My son has a book about a tractor named Otis. Otis saves a calf who’s fallen into a mud pit. The calf is struggling to get out and the more he struggles, the deeper he gets sucked into the thick, sticky mud. It all ends well for the calf and Otis, but what about the rest of us who’re stuck in the mud with no friendly tractor to pull us out?
Because we’re all stuck in some mud. It’s the nature of being human.
Buddha spoke of it when he said that life is suffering. Maybe you’re sick, maybe you’re lonely, maybe you have a hangnail. Maybe your marriage is falling apart, maybe your children are driving you crazy. Maybe you’re lazy or broke or 4 pants sizes bigger than you want to be.
This is what it means to be human—to be imperfect in our own uniquely beautifully messed up ways.
So many people spend so much time and energy worrying that they are too __(fill in the blank)__. That if people only knew how _(fill in the blank)____ they were the shit would hit the fan. What would happen?
Would everyone really turn their backs and walk away? Would stones be thrown at your head? Would you be exposed as a breathing, sweating man or woman with bruises and bumps?
As somehow more truly broken or icky than everybody else?
We are ALL warty. Whatever you are worried about—that you are too _(fill in the blank)___—there is likely some truth to it…
…AND it is NOT the WHOLE TRUTH.
I am impatient. I can’t remember anything about history or dates. I get lost in the plots of complex movies and need someone to explain it to me. I snap at my kids. I don’t like the burn of an intense workout. ALL true. But I’m also loving, and funny and smart in all kinds of other ways. And so are you.
Sometimes I work with clients who fear that, on some deep-down buried level they are evil. And even that is partly true. We are all microcosms of the universe and bad/evil is part of that universe so it is part of us. It’s the yin and yang. It’s the whole gorgeous blob of sweet aliveness. But it’s an evolving universe, and unless you have a serious head injury or cognitive disorder, you’re evolving too. The definition of evolving is to develop towards more a mature, advanced, complex form. And when we use the brilliant consciousness we’ve been graced with as human beings, we can shine the light of mindfulness and compassion on even the dingy, stingy bits of our beings.
When we can stop writhing in the mud, we can quiet down. We see our muddy legs, the brown splotches of mud on our elbows. We see all our loved ones in the mud with us—and they’re splotchy too. They have mud mushed on their cheeks and in their hair. But we don’t hate them for it. We love them in spite of that wet, soggy dirt.
Maybe when you allow yourself to look clearly at yourself you find things you don’t like. That happens. But when we are seeing clearly, there isn’t a charge. It isn’t the end of the world; it’s just a little mud. So maybe we wash some of it off. We try to change what we can. But it’s not an emergency. It’s just growing into the next moment we’ve been gifted.
Some people struggle with phobias, some people with loss. Some folks have confusion about their career, some with their sexuality. But, as a therapist, the most common issue I see people wrestling with is self-criticism and lack of self-worth. The most important part of my role is holding the knowledge of my clients’ value and goodness. So it begs the question: How do I KNOW my clients are valuable and good? And what does that even mean?
The Buddhists have a term: basic goodness. Basic goodness rests on the fact that, at their core, all beings want to be happy and peaceful. Often, people think they’re the one exception in regard to basic goodness. However, it’s not the adult client I see in my office, but their scared inner child, who wants to have a conversation about why basic goodness doesn’t apply to them. This may be because of scary feelings they have, or poor choices they’ve made, but most often it’s because some relationships or experiences during their childhood sent them the message that they were unacceptable in some way. A message that was internalized and generalized.
Life runs from aggression and is soothed by love. Life wants to persist. When people’s behaviors don’t follow these rules, it’s not because they’re bad. In those cases there’s pain or fear blocking someone’s true nature of basic goodness. It’s not their fault—it’s their work. It’s not something to eradicate—it’s something to breathe into with gentleness.
Recognizing our own basic goodness is important to every one of us. Many of us live our lives running after or running away from relationships, intimacy, and opportunities to “prove ourselves worthy” out of fear of our being somehow defective.
With our human minds, we often can find ourselves caught in trying to figure out if we’re worth the love, self-acceptance, and gentleness for which we long. When we react to and obsess about the internalized voice that says “Something is wrong with me” we end up struggling to maintain it (out of familiarity) or disprove it as a subplot to our life.
And though it’s a subplot so many share, it’s one of which people are ashamed. And so we go around smiling, functioning, showing our most confident sides—masking the core doubt and pain—hoping to someday figure out how to feel or be lovable and worthy.
The thing is: There is nothing to figure out.
The internal voice which has all kinds of proof—for and against why we are or aren’t pieces of shit—is actually a freaked out kid who needs our love, attention, and acceptance. We wouldn’t push away a scared, confused child saying “What’s wrong with you? Stop all your scared/sad bullshit and get over yourself!” but we say something like that to ourselves all the time.
However cheesy the term “Inner Child” is, it’s a true and powerful concept.
The rules with which we’ve been parenting that child don’t work: logic, force, demands.
Your scared inner child doesn’t have the resources to comfort himself. She’s not going to be able to decide you’re ok. Drop the rules. Drop the logic. When the methods you’ve been using to feel better don’t work, you have to stop struggling to make them work. You have to return to love.
It doesn’t make sense to reason a scared child out of his or her fears:
“Monsters don’t exist because I say so.” OR
“It’s silly to be afraid to go down the slide.”
However much we know that the child’s fears are not based on truth, debating the issue is beside the point and generally unhelpful.
