On Society’s Judgment or Compassion

I’m storm-bound in a cowboy town, and I just high-fived a cop and bonded with a camo-clad local.

I wasn’t planning to meet anybody at all today. I thought I’d just grab a few groceries — some hummus and veggies for tonight’s dinner in my hotel room, and maybe some almond milk for tomorrow morning’s coffee. After coffee tomorrow, assuming the forecast doesn’t change, temperatures will be just high enough to turn the snow to slush and let me drive my trusty Subaru over the mountains to home.

But here’s what happened when I met these new friends today:

I drove on the slippery roads to the supermarket closest to my hotel. No problem with the driving, but walking was a tad trickier. So my attention was on my feet, the ice, the bits of gravel scattered to provide traction in the parking lot, and I was shuffling toward the store entrance. I saw a clutch of women talking to each other, pointing at someone behind me, “Do you see him?” one asked another. “Oh, my God!” another sneered. Two women swiped fingers across smart phones, ready to make calls. All signs that something’s up. Somebody’s gonna call the cops.

I followed the direction of their disgust, and I saw him. Pushing a shopping cart loaded with two cases of cheap beer and two six-packs of fruity wine coolers, a youngish man — 30s, maybe — staggered, halted, staggered a few more steps, wobbled, caught himself, stumbled again on rubbery legs.

Right away, anyone can figure out the story. He’s drunk. He’s just bought more booze. He’s about to get into a car and drive.

I had no sooner thought, I need to call him a cab, when he fell. Splatted, really. Sploot, on his back, in the melting snow. He flailed his legs and smacked them with his palms — impotent rage because they had failed him. I turned to help him, knowing what I’d need to do next. The clutch of women turned to descend on him.

“Uh, hey, dude. You’re wasted! And you think you’re driving?!?” One woman shouted while she waved her smart phone in his direction.

“I’ve had health problems. I was in the hospital. I was on life support,” the flattened man answered between grunts, trying to sit upright and falling several times before he propped himself on a car bumper. The tone of his voice was a plea for mercy.

“Whatever,” the angry woman answered him, still brandishing the phone in his direction, threatening to use it, apparently. “You might be sick, but you’re also drunk. I could see it in the store. We watched you in the store. They should not have sold you any alcohol. That’s illegal.”

True enough, I thought, but also an aside to the immediate problem.

“Ah, well,” I sighed, standing over a flailing drunk while his khaki pants wicked up gritty storm dregs. “Looks like we need to find a safe way for you to get home,”

“Ya! You need a taxi!” the angry woman yelled.

“Good idea,” the wobbly one said while clutching at the cold support of a stranger’s rear bumper.

“Oh, thank you!” I said to him. “Thank you for agreeing to that. We’ll call you a cab and wait until it gets here.” I extended my hand, offering to help him up from the snow.

His voice waffled and his hands waved. He couldn’t quite summon the coordination to raise his arms and grab my hand. Relieved that he hadn’t connected, I knew I wouldn’t have been able to wrestle him to his feet in any case.

That’s when the camo-clad local arrived, deer antler emblem across the chest of his sweatshirt, “Land of the Free” embroidered on his camo-print trucker hat. He looked willing to help.

“Hey, here’s a bigger guy to help you stand up,” I motioned between the two of them like a supermarket matchmaker.

“Yeah. Want some help, man?” camo asked.

“Nah. I’ll wait here,” muddy khakis answered, sounding defeated. “I’m really sorry, everybody.”

“Hey, no judgment, buddy,” I said, “I’m an alcoholic. I get it. Let’s just make sure you can get home in a safe way.” I looked to the angry one brandishing the phone. “Did you call a taxi?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t know any,” and she dropped the phone to her side. She stopped brandishing it. She also stopped yelling.

“Do you know any cab companies?” I asked camo.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure there’s one called Redmond Cab or something like that,” he answered, swiping his smart phone to wake it up.

I pressed the voice search on my phone. “Redmond Cab Company,” I told it.

A few angry people clustered nearby.

“It’s all good, everybody,” I smiled at them. “He’s agreed to take a taxi. I’m calling one right now.” When the taxi company answered, camo helped me remember the name of the street and the name of the store. I told them we have somebody with some medical issues and probably some intoxication too, and he needs to get to an address nearby, but I can’t understand the address he’s trying to call out from the spot where he’s hunched against the bumper.

Camo understood him. “Fifth Street,” he told me. I passed it on to the cab company. It’s just a few blocks, camo told me, but the guy really needs a ride. The cab operator said he’d be there in ten minutes.

The angry ones trickled away. Camo and I stayed. Muddy khaki was tired of sitting in the snow. He wanted to go to his truck, he said. Camo heaved him to his feet and held tightly while khaki’s knees buckled and the soles of his shoes tried to reject the pavement, the way two magnets will buck each other away when you try to press them together by their positive ends. “Is that your truck over there?” camo asked, half carrying and half guiding khaki. His gray pickup was two parking spots away. He had very nearly made it back to his driver’s seat before he fell.

“Let’s have you sit on the tailgate instead of in the truck,” I said. I wanted to spare the struggle of trying to stop him driving off, but I couched it as a favor to him. “If you’re sitting in your vehicle right now, somebody might bust you for that.”

“Oh, yeah,” camo agreed. “That’s a good idea. Is your canopy unlocked, man?”

Thank you, camo.

Khaki guessed that one latch would be unlocked and the other would be locked. I turned them both and they opened. Then I pulled the latch and lowered the tailgate. It would have been far too high for me to sit on it, in any condition.

Camo had khaki in a full embrace. The unexpected intimacy swelled in my heart. Camo bear-hugged and tugged until khaki had one butt cheek perched on the edge of the tailgate.

“This is good,” khaki demurred. “I can stay like this.”

“It looks uncomfortable, though,” camo answered.

“It does,” I agreed. “Let’s see if we can get your whole butt up there,” and I bundled the sleeve edge of khaki’s winter coat in my fist and helped push.

We had just achieved full butt-to-tailgate contact when khaki rolled his eyes at something behind me and camo. “Oh, no,” he announced.

It was a police cruiser, and soon a second. As the first officer climbed out of his driver’s seat, I smiled nonchalantly. “He’s got some medical issues and is probably intoxicated as well. He’s agreed to take a taxi. We’ve called one and it’s on its way,” I said, like a seasoned reporter.

“I like that idea,” said the cop. He motioned to the second officer that everything was under control. The second cruiser pulled away.

Camo repeated the Fifth Street address where the taxi would be delivering khaki. “We’re good to wait here until the taxi arrives,” camo told the cop.

“They said they’d be about ten minutes, and we probably called a few minutes ago,” I added.

“I’m good to wait until then,” the cop said.

And suddenly camo was gone. I stood between khaki and the cop.

The cop scanned the horizon the way cops do, eyes taking in everything, sizing up everyone.

“Hey,” I reached for khaki’s hand and shook it goodbye, “feel better soon, and thank you for being cool and letting us get a cab.” I dropped his hand and turned to thank the cop for waiting with khaki so I could go in the store and do my shopping.

“I’ve been actively working on stopping drinking,” khaki’s voice said behind me.

I realize now the taxi must have taken longer than ten minutes to arrive. By the time it pulled into the parking lot, I’d heard khaki’s life story.

