line is this. The next time you watch a documentary or read some investigative journalism or hear about some exploited land/person/animal, don’t get overwhelmed. Don’t get your liberal guilt all out of whack. Just breathe and keep moving in incremental steps in the direction of your goals.