As summer heats up, we may find ourselves busier than ever. Summer is the time for extra activities like family reunions and vacations. It is a "social season" too, a time of entertaining and visiting, and we may find ourselves overwhelmed by all of these interactions in different settings, forgetting the importance of our personal "private time."
In my book, Your Truest Self, I wrote about this. I'd like to share an excerpt with you, one that will invite you to create "island time" for yourself this summer, one wonderful way of living more gently with yourself.
Excerpt from Chapter 5: I Cultivate Compassion for Myself
Anne Morrow Lindbergh (author and wife of aviator Charles Lindbergh) is another woman who grants us permission to be gentle with ourselves. Every year Anne spent two weeks by herself on retreat on an island off the Florida coast. Alone, she walked the beaches, gathered shells, and mulled over her life. With nature as her teacher, she journaled about what it means to be a woman. Her book Gift from the Sea is a series of essays about what she discovered on retreat.
One of her reflections on a moon shell she’d found on a beach walk offers wisdom about the importance of solitude to restore and reclaim ourselves. Anne wrote:
Moon Shell. . . . You will make me think, with your smooth circles winding inward to the tiny core, of the island I lived on for a few weeks. You will say to me “Solitude.” You will remind me that I must try to be alone for part of each year—even a week or a few days, and for a part of each day, even for an hour or a few minutes, in order to keep my core, my center, my island quality.
Anne’s powerful words speak to the universal feminine need for sacred space and time spent blessedly alone.
“You remind me,” she went on to say, "that unless I keep the island quality intact somewhere within me, I will have little to give my husband, my children, my friends or the world at large. You will remind me that woman must be still, as the axis of a wheel in the midst of her activities; that she must be the pioneer in achieving this stillness, not only for her own salvation, but for the salvation of family life, of society, perhaps even of our civilization."6
“Island quality” is what Anne called it—this sense of being self-contained in a good, solid way. We find it most easily when we are apart from others. We become beautiful islands unto ourselves, as she did, when we no longer depend upon others for our emotional well-being or for affirmation. When we are self-sustaining and can give ourselves what we need to be nourished and honored, our island quality grows. Anne’s lovely prose inspired me to give myself more “island time.” I did so by creating daily “mini-retreats”—an hour or two spent alone with myself at the beginning or end of each day. I also gave myself permission to take occasional weekend retreats. “Island times” such as these can provide the sacred time and space needed to begin to gentle ourselves, gentle our lives.
©2008, Janice L. Lundy
Create some "island time" this summer by taking a retreat in beautiful pastoral Michigan.
Read the details here.
"If the breathing is at all unsettled, life is not your own."
"Heaven and Earth," c. Ming dynasty work Anthology on the Cultivation of Realization by unknown author, translated by Thomas Cleary in Taoist Meditation
On any given day, how do you truly feel? Do you feel calm and centered, or do you feel as if you've taken a seat on the carousel of life, whirling 'round and 'round, at its mercy?
I'm recalling a time when I climbed aboard the Tilt-A-Whirl at our local fair with my youngest daughter—against my better judgment. You see, I do not like carnival rides. The motion actually makes me very ill. But she begged me to ride with her and I reluctantly agreed. We climbed aboard, and as the whirling began, I thought to myself, "This isn't so bad. I think I can handle it." Within seconds though, the operator shifted gears and dramatically increased the speed and rotation factor. Sheer terror came over me, that out-of-control feeling knowing I was at the mercy of this man (who had a profoundly menacing look on his face), and there was no way I could get off the ride to regain my equilibrium. The whirling seemed to go on forever. I nearly cried with relief when it stopped, wobbled my way to a nearby restroom, where I collapsed on the floor and emptied the contents of my stomach into the commode. I lay there for what seemed like forever trying to regain my footing. I felt dizzy and nauseous for the rest of the day and upset with myself because of the poor choice I'd made.
Of course, my over-the-top carnival ride isn't a perfect metaphor for what can happen to us in daily life, but it is similar. Many of us are familiar with that spinning, out-of-control feeling as we move through our days; a loss of equanimity from the pace or "too-muchness" of life.