His previous job did random pee tests for alcohol and drugs.

“Ah, that’ll keep you honest, huh?” I said conspiratorially. I laughed in the direction of the cop, who also smiled and nodded.

“Yeah,” khaki agreed. “If I ever drank, I’d have to drink the tiniest amount so hopefully it wouldn’t show up in my pee test.” But he had quit that job to move here, to be nearer to his daughter, he said. He had been to some AA meetings. But the detox was scary, he said. It can be dangerous. And he’s looking for a job, he said. And recently he and his father got an apartment together. His father is 70 and he got sober at age 50.

“Awesome,” I said. “And your dad is still sober?”

He is, khaki said.

“And you’ve got all this booze in the house,” I motioned to the cases and six-packs in khaki’s shopping cart, “and he’s still sober.”

“Oh, I don’t drink in front of Dad,” khaki answered.

“But he knows you’re drinking and he knows you have it in the house, so he’s strong in his sobriety, right?”

Yes, khaki agreed.

“And do you think he’d be interested in supporting you to get sober?”

“Oh, yeah,” khaki answered. “I told him, I think it’s time for me to do what he did.”

“I know the detox can be a little intimidating,” I said. “I didn’t need to be medically supervised and I didn’t get sick. I just drank lots of water and herbal tea and got through those first days. But my brother has been in medically supervised detox, and I know they can offer support while you get through it.” I nodded to the cop, wondering if he’d put on the social worker hat so many of them sometimes wear. He nodded at me but said nothing.

“You only have to do it once,” I told khaki. “And you might be a little sick, but I’m guessing you’ve been damned sick from the booze. We all know what that’s like.”

“Oh, yeah,” he agreed. “But I’m having some health thing too. My legs hurt. I hope I don’t have MS or Parkinson’s or something,” he drifted back into his medical stories.

“I hope you don’t either. But whether you do or you don’t, the alcohol isn’t helping. If you get through that short detox time, then you’ve got the rest of your life.”

“Amen, sister,” khaki bowed toward his lap, and I leaned in to keep him from spilling off of the tailgate. The taxi pulled into the parking lot and drifted past us. The cop waved his arms, but the taxi kept going. The cop jogged toward the taxi to wave down the driver.

As the taxi looped around and stopped behind khaki’s gray truck, khaki shimmied to the end of the tailgate and wagged his feet in the air. They didn’t quite reach the ground.

“You’re almost there. Just about an inch to go,” I told him, taking his right arm to steady him. He took two or three wobbly steps toward the taxi as the driver loaded the cases and six-packs of booze out of the cart and into the trunk of the cab. And then khaki was going down.

The cop lunged to catch him in a bear hug. It looked like the bear hug camo had done earlier. Maybe it’s something men are used to doing with each other.

“Tiiiimmmmmberrrrr! That was close,” I laughed, as I clutched the sleeve of khaki’s jacket again and tried to steady him.

“I know, right?” khaki agreed with me, marveling again at those legs that sometimes just fail.

Thank you, the cop mouthed silently in my direction, still bear-hugging and guiding khaki to the car. “Is there somebody when you get home who can help you get in the house?” the cop asked.

“He lives with his 70-year-old father who’s been sober for 20 years,” I answered, amused by my depth of knowledge of the guy I can only call khaki.

Khaki flopped into the back seat of the cab and the cop closed the door.

“Good job,” I raised my hand for a high-five. “Thank you for sticking around and helping,” I told him as he met my high-five with his own hand. “That was an adventure I didn’t plan to have today.”

The cop thanked me too. The taxi pulled away. Khaki and his beer and wine coolers headed to Fifth Street, and home, and his sober father — assuming any or most of those details are true.

I never found the hummus. Maybe cowboy towns don’t sell a lot of the stuff. But walking through the supermarket, I felt like I had just presided over a successful peacekeeping summit for the U.N.

Nobody had stopped the staggering drunk. Not the cashier or any of the customers inside the store. Even if he used self-checkout, he’d have staggered with his cart full of booze past the long line at the in-store McDonald’s, past the in-store jewelry counter, past the volunteers distributing something from a card table near the front door. Someone did call the cops, that’s true. But nobody approached him until he was on the ground, flailing, surrendering to the gray winter slush and the crimson fury of strangers. And even then, they talked of a taxi but didn’t summon one.

I felt protective of khaki. I felt surprised to hear my own voice say, “No judgment, buddy. I’m an alcoholic.” I belong to a recovery fellowship that rejects the labels. We remind each other every week that there’s no need to introduce ourselves by anything other than our name. I’m Michelle. That’s all I say.

Today, though, in that slippery parking lot, the angry onlookers ready to shout their fury at the fallen drunk heard me say, Hey, no judgment. I get it. I’m like you.

Khaki needed help. When it was offered, he accepted help.

It won’t always work that way, not with everyone, and I know that. If he had refused the taxi and gotten behind the wheel of his truck, I’d have called the cops too. I’d have given them the license plate of the gray truck and hoped they could catch him before he killed someone. I’d have let the full weight and fury of the criminal justice system and the righteous anger of onlookers do whatever they will do.

But this case didn’t call for that. It called for help. A bear hug, a phone call, and a sympathetic ear.

And I’m remembering now what the angry woman said when she stopped brandishing the cell phone and she heard me calling the taxi company that I thought she would have already called. She looked at khaki and said, “It’s not your fault. It’s the store’s fault. They shouldn’t have sold alcohol to you.”

Let’s not forget that khaki had driven himself there. No doubt he staggered and wobbled into the store and through the aisles. Once I got into my search for the non-existent hummus or other hippie vegan food, I noticed that the beer and wine aisle is in a far back corner of the store. I was slightly impressed with khaki’s determination. How did he make it that far with his feet repelling the floor like an equal and opposite magnetic force? It’s quite the feat.

It’s a feat he completed under the harsh heat of onlookers’ judgment. How many watched him and shook their heads? How many stood in silent disapproval while he illegally bought enough alcohol to fuel a frat house? Why did nobody talk to him until he was lying in the parking lot, wicking storm sludge into his khaki pants, apologizing to strangers and pleading for mercy?






Managing Pain with Mindfulness

I know you’ve been impacted by the opioid epidemic. Statistically, you’re very likely to know somebody who got addicted.But at the very least, you’ve seen the news headlines. You’ve seen the differences in prescribing practices when you visit the doctor or the pharmacist. It touches everyone.

These drugs were supposed to usher us to a bright future in health care — a future where patients wouldn’t have to tolerate pain, where healing from injuries or surgeries was peacefully comfortable, and where even if doctors couldn’t cure a condition they could at least keep patients reasonably comfortable while they lived with the condition.

It didn’t work out like that. People who use these drugs to manage pain will find themselves needing more and more of the drug for diminishing results, meaning they’re hooked on a drug that only scratches the surface of their pain.

Studies show it takes as few as 10 days on opioid pain meds for 1 in 5 users to get hooked.

10 days!

On legit drugs. From a doctor. For legit pain.

This subject always speaks to me. I spent 25 years helping people manage their pain. As a massage therapist specializing in pain and injury management, I saw people working desperately to conquer their pain. They saw every kind of specialist and tried every folk remedy, menthol patch, over-the-counter drug, and multilevel-marketing goop their well-meaning friends recommended.

