I want to be a Wiping Wizard

It’s all about the small moments

Close up of hands rinsing a soapy white cloth under running water in a sink

When I was staying home with my very young children, I used to joke that my primary job as “Mom” was to wipe… wipe noses, wipe bottoms, wipe tables, counters, floors.

If you were to add up all the hours spent wiping, it would be around 27 hours a day. That’s right, more than 100% of any given day as a SAHM of multiple youngsters is spent wiping something. Spilled milk, my shirt, drool, my pants, my child’s shirt, spit up, poo, the potty seat, my child’s face, my face, my hair, my child’s hands…

You get the picture. All. The. Time. Wiping. I dreamt about wiping… messes too big for any cloth. Laundry piling up. Washing machines breaking under the strain. My flabby triceps becoming svelt and defined from the constant effort of it all. (There’s always a silver lining, folks)

Then one day it dawned on me that really, honestly, being a good mom to my kids could actually be all about the quality of my wiping. I realized that this thing I do constantly mattered deeply.

We spend so much of our time worrying about how we are doing as a parent… how many months (or years) of therapy will our kids need as grown-ups because of us? Are we providing enough support? Too much? Are they having too much screen time? Do they need more activities or more rest? How are they when they are away from us? Are they respectful? Kind? Do they tease other children the way they tease their siblings? Are they hitting their developmental milestones on time? Are they hitting other people?

What I’ve learned over the years working in attachment is that it is all about the small moments. We get caught up in those questions and miss the fact that our child’s face flashed with shame when their milk spilled on the carpet, right before they started to cry.

If we are doing a good job of wiping, we are present. We notice not only that the milk spilled on the carpet, but also that our child feels bad about it.

If we are doing a good job of wiping, we selfregulate. Rather than letting our initial annoyance or frustration take the lead and cause us to say or do things we later regret, we take a deep breath (or five) and lead with compassion.

If we are doing a good job of wiping, we are responsive. We might be worried about getting the milk up or the possibility of lingering stink if it’s not cleaned properly, but we choose to respond first to our child’s emotional need. It might only take a moment, getting down to our kid’s level with a hug… “oh dear, your milk spilled! That’s ok, I know it was an accident. We’ll get it cleaned up, don’t worry. You can help! We’ll work together.” Or we might need to spend a little more time with our kiddo before it’s ok to start wiping, responding first to their needs and then to the task.

If we are doing a good job of wiping, we are kind. This may be the 7 millionth spill we’ve cleaned up in the past 30 minutes, we might be ready to lose our minds, but we recognize that our child is not the bad guy. Our child is just that, a child. And children spill things. Kindness allows us to treat our children as we would want to be treated. Kindness allows us to look past the momentary frustration to see the beautiful little person we value more than life itself, and to treat them accordingly.

We can learn a great deal about ourselves in these small moments… Are we patient or do we lose control of our emotions? Are we servant leaders or dictators? Do we understand our children or miss them entirely? However we are, our children soak us up.

In these small moments, I have the unique and weighty opportunity to be the person I want my children to become.

I no longer feel exasperated by all the wiping (though, admittedly it has lessened somewhat). It has become for me a sort of barometer for how I am doing… on good days I am present, regulated, responsive, and kind. Other days I might struggle with one or all of those things, and then know I need to give myself a little care in order to get back on track.

These days, my parenting goal is to be a wiping wizard.

So much love,

April

How to thrive in the face of the unfixable

Acceptance carries with it an active, courageous honesty that brings freedom

Small tree and mushroom growing out of a log

There is an anonymous quote that goes something along the lines of, “when you can’t find a solution to the problem, it’s probably not a problem to be solved, but a truth to be accepted.”

The first time I read that I balked. It hit something in me that made me want to scream. Acceptance seemed like such a passive thing to me at the time, like if I accept this, then I lay down and die. There is nothing more to be done. And that was a place I was not willing to go. In my small world, one doesn’t have a child with exceptional needs and simply accept it. One learns and digs and fights and figures things out and FIXES IT. Seriously.

But that dumb little quote would not get out of my head.