The only "remedy" I know for this is to come back to "center" as quickly as we can with the healing power of our own breath. I think of breath as our sacred touchpoint, the fulcrum of the human teeter-totter of life. It calms and stabilizes us like no other force or practice. It is simply miraculous! We carry our breath with us and can access it any time: "Portable Peace." And, as you know so well, the challenge is remembering to use it when you need it.
But did you also know that breath can bring you back to center in a variety of ways? Conscious breathing is not just for stabilizing, but for deep calm, and also for raising our energy level when we are feeling sluggish or worn out. Yogis of the past and present document the differences for us. Breathing one way, we get super relaxed, in another way we attain equanimity. And in yet another way, we can raise our energy to very high levels of strength and endurance.
I love this thought, offered by an unknown yogi. "When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace." If we are to live more gently with ourselves, it is vital that we own our breath, claim its power to do whatever our body/mind needs in the moment—whether it be rest, balance, or energy—so we can continue to serve ourselves and others well. The beautiful breath that moves through your being is a gift of the greatest measure. I invite you to learn to harness it for your own good.
Our journey with making friends with ourselves is not a selfish thing. We’re not trying to get all the goodies for ourselves.
It’s a process of developing loving-kindness and a true understanding for other people as well.
~ Pema Chodron
(from The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-kindness)
As I read this quote this morning I thought to myself, “Yes, yes!” This is exactly what I try to tell others about the importance of befriending ourselves. The idea of treating ourselves as kindly and gently as we would others is so often perceived as mushy gushy, self-centered, the harbinger of laziness, and, yes, selfish—a word I have come to abhor. There are not many things or words I abhor but this notion is one of them. I’ve actually banned this “S” word from my vocabulary.
We are living in a culture (U.S. culture, I can only speak from my own experience here) that feels as if it is becoming so absorbed in ideas and actions of “me and mine,” we are losing all sense of what it really means to be kind and generous human beings. And, yet, when someone like me or Pema Chodron or any other person who is passionate about self-awareness speaks of “befriending”, we are often perceived as self-absorbed navel gazers. Oy vay. What a tangled web we weave for ourselves!
What I discovered over the years was this: the more I WAS able to treat myself compassionately—like a dear friend would—I naturally felt more loving toward others. By seeing all of the ways I would push myself, judge myself, and feel as if I were never enough, I could look around me and see that so many others were doing the same. I could see more clearly how we are ALL trapped in ways of behaving that are not beneficial to our ultimate well-being. This can range from stressing over things that have not happened (or may never happen), to not ever feeling good enough because we consistently compare ourselves to others.
When we are ready and able to look into the mirror of our own heart, we can see the many ways we are still be caught up in “if only.” If only I were more attractive. If only I were smarter. If only I were further along on my spiritual path. Meaning, all the ways we could be better, or our lives could be better, if we just put our shoulder to the self-help grindstone one more time.
The truth of the matter is, if we talked like this to someone we cared about we’d stop ourselves mid-sentence, realizing this would not be a kind thing to say: “If only you were …” “If only you had …” reeks of disappointment. And disappointment—many disappointments stacked one upon the other—are absolutely soul crushing.
I heard a psychologist speak to this truth on Oprah’s daily show many years ago. She said that the great destroyer of intimate relationships is disappointment—disappointed in the partner about what they did or did not do. Stack up all those disappointments year after year and intimacy fades. The relationship will most likely fall apart. I have never forgotten her words.
Applying this to ourselves, if we are continually disappointed in our self, how will our relationship with our self eventually end up? Bruised. Defeated. Broken.
If we are genuinely interested in self-awareness (not so much self-improvement, there is a difference, you know) and embodying the truth of who we are and can be, we need to break this cycle of self-defeating behavior. I believe we can do this by taking baby steps toward befriending. Something as simple as catching yourself in the act is a good (and compassionate!) place to start.
When you hear yourself saying something unkind to yourself, imagine that your best friend (or your grandmother who loved you dearly) is gently placing her hand on your shoulder saying, “Shhh, don’t say that about yourself, sweetheart, because it’s not true.” And believe her because it’s not.
Who you are is so much more than a big stack of disappointments. Or a self-improvement project. Or something broken that needs to be fixed. Who you are is goodness. This is your true nature. This is everyone’s true nature.