Sometimes I’d work for over a year on someone’s chronic pain. They’d see a few days of relief after every treatment, but the pain would come back, again and again and again.

Sometimes I’d get a new client who had already consulted physical therapists and surgeons and acupuncturists before trying massage out of desperation. And they’d get off the table feeling great. They’d think they’d witnessed some kind of miracle. Sometimes even I’d think I witnessed some kind of miracle.

My takeaway after 25 years was this:

Some people get better and some people don’t, regardless of the cost or sophistication or intensity of their treatment protocol. AND regardless of the amount of prescription pain medication they’re taking.

In fact, I saw people whose lives were nearly derailed by the mental/emotional effects of their pain meds, even while they were still in pain.

Here’s the thing.

Those drugs work great for acute pain. Like, the day after surgery kinds of pain.

But they do far too little for chronic pain. And what help they do offer comes at a too-high price: dependency, confusion, mood and personality changes.

Through 25 years of putting my hands on people who were in pain, I learned to see a subtle difference in the clients who would get better and those who would stay in pain. I didn’t know how to articulate that difference until I started practicing and studying mindfulness. Before then, I simply noticed — almost on an energetic level — a quiet but profound difference.

Some people were looking for something from outside themselves, something they could passively receive, through a pill or a needle or a practitioner’s hands. They were the ones who continued to suffer.

Some people were actively engaged in their healing, asking questions, learning the names of the muscles or the biomechanical processes involved in their pain, and consistently doing their homework in the form of exercises or ice packs or hot packs or stretches. They were the ones who got better.

Mindfulness folds all of these engaged approaches into one intentional package.

And mindfulness is proving to be the most effective answer to the opioid epidemic. It works for some of the same reasons massage therapy worked. It interrupts the pain cycle and shuts down our body’s alarm systems.

See, I initially studied in the school of seek-and-destroy massage. We all thought we had to beat the tissues into submission. It was often effective, but it was almost always painful.

Eventually, I got wiser. I studied more about the body’s physiological response to pain, and I learned that my elbow buried deep in someone’s painful trapezius was adding to the pain signals.

But when that same trapezius got kneaded and soothed during a session that delivered relaxation to the full bodymind, it healed better. It shut off the bodymind’s fight-or-flight response. It silenced the alarms, or at least lowered their volume to a tolerable decibel level.

This is what people are learning to do for themselves in this current climate of mindfulness appreciation. There are several simple steps to accomplishing mindfulness for pain management.

  1. Stop the struggle. We naturally react to pain by resisting it. Resistance tightens our muscles and raises our anxiety level. Mindfulness teaches us to assess our situation and meet it with compassion. It’s like the difference between the seek-and-destroy massage and the nurturing kind.
  2. Connect to what’s real. Mindfulness teaches us to know exactly how we are in the current moment. It teaches us to let go of our judgments or labels and simply see what is. I would always encourage my clients to find a number to describe their pain. On a scale of 1-10, is it a 3? A 7? This makes a difference. Clients who came back week after week and answered my general question, “Does it hurt?” would answer “Yes.” and feel defeated. Clients who were asked to be more specific would learn that last week’s 7 is this week’s 3. So, yes, it still hurts,but there’s progress. That changes the entire mindset.
  3. Focus on what’s right. Meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn started teaching mindfulness to some of the most seriously ill patients at the University of Massachusetts Hospital. The results were so astounding, they launched the movement we’re all experiencing today. Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction helped patients learn that even with cancer or a chronic degenerative condition, there’s “more right with you than wrong with you.”

Ready to become a believer? Here’s an easy practice, led by the master himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn. You’ll be surprised by the profound simplicity. Here’s a guided meditation that takes only 10 minutes.

Mr. Rogers Was Right. Look for the Helpers.

Believe it or not, I’m just now getting acquainted with Mr. Rogers, thanks to his posthumous resurgence through a recent documentary about his career and an upcoming feature film starring Tom Hanks.

My brothers and I weren’t allowed to watch Mr. Rogers when we were little (“too fruity,” Mom said) so the mention of his TV show usually reminded me of Eddie Murphy’s parodies  that aired in the 1980s on Saturday Night Live.

When my husband and I watched the recent documentary about the legendary children’s TV host, we found ourselves in a darkened theater with dozens of other graying moviegoers who shifted bifocals to dab tears from their eyes. Shoulder to shoulder, we quietly sniffled through the story of his career, his kindness, and his understated bravery against racism and hatred.

In that theater on that night, it was as if we’d been bathed in a healing balm. It’s the perfect antidote to our times, which likely explains the renewed interest in his messages.

The world seems to be getting meaner — not just here in the US, where a petty Twitter bully holds our highest office and our social and political divisions seem more rancorous than ever — but around the globe. Nationalism is on the rise. Refugees huddle in makeshift camps. Tsunami survivors go hungry amid rubble and corpses while corrupt bureaucrats delay shipments of aid.

I was thinking today of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous assertion that the arc of moral history ultimately bends toward justice. My gut tells me that’s true. My brain surmises that it’s a truthful assertion. Right now, though, my heart fears that our moral arc has taken a jagged detour.

Looking up Dr. King’s words, I learned that he was paraphrasing Theodore Parker, an abolitionist and a minister in the Unitarian Church (my people!). He was the kind of articulate writer and speaker who even inspired the phrase “of the people, by the people, and for the people” in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

I imagine Parker’s life of activism, and the despair he must have felt, working for so long against the indifference and convenient defenses of a culture so accepting of slavery, so blind to the suffering and inhumanity. He died at age 49 from tuberculosis, and just before the outbreak of the Civil War. He didn’t live to see an end to slavery, but in the final months of his life he retreated to Florence, Italy, where he died among expats and kindred spirits — poets, social critics, and activists, including Frances Power Cobbe, who devoted her life to the causes of women’s suffrage and animal welfare.

Cobbe founded the (British) National Anti-Vivisection Society. Even though she lived to be 81, she never saw the end of vivisection. In fact, today — 114 years after her death — we still haven’t abolished cruel testing and experimentation on animals.

The moral arc is long indeed.

But I’m struck by the way these activists and creatives and enlightened souls banded together, forming close-knit communities where a weary activist could retreat, even traveling ill across oceans so he could breathe his final breaths among like-minded companions.

We need those communities. And that’s why I’m thinking today of Mr. Rogers, and his story about his mother’s advice when he saw disturbing and frightening realities in the movies or on the news. “Always look for the helpers,” she told him. “If you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

Look for the aid workers, pushing against bureaucratic barriers to bring food to hungry survivors. Look for the animal rescuers, the activists, the tireless crusaders, who might not even live to see the completion of their goal.

And so, tonight I will go to the meeting of our racial justice organizing committee, knowing that among the mundane details of meeting minutes and committee reports there is a vital energy, a hope for a future with greater moral justice. There are kindred spirits. There are people trying to bring kindness to an unkind world.

And this weekend I’ll gather with my friends. We call ourselves the sister wives. In each other’s company we won’t have to articulate why the Senate’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings triggered the hell out of our survivor brains, or why we’re sleeping more fitfully after days of shouted upsets and whispered sneers reminding us that it’s dangerous to be female in this broken world.

On Sunday I’ll help build a play structure for the rescued goats at the farm animal sanctuary, sharing hammers and saws with like-minded vegans, with gentle souls trying to bring more compassion to a cruel world.

