A simple compassion exercise

During this week's blog-writing time, I found myself thinking about someone close to me who has really been struggling lately, and who has been doing things that, from the outside looking in, seem stupid and self-sabotaging.

The more I focused on the situation, the more scared and helpless and angry I felt -- a downward spiral that had to stop if I was going to write anything honest or valuable.

I tried a number of things to get my bearings back. I acknowledged and listened to my feelings (including the annoyance that they were there in the first place). I thought about what I really want for this person, and wrote out a list of those things. Then I re-wrote that list as things I want for myself, too.

Each of those helped to some degree, but the thing that really clinched it was going through a compassion exercise from the Avatar course, which was printed on a small card that was on the table right next to me. You can find the full text here, but to summarize the instructions:

With attention on a specific person, repeat to yourself the following:

  1. Just like me, this person is seeking some happiness for his/her life.
  2. Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.
  3. Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.
  4. Just like me, this person is seeking to fulfill his/her needs.
  5. Just like me, this person is learning about life.

This exercise was such an important reminder to me that just because someone's actions cause pain for them (or others!), doesn't mean that their goal is to cause or experience pain. They may just not know (or have the skills to implement) better ways to get what they really want.  

When I assume that this person I care about wants to cause herself pain, it is really scary, and I can find myself resisting her actions and not trusting her decisions. But when I remember that what she wants for herself is actually the same thing I want for her, that dynamic shifts and I can become an ally. Which feels so much better to us both.

You don't have to fix it

I'll be honest. I've been struggling lately to practice what I preach. There has been significant upheaval in my family and home, and it has been overwhelming my ability to cope.

I can't tell you how annoying it is to have collected all this knowledge about creating joy and connection -- and to know that it's possible under any circumstance -- and yet be unable/unwilling to put it into practice.

In the back of my mind, I keep finding myself thinking, Something's wrong. I have to fix it! This makes me anxious and keeps me from seeing clearly and acting wisely. And it's not even true.

The reality is, I can't fix it. Because the "it" is Life itself, including things that have already happened, and things beyond my control.

In the big picture sense, there is nothing wrong with Life. It just contains a lot of things I don't like and don't understand. 

Stepping back like this eases the anxiety. It gives me space to remember who I am and see more clearly what I might do to create more joy and connection right now.

It also reminds me how much I love talking to people about life, and how much I've missed teaching and facilitating these past few months.

I look forward to getting back into that soon, but in the meantime, I am available for 1:1 conversations, and would love to talk to you. See details on Pepperlane.

I wish you love and happiness, no matter what your life is like right now!

What would you have done?

Our local post office is notorious for having especially rude, surly and unhelpful clerks. Earlier this week I saw it in action. 

Ahead of me in line was a woman trying to send a package overnight. The problem was, overnight service -- although offered by the postal service -- wasn't available to the particular destination she needed.

An additional problem was, English wasn't the customer's first language. Nor was it the clerk's. And the clerk spoke really, really fast. The customer didn't understand the situation, and kept repeating her same request, while the clerk got more and more exasperated and rude, rolling her eyes and making comments that were dismissive and disparaging.

As an onlooker, this was extremely uncomfortable to witness.

My heart went out to the customer, who was not just frustrated and disappointed that she couldn't get this package to its destination in time, but also, I imagine, somewhat humiliated by the way she was looked at and spoken to. 

I was angry with the clerk, who could hardly have been more unhelpful or disrespectful. I was angry that, for whatever reason, there was no one else there to help deal with the growing line of customers. And I was annoyed at the postmaster, the postal service, and government bureaucracy as a whole, for the dysfunctional organizational culture that makes this kind of behavior acceptable, even commonplace.

I took down the name of the postmaster, and started drafting a very powerful and articulate letter in my head to make him aware of the impact of this situation. I was halfway through that imaginary letter, the customer having already left, before I realized, with some embarrassment, that I'd completely missed my chance to actually be helpful.

I'd been thinking so much about what everyone else should and shouldn't have been doing to help the situation, that I completely missed the fact that I had agency too. That jittery fight/flight response I was feeling while standing in line? That was my body getting ready to do something!

It wouldn't have needed to be anything dramatic or heroic. What if I had just gone up to the customer and asked if there was anything I could do to help? Practically-speaking, there wasn't much I could do, but might the action have still made a difference?