“Not a problem to be solved, but a truth to be accepted.”

Read that again in a more mocking tone.

Once more, a little whiny and nasally.

There you go. Just like that, through my head.

Everywhere I turned, there were truths to be accepted. BAH!

I’m certain it was God twisting that little sucker into my heart, and it was relentless. Nudging, pushing, prodding at my stubbornness and egoic savior complex like a big dog with a wet nose who needs a pat and is certain you are the one to provide it.

And just like that dog, underneath the annoyance of being pushed, there was also a warmth and affection for that stupid quote. Probably because I knew it was a truth to be accepted… by me… because truth is good for us.

I’ve since learned, and am learning still, that acceptance is entirely different from giving up and giving in. Acceptance is not the same as resignation. Acceptance carries with it an active, courageous honesty that can be searing at times, and that honesty brings freedom, and ultimately peace.

It’s also important to distinguish between peace and resignation… peace carries with it hope and joy, while resignation’s companions are despair and hopelessness. Peace enlivens, while resignation is like a wet blanket.

So how do we get there?? I believe the path to acceptance is the way of thriving in the face of the unfixable, and that path will take its own meandering course in anyone’s life, but there are useful common threads to be noted. I will caution you, as you read there will be things that irk and annoy, things no one really wants to hear. And I will encourage you to stay with that discomfort… allow it to lead you to the things you need to accept. And give yourself grace, and time to get there.

Expectations

Perhaps one of the most important things we need to accept in order to thrive when we are living with unfixable things are more realistic expectations. Right away I hear the argument: we have to have high expectations or my loved one will never… (what? walk again, talk, hold down a job, write her or his name, etc.). Good. Okay. And can we consider the possibility that our high expectations are not what produce results? What if our loved ones accomplish any of the things they accomplish not because we expect them to, but because we love, support, and encourage them? You might be thinking now that I’m splitting hairs, but I assure you this is an important distinction.

Let’s look at an example. When I think about high or unrealistic expectations, vacations immediately come to mind. My expectations for vacation are good rest, doing fun things in nature all together as a family, reading at least one great novel, and going out for at least one really nice dinner. And while those may not seem wildly unrealistic, I can personally attest to the fact that those very expectations have made me and my family miserable on numerous family vacations over the years.

Because you know what actually happens on vacations in my family?

No. one. rests.

Why?

We are in a strange place doing things that are out of the ordinary and completely out of routine.

This is the perfect scenario for meltdowns, tears, and screaming, not sleep, novels, and nice dinners. This is not the scenario in which mom gets to sit back and relax while the kids play happily together. This is the scenario where mom is actively involved every second or things go off the rails… and fast.

I promise you that my expectations for rest and happy family activities on vacation do not produce rest and happy family activities on vacation. In fact, I submit to you that those very expectations, due to their disconnect from reality, produce exactly the opposite of what I want, and I end up supremely grumpy and frustrated right along with my kiddos.

However, this past summer I expected vacation to be completely hands on and exhausting. Why go then?!? Well, my expectation was that, while it might not be restful and I might not pick up a book at all, we would have a fun and different experience. I would immerse myself in child-led activities and fall in bed exhausted every night. And guess what?! We had the most fun vacation I can remember as a parent. After all these years, I was finally able to align my expectations with reality and it was fun… and even a bit relaxing.

Attitude

This brings me to the next way to thrive… paying attention to our attitude. While high or unrealistic expectations are most often a source of unnecessary suffering, an attitude that is searching out the best, looking for good, and practicing gratitude, can make any situation more livable.

Did you know that we can actually wire our brains to be more positive? When we practice gratitude, the very act of looking for things to be grateful for trains our brains to seek out the positive. Notice the use of “practice” and “train” here… because rewiring our brains takes time and effort. We must not think that just because being grateful didn’t help today that it won’t ever help.

Think of it like weight lifting. If I were to pick up a 20 pound weight today it would feel pretty heavy. I don’t lift weights and have no idea what I’m doing. But if I take some time to learn, and practice lifting weights regularly, with time I will find that 20 pound weight can be lifted with ease.