Huddle and retreat. Cherish your kindred spirits. Or seek them out if you don’t already have them in your life. Because the world truly is broken. And countless people are working to repair it. Look for them.






How to Sit for Meditation

I teach meditation at a prison. Depending on how long they’ve been in the system, some of the guys come with a good deal of meditation experience. They’re the ones who stride into the room, remove their shoes, and sit cross-legged on the floor.

The newbies come in and look confused. That’s because I always set up the space with a mixture of chairs and meditation cushions. I sit on a chair. Some of the experienced guys are sitting on the floor. My teaching partner, if he’s there with me, is sitting on a cushion, bare-footed, in his black cotton priest clothing and shaved head.

My teaching partner — a Buddhist priest — teaches and practices a formal meditation form that involves sitting on the floor, shoes off, hands clasped over the lower abdomen.

I come from a different, more casual tradition in the mindfulness and recovery world. We sit [almost] any way we’d like.

The beloved meditation teacher Jack Kornfield often tells his students that there’s no need to sit in a weird way, because we’re all weird enough already.

I like to share that with my students at the prison.

And then I tell them this:

Sit in a way that keeps your spine erect. Imagine your spine and ribs as a scaffold; let them be your structure. And then let the body relax around the upright spine.

Often, formal meditation postures are primarily a means of keeping the meditator from falling asleep. I’ll tell you, though, I’ve seen people fall asleep and wobble right over into their own laps while they sat cross-legged on a meditation cushion. Sleep happens.

Numb feet and crackling knee joints are a serious disincentive to continuing your meditation practice, so if the formal seated posture is a challenge for you, forget about it.

Less formal seating has the added advantage of being doable anywhere: on the train, in the doctor’s waiting room, at your desk. It’s important to develop a practice that can go everywhere you go.

So here’s my advice:

  • Sit upright, with your chest and shoulders open.
  • Fold your hands in your lap or rest your open hands on your thighs.
  • Keep your spine erect and find a balanced point where it takes minimal muscle energy to maintain the posture. Take a few moments to experiment and you’ll see that there’s a happy, neutral point where the spine is stacked easily, without the need to work at keeping yourself from tilting in any direction.
  • Once you’ve established your trusty scaffold, allow the rest of the body to relax around it.

You’ll notice that this keeps you alert, upright, and relaxed. And if you don’t have to fold your barefooted self onto the floor of the transit mall, it definitely helps you not look weird. We’re all weird enough. Life itself is weird enough. Meditation is the refuge from it all. Let it be immensely doable.

Goodbyes and Endings: How to Manage them Mindfully

Oh, this month. That’s why I named it my Month of Mindfulness. I’m navigating it carefully, mindfully, intentionally. And it’s working. But it’s a lot to manage.

I just did a final massage on a client who had a standing appointment every other week for 16 years. She cried. She said, “I’m sorry; it’s not about me.”

“It is about you too,” I told her, “and I”m sorry you’re hurting.”

I had interactions like that every day this month. Some much more casual, many much less emotional, but all tinged with a bit of guilt — a realization that my career change creates ripples that impact 142 people who have relied on me as their massage therapist.

Going into this month, I knew about the one big change: I’m deciding to end my career of 25 years and say goodbye to longtime clients.

But also this month:

  1. One of my oldest friends was abruptly fired from the nonprofit she created 20 years ago. Her name is synonymous with the organization. She didn’t see it coming. Nobody saw it coming, with the exception of the three board members who handed down the decision, leaving all of us wondering what information they have, what concerns they feel they must leave unvoiced, what factors led them to this drastic and painful decision.
  2. I’ve gotten part of my income from freelance work I’ve done for that friend and her organization, and it was an integral part of my plan for the new career I’ll start next week. But that door just closed for me.
  3. Another of my oldest friends — a stay-at-home writer and daytime yoga-class-taker — accepted a teaching job that will put her in the classroom, starting today, ending her freelancing lifestyle.
  4. My recovery community is reeling from strained relationships and divided loyalties. The founder of our movement is the subject of a life- and career-altering investigation into sexual misconduct. It remains to be seen whether he’ll retain his empowerment as a meditation teacher when the scandal settles. It remains to be seen whether our recovery movement will retain its name, use this leader’s book, or even exist in its current form.
  5. The feral cat my husband and I have fed every day for six years stopped showing up for feedings a week ago. We continue to visit every day, shaking her food bag and calling her. We don’t know how long to look for her before we decide she’s gone. We named her Peekaboo. She lives (lived?) behind a restaurant, in the dense thickets around the parking lot. We’ve only ever seen glimpses of her, except for the few days we had her trapped and held captive for her spay surgery and recovery. She is a feral. She does not want to have humans for friends. But over the years, she’s come to know us, know our cars, and brave the vulnerability of a small clearing where we leave her food every day. We have a unique bond.
Where are you, Peekaboo?

My mediation this month has taken on a specific theme: Right now, it’s like this. Everything that starts will someday end. Every ending is also a beginning.

That embattled meditation teacher used to tell his students, during the wee early days of the movement he founded, “This community is already broken.”

He wasn’t pointing out inherent flaws in the community or the movement, although those are inevitable too.

Rather, he was reminding his students that every beginning someday leads to an ending.

He wrote some guided meditations that I count among my favorites. They are the ones that contain the reminder, “Right now, it’s like this.”

Guilt is a natural feeling, and we can feel it without surrendering to it. We need never apologize for endings. They are an integral part of life.

When we work in mindfulness and meditation to ease our suffering and lead happier lives, we aren’t harboring expectations that our practice will excuse us from future losses and endings and goodbyes. That is impossible.

Instead, we practice to free ourselves from the emotional pain we feel when we wish it were different. Part of our practice is to remind ourselves that everything will change or end. After 25 years, this part of my career is ending. The part I’ll start next week will end someday too. Life can offer nothing else.

Here are the healing phrases that served me well this month in my meditation and my brief mindfulness check-ins:

Right now, it’s like this.

Everything will someday end.

Every ending is also a beginning.




Using Mindfulness to Manage Depression

It’s a hell of a month, and I’m not even halfway through it. During this month, I’m making a major career change after 25 years, entirely switching industries and professional focus, jumping into financial uncertainty, and ending many decades-long professional relationships.

It’s a lot. And I began the month feeling fully ready, welcoming it, embracing it, and all those things I said in my first blog post about it.

I’m still ready and welcoming it. I have no doubts or regrets.

But yesterday. Oh, yesterday.

I started the morning with an email to a new colleague, and she replied with harsh critiques of some work I’d done last week. This is becoming a theme. She’s increasingly displeased with my work, and starting next month we’ll be working together every day. Or is she actually increasingly displeased? Is that the truth? Is it just my feeling?

Then some out-of-town relatives popped in to whisk my husband away for a family reunion. I was still reeling from the email, and the relatives were full of chatty chatty chatty energy. I couldn’t meet their mood. They seemed unaware of mine. Or were they unaware? Could they tell I wanted to curl up in a ball? What did they notice?