And, so, we come full circle back to Ani Pema’s thought: “Our journey with making friends with ourselves is not a selfish thing. We’re not trying to get all the goodies for ourselves. It’s a process of developing loving-kindness and a true understanding for other people as well.”
When the door of loving-kindness opens for us, we invariably see that on the other side stands an entire group of people who are having the same kind of experiences we are. And because they are, each person is deserving of loving-kindness—as are we.
If we are committed to living more gently with ourselves there are some things that are not negotiable, in my view anyway. One of them is waking up to our own suffering so we can treat ourselves more kindly.
The problem is that most of us don't realize when we are suffering. Our suffering moves in like an invisible stranger, completely unnoticed. We are moving too quickly or completely caught up in what's happening to pause to notice "suffering".
Or we don't want to acknowledge that we are "suffering". (Such an unattractive word!) After all, other people suffer. But us? No, we are simply having a hard time, because we know from past experience that we can soldier on, pushing through with the best of them.
The truth of the matter is, when we're having a difficult time with anything, this can (and should) be acknowledged as a moment of suffering. It's ok to let go of our pride, our perfection, even our resiliency to say, "This is difficult!" and admit that suffering is happening. Period.
In the spirit of self-compassion, it is vital that we learn how to catch ourselves having a difficult moment ... caught right in the midst of struggle, like a fish dangling from the line, hook in mouth, flopping around, hoping to break free. By catching ourselves in a moment of difficulty, by acknowledging that we are hooked, we can do something different and kind. We can stop, take a breath (or two or three), and offer ourselves some empathy, a bit of tenderness. Let's do that right now, shall we?
Take 3 deep breaths. Then go with the flow of your breath. Breathe easily, naturally. Allow yourself to be breathed. Drop into a kinder, gentler place within yourself and rest your attention there.
Bring to mind a difficult situation in your life. This can involve you or someone you care about. Notice how this issue tugs at your heart strings. Notice any difficult thoughts that arise; any emotions that come forth. Breathe.
Acknowledge that this is a tender moment for you by placing your hand on your heart and saying with a kind, loving voice, "This is difficult." Or something like, "I am having a hard time with this." "I wish this were not so."
As you place your hand on your heart, feel the warmth of your hand. Feel a kind breath moving through you. Re-focus on your breath, letting go of the difficult story line.
Next, say something hopeful and tender to yourself, "May I be held in compassion." Or, "This too shall pass." "It's alright." "I trust my higher power to care for me (or my dear one)." "I let go and let God." "I can rest into Love." Find a phrase that works for you.
Anytime (no matter how large or small), when you are having a difficult moment, acknowledge this moment and surround it with compassion. Give yourself permission to be kind to yourself because this IS a difficult moment. Rest assured, by compassionately caring for yourself, you can change the intensity of the moment. Ease can be yours.
"At that very moment, when things are difficult - at that very moment of panic or fear, that moment of loneliness or anger - that is actually the key moment for a person who is wishing to open their heart and their mind, because these are the moments where life can soften us. The difficulties of our lives can soften us, make us kinder to each other and more compassionate."
~ Pema Chodron
This post is a sneak peek from my forthcoming book,
Living Gently with Myself. Enjoy!
Permission to Begin Again
I wrote the passage below many years ago while on silent retreat on the California coast. I’d left home and family behind to spend quiet days restoring my soul.
As the sun rises, bringing the dawn of a new day, celebrate and give thanks for the blessing of second chances.
I believe in second chances and our ability (our birthright!) to begin again. I’ve begun again so many times in my life I’ve lost count. I’ve also started over multiple times each day when things were not going as well as I’d hoped. The same can be true for any of us. We can begin again … over and over again.
Beginning again is one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves. Why? Just imagine the opposite. What happens to you when you succumb to inner pressure to keep going even when your wise self tells you to stop? What happens when you keep pushing ahead even though your body says no? Beginning again allows us to lay down the tasks of the day when we need to. Granted, industriousness in many situations is admirable. In others, it's depleting, even damaging.
There is something in many of us that urges us to just keep going and going and going. This “something” can be sourced in a myriad of things: cultural and workplace expectations, familial habits, or personal agendas that are not rooted in reality. This varies with each of us and only we can know which “voice” we are listening to when we continue to push ourselves beyond reasonable limits.