This doesn’t mean that we put on a facade of always being happy. It definitely doesn’t mean we refuse to acknowledge the hard stuff. Instead, as we accept reality, we face the difficult things with clear eyes and then look for ways these very things can teach us or cause us to grow.

Help

This brings me to the third way to thrive… enlisting and accepting help. Sometimes help might come in the form of a teacher, spiritual director, mentor, or counselor who can teach us new ways of seeing and being in the world that allow us to thrive.

Sometimes the help we need to accept is at a practical, everyday level, with chores like cooking, cleaning, or getting organized.

Sometimes the help we need takes the form of respite care for our loved one which frees us up to do some other, much needed things.

As caregivers, we are very good at being competent and capable. We often over-perform to provide care, and even then we feel like we aren’t doing enough. Asking for help can make us feel like a burden, or even make us feel less worthy, as we so often draw a sense of worth and take pride in the ways we are able to help other people. These and a plethora of other factors (like how challenging it is to find respite care, or the cost of help, etc.) can leave us feeling stuck and alone when we desperately need a “village” to participate in for mutual edification and sustenance.

In the past, “villages” formed naturally through extended family and proximity. Men and women would come together to accomplish tasks, care for children and elders, and create and consume meals. In my idealistic version of our shared history, it seems it could have been simple to feel like an integral and necessary part of the whole, contributing and receiving in equal measure.

Natural villages now are rare for most of us. However we might do it, we need to get creative about enlisting help and becoming part of a true community, finding our people and welcoming each other into the messy, vulnerable spaces of our lives.

Self-care

Self-care is integrated into each of the previous components of thriving, as it’s less about doing the easy “feel good”thing, and more about doing the (often hard) work of becoming and maintaining the healthiest version of ourselves. Good self-care practices nurture each part of our being: our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. This will look different for everyone, and it’s important to be realistic with our expectations here as well. No season of life is perfect, and various pieces of self-care will be more or less well-suited to each season.

Accepting ourselves and our own needs is foundational to self-care. What do we need today? Is it more sleep, a colorful salad, a long run, some quiet meditation, or good conversation with a close friend? We cannot continuously bring our best selves to those we care for without intentionally refueling our minds, bodies, and spirits.

Think about your current practices of self-care…

Do you move your body frequently throughout the day?

Do you eat food that provides the nutrients your body needs?

Do you have a spiritual practice that is meaningful and uplifting?

Do you have ways to process your emotions that allows you to stay open and regulated most of the time?

Do you engage in relationships that are deeply fulfilling, and find healthy ways to protect yourself in relationships that are needlessly painful?

In what ways do you need to take better care of yourself?

In what ways are you doing really well?

Compassion

Acceptance will come more readily over time. For now, my expectations are bound to miss the mark, cause suffering, and require re-evaluation. Even then, things will be hard and my attitude will stink sometimes. Help will not be available when I need it, and self-care will suffer. Life is far from perfect, and our acceptance of that imperfection allows us the space for compassion.

As caregivers, we may find it easy to offer compassion to others, while at the same time holding ourselves to an unrealistic standard of perfection, and berating ourselves for even minor shortcomings and failures.

Sadly, this way of being in the world sets us up for bitterness and resentment. We may seem to offer an over-abundance of compassion on the surface, while underneath we feel put upon or taken advantage of. Over time, this lack of compassion for ourselves hardens us, closing us off more and more from true, selfless compassion for others.

We cannot change this in the blink of an eye.

Our first step toward compassion for ourselves is to notice when we are not offering it.

And then we work on noticing without judgement.

And then we try to do something more kind, whether that’s speaking kind words to ourselves in our minds, or treating ourselves more kindly when we’ve fallen short.

And then we work on turning that small kindness into a practice.

This compassion for ourselves sets us up to be more open, instead of hardening. It sets us up to have compassion flow, without thought of ourselves, to those around us.

Expectations, attitude, help, self-care, and compassion are the components that lead us down the path of acceptance. What is the problem you have tried so long to solve, that is actually a truth you are being given the opportunity to accept?