I hugged and waved them all off, feeling both relieved to say goodbye to the chatty chatty energy and feeling freakishly abnormal. I could have joined them for lunch down the street before they left for the ruinion. I needed to eat, but there was no way I could have lunch in a noisy place and try to match the energy of their happy jabber. After lunch, they’d pile into the car and ride shoulder-to-shoulder in the happy jabber for a long drive that would end in Seattle rush-hour traffuck. I couldn’t do that. Or share hotel rooms and noisy restaurant meals through four days of relatives happily jabbering. I couldn’t. Not even. I’d run screaming.

I sometimes use my normal, happy in-laws like the macabre reflection in a harsh fun-house mirror. I gape at my exaggerated features, sometimes amused, sometimes repulsed and horrified. Guess which mood I adopted yesterday.

So, there I sat, all fun-house bumpy and disfigured, with loads of unfinished work piling in my head and around my laptop, and I stared at the walls.

After a few hours of that, I decided to try something healthier and I watched a sweet British gardening show on Netflix. The show has creativity, kindness, outdoorsness — all things I enjoy on a normal day, a day when I’m not working hard just to drag my limbs from room to room.

I got a few small things done, in the way one walks through knee-deep water, or maybe crawls through mud. I was barely functioning.

I tried to remember what mindfulness techniques might help me survive the day, might help me even want to survive the day.

“Well, hello, depression,” I said to my new state. “Long time no see. I’m surprised to see you popping up. You feel like an itchy wool blanket on a miserable hot day. You make my limbs feel heavy and my insides feel hollow. You tell my brain that nothing is worthwhile and the world is a giant, uncaring, cruel shit-show. I remember you. You used to live here.”

I felt better already. If this sounds unlikely, I understand. But naming and welcoming the feelings with gentle curiosity changed my mood. I wasn’t the freak in the wavy mirror anymore. I wasn’t an object of horror and derision. Instead, I was simply having an experience, a visitor, a weather system.

Before I go on, I want to stress that clinical depression is not mere weather or “a mood.” Depression is a serious illness. It can be progressive and fatal. At a few points yesterday, I reviewed in my mind the people and places where I could seek help, sort of like glancing at the map of emergency exits when you check into a hotel. Just in case. Safety first.

Don’t ever listen to the people who think you just need some running shoes and kale, or crystals in your pockets and magnets in your shoes, or prayer, or essential oils. And, in fact, don’t let mindfulness meditation get hijacked by that kind of magical thinking, either.

How would you treat cancer, or diabetes, or any of the other serious and progressive illnesses that some people get? You’d seek proper medical attention. You’d consider treatment options, review their effectiveness, do the full, intelligent fact-gathering piece, and then you’d choose a course of treatment. Having done that, you’d probably be wise to add some exercise and kale, prayer or meditation, some essential oils if they’re soothing or helpful. I won’t endorse the magnets and crystals, cuz that shit ain’t real, but even weird stuff is okay as long as it doesn’t hurt anything and you find it helpful.

Many so-called “alternative” treatments are truly effective at managing serious illness. Science would fully endorse the kale thing — exercise and good nutrition are good for everything. And mindfulness gained mainstream acceptance after Jon Kabat-Zinn proved its success in a hospital setting with patients undergoing treatment for serious illnesses like cancer and heart disease.  Mindfulness has shown to be as effective at treating depression as other conventional treatments.

But note that it’s being used as an adjunct treatment, under the care of people who have devoted their lives and careers to studying it — not well-meaning friends or relatives who read a magazine article or took a weekend workshop or signed up to be independent distributors of high-quality magnetic products infused with healing crystals and salt harvested from the joyful tears of Scandinavian forest gnomes.*

Aaaaand, anyway. Back to the Thursday From Hell. I stopped fighting it. I sat with it, painful as it is. And here’s the thing:

Depression is exhausting. Why waste precious, scarce energy trying to pretend you’re not depressed, or quietly scolding and judging yourself for being depressed? Or brooding over questions about whether that person really dislikes your work or you’re just imagining it, or whether those smiley-chatty relatives noticed my aching-hollow insides and the steaming blanket thrown over me?

Brooding is exhausting, and depression causes brooding. And brooding deepens depression. Vicious cycle.

So, break the cycle. It’s not a cure. That’s important here.

It’s a powerful coping mechanism. Coping mechanisms keep you reasonably sane and functional until this thing passes or you can get help, whichever comes first.

Here are the steps to managing depression with mindfulness:

Name it. Hello, depression, you private hell. You hot, itchy blanket.

Explore it. You make my limbs feel heavy. You make my insides feel hollow. You make my mind see the worst in everything.

Break the brooding. One reason the happy chatty makes me want to poke myself in my own eyeball? Because it is so incompatible with my quiet brooding. That’s not to say it would be more helpful to pile into a crowded car or a noisy restaurant with incessantly chatty companions. Find a place that’s safe and nurturing, if you can. Acknowledge that you’re brooding. Find a way to break the cycle.

Engage. I had to attend a racial justice meeting last night. I wanted to cancel. Once I got there, I spent the first hour eye-rolling through every minor irritation, every boring and too-long monologue. I watched the door. I knew it would be easy to just slip out. But then I listened to current community concerns about refugee families being separated, about refugees being detained at a nearby federal prison, about an interfaith gathering and protest outside the prison, the Sikh temple members who fed the entire crowd, and the detainees who waved out the windows of the prison to let the demonstrators know they felt the support. So what the hell was I so worried about this morning? My colleague didn’t like that Facebook video? “Not-ready-for-prime-time” she said? Yeah, that sucks. But I’m not on a prison cot. I’m not in a strange country where I don’t understand the language or the legal system.

Getting outside of ourselves if vital. It’s essential for our personal growth and for our perspective to engage in something larger than ourselves, to work for justice, to contribute in some way to making the world suck a little bit less. I noticed when I left the meeting that my limbs were a. bit easier to move. I felt like I could go home and do a little bit of something.

Create. Doing and creating are acts of hope. I saw that on Facebook one day and I copied it down. It’s true. There’s also that Zen thing about busy hands and quiet mind. Last night, I had to choose carefully. I have a list of unfinished projects (well, hello, depression) from partially-built matching side chairs to partially-built bathroom cabinets, to a stack of materials waiting to become a rag rug loom. I wasn’t up for anything ambitious or sweat-making. So I turned on the British gardening show again and I worked on a latch-hook rug I’m making from strips of old t-shirts. It’ll be soft and fluffy when it’s finished — perfect for going under my feet when I’m writing at my standing desk.

So, did I cure my depression? Oh, hell no. I coped pretty well, considering. I stayed sober and mindful and worked my way through a hellish day. I still have symptoms. I stayed up too late last night and listened to a podcast to lull myself to sleep. I had some trouble waking up this morning. I’m only slightly more productive today than yesterday. The weekend is coming up. I’m recuperating. I can’t even describe how much more functional I am than in past depressive episodes. Mindfulness hasn’t magically transformed me into a normal, happy person without depression. I’m still me. I still have the genetics and trauma that are our family crest.

I also went back to taking my full prescribed dose of anti-depressant. I almost always stretch out the doses, both for economy and to minimize side effects. That usually works, but it’s helpful to know when it isn’t working. So for now I’m on the full normal dose. This is a good month to have all the supports in place. Kale, running shoes, yoga mat. Anybody know where I can score a vial of gnome tears?

*I think I made up the part about the gnome tears. But there’s probably somebody somewhere doing something a little bit like that. You know I’m right.






