Monday, August 27, 2012

Compassion, a gift or curse?

"Sometimes someone says something really small, and it just fits right into this empty place in your heart."  ~ My So-Called Life

So, I assume somewhere I signed up for a free sampling subscription of Entertainment Magazine. At some point, I have started to receive the Yoga Journal in the mail as well.

Instead of being baffled, I'm just going with it ... especially because the things in these magazines are resonating with me more now than ever before. I was reading my August Yoga Journal about a week or two ago. One of the articles inside talked about three different types of breathing exercises people can do throughout the day to bring them into a state of calm and relaxation ... and one they can presumably maintain throughout the day the more they practiced them.

I'm starting to practice them, but it's definitely a process and like any "practice," you really have to be consistent to get results.

Another article that also hit me pretty hard was "More than a feeling, practicing compassion can strengthen your relationships."

What was interesting about it is, the article suggests those of us who are easily compassionate toward others and act on that compassion in their everyday lives are more spiritually heightened, engaged and aware ... more in tune with their natural instincts.

"You're likely to gain much more profound insight into your own well-being and have more success in your interpersonal life," said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, a consulting neuroscientist with Stanford university's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. "Compassion facilitates more meaningful connections with other people."

That part is what I resonated with most, because when I think back on the most meaningful connections I've made over the years (in my childhood, teenage years, college and adulthood) they've been borne through compassion, understanding, a feeling of belonging as well as being accepted.

However, in my past, I've sponged up others' strife and tribulations so deeply (especially a few years back), I would lose myself. This article touches on that, too; referencing a nine-week program that uses meditation techniques adapted from various contemplative traditions — such as tonglen, a Tibetan Buddhist practice where you imagine breathing in another's suffering while sending out love and kindness as you exhale.

The idea is to teach students how to nourish their compassionate instincts and to regulate their emotions so that they can feel another's pain without being engulfed by it. Which is what I have been actively trying to do for the better half of a year now.

This article also talks about why some of us lose this part of ourselves. I've encountered many people like this over the years, especially in my field. For me (and as the article also mentions), it happens when our minds are disconnected from our hearts. When we mainly dwell in the reasoning mind, we often experience other people as obstacles toward our goals rather than fellow beings on the path, according to Swami Ramananda of the Integral Yoga Institute, who suggests we take a few moments a day to cultivate compassion to help bring us back to our hearts. Because our hearts have the capasity to embrace everything.

However, the mind and rationale always has it's place, I believe. And where I've gone wrong in the past is being either too much of one or too much the other. There are those out there who would love to take advantage of "too much heart" people. I've met them. And there are plenty of "too much mind" people who are impossible to penetrate, who have trouble knowing how to live. I've known them. I've been one of them.

But when I've found that in between — and granted, it's come and gone since it, too, is an active practice that must be upheld consistently — I've found both peace and elation ... joy and love, even if just in glimpses or stolen moments. But the key is practicing more of this compassion technique regularly to maintain that balance continuously.

The Yoga Journal cites a 2010 study that showed 85 percent of adults said they felt greater well-being after volunteering, 73 percent had reduced stress levels and 68 percent felt healthier. The study supports the notion that freely serving others can reduce anxiety and depression, speed up recovery from illness, reduce pain, help older adults stay mobile and increase longevity.

One guy quotes "rather than aspiring to volunteer, find something you can do that works for the life you have right now. Start with something that's within your grasp and build on it."

I liked that ... because that's how I feel whenever I do something for someone or even just bring a smile to someone who is down ... or put them at ease somehow.  It's something that is within my grasp and part of my daily life ... and costs me nothing. Nothing but a few moments, nothing but a piece of my heart.

That's how I feel every time I exchange a meaningful conversation with a close friend or connection. It feels nourishing inside and it's this natural thing that just happens. And I notice it building on itself all around me now, in the people that have come into my life and in the things people share and the bonds I've formed over the years.

And that compassion and those bonds are the very ones worth living, loving and fighting for.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Flame

Ever since I've experienced the sensation of disassociation (both in my past and sometimes even now), I've been fascinated with how it feels, works, how I would describe it if I could. I've learned, in most cases, it's a defense mechanism. But I've decided to play around with it a bit in the story I wrote tonight.

I've had this image of a detached-looking woman, a smudged wine glass and a broken relationship in my mind for a long time now, which is usually how my short stories begin. An image that hits and stays with me that I eventually write around. In this case, though, I kept waiting, because I hadn't felt the "it" I needed to feel to put it on paper.

Until today. One of my good friends, Claire, was telling me about something her acupuncturist had mentioned, a meditation of sorts, for when you're in some kind of troubled state. It's a mental exercise where we go back to images of our former selves during a similarly troubled state (under the notion our lives/behaviors can be cyclical or patterned) and we tell that version of our self something that will put them at ease, break their current negative state, something that will bring some peace. And the idea is that will help our present self break that same negative state and unhealthy pattern.