May you offer yourself the grace to find your way to the joy of acceptance. May you thrive as you face the things no one can fix.

So much love,

~A

5 Practices to Reduce Anxiety

Simple tools to use when anxiety strikes

Pink and blue sunset over misty blue mountains

The door closed and she fell back against it, sinking to the floor. Her heart was pounding, tears welling up in her eyes as she gasped for breath. The news had been a direct hit. Even though it was confirmation instead of surprise, it seemed the world had tilted the wrong way on its axis. Everything she had believed in for so long twisted, crumbling beneath the weight of hope denied.

“Come back to breath. Just breathe. Just breathe.”

Her usual mantra was one from a long ago Catholic mystic… “All shall be well…” it began, but right now she couldn’t bring herself to say it. It didn’t feel true.

Anxiety can crash in upon us any time. Bad news (or terrible news), fears about the future, and feelings of isolation can drop us to the floor.

In these moments, there are things we can do to keep anxiety from crushing us, but like anything new, they take time and intentionality to truly be effective. The following practices are tools I share with my clients all the time, and while I believe they can help anyone, please don’t be afraid to seek out your own therapist if anxiety is frequently overwhelming.

1) Gratitude Journal

For this exercise, you’ll want two clean journal pages for each entry. I like to use this tool before bed, as it allows time for reflection over one’s day and allows the mind to relax before sleeping.

On the left-hand page, make a list of all the things that are currently causing anxiety. These are the things you want to let go of, and as you write them on the page, visualize releasing them.

Then, on the right-hand page, make a list of all the things you are grateful for. These are the things you want to hold on to, and as you write them on the page, visualize them filling you up.

It is important to be as detailed with your gratitude as you are with your worries… for instance, instead of writing, “I’m thankful for my house,” try “I’m thankful for the wood stove that warms my home.” Generalities are more difficult to hold on to than specifics.

It is also important to do your best to make the gratitude list longer, and for it to contain some novel items each day. While there may be some things you consistently want to include, an entirely rote list often becomes less meaningful.

Ending with gratitude is also significant. This makes it the last thing on your mind before you sleep and allows the positive thoughts to stay with you.

2) Happy Place Visualization

This exercise can be practiced anywhere, any time you are able to close your eyes for a couple minutes. It takes time to develop it, but once you have, you will be able to access your happy place any time you need it.

So, close your eyes, slow your breathing, and think of your favorite place… perhaps a place you loved during your childhood or a current retreat. If you don’t have a space that comes to mind, think of what it might be like if you had it… in the woods? at the beach? in a big cozy chair by a warm wood-burning fireplace?

Then spend some time engaging your five senses there…

What do you see?

What do you hear?

What do you smell?

What do you touch?

What do you taste?

Take your time with this. Make that place as real in your mind as it would be if you were actually there. Maybe you are drinking some lemonade, or hot chocolate, or tea. Maybe you are running your fingers through the sand, or curled under a super soft blanket. Perhaps you hear birds singing, or waves crashing, or a fire crackling. Perhaps you smell the salt air, or the fallen leaves, or a favorite candle.

Once you are there, remember to continue to breathe slow and deep. Rest there for a few minutes and enjoy this space. When you are ready, open your eyes. Notice how you feel and remember you can get back there whenever you need it.

3) Comfort Box

This is a practice I learned from my own therapist years ago, and have been sharing with my clients ever since. The idea is to think about your favorite things, things that soothe you, and gather them into one place. For some people that place is a basket, for others a box they decorate, or a crate they like.

Whatever you choose, it should be large enough to fit several items… Once again, we are going to try to engage the five senses.

First, think of music that calms you. You might have a favorite CD or a relaxing playlist on your phone.

Next, think of something you enjoy tasting, like a particular tea or even a hard candy. Tea is a personal favorite because it covers three of the five senses by holding the warm mug in your hand, breathing in the aroma, and sipping the tea.

Think about other things you find calming to touch… a soft blanket or favorite sweatshirt?

Are there aromas you find calming in a candle or diffuser scent?