How to Be Mindful Around Other Peoples’ Strong Emotions

I saw a video yesterday on social media. I’d share it here, except this video really isn’t the point, because what happened is so common that not one person commented on it.

It was a video about a homeless boy and his mother who finally got public housing. The family had suffered such a difficult time, a local charity teamed up to furnish the home, including a dream bedroom for the young boy, complete with Star Wars decor and art supplies. The boy had never had his own bed before. He’s somewhere around 10 years old. The happy volunteers turned a video camera on him to capture his reaction as they toured him through his home and showed him all the wonderful things they’d gotten him. He was overwhelmed. He cried.

On social media, people commented on what a sweet story it is, what selfless volunteers those are, what a fortunate mother and son. Some people commented that the video brought tears to their own eyes. All fair. It was an emotional video.

But I didn’t see a single comment on how the adults — volunteers and the mother alike — responded to the boy’s emotions. “Don’t cry,” they said half a dozen times. Finally, his mother said, “Stop crying. Stop it.” Mind you, this wasn’t an effort to control a fit, to stop a boy from knocking his fist through the new drywall; he was simply walking through his new house in amazement, rubbing his tearful eyes, and sometimes covering his face for a few sobs.

In short, the boy was being appropriate. He was expressing strong emotions, and actually expressing them in a restrained way. And the adults wanted to cause strong emotions, remember. Why else would they tour him through the house and show him, using sing-song voices suitable to a far younger and less intelligent child, Look, sweetheart, look at what we got you. Isn’t that wonderful? Remember you said you like art? Well look at this whole table of brand-new art supplies. All for YOU! And remember, too, they followed him with a camera to capture his reactions.

But when he reacted with tears — maybe they anticipated him jumping with glee and saying Aw, shucks, thank you so much — they just couldn’t handle it. That needed to stop.

It was almost abusive. There, I said it. You might not agree. But think about it.

These adults — grown-ups who we assume are more capable of navigating strong emotions and riding out an intense situation — placed a child in a crowd of virtual strangers (and white strangers, surrounding the black child and mother) and whined and baby-talked through a tour meant to elicit a strong emotional response for the camera. And the boy, who has been homeless and alone with a struggling and undoubtedly somewhat broken mother, cried.

And they shamed him. Stop it. Don’t do that. Stop.

The message was manifold: we want you to react for us, but we want you to guess what kind of reaction we want. Oh, no. Not that reaction. Stop it. There’s no room here for those emotions. We did so much for you, and you’re doing something we don’t want you do do.

There was not one adult — at least in the span of the minutes when they paraded the emotional child in front of a camera to show off the touching good deeds of the generous charity volunteers — not one adult who said, “I know, buddy. This is emotional. You’re doing great. It’s a lot to take in. Feel all the feels, kiddo.”

This is a problem.

Let’s try a show of hands: how many of you remember being a kid and hearing, STOP THAT. Don’t have that emotion.

Worse still: how many of you can relate to the poor toddler I saw in a supermarket a couple of months back. Riding in the cart while her mother approached the checkout line, she started fussing. Tired, fidgety. Whimpering a little. And then she did something I didn’t see. Maybe she bucked in the cart and accidentally kicked her mother. But the mother yelled “STOP IT” and smacked the child’s bare leg. The sound of the smack traveled far in the tile-and-metal market. People looked, disgusted by the mother using physical punishment. And then they looked away. Done with it all.

And the child wailed. It was a scream of impotent rage. It said, “I’m already having a shitty day, and I don’t know how to manage my emotions, and I’m hot and tired and trapped in this metal cage-seat. And now you’re hitting me. I’m LOSING IT.”

I felt the child’s rage. The betrayal. The anger that she lacks the words to name. It stayed with me all day. It pretty well ruined my day. I talked about it later that night in my meditation group.

No doubt the mother was having emotions of her own. There are few things more trying than a toddler’s tantrum, especially in a crowded supermarket with others watching and judging.

The meditation teacher Tara Brach tells a story of a grandmother taking her young granddaughter through the store. The child is fussing, asking for everything she sees, and complaining when she’s told she can’t have those things. The grandmother keeps repeating calmly, “Just a few minutes, Cindy. We’re paying now and we’ll be home soon.” The cashier smiles understandingly at the grandmother as she repeats her little mantra a few more times during checkout. “You’re doing fine, Cindy. We’ll be in the car soon, and just a few minutes later we’ll be home. Maybe you can take a nap.” The child continues fussing.

As the grandmother finishes paying, the cashier says, “You’re being very patient with Cindy, and I hope the rest of your day is happier.”

“Oh, I’m Cindy,” the grandmother responds. “That little handful is Susan.”

That little story is so much fun, because while everyone is having a hard time, the grandmother is simply injecting some compassion in the moment. Compassion for herself, for her granddaughter, for the surrounding shoppers listening to a toddler do what toddlers do. And she’s reminding herself and everyone else that this will pass.

It’s about compassion. It’s about letting others have their feelings.

This month, I’m saying goodbye to clients. Some have been with me 10, 15, 20, and even 25 years. I’ve relied on their consistency for my livelihood, and I’ve valued their trust in me. Now I’m ready to move on. But some of them aren’t yet ready. Their visits with me have been a source of comfort, an important part in their self-care, and sometimes a significant relationship in their lives. Some of them have had dramatic recoveries too. They have feelings about this.

It’s hard to navigate the emotions of others, especially when their emotions run counter to our emotions at the moment, or when their emotions are uncomfortable or inconvenient for us.

It’s okay. There’s a tool for that. The RAIN technique works for others’ emotions as well.

One caveat: we don’t make space for others to be abusive or harmful in any way. I’ve fired clients in the past because they yelled or slammed doors or used abusive language.

But those are the exception. We can make space for others to have their emotions. We don’t have to identify with them or take them on. All we need to do is allow them to be. We can do this in a few short steps.

Recognizing that people have their feelings. Sometimes they’re even mysterious and foreign to us, because their feelings are so different from how we’d respond to the same situation. Try to name the feeling. Or even ask the person if they can name what they’re feeling. “Aww. You’re really feeling this. This is a big change, I know. Are you feeling sadness?”

Allowing people to have their feelings. You can still honor your own boundaries. I can’t sit with a client for two hours while she processes her feelings; I have other clients to see and other things to attend to. I can’t allow a client to yell at me or call me names or mistreat me. But I can allow a client to feel whatever she’s feeling. “I understand,” I can say. “It’s hard when someone you rely on retires and they aren’t there for you like they’ve always been.” There’s no need to fix it or offer a solution or ask the person to feel anything different. Just acknowledge and allow what’s happening.

Investigating the situation. Because I’m a bodyworker, it’s most consistent with my scope of practice to ask the client where she’s feeling the reaction. “Tight shoulders? Can you breathe into them and invite those muscles to let go?” And it’s okay to investigate how I’m feeling about it. Defensive? Tired? Checked out? Resentful? Grieving? That’s all okay. No need to do anything about it. Let it be.

Not identifying with the feeling or reaction. That crying client is a human with a full range of other emotions. I’ve had some interaction with their emotional well-being and their level of skillfulness at navigating life’s challenges, so sometimes I can begin to anticipate how clients will react. But sometimes they surprise me, because people don’t fit labels. Oh, she’s the dramatic one. That’s the stoic one. That’s the needy one who will try to demand that I do something to erase her feelings about this. Truth is, one of my most stoic clients was the most emotional and resistant to my retirement announcement. One of the neediest has been (so far) relatively level about this change. That’s because emotions come through us like weather passes through a valley. Emotions are not our identity. They change. They are fluid.


