A Path Of Her Own

I’m raising my daughter to have confidence in her autonomy, to develop inner strength and integrity, to trust in her abilities, and to love herself.

It’s not easy.

Kids can be cruel, adults can be apathetic or abuse their power, and our materialistic society is fixated on fitting in and showing off. There is so much to navigate and explain.

We’re working to accept that life is what it is – it’s not that “bad” things happen to “good” people, it’s simply that shit happens. Period. There are no guarantees, even when it comes to what we believe is the way things “should” be. All we can do is our best, and try to be kind to ourselves and to others.

We’re learning the tricky balance of exercising independence and knowing when to ask for help, and to receive aid graciously.

We’re learning that vulnerability requires courage and strength, and so does compassion.

My job is to help my daughter walk her own path without micromanaging her process – but I struggle with the paradox of needing to let her learn and grow, and wanting to shield her from assholes who may hurt her and other hard parts of life.

How can I keep her innocent? (I can’t.)

How can I keep her safe? (I can’t.)

How can I accept this lack of control? (I have to, or we’ll both suffer.)

Maybe the hardest part of being a mother is knowing that the human being that was once completely dependent on me, that I would do anything to protect, is destined to disconnect from our symbiosis – to evolve, manifest, and move beyond – and that I can control little to nothing when it comes to what’s in store for my precious creation.

I’ll probably never be ok with this… but I will continue to love her, listen to her, and support her as she forges an identity; a life; a path of her own.

(I may or may not be lurking in the shadows close, but not too close, in case she needs me…)

Linked

There is some old shame in me that reverts to ranking certain people as a defensive move against a deep fear that I’m less-than. The process begins with insecurity flaring, which situates myself beneath the person that I perceive to have one-up on me, then analyzing them to find qualities that I think I rank above, and finally using their flaws as justification to demote them under me and get in the higher position.

Joke’s on me because I know that I’m not on solid ground and I never really feel better when I do this. Rather than healing the shame that’s causing this behavior, the act of ranking creates more harm and disconnects me further from the inherent goodness and worth in myself (and in them).

When I look beyond the clinging webs of competition, comparison, and criticism, the truth is clear – we are all connected; equal links in the chain of humanity. We share the same neurobiological hardwiring that makes us dependent on each other for survival; the same genetic framework that makes us vulnerable and full of fears, desires, hopes, and a fundamental need to be seen, heard, and accepted for who we truly are. Our connection as human beings on this planet and in this life is inextricable.

The injustices and cruelties in the world derive from ranking – certain identities are determined to be more valuable, more deserving of respect and care, more human than others. The progress we have made, and any developments we hope to continue into the future, only come about when we operate from a place of foundational equality; an understanding that each link must be protected and cared for so that the whole chain can be strong. Moving beyond fear, I can see that I am bound together with everyone – including those who I mistakenly perceive as adversaries.

We are not ranked; we are linked.

Heaven & Hell

Last weekend as my daughter and I walked in the woods, she said that she had been thinking about what happens after death and how nobody really knows but people create stories of what there could be as hope of reward or fear of punishment. She said “I don’t think heaven and hell are places; I think they are in your mind and in how you treat people.”

Like the rest of us who are still alive, I can’t possibly say for sure what’s next, but I can wholeheartedly agree with my daughter that these are not destinations but rather the results of our decisions.

When I have chosen to ruminate on unkind thoughts, to criticize or condemn, to hold onto grudges and resentments, or to do harm to another person through selfish or spiteful actions, I’m hurting myself and others. Gone unchecked, that pain will metastasize and create a mental and emotional environment that thrives off the continuation of suffering, creating justifications for the behavior, and seeing the world as Me vs You – this is hell, a state of mind and relational interaction that is devoid of connection, empathy, forgiveness, and kindness.

Its counterpart is exactly the opposite – love. But creating heaven requires far more effort than constructing hell. Kindness requires ongoing practice, being compassionate, holding boundaries, exercising patience, and operating from an open mind and a warm heart is counterintuitive to how many of us were conditioned. But I can tell you personally that having lived in hell for quite a while in my past, and returning every so often in my present, that it’s not a place I want to be. Yes, love takes work… and the work is worth it.

Heaven and hell: our subconscious. All that must be transcended is within us. All the power of transcendence is also within us.

365 Tao

Attachment

There’s a meditation practice in which you start by extending compassion to those you love (easy), then to those who are “neutral” aka the average person, and finally to those you hate (oh hell no).

That last step feels so counterintuitive and every part of me rages against it. Why should I send good energy to bad people? Isn’t that a chump move?