I know this voice well. It truly is my nemesis voice. “Keep going,” it says. “Press on. You can do it!” It spouts off even when I’m tired or have done enough for the day. Like a chameleon, it might change its colors to whisper, “Just a little longer,” even overriding ache of body or fogginess of mind. I’ve ignored it in all its guises and I’ve finally learned that answering its beckon call is usually the worst thing I can do.
Enter “Permission granted to begin again!” a commanding voice as well, but one that is sourced in good self-awareness and the ability to honor the call of body-mind when enough is enough. When enough is good enough. Now that’s what a kind inner voice would say!
The truth of the matter is we can always begin again. The sun does always rise in the morning. We can depend on that. Will we always be guaranteed that we’ll have another day to welcome it, knowing that our days on earth are numbered? Not always. There is a path of clarity that runs between these two.
You can learn to trust the wiser voices inside your mind—the ones that care deeply for your well-being—and follow their sage advice. “It’s ok to stop. You can pick it up tomorrow. Begin again when you feel rested, clear and ready to go. I give you permission.”
I first found the word “befriending” from Sue Patton Thoele within the pages of her book, The Courage to Be Yourself. I was struggling with how to live more gently with myself, to get off the fast track and give myself permission to take good care of myself rather than everyone else. I came to understand, in fact, that I didn’t have a clue how to be good to myself—to “befriend” myself—to be as generous and loving toward myself as I was to others.
Think about it for a moment. What kind of friend are you? A faithful friend, a loving friend, a generous friend? I imagine you are, for, in truth, you must be or you wouldn’t have any friends at all! Mean-spiritedness does not bode well for friendship. True friendship is built upon a foundation of generosity and kindness.
Now, consider these attributes of friendship and apply them to yourself:
Do you talk nicely to yourself?
Do you listen to your wise self and heed her advice?
Do you set healthy boundaries?
Do you spend precious time with yourself?
Do you make kind choices for yourself?
If we can’t answer these questions in the affirmative, it’s likely we are too busy to take good care of ourselves, or overly focused on meeting the needs of others.
Befriending requires an attitude of generosity towards oneself. It invites you to take a long, loving look at how you are being with yourself on a day-to-day basis; whether you give yourself the attention and care you so easily give to others. How good of a friend are you actually being to yourself? If you were your friend, would you like to be on the receiving end of your own attention?
How do you begin to befriend yourself? These are some good places to start:
• Befriending requires that you become supremely aware of your thoughts as they emerge because these thoughts can lead to unkind choices. You can recognize these thoughts for what they are—habituated ways of reacting to life. You can see them and address them with compassion so you are better able to make new, empowering choices for yourself. This is mindful awareness.
• Befriending, composed of good self-awareness, allows you to “catch yourself in the act” of being less-than-kind.” This “act” can be any number of things that either minimize your needs, diffuse your energy, or sabotage your good intentions: unkind speech, procrastinating about healthy life style choices, pushing through when you are exhausted instead of resting, and so forth.
• Befriending invites you to new ways of thinking and being that create greater ease so healing can happen, so harmony can return. It beckons you to begin to let go of anything that causes stress or overwhelm; anything that keeps you sourced in frustration or anger, disconnected from your core of inner peace.
• Befriending encourages you to uncover the practices that allow you to feel more peaceful—and actually do them! These are acts of loving-kindness, kind choices that bring immediate calm, which, in time, transfer into long-term well-being. Choice by gentle choice, we learn what is good for us and we do it.
• It is good and wise to be fully aware of what your particular patterns are when it comes to ways that you do not treat yourself as carefully and kindly as you should (and that’s a “good should!). This requires transparency.
You can begin to befriend yourself by becoming your own best friend, baby step by baby step. Doing more or doing less. Pushing through or letting go. Listening deeply to yourself so that you know how to treat yourself with “unconditional friendliness.”
When you lose sight of what is the “friendly” thing to do for yourself (which everyone does now and then), simply imagine what your dearest friend would advise you to do. Imagine her touching you gently on the shoulder and saying, “Dearie, what you need is …” and fill in the blank. Or, imagine what you would say to her when she is struggling. When we respond to our current dilemma in either of these ways, the answer is always clear. “Sweetheart, take a breath. Sit down. Let’s have a cup of tea.”