At some point, we are all that crying boy in the video, feeling strong emotions in a crowd of people who refuse to allow space for him to feel. And sometimes we’re that toddler, feeling rage at being punished for having a crappy day. And sometimes we’re the person with the video camera, or the exhausted mother, wanting the drama to stop.

Using the RAIN technique, we can all keep our sanity. We can keep our dignity too. This quick technique may take only moments, or you can turn it into a longer meditation if you have the time and space. But this simple, powerful tool reminds us to allow feelings to arise and pass. There is nothing we need to do. It will be okay.


RAIN: 4 Simple Steps to Handle Tough Feelings

This month, as I continue my exploration of staying mindful and sane during a month that will deliver change like it’s blasting out the end of a fire hose, I’d like to share this simple and powerful mindfulness tool for riding out the hardest of emotions.

I learned to practice RAIN when I first started treatment for my PTSD. The moments when I felt the sort of terror that would masquerade as anger, the claustrophobic panic simply because someone was standing in a doorway that I needed to use, or the hours of unexplained irritability after watching a movie with scenes of abuse and exploitation — they all answered to this simple approach.

A number of meditation teachers offer a variation on the RAIN technique. Two of my favorites are Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. They use slightly different words for the acronym, but the approach is the same. Here’s my version:

Recognizing the feeling. Name it if you can. “This is anxiety.” Or, “I’m feeling panic.” If this sounds overly simplistic, you’ll be surprised what a powerful step it can be. When you’re in the grip of a strong emotion — especially one that hijacks your nervous system the way PTSD triggers can — it can be surprisingly difficult to name what’s happening. Stopping to concentrate on the feeling and give it a name, you’ve already slowed down the cyclone of feelings and reactions. You’re well on your way to peace.

Allowing the feeling. Remember, much of our suffering and stress come from fighting what is. Allow the feelings. Opening the door to your feelings might seem frightening. It can feel like things could become too hot to handle. Hang in there. Say to yourself, “This is a feeling. It’s okay.”

Investigating the sensations associated with the feeling. Here’s where you make peace with whatever’s happening to you. After recognizing it and making room for it to exist, you can turn your friendly curiosity on your state. It’s like you’ve found an usual piece of beach glass in the sand, and you’re going to pick it up, hold it up to the sunlight, run your fingers over it, and really explore it. “Anxiety makes my stomach knot up.” Or, “I’m feeling angry, and now my jaws are clenching.” “I’m in a panic and I can feel my breathing get rapid and shallow.” Where does this moment manifest in your body?

Not identifying with the feelings. This step can seem difficult, but if you’ve followed the first three steps, it will feel almost automatic. These feelings have a way of picking us up and carrying us off. This is different. You’re taking control. In R, A, and I, you’ve examined the feeling as a phenomenon, almost like a weather system. It’s something passing through, and you’ve allowed yourself to approach it with gentle acceptance and curiosity. Now, simply remind yourself that you are not the feeling. You may be feeling rage right now; you are not the rage. You may be feeling panic or grief or profound sadness, because thoughts and feelings happen. They arise and they leave.

These coping skills can help us manage anxiety, stay calm during a harsh conversation, or be compassionate with ourselves when we’re feeling fatigued. It develops a safe and structured way to process emotions if you’ve been accustomed to numbing and avoiding them with intoxicants or food or distractions.

Let it rain. Take a deep breath. Step outside and wiggle your bare toes in the grass. Be here, now. It’ll all be okay.




Three Ways to Stay Mindful in Challenging Times

Welcome, August!

I’ve been counting the days to August 1. Welcoming. Anticipating. Preparing. Opening.

This will be a month like no other. A month of several massive life shifts that have been in the planning stages and on the wish-list for years. Decades, even.

Change is good. I generally see change as more exhilarating than stress-inducing, but it still comes with challenges, even if they’re welcome challenges. We humans seek stability; we practically worship homeostasis. But that trips us up. Everything in life is impermanent, as the Buddha taught, including life itself. We are always adjusting to change, even when we aren’t aware of it.

One of my favorite analogies is the cup of tea. Before we make the tea, we’re thinking, “Yes, a cup of tea. That would be a good thing right now.” We choose the tea, boil the water, watch the leaves steep. And then we drink. “Ah, nice tea,” we think. And soon, sip by sip, we empty the cup.

The tea is gone.

But how many of us grieve the loss of the tea?

We don’t do that, of course. Tea finished, we go on with whatever else we’re doing. Or maybe we make another cup of tea. Either way, we gracefully flow with the stages of planning, preparing, enjoying, and finishing the tea. But the finishing is essentially a losing, or a not-having. And we’re all good with that. It’s just tea, after all. There’s more where that came from.

Everything in life is like the tea. I don’t mean to trivialize important relationships, beloved ones, careers, homes, health. Many of the changes and losses we experience are worlds more consequential than a cup of tea. But the universal truths that empty the cup will eventually have their way with all things and all beings.

So, when we practice mindfulness and we strive to live intentionally, we’re learning to skillfully and gracefully navigate this flow of life: the planning, preparing, filling, enjoying, emptying.

That’s what August is all about for me. I’ll say more on the particulars in coming days, but for today I want to lay out the top three skills for staying mindful when life is challenging. It’s about diving IN. Or, since there are two Ns in this acronym, I’ll call it INN. It’s my shorthand for the important coping skills that will help you navigate whatever life hands you.

Staying Mindful when Life is Challenging. 

Practice being INN

Inhabiting your body. Your formal mindfulness meditation practice will make this easier to do during challenging moments. That’s why we practice: to develop the skills that we’ll apply in daily life. I think of it like coming home: coming back into the now. If this is challenging – and let’s all agree it’s never an easy or automatic skill, which is why we call it a practice – seek out some guided meditations or a teacher to help you develop this skill. An app like the Insight Timer is helpful. Or you might appreciate recovery-oriented teachings and guided meditations like the ones on the Refuge Recovery podcast. Whatever your practice, you’ll be grateful for this skill when life is challenging. Our minds will send us whirling into the past or the future or the what-ifs or the what-did-you-mean-by-thats. That’s when we need to come home. Drop into the body and observe what’s happening. Greet each experience with gentle curiosity. Hello, tension; I feel you in my belly; you’re a tightness in my jaw. Or: This is anxiety. I can feel it in my breath. I know it by the butterflies in my belly or the wrinkling in my brow. Don’t judge or chastise. Just observe. And while you observe, can you soften the brow, relax the belly, deepen the breath?

Non-clinging. So much of our suffering comes from our resistance to reality. When we cling to what we love, it’s not the same as appreciation. You can enjoy that perfect blend of hibiscus and green tea while also knowing that cup will soon be empty. Maybe you even know you’ll never find that blend again: it was a one-time acquisition. It’s the fleeting and impermanent nature of everything that makes it all the more precious. Of course, non-clinging is more challenging when we’re dealing with the loss or change of something much more meaningful than tea. But the principle still applies. When life is challenging or stressful, take a mindful moment to ask if you’re holding too tightly to the things you wish were happening, or the things you appreciate. Again, without judging or chastising yourself, simply be aware: Ah, there I go. I’m grasping at the way things used to be, or the way I wish they would be. You can observe and accept your emotional responses without letting them pick you up and run away with you. Just name your experience. It’s okay. Like everything else in life, this experience is temporary.