And finally, do you have a favorite book, perhaps poetry or even a coloring book that you enjoy looking at or coloring?

Gathering these items together when you are calm, makes them accessible during more difficult moments. Make sure you put everything you need in the basket, box, or crate (i.e., if you want to have a candle, remember to include matches; if you have a coloring book remember colored pencils, crayons, or markers). Find a space to keep your box near a spot you like to curl up in when you are stressed.

4) Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This practice has several variations. I’ll share my favorite here, but if you like this there might be a variation you prefer over this one.

To begin, have a seat and get comfortable. Close your eyes and notice your body. How is your back? Your neck? Do you need to shift at all?

Breathe slowly in through your nose, expanding your diaphragm as well as your lungs, for a count of five. Then slowly breathe out through your mouth, exhaling all the air out of your body, for a count of five. Repeat this five times.

Now, continuing to breathe slow and deep, turn your attention to your feet. Contract the muscles in your feet, making them as tight as you can (watch out for foot cramps!). Squeeze!!! For a count of five, then release, making the muscles in your feet as loose as Jell-O.

Next, contract your calf muscles and your thighs. As tight as you can! Squeeze!!! For a count of five, then relax, loose and pliable, like Jell-O.

Continue this with your hamstrings and glutes, then your abdomen and lower back.

Make fists with your hands, squeezing your hands and arms tight, shoulders to ears. Squeeze!!! For a count of five. Then drop your shoulders, release your fists, relax your arms, drop your head, chin to chest.

Slowly raise your head and turn your face toward the ceiling. Come back slowly to a comfortable center.

Finally tighten your jaw. Clench your teeth. And relax. Let your jaw hang loose.

Breathe in, slow and deep, through your nose for a count of five. Then out, through your mouth, for a count of five. Repeat this cycle five times.

Open your eyes.

How do you feel?

5) Visual Journal

This final practice is the most open-ended. Any size sketch book will work, but I prefer medium to large with spiral ring binding for ease of use. You’ll also want a variety of drawing/coloring implements such as pastels, crayons, pencils, and charcoal.

Put your emotions on the paper. Use color, texture, shape and size to externalize what you may not be able to verbalize. There are no rules here except to allow yourself the freedom to be imperfect. Give yourself time to create, allowing yourself to be fully immersed in the experience.

When you are done, decide what you want to do with it. Is it something you want to share, or something to keep and reflect on for a while? Don’t rush. Breathe.

When you are ready, it is useful to put words to what you created, whether that means writing about it or talking about it. Words help us make sense of our experience. Journaling is a good first step, where our words can be unfiltered and then sifted through for clarity. If you choose to share, make sure it is with those who are safe and understanding.

——————————————————————-

Time passed, she didn’t know how long. Slowly, she stood up and walked to the corner of her bedroom. The basket was there, beside her favorite chair. Her mug was on top with a packet of lemon tea inside. She walked to the kitchen in a daze and filled the kettle… poured her tea… added honey. Back in her bedroom with her warm mug in hand, she started the music. It played soft and low, reaching in to her soul, reminding her she was not alone. The candle was next. She placed it on the table with her tea and struck the match. Light. Such a tiny light changes everything. She pulled out the blanket, silky soft between her fingers, and wrapped it around her shoulders. Sinking into the chair, she curled her feet under her and closed her eyes for a moment.

All shall be well…

So much love,

~A

Who you are

You are the love and joy beneath the pain

“Be the silent watcher of your thoughts and behavior. You are beneath the thinker. You are the stillness beneath the mental noise. You are the love and joy beneath the pain”.

~ Eckhart Tolle

Ice covered tree in winter in front of a bright blue sky

For some of us, the idea that we are not our thoughts or emotions, but the one who observes them, is absolutely mind-blowing. We have been raised on the philosophical proposition that “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes’ postulation has helped us identify ourselves primarily with our minds, our ability to reason. We pride ourselves in our ability to think through problems and find effective solutions, and this isn’t wrong. It is GOOD to have a fully developed and functioning prefrontal cortex. It is good to be able to use both the left and right sides of our brains. But our thoughts are also limited and can be limiting.