Maybe it would have helped the customer feel more supported and less alone. Maybe it would have helped the clerk re-think her approach. Maybe it would have eased my sense of powerlessness, and soothed the discomfort of the other customers in line as well. Any one of those outcomes would have made it worth it to me.

I'm curious what other ideas you have about situations like this. Have you experienced similar discomfort in watching other people mistreat each other? What kinds of things have you done, or do you wish you had done? What was the outcome, or what might it have been? What other options can you think of for preventing and minimizing harm in situations like this?

Using hindsight to re-commit

Earlier tonight, instead of writing this blog post, I found myself in a long and heated argument with my husband -- which I realize, in hindsight, I could have totally prevented.

By listening to his actual words, rather than what I was reading into them.

By recognizing his good intentions, and trusting in our common goals.

By humbly considering that I don't know everything, and that he may have valid concerns.

Or, at the very least, by stopping to re-focus when I could see we were both worked up.

But instead, I persevered (ha!), and successfully engaged in over an hour of defensiveness and fear and negativity. Followed by a long period of journaling, apologizing and reconciling. 

It was good learning, I suppose, and I'm getting an unexpected new blog post out of it, but there are so many other ways I could have used that time.

I share this not out of shame or self-pity, but because, after messing up, it feels good to remind myself what I'm really committed to.

Listening. Trust. Humility. Self-awareness.

These things matter, and they are worth practicing over and over again. Along with huge doses of self-compassion and forgiveness.

Thank you for practicing along with me.

The peace of not knowing

Last week I noticed tulips already starting to come up in the neighbor's yard. In the middle of February in Massachusetts!

I'm no gardener, but this seemed awfully early to me.

My first thoughts were predictable ones related to climate change accompanied by feelings of anger, despair and helplessness: This is clearly not right! These tulips have been duped into blooming at the wrong time.

But then I took a breath, and noticed the thoughts shift.

How do you know? I found myself asking my certain, worried self. Life so much bigger than you. What if the tulips know something you don't know? What if, for some reason, this timing is actually perfect?

There was something peaceful for me in not knowing. It gave me the freedom to let go of my certainty that things are terrible just because they happen to feel terrible.

It was different than denial -- pretending that everything's fine and will automatically work out to my liking, while being afraid to look at any conflicting evidence. Rather, it was peace that comes from being aware of all that's going on, and still appreciating how much there is that I don't know.

It was interesting to notice that it didn't leave me feeling deadened or complacent the way denial does. I sometimes hear people worry that if they let go of their fear and anger, they would no longer be motivated to take important actions or work for positive change, but that wasn't my experience at all. Instead, freed up from worry, I felt a lot clearer about what there was for me to do. And it was possible to do it joyfully.

I like imagining that the tulips are living joyfully, too.

A song for all of us

Has a song ever captured a feeling so perfectly for you that you just had to put it on repeat and listen over and over again?

This was that song for me today: We All Need Saving, by Jon McLachlan.

It was first introduced to me by Rev. Becky Sheble-Hall, the Executive Director of an incredible organization called Chaplains on the Way that ministers to people suffering from homelessness and poverty in Waltham, MA.

For me the song poignantly captures what it's like to love someone who is suffering and feeling alone. And let's face it: hasn't that been all of us at some point?

I want so much for people to feel the love and support available to them. At the same time, I know I can't make anyone feel it. All I can do is keep offering my love, which feels both humbling and empowering.

I think that's all we can do to help anyone, really: to keep offering love in the best way we know how, and making sure that we receive the support we need to do so.

I hope you enjoy the song as much as I do. And if there's someone in your life that you could use help loving better, please reach out to me. It's what I'm here for.

Why it's hard to ask for help

I've been finding myself feeling very needy lately.

Is that as uncomfortable a feeling for you as it is for me?

Never mind that I teach classes with titles like "The Art of Receiving" and confidently tell people that one of the best gifts they can give is to accept another person's help. It can still be hard to put into practice.

One of the things that makes it hard is that it can take me a while to recognize my own neediness. It feels scary and uncomfortable to admit I'm in a situation I don't feel equipped to handle, and so I pretend it's not true. At those times, it doesn't matter how many people are out there able and willing to help me: as long as I'm resisting being needy, I simply won't accept it.