Maybe we talk about what it feels like to be afraid. Maybe we explore what could be stressing the kid out. Maybe we offer to lie together in the dark until the child feels safe. Maybe we remind the child we believe in her and we’ll keep her safe.
That empathy and comfort is what we need to offer ourselves.
We need to do that for ourselves. Our wish to be loved is the only proof we need that we are lovable.
He was in sales; I was studying to be a therapist. We had different views on religion. With his short hair and clean-shaven face he was more clean-cut than my previous boyfriends. And our first kiss had just been so-so. I had my doubts about where this might go.
On that date, however, as we shot pool and munched peanuts I ended up having such a great time that I decided to give him a chance, and that evening the kiss was delicious.
Over twelve years of marriage and parenting, our differences have, at times, been the source of conflict. But what I’ve learned to hold onto is that, it’s the doubt, judgment and criticism of our differences, that are toxic — not the number of ways we differ.
Of course, we all want to share some fundamental things — and to have a successful relationship we’ve got to have the basics — safety, love, trust and commitment. But compatibility is more about the ways we draw on one another’s strengths to build a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
More than, “Do we have enough in common?” or “Can he finish my sentences?” I think the important question is: “Am I open and willing to work towards finding the gifts in our similarities and differences?”
There are red flag issues like abuse or dishonesty, and then there’s the other stuff: I’m outdoorsy and he’s not, I’m neat and he’s messy, I’m a meat-eater and he’s vegetarian. These differences aren’t deal-breakers. In fact, our fixation on the ways that our husband is “too different” from us is the actual thing that keeps us from being compatible.
But what do we do when we find ourselves focusing on, and judging our marriage, for the qualities we don’t share?
Here are some tips for nurturing true compatibility: (click here to read the rest…)
This article was first published in:
We’ve got a lot of little choices like this everyday because we live in a culture based on consumption and individualism. What can YOU make? What do YOU have? What do YOU do that’s special or different? It can be wonderful in so many ways. There are ingenious and gorgeous creations all around us (but there’s plenty of crappy plastic shit too).
The blessing and the curse of individualism is that it comes at the cost of no longer having an assumption of one’s place, role, or purpose in the world.
The number of choices and options we have are dependent on wealth and privilege, but everyone has to choose their cereal, politics, mate.
And a challenge of choice, is doubt.
Did I make the right choice?
Did she make a better choice than me?
When we no longer have the village — when we don’t share the rituals and traditions passed down over the ages — we have to recreate the wheel of family, life, love, parenting and to hope we do it “right.” It’s a freeing thing to be able to decide what’s right for ourselves but it also leaves us floating, unanchored to culture and tradition.
And so, we wonder if we’re making the right choices. Should I stay in this job or go back to school? Should I move to another state? Should I get married or cohabitate? Should I breast-feed or use formula?
And the hardest thing about all the choice is that we don’t talk about the doubt that almost invariably comes along with it. (Click here to read the juicy stuff…)
When we came down out of the trees and began holding our bodies upright to reach ripe fruit we got top heavy.
Our brains got bigger and our skulls had to evolve larger to hold them. We began to be born half-baked. Our skulls under the peach fuzz of our scalps like puzzle pieces–shifting and fusing over a period of infancy. We had to stay in one place longer to raise our half-baked babies. And when we stayed around we needed tools to help us fight for food and protect ourselves. We shaved stone into arrows to pierce the hearts of our prey. Lit fires. Noticed patterns in the stars.
We began to depend more on our cognitive and creative abilities and less on our strength and size, and these abilities are exceptional. Over time: art, music, crop-selection, medicine, flight, computers.
Our brains. They have imaginal capacity beyond compare and we translate those imaginations into reality.
But the mind doesn’t have a governor. The mind doesn’t have limits if it isn’t grounded in the body. And so the wonders we’ve accomplished have come with a dear price. Difficulty knowing when to stop. Trouble remembering simplicity. Challenge in bringing ourselves back from the wide scope of fantasy and creation and grandness (or dark caverns, boogiemen, and impossible labyrinths).
In the past, culture did some of this for us. Humans had rules and rituals to contain and order us. The elder was the governor. The wisdom handed down. The expectations like the herding of kids by a mother goat. Giving us order. And some cultures have sustained their traditions–giving their people direction, mirror, path.
There are no perfect cultures where all members are healthy, actualized, peaceful. But when there is no culture but one of consumption, breakdown happens. So many of the struggles I see in my work are fed, if not created by, the lack of connection so many of us feel to a greater community. In the vacuum of our solitary minds, we build stories of insufficiency.
There is a story of a conference in 1990 where the Dalai Lama was asked by Sharon Salzberg about dealing with the chronic lack of self-worth we westerners have. She said she’d been teaching her students to first focus on compassion for self and then turn that compassion out towards others. The Dalai Lama had no idea what she was talking about. He asked the westerners in the audience who had experienced the self-hatred and self-contempt of which she was speaking and every hand went up. He then agreed that focusing first on self-compassion is key.
In a culture ruled by the mind…which doesn’t even recognize that ruler but takes it for granted and believes its refrain, we must take the radical act of
putting our minds in their place.
We’ve got to remember that we are animals. We are bodies. We need connection. We need touch. We need movement and song. Our minds need the whole of us to be in charge. Our minds are like nervous children, running through a huge house. Bring them into the kitchen, give them tea, put on a fire, hug them, “shhh” them. Tell them they’re okay just as they are.