Well, as she said all this, I felt the "it." So tonight, I had to write.

The Flame

I slowly pressed the glass rim against my lips, cradling the round base in my palm as I felt the thin stem extend between my fingers. I gently tipped my head back and let the dry, slightly bitter Pinot Noir die upon my lips, leaving hints of cherry, raspberry and plum in its wake.

I ran my tongue along my lower lip and looked up at him.

He sat in the green recliner … his recliner and continued on. His cutting words like a thousand small knives slowly digging into my skin. The pain began to blend together, the trails of blood from each wound streaming as one.

Suddenly, his words, tainted with bitterness, resentment, anger and hurt became distorted and jagged as well, like a well used, rusty razor's edge.

I looked down again, focusing on the finger printed glass as I swirled and swirled the deep burgundy liquid … and felt another tear brim before cascading to its death on my forearm, leaving another mascara streak behind it.

Another followed suit, stopping at the tip of my nose. I brought my free hand up and quickly sniffled against it. He didn't seem to notice … or perhaps he didn't care. He had a point to make after all.

I looked at my left hand, examining the engagement ring. It was small, but flashy. It didn't suit me, so why did I pretend otherwise? Who was I anymore?

What was I doing?

I shifted my weight to the left and drew my legs up underneath me. I parted my lips, now chapped by dried tears, to say something, defend myself, yell back like I once used to.


I sucked in a deep breath, feeling a lump in my throat. I imagined it a knot of a thousand half thought notions, never uttered, sticking to each other, like sap to a tree.

Instead I cleared my throat and took another sip of wine. When I finally did begin to speak, my voice quivered with uncertainty. He cut me off and barreled on. 

His dark brown eyes, darker … almost nonsensical in their gaze, as though he was more in love with his own words, the sound of his voice, than he ever was with me.

Maybe he didn't know what love was anymore than I once did. Maybe I still don't. But something inside tells me otherwise, like a phantom whisper.

I tossed my head back and looked up at the ceiling, another mascara streaked tear rolling down my cheek, past my sharp law line and along my neck. I was running on empty. I had nothing left to give. I remember this feeling. I remember it well. Only this time, I refuse to let my body become a deflated pillow on the floor … beneath his feet.

But why, oh why could I not speak? Where was my fire? When had it been smothered beyond my notice?

I slightly shook my head and looked back at the smudged glass, gazing deep into it, feeling the familiar disconnect of my mind from the present.

I suddenly stood before the 16-year-old version of myself. She was sitting on the floor of an outdoor porch as it rained outside. She brought a cigarette to her lips, took a full drag and slowly let the smoke unravel through the window screen into the misty rain.

She examined the ring of black lipstick against the butt before she smashed it into the cement beneath her. Her insides swarmed with loneliness and an isolation she had yet to fully understand. Mascara ran down her cheeks as she examined her black chipped nail polish. I leaned in, near her ear, brought my hand against the side of her head, over her temple and whispered.

“Never doubt yourself. I love you.”

I watched her eyes twitch with my words, as though catching them on the wind with slight recognition. A heaviness began to lift as she rose up and threw the remaining cigarettes in the mud outside.

I felt myself disconnect once more. I was back on that sunken in couch, swirling that wine.

“Does that make any sense to you?” He asked, his voice seeping with indignation.

I solemnly nodded, my energy puttering. I began to twirl the ring on my finger around and around with my thumb. Again, I felt my mind unhinge like a door.

I saw another version of myself in a strange bathroom in the basement of a house. She stared in the mirror, watching his dark haired head disappear as he closed the door behind her. She looked at her bloodshot, sleep deprived eyes, confused, bewildered, scared, invaded.

I stepped up behind her, wrapped my arms around her mid section and whispered in her ear.
“You will heal. Not all touches hurt. I love you.”

I stepped back and watched her sink to the floor and hug her knees. But her eyes were no longer empty and lost … they held a glimmer of hope.

I blinked, feeling the weight of a body next to me on the couch. I looked over at his thin, wiry body as he moved closer, pulling me into his arms. I tried to push back, but he held tight. I sat rigid for a few minutes before going slack.

Candle flames are fickle things … they can be blown out in an instant.

I began heaving with tears. Something felt twisted about the source of hurt trying to comfort the wound. He murmured soft words against my head, his tone lithe once more. We were like a scratched record. Lord knows I was familiar with this dance ... my bones ached from it's familiar strides.

Old and gray, he'd say … old and gray.

I felt ashen already, hollowed out, as though we'd been feeding each other poison for years.

How do I stop the record?

I noticed the lump was gone. His words meant nothing anymore. I closed my eyes tightly against his shoulder and immersed in the sparking blackness.

I homed in on a silhouette lying in a bed surrounded by plain, static white walls.
It was a slightly younger version of myself, I realized. I floated above her as she curled into fetal position beneath the covers, afraid to close her eyes, afraid of what she'd see.