We can treat ourselves ever so gently, choice by tender choice. The key is having as much compassion for ourselves as we do for others. It takes time and perseverance to shift deep-seated patterns. Or, as Michael Bolton sang, “It takes time, love, and tenderness.”
"I remember sitting on the in front of the sliding glass door in my home, wrapped in a blanket, my forehead pressed to the cool glass. I was singing softly to myself, chanting, crying, certain my life was over. I kept asking why, crying out for divine relief from the pain, and I received a profound answer: 'I love you,' a voice said. 'Why can't you love you?' The "I" was God, who ever-so-gently, reminded her that even though she had been humanly betrayed, she was divinely loved and worthy of that love. Most importantly, she was deserving of her own."
This story comes from the lips of Sue Patton Thoele, my dearest mentor for life, who, like me has struggled with how to love myself—more. She shared it with me as I was interviewing her for my book Your Truest Self. Sue was the Holy Woman being portrayed in Chapter 6 from which this story is taken: "I Cultivate Compassion for Myself."
What Sue has taught me over the years, by her very example, is this: I can't even come close to having compassion for myself--living kindly and gently with myself—if I don't love myself.
And there's the rub.
So many of us have been taught that loving ourselves is bad. Loving yourself has been confused with being narcissistic—and this is simply not true. "Nor is it egotism, greed, self-righteousness, self-involvement, stubbornness, or conceit, all of which have given real self-love a bad name," writes Daphne Rose Kingma in her book, Loving Yourself: Four Steps to a Happier You. "Rather it is the singing spring from which each of us can become our most authentic self."
In fact, genuine self-love, tenderly cultivated over time does this:
"From the well of quiet acceptance, from the practice of a gentle unconditional care of ourselves, we can reach out to love others with exquisite generosity and bounteous open hearts." Thank you, Daphne!
If self-love was selfish, how could it result in something so beautiful as a heart overflowing with love for others?
I’ve been on a journey to live more kindly and gently with myself for over two decades. Today, in retrospect, it feels as if living gently is, indeed, my passion and my purpose. It continues to serve as my everyday lesson as well. Gentle living is my teacher, my guide, because, like you, I live in the real world and the world today is a difficult place in which to live, and living in it demands much of us. The world does not go gently …
And as much as the “too muchness” of life might overtake us, we cannot hide from the world as it is, nor shrink from our duties, nor escape to a mountaintop cabin to live in an imagined world of bliss. There is much to do here, families to raise and professions to embrace, including good work that can benefit humanity. The invitation then seems to be, "How do I live in the world, make a contribution, and still take good care of myself so I am calm, happy and healthy in the midst of it all?" That, indeed, is the $1 million question.
I believe the answer lies in learning to live more gently and kindly with ourselves. This sounds like an oxymoron and, depending on your life situation, an impossibility. From experience, I can tell you that it’s not. The “success”, if you will, of being able to live more kindly with yourself is to learn how to listen more deeply to the voice of self-compassion which lives within you, but has likely not been given space nor time to be heard. In the busyness of daily life, it is difficult to hear a voice that wisely whispers ever so subtly, “There is a kinder way.” But it’s there. I know because it took a health crisis 20 years ago, spending weeks in bed not doing much of anything, before I finally heard it.
To hear the sacred invitation to live more kindly with yourself is one thing. To actually listen to and do what the voice of kindness says is another. And to create a lifestyle rooted in self-compassionate awareness so that you can continue to make kind choices for yourself—so you maintain your health and well-being—well, that’s something else altogether!
This is why I can say that living kindly is both an art and a science. There is much to overcome, old stories to unravel, and new skills to learn. I maintain that living gently and kindly with yourself is absolutely possible whether you are the CEO of a corporation or a stay-at-home mother; a college student or a retiree; a “regular” person who is doing the best she can to live and work in harmony with herself and others but, perhaps, struggling along the way ...
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Janice Lynne Lundy, DMin
is an educator, interspiritual director/guide and retreat leader who has been pointing people back toward the Sacred for more than twenty years. She is the author of several spiritual growth books, including Your Truest Self, My Deepest Me and Portable Peace., and is the co-founder and director of the Spiritual Guidance Training Institute.