In this present moment, our perceptions are impacted by every experience we have had so far in life. Our emotions are activated by the way we perceive things, and our thoughts, our plans, are carried out based on the whole mix of previous experience, activated emotions, and current experience.

Sometimes those plans work out beautifully… we witness the efficacy of our thoughts put into action, and it builds our confidence and self-esteem. But when those plans don’t work out, or worse, create a terrible mess, the opposite can happen. We can begin to see ourselves as “not good enough” or somehow defective.

When we identify ourselves as our thoughts and emotions, we are tossed around by the ever-changing landscape of our internal life.

This can get particularly tricky when we have experienced trauma. Trauma is a strong undercurrent to our everyday experiences, influencing how we see and make sense of the world, and activating our emotions so that we react to some situations as if we are in danger, instead of opening ourselves to a more thoughtful response.

The good news, whether or not we have experienced trauma, is that we can disentangle ourselves from our thoughts and emotions as our identity. When we do this, we are opened up to a peaceful, expansive stance toward our circumstances as the one who observes our thoughts and feelings about the things that are happening.

We can notice, acknowledge, and wait.

We can open ourselves up to our thoughts… we may think something, but that does not necessarily make it true. And we can experience the freedom of not needing to know. We can notice our thoughts without getting tied up in them, allowing them to flow rather than run circles through our minds that fuel our anxieties.

We can open ourselves up to experiencing our emotions without being overwhelmed by them, because we know they will pass and change, ebb and flow.

Give it a try

A good exercise to help us practice being the observer of our thoughts and feelings is a common mindfulness practice.

While seated, close your eyes and notice your body. Get comfortable… do you need to shift your legs? Your arms? Relax your shoulders, your jaw. Perhaps drop your head, chin to chest, and give a slow, gentle roll, side to side.

Once you are comfortable, imagine you are floating underwater in a river and your thoughts are ships passing overhead. You notice them and let them flow past. Often there will be a thought that captures you, a ship you board. Notice. Then get back into the river, under the water, and let that thought flow away from you without judgement.

At first, you can set a timer for just two minutes and practice observing the flow of your thoughts. With time, you can increase the length to 20 minutes or more.

This is a good practice when we are already calm. For me, first thing in the morning works best. During good moments, we train ourselves, so that in the future we can access this space during more difficult moments. This practice allows us to disentangle ourselves from our thoughts and emotions, to observe with kindness the things that flow through our minds.

As we practice, we become more and more aware of ourselves as the stillness beneath the mental noise. Our identity is settled more and more in the love and joy beneath the pain.

So much love,

~A

6 Simple Steps to Make It Through the Worst Times

How to be peaceful, calm, and kind when circumstances are not

Wooden dock on a lake in the moonlight

Most of the practices for calming in the face of anxiety or panic attacks hinge on the idea that here, now, I am safe. The premise is that worry and anxiety come from being trapped by the traumatic memories of the past, or from thinking of the terrible “what ifs” of the future.

But what happens when it’s not okay here and now? What if, in this moment, I am experiencing ongoing pain, or my child is having the tenth meltdown of the morning, or my spouse is having a major medical event, or my parent is showing signs of dementia?

How do we deal with the activation of the present moment without losing our minds?

This question has been with me frequently over the past several years… how can I be peaceful, calm, and kind when circumstances are not?

Before I share some steps I’ve found effective, let me say that these are things we can do on a “good” day, when things might be hard but we’ve gotten enough rest, or we are tired but thoroughly enjoying our coffee… these are not things that work all the time and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to always be peaceful, calm, and kind. We are humans interacting with humans. We WILL mess up. We will lose it and those we love will lose it. This is not only to be expected, it is one of the things I most love about John Bowlby’s theory of attachment: we will mess up in our relationships, but when we take the time to repair well, our relationships will be stronger than they were before!

But I digress… my point is, no one is perfect and we shouldn’t expect perfection from ourselves or anyone else. That expectation alone will cause great suffering.