For most of my life I’ve built up a vehement disgust for injustice. This has calcified the feelings of anger, bitterness, and “righteous” indignation about people (from politicians to exes) that have done wrong, especially if they “got away with it” without significant consequences. I’ve judged and defined these people by their actions, and by hardening my heart towards them I’ve sealed off any crack where compassion could slip through.

This has also been a survival tactic over the years, to keep me safe from people who do harm. I’ve conditioned myself to think this way about wrongdoers, and the programming is deeply entrenched – I’ve invested so much into this mindset that the compassion practice feels utterly alien and unrealistic.

I know this is my ego holding on with gripped talons and refusing to let go. We usually equate attachment to what we desire… but we’re also attached to what we despise.

In my case, attachment makes me defend my narratives to the death, which I know is a fear-based attempt to control the present and future. If you got hurt once, you wouldn’t want to get hurt again, right? So by condemning the person and cementing them into the narrative that they’re the villain and the enemy, I can fortify myself against the threat of them causing more harm.

What really messes me up is admitting that my attachment is actually built on shaky ground. I’ve created mental images and constructed stories that are biased and not entirely true – they conveniently leave out the other person’s side of things, and the nuances that make them human (including flaws that I also possess), as well as freezing them in the past as a one-dimensional character who did shitty things and couldn’t possibly also have good qualities or could have learned, grown, and changed over time. So I’m fixated on an illusion that casts people in the light I need them to be in to justify my judgment and condemnation. Maybe that is the real chump move.

How can I untangle myself? I can start by keeping my ego in check when it revs up the old storylines. I’ll work on loosening the white-knuckle grip on my narrative and the inaccurate characterizations I’ve created. I will practice letting go of my attachment to thoughts that don’t truly serve me; dropping the critical judgment and shifting to intentional empathy. It’s hard, constant work – but it’s better than carrying around the baggage of aversion and resentment.

Both/And > Either/Or

I think a lot about “straddling the paradox” and choosing both/and rather than either/or when it comes to people – especially those who trigger me and whom I’ve developed as villains in my ego-driven scripted storylines.

It’s so easy for me to do an extreme zoomed-in close-up of the negative, focusing only on the flaws that I love to exaggerate and exploit to justify my judgment. But the reality is that in most cases, there is complexity and nuance that I’m overlooking (usually on purpose, because how else could I keep the narrative going that they’re the enemy?) and within those details are our shared humanity and my ticket out of obsession and resentment.

I would certainly appreciate it if people, especially those I’ve wronged or have received an unfavorable impression of me, would apply both/and to see my good parts as well as my flaws and mistakes.

I’m just as complicated and contradictory as any other human, and nobody wants to be lumped into a static definition that doesn’t allow for growth and development and healthy change. I am a work in progress – just like the people whom I’ve frozen in my perceptions of their past.

Either/or isn’t always accurate or fair; I will practice extending the empathy of both/and.

Fixation

I’ve been struggling with old programming lately – the obsessive loops of fixation and comparison; the fantasies of confrontation and vindication.

I know this is my ego flaring. I know this is because I have not made peace and chosen acceptance, which would result in resolution. I know this is because I am feeling bad about myself and worried about the future so I am comparing both up and down to feed that insecurity and anxiety.

While I am logically aware that this is the perfect time to practice self-compassion, what’s happening instead is that I’m punishing myself for these thoughts with harsh criticism for being envious, petty, selfish, and weak. This is fuel for these mental projections, which thrive off my shame and self-loathing.

How do I get out of my head and into the moment? How do I stay there? How do I keep from wandering back into the muck of my mind? Or if I do slip in, how do I slip out just as quickly with as little damage as possible? How long am I going to keep fighting with myself? Do I have to live with these patterns and obsessions forever? Is that how I’m wired?

Maybe part of my suffering is the struggle to be free. Maybe that’s simply not an option and I have to learn to coexist with the ego and its fixations. To disconnect from the concept of enemy; of The Other.

To make peace. To choose acceptance.

Insecurity

We all experience the feeling of insecurity, and the way through is to face the present moment; the reality of right now.

Our minds are wired to compare and programmed to seek control – it’s an old evolutionary tool designed to keep us safe. Unfortunately it often doesn’t work in our favor, producing critical better than / less than comparisons, and churning anxiety about what’s out of our control – which is everything besides our own behavior.

We can face reality at the very moment our insecurity and anxiety peak.

Breathe, deeply and slowly. That’s real. Notice your surroundings; feel anchored to where you are standing or sitting. That’s real.

Bring yourself back to right now – we can find comfort and grounding in the facts of the present moment (outside of our heads) rather than getting swept up in the what-ifs of insecure thoughts.