There is a cost to that resistance, though, which is that the neediness starts coming out sideways, as things like impatience, defensiveness and criticism. It feels awful to me, and to the people around me. And it will keep getting worse until I finally say, "Help!" and admit I don't have things handled.

At that point, the thing that can make it difficult to receive help is just the opposite: rather than denying my neediness, I identify with it, and start wallowing in self-pity. "Save me, I can't do this" is the message I broadcast. But when people do try to save me, I resent it -- because the truth is, I don't actually want to be powerless. I don't want other people to live my life or make my decisions for me.

What I really want is to find my own answers. But sometimes I need help figuring out what they are. 

From that awareness, it becomes a lot easier to both ask for help and to receive it. It's just a matter of figuring out the right question(s): What is the situation I'm dealing with? How do I feel about it? Where am I stuck or conflicted? What do I need to know? What do I actually want? What might I do? 

I can ask these questions to myself, to God, to other people... I'm not sure it matters. What matters is my willingness to receive answers that feel good, and get the help I need, so I can be available to others when they need me.

May you, too, recognize your neediness, embrace your desires, find your answers, and be there when others need you.


Raj Raghunathan teaches a free online course called A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment, and this week sent out a newsletter that included a link to this short 16-minute film.

I've watched it three times already, and hope that you will give yourself the gift of watching it, too. It hits on so much of what the gift of happiness is about, in a way that talking and writing about it just can't.

What do you think? Where are you in this story? What does it suggest for your life?

What are you thinking?

While driving the other day, I noticed that the top of me was very hot in the sun, but my feet were cold from having just walked in the snow.

It would be awfully nice if I could tell the car to blow warm air onto my feet and cool air onto my face, I thought. That would feel so good! Just thinking about it made me smile and appreciate how wonderful comfort is.

And then came another line of thought: Oh come on! There are people who don't even have cars. Can you really not handle a little physical discomfort? Instantly the joy was replaced with guilt. Guilt for wanting something more than I have, for wanting something that most other people will probably never have. I started feeling tense, and a little disgusted.

Wait a minute, countered the first line of thought. I never said I couldn't handle discomfort, or that I wanted my own comfort at the expense of anyone else's. I was just appreciating how nice it would be to have relief. Is there really anything wrong with that? Am I supposed to want to be uncomfortable? The guilt subsided. And I took off my coat.

I share this because it's a great example of how much our happiness is shaped by our thoughts, and how quickly our sense of well-being can change based on those thoughts: Doing things to increase joy feels good; doing things to avoid pain feels bad. Appreciation feels good; guilt feels bad. Wishing happiness for all people feels good; focusing only on ourselves feels bad.

The objective situation can stay exactly the same, but the meaning we give to it really matters.

Which areas of your life feel good right now, and which ones don't?

What thoughts are you thinking that reinforce those feelings?

What happens when you focus on different thoughts?

What do you want to do?

Don't do it because you have to; do it because you want to. And if you don't want to, don't do it.

I've met a lot of people who think that sounds like dangerous and irresponsible advice. If people actually followed it, they think, it would lead to mass laziness, ignorance, and social breakdown.

I disagree. 

I don't think people want to be lazy or ignorant. Nor do they want to sit idly by while their society breaks down. Those things don't actually feel good! 

Sometimes, though, it can be hard to know what our real desires are. What we want is mixed in with things we think we should want, that other people want, and that we've wanted in the past but don't actually serve us any more. Not to mention, powerful memories of those times when we did what we wanted and got punished, teased or rejected for it.

It's often a lot easier to just do what we're "supposed" to do and avoid asking what we want altogether.

That said, I find for myself that when I do take the time to sift through all the noise in my head, I am heartened by what I discover. What I really want to do isn't just good for me, but tends to be good for other people too.

I want to tell the truth with kindness and listen with humility. I want to take good care of my body and my environment. I want to follow through on my commitments. These things aren't always easy or comfortable, but they are aligned with my deepest values, and when I act on them, good things happen.

Following the "do what you want" advice is only a problem when I don't sit with the question long enough to find an action that would really feel good, and instead act on the first idea that pops into my head (e.g., yell at the person I'm mad at, eat yet another slice of cake, renege on a challenging commitment, etc.). In those cases I'm not actually doing what I want to do, but rather running on auto-pilot. It's not a problem of bad advice, but bad execution.

What do you think? Do you have a good sense of what you want to do? What would happen if you did those things more consistently?