However, when we are able, what can we do to stay calm and steady in the face of immediate hardship?

As anyone who practices meditation will tell you, the first and most basic tool is awareness. When things are getting hard and you feel yourself getting activated, notice.

That’s all. The first step is to notice what is happening. Eckhart Tolle says, “Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” We are not our thoughts or emotions, we are the observer.

Once we notice, we have the opportunity to take the next step, which is to pause. Instead of impulsively acting on whatever emotion or thought is arising, we can notice it and pause. Take a deep breath.

And perhaps another.

Pausing and slowing our breathing can help us calm our amygdala, a small part of our brain responsible for keeping us safe. Except our amygdala only gives us three options: fight, flight, or freeze. Sometimes those options are useful. When dealing with loved ones, usually they are not. Usually they will make the situation worse instead of better.

So, breathing slow and deep can calm our amygdala and send it the signal that everything is ok. Then our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that can make plans, be flexible, think through options, and let us see things from another’s point of view, can come back online and be in charge again.

We can reflect.

We can choose our response.

Unfortunately, even with our prefrontal cortex running the show, there simply are not always going to be solutions for the circumstances we face.

We’ve noticed. We’ve paused. We’ve breathed. We’ve reflected.

And our child is still screaming and throwing things.

Our pain is still curling us in a ball.

Our spouse is still sick.

Our parent is still oddly belligerent.

So the next step becomes perhaps the most difficult… acceptance. This is what is happening. I cannot change it. So I accept it.

Don’t get me wrong here, acceptance does not mean I will lay down and give up. Instead, acceptance is truly a form of courage. To face things as they are is one of the bravest things we will ever do.

We can’t rush this one. Acceptance may not happen in this moment. It may not happen today. It may not even happen next week. Or it may happen right now, but not tomorrow. Each of these steps takes practice, each one takes time.

As we give ourselves time to notice, time to pause, time to breathe, time to accept reality as it is, we are also practicing compassion. And in my mind, compassion is the crux of the whole thing. When we are able to practice compassion for ourselves as we learn and grow, we can also begin to practice compassion for those around us. And when it’s not okay, we need compassion more than any other time…

Compassion for ourselves in our own failings and shortcomings, when we don’t respond to tough situations the way we wish we would…

Compassion for those around us who are having a hard time, even when we aren’t sure we understand.

You see, compassion softens us. It allows us to open our hands and our hearts, to be present to ourselves or to another with tenderness, kindness, and care instead of bitterness, anger, or coldness. Compassion upholds and completes the cycle of finding peace when it’s not okay.

The steps are simple: notice; pause; breathe; reflect; accept; practice compassion. But they are not easy.

Most of us have not been trained to respond to hard and impossible things in these ways. Some of us might even find ourselves annoyed right now. If so, take a moment to think about how you usually respond when things really aren’t ok. What does it feel like in your body? Does your pulse quicken? Do your hands shake? Does your breathing get shallow? How does your voice sound? Do you yell? Go silent? And in the end, how do you feel? How do those around you feel?

Is what you’re doing working?

If so, then notice. Think about the things you do that work for you. Pause and appreciate them.

If not, then notice. Think about how you hope to feel in the face of difficulty. Think about how you want those around you to feel. Would you like to try something new?

There are many unfixable things we will face in our lives. If you haven’t encountered them yet, just give life time… they will come. And when they do, our only choice, our only power, lies in our response.

Notice.

So much love,

~A

When it’s not okay

Most of the practices for calming in the face of anxiety or panic attacks hinge on the idea that here, now, I am safe. The premise is that worry and anxiety come from being trapped by the traumatic memories of the past, or from thinking of the terrible “what ifs” of the future.

But what happens when it’s not okay here and now? What if, in this moment, I am experiencing ongoing pain, or my child is having the tenth meltdown of the morning, or my spouse is having a major medical event, or my parent is showing signs of dementia?

How do we deal with the activation of the present moment without losing our minds?

This question has been with me frequently over the past several years… how can I be peaceful, calm, and kind when circumstances are not?