Subjective

A humbling exercise is to pause and ask ourselves “Is my perception accurate?”

Short answer is: nope.

We experience everything through our own unique lenses of bias, projection, ego, and personal experience.

All of us operate from subjective realities, and the key to productive communication and healthy relationships is to negotiate that subjectivity – and not to coerce others into thinking or behaving our way… the “right” way, so we believe.

You haven’t lived my life and you’re not in my head (lucky you, haha) so how can I expect you to see and process things the way I do?

It comes down to this: we don’t need to agree and sometimes we won’t even understand, but we do need to validate and respect.

Shared Impermanence

The concept of impermanence keeps creeping into my life.

It was the subject of a few recent passages in the Buddhist and Taoist collections that I read every morning. It was the first thing I saw in the library last week, as the theme of Mary Pipher’s new memoir. It was the salt in my daughter’s tears when summer camp ended, and it’s the ache in my heart when I look at her and wonder where the last decade went.

It can be kinda crazymaking to consider that change is the only constant; that we’re always in this weird transformative flux of evolving towards our expiration.

It’s hard to say goodbye to the status quo we took for granted, our youth, our health, and our loved ones. The upside is that impermanence impacts everything, including shitty situations – they too shall pass.

When I overthink all of this and existential dread kicks in, I remind myself that change is a biological imperative. Every cell in our body, every cloud in the sky, every stone on the earth, every wave in the sea, every single moment is fleeting – it’s up to us to find beauty, joy, meaning, and purpose not in spite of but because of our shared impermanence.

The Middle Path

The ideal mind is open, accepting, and nonjudgmental.

If only that was our default!

Let’s be real – usually the mind is conditioned, calculating, and easily triggered.

One of the juiciest baited hooks that I chomp down on time and again is political propaganda – signs and stickers that to me represent ignorance and hate. When I see them, I instantly leap to criticism and condemnation.

Sometimes I’m able to catch myself in mid-judgment and tell myself that I don’t know anything about the people displaying the name and slogan that are so triggering to me. Maybe these people are really kind, maybe they’re going through illness or other hardships, maybe they’re afraid.

It doesn’t mean that I condone hateful words or actions, but I gain nothing by harshly judging complete strangers. Said another way: I do not condone prejudice, discrimination, or abuse of power and I believe that getting stressed with vile thoughts about “the enemy” doesn’t help anything.

If I think it’s wrong that people dehumanize others, then I shouldn’t do the same to the dehumanizers. I don’t want to contribute to the problem… so I’m trying to stay on the middle path.

I can support the causes and values that I feel are righteous without losing my integrity and peace of mind. This is the work (and it never ends): disrupting reactions and thought patterns that are unkind and unhealthy, while giving myself the space and support to slip up, try again, learn, and grow.

Facts > Fear

Bedtime can be particularly challenging because without the distractions of the day it’s just us and our thoughts… and often those ruminations are far from pleasant and cloud our perception of reality. The other night I realized that the inner monologue running through my mind was a really nasty narrator.

That wasn’t my real voice; that wasn’t the real me – not the rational, wise, kind person that is usually behind the wheel and interacting with others.

It was my ego – my fragile, fearful ego.

When the ego feels threatened, it will: assign the role of “enemy” to the threat; focus on faults and flaws; magnify and exaggerate the danger; insert its own conjecture in the absence of details; create and fixate on thoughts that support the belief of the threat.

It creates what-if scenarios to prepare itself for how to defend and retaliate if/when its fear comes to fruition. And for the paranoid ego, it’s really an inevitable when; not a potential if.

In this attempt to protect itself, the ego actually weaponizes its fear against us and colonizes our minds with its delusions and looping thoughts.

So how do we deal with this destructive nutjob living rent-free in our minds?

Acknowledge that it isn’t you and it isn’t true.

Don’t take the bait; if you already bit the hook, let go by: getting curious; considering nuances; seeking opposing views to your thoughts; being flexible; trusting what you know is true – choosing facts over fear.

Impermanence

Our ego relies on mooring in the constructs it has created to deal with the fact that very little is within our control – which often means we diminish uncomfortable reminders of mortality.

When we are confronted with the stark nature of impermanence, we feel unsettled.

Ego wants everything we love (or at least everything we’re accustomed to) to last forever.

Ego wants to feel substantial and solid, with no surprises.

But this is in contrast with nature and existence itself, which is a constant cycle of change, degeneration, death, and renewal.

This is so hard to stomach and surrender to… but releasing our resistance and accepting the inescapable (change, aging, illness, and death) allow us to become active participants in our fleeting, precious lives.