I descended to the bed behind her and moved forward to envelope her. I moved a strand of long, auburn hair out of her eyes and behind her ear, resting my lips near her temple.

“You are never alone. Ever. You will be OK. I love you.”

He finally released me, snapping me back to the present. He tried to force my chin up to look at him. I pulled at my face, trying to wipe it clean. He grabbed at my hands to stop.

Candle flames really are fickle things … a kiss of oxygen can ignite a blaze.

I pushed away and stood up, feeling my throat expanding, my heart racing with adrenaline. I looked over at the glass of wine on the scuffed and stained coffee table and lifted it up to his baffled and incredulous face.

I slid the ring to the tip of my finger before letting it plunk into the glass, sinking like an anchor to a crimson shore.

I grabbed my keys and purse. He began to rise, but I held up my hand and shot a fierce look that stayed his movement, causing him to slowly sink back to the couch in silence.

“I am loved. Very much. Just not by you.”

And with one swift motion, I shut the door behind me … and felt the hinges finally lock into place.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Elemental Simplicity

The sculptor produces the beautiful statue by chipping away such parts of the marble block as are not needed  -- it is a process of elimination.  ~ Elbert Hubbard

I've had this picture for some time, waiting for when I wanted to write about it. It was shot at the small beach near my place a few weeks back, but it captures a phenomenon I've long found fascinating.

The way elements and time transform things ... take something once raw, complex, jagged and rough to the touch and smooth it out, bring a softness to its surface, an ease to its touch and a beauty to its transparency, the blending of its colors and hues ... a wisdom of age to its markings. It's not necessarily simplified, but there is something less complicated, more facile in its new form, an air of embracing transformation and its elemental sources.

Lately, I've been trying to ... simplify or smooth out things a bit in my own life. In the past, I'd do this by taking a break from social media, shutting my phone off for a few hours at night or on the weekend, making a point to meditate every day or just taking a vacation or weekend to get away.

I'm due for one of those weekends and already have something in mind, but that'll be for a later post. In the meantime, the "simplifying" that I'm trying to currently do is more in a mental sense. In a previous post, I tried to encapsulate just what it's like in my brain on a constant basis, but especially during my "creative process."

It's a chaotic web of spark plugs going off simultaneously, yet somehow making sense through the madness. But oftentimes, especially when concerning matters of the heart, it can be ... exhausting. I can exhaust myself.

Well, I'll come back to a quote (as per usual) that I always try to remember:  "Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself." ~ Michel de Montaigne 

So, I've been thinking about ways to mentally simplify and be kinder to myself. Meditation, yoga, walks, nature, those have always been helpful go-to's, but it's about more than that.

It's about embracing the sources of change around me and letting them sand my rough, stubborn, scarred and defensive edges a bit. It's about letting the minerals and water work their magic rather than fight against the tides the way I tend to.

A lot of metaphors, I know. To be more specific, I've found myself thinking back on who I used to be and what I was about, not so much in the recent past, but as a child. I've been a spiritual and nature-oriented person since as far back as I remember. I've also been very much attuned to feelings, to the human "sixth sense," to intuition or just general instincts. I didn't realize how often I used those things to assess almost every situation or experience I was having at the time, but I realize that now, looking back.

If I met someone, an adult or a kid, I would immediately pay attention to their energy ... even as a child. I remember how some people gave me have bad feelings inside, in my stomach ... while others felt safe and comforting. I remember how certain rooms or places felt, how sometimes a room or atmosphere gave me feelings of unease, sickness or foreboding, while others felt welcoming, loving and cozy.

So, at some point, I strayed from trusting those senses and instincts and instead, began using my rationale, my analytical mind and reason to determine my situations, friendships, relationships and experiences. Reason has its place, don't get me wrong ... but I've gone so far that way, every time I try to shut out all that analytical "noise," I can hardly hear my inner self speak. And it always had really great stuff to say.

So, that's what I've been focusing a lot of my energy on lately ... letting life strip me down to the beautiful, uncomplicated, effortless simplicity it can sometimes truly be. By first feeling again, giving outside elements (in this case, people) a chance ... shutting out the white noise of judging, analyzing, dissecting, searching, etc. ... and instead, channeling my inner child, before I was tainted by life, before I knew what people or life was capable of, before I had everyone else's noise and anxieties draped over my own. To a time when I was much less in my head and much more inside my body, heart and soul. When things came back to how I felt inside, determining what I was drawn to and away from ... and it was really just that simple.

So, every time I hold one of those rocks, seemingly worn down by its surroundings, I look at its beauty, I feel its silky touch and realize it's not worn down at all ... it has merely shed its complications, given into life and unveiled its natural beauty at its simplest form.

And in that moment, I'm given hope that with discipline, the right tools, surroundings and mentality, I can achieve such a lucky state.