Before I share some steps I’ve found effective, let me say that these are things we can do on a “good” day, when things might be hard but we’ve gotten enough rest, or we are tired but thoroughly enjoying our coffee… these are not things that work all the time and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to always be peaceful, calm, and kind. We are humans interacting with humans. We WILL mess up. We will lose it and those we love will lose it. This is not only to be expected, it is one of the things I most love about John Bowlby’s theory of attachment: we will mess up in our relationships, but when we take the time to repair well, our relationships will be stronger than they were before!

But I digress… my point is, no one is perfect and we shouldn’t expect perfection from ourselves or anyone else. That expectation alone will cause great suffering.

However, when we are able, what can we do to stay calm and steady in the face of immediate hardship?

As anyone who practices meditation will tell you, the first and most basic tool is awareness. When things are getting hard and you feel yourself getting activated, notice.

That’s all. The first step is to notice what is happening. Eckhart Tolle says, “Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” We are not our thoughts or emotions, we are the observer.

Once we notice, we have the opportunity to take the next step, which is to pause. Instead of impulsively acting on whatever emotion or thought is arising, we can notice it and pause. Take a deep breath.

And perhaps another.

Pausing and slowing our breathing can help us calm our amygdala, a small part of our brain responsible for keeping us safe. Except our amygdala only gives us three options: fight, flight, or freeze. Sometimes those options are useful. When dealing with loved ones, usually they are not. Usually they will make the situation worse instead of better.

So, breathing slow and deep can calm our amygdala and send it the signal that everything is ok. Then our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that can make plans, be flexible, think through options, and let us see things from another’s point of view, can come back online and be in charge again.

We can reflect.

We can choose our response.

Unfortunately, even with our prefrontal cortex running the show, there simply are not always going to be solutions for the circumstances we face.

We’ve noticed. We’ve paused. We’ve breathed. We’ve reflected.

And our child is still screaming and throwing things.

Our pain is still curling us in a ball.

Our spouse is still sick.

Our parent is still oddly belligerent.

So the next step becomes perhaps the most difficult… acceptance. This is what is happening. I cannot change it. So I accept it.

Don’t get me wrong here, acceptance does not mean I will lay down and give up. Instead, acceptance is truly a form of courage. To face things as they are is one of the bravest things we will ever do.

We can’t rush this one. Acceptance may not happen in this moment. It may not happen today. It may not even happen next week. Or it may happen right now, but not tomorrow. Each of these steps takes practice, each one takes time.

As we give ourselves time to notice, time to pause, time to breathe, time to accept reality as it is, we are also practicing compassion. And in my mind, compassion is the crux of the whole thing. When we are able to practice compassion for ourselves as we learn and grow, we can also begin to practice compassion for those around us. And when it’s not okay, we need compassion more than any other time…

Compassion for ourselves in our own failings and shortcomings, when we don’t respond to tough situations the way we wish we would…

Compassion for those around us who are having a hard time, even when we aren’t sure we understand.

You see, compassion softens us. It allows us to open our hands and our hearts, to be present to ourselves or to another with tenderness, kindness, and care instead of bitterness, anger, or coldness. Compassion upholds and completes the cycle of finding peace when it’s not okay.

The steps are simple: notice; pause; breathe; reflect; accept; practice compassion. But they are not easy.

Most of us have not been trained to respond to hard and impossible things in these ways. Some of us might even find ourselves annoyed right now. If so, take a moment to think about how you usually respond when things really aren’t ok. What does it feel like in your body? Does your pulse quicken? Do your hands shake? Does your breathing get shallow? How does your voice sound? Do you yell? Go silent? And in the end, how do you feel? How do those around you feel?

Is what you’re doing working?

If so, then notice. Think about the things you do that work for you. Pause and appreciate them.

If not, then notice. Think about how you hope to feel in the face of difficulty. Think about how you want those around you to feel. Would you like to try something new?

There are many unfixable things we will face in our lives. If you haven’t encountered them yet, just give life time… they will come. And when they do, our only choice, our only power, lies in our response.

Notice.

So much love,

~A