Non-aversion. This is the flip-side of clinging to what we want. When life gets difficult, it’s natural to meet it with resistance or resentment. The Buddha taught us that our suffering comes from our responses to life’s events rather than from those events themselves. We relieve our suffering by greeting our difficulties with compassion, by letting them be what they will be. The Buddha doesn’t hold a monopoly on this wisdom: think of phrases from other traditions, like “Let go and let God,” or “Insha Allah” (literally: “If God wills it.”) In my recovery community, we all navigated profound grief together when a leader of our weekly meditation groups very suddenly died. He was a young man, a father, healthy, accomplished, working on a master’s degree. Together, we could offer each other reassurance and acceptance. This is grief. Of course it’s painful. Of course this feels unfair. 

If your personal or family history involves self-medicating out of these difficult feelings, this is a new and life-saving skill to develop. I remember when a family member had recently died and relatives sank into their booze and pot and other escapes, all trying to numb their feelings. Since it was all I’d ever known, I responded the same way, until I heard myself saying, “Of course this is hard. Losing someone is painful. You will feel pain and grief and loss. That is normal.” It was a brief glimmer of insight that I wouldn’t truly embrace for many years to come, but I’ll never forget that even in my fog of dysfunction and unskillful coping, I knew there was a wiser and more skillful way of managing.

I’ll be blogging my way through this month of August and all the changes, the goodbyes, the steep learning curves, the shift in my personal and professional identity. Just today, I found myself on the receiving end of some pointed criticism from a colleague. It was a very difficult conversation – one that could have left emotional scars on either of us or on our relationship. The non-mindful version of me immediately put up my defenses. The mindful version of me remembered to drop INN. Hello, defensiveness; you feel like a knot in my gut. And there you are, snarkiness; you’re formulating your come-back before you hear what she has to say. All normal. All natural. All okay. But!

I was able to sit with the discomfort, the sting of fielding criticism, the harshness of feeling misrepresented or misunderstood. And in the end, I was able to simply watch those feelings without acting on them. I had compassion for what I was experiencing. And I had compassion for what my colleague was saying. I thought about how hard it is to confront someone with a complaint like that, how risky it feels when you don’t know how the other person will respond. And before I knew it, we had come out of it unscathed. We had a better understanding of each other, our intentions, our sensitivities.

Be mindful. Inhabit your body. Practice non-clinging and non-aversion. And drink some nice tea. This will all be better soon.

The Easiest Hard Thing I’ve Ever Done

It’s been a cold and rainy Thanksgiving weekend. I slept a lot. I ate a lot. I worked HARD. All in all, it was a great balance of downtime and productive time. To wrap up the weekend, we’re snuggling in front of a cracking fire and getting ready to binge on some Netflix.

Within maybe two feet of my nose, my husband’s beer glass is wafting its yeasty malty funk into the living room air. It’s exactly the kind of beer I used to trip all over myself for. And I don’t just mean that figuratively.

beer in front of fire
It’s a dark winter stout, thick and almost chocolaty, not too cold, not very fizzy. I’m looking at that graceful glass and breathing in those scents, and I have one thought.


At this moment, I’ve been sober for 7 months, 28 days, 22 hours, and 35 minutes. My sobriety app tells me that at the rate I was glugging away, I’ve saved $2,477 and passed up 1,486 units of booze.

I’ll tell you something. If you’ve been here, there’s no surprise in this for you. But here it is:

Seven months and 28 days ago I didn’t think I could do this. I remember telling my husband, who had seen me make a good 60-day run at sobriety the year before only to pick up the bottle even more enthusiastically than before, “I think this will be really hard work and I just don’t know if I’m up to it.”

And that’s the irony of this addiction thing. When you reach your truth time – or what some people call “hitting bottom,” even though I’ll thank dog I didn’t have to do that – when you get there, you’re tired. You’ve been tired for so long you don’t even know you’re tired. You’ve been working so hard to keep things together you don’t even remember what a non-hungover, non-cloudy-brained, non-get-through-this-by-the-seat-of-your-pants day even feels like. That scary feeling of barely getting by, of putting on a front so others can’t see how much you’re not up to it? It’s not a bad day. You just call it Tuesday. It’s normal.

I’d heard that from long-time sobriety champions. Not so much in these words, but I’d heard people with dressers full of AA chips and directories of sponsees tell me that people who are practicing their addiction are living in a haze of delusion. The haze is so normal they don’t even notice it anymore.

I remember back in the day when my brothers were in constant legal trouble because of their addictions. DUIIs, probation, probation violations, jail, probation, more violations, more jail. I called an uncle who is one of those with a collection of AA chips and sponsees. He talked me out of trying an intervention with my brothers. Interventions usually don’t work, he said. And he said it would have to be up to my brothers. But when they did finally decide – IF they ever decided – they’d learn that this whole sobriety thing isn’t as complicated as the intoxicated mind makes it out to be.

“So, say you have a routine every night: you come home from work at 5:30 and have dinner at 6:00 and from 7:00 – 9:00 you watch your two favorite shows on TV,” I remember him saying, while I wondered why the hell he was talking about mundane weeknight routines when I was afraid my brothers were going to die. “It’s such a habit that you can’t remember what you did before that habit. And if someone suddenly took away your ability to continue this habit, you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself. But that would just last for a while. Pretty soon you’d find new habits – hopefully better and healthier than the old ones – and you wouldn’t miss the old habits anymore.”

Now, remember, my brothers were in trouble. Impounded cars and divorces and bad parenting and hiding-from-the-cops kind of trouble. And my uncle was suggesting that their solution could be as easy as deciding not to watch sitcoms for two hours every night.

I didn’t buy it.

And back then, I had never thought I’d face that habit shift myself. I’m what we call a functional alcoholic. I never got arrested or missed work. I was one of the countless among us who can do the college degrees and the business ownership and the volunteer jobs and the community involvement and manage a mortgage and a household and do it all through the haze of booze. Of course, I hauled home bottles of expensive Irish whiskey and cases of snooty wine, so I wasn’t just chugging down cheap beer and getting wasted like my brothers and so many other people we knew. To my mind, I was an entirely different story. I had outrun my DNA.

Honestly, holding my brothers up as a mirror let me stay in denial about two decades longer than I had a right to. I inherited that delusional mirror in the same way I got blue eyes and arthritic shoulders and a sneaky sense of humor. It came in the gene bundle. Generations of my clan have had barely functional and incarcerated kin who let the more functional drunks feel like they had it all together.

So when I reached my truth point almost eight months ago, I tried to steel my blurry and tired and traumatized brain for a hard fight. I started treatment for addiction and for PTSD. I tethered myself to my phone, streaming mindfulness and yoga apps into my ear buds day and night. I stocked up on fizzy flavored water and fancy loose-leaf teas and pretty teapots. I made new habits.

And today, sitting next to that stinky, sparkly glass of something that would have been an irresistible siren call a few months ago, I’m just a little queasy from the smell. I’m getting more space between the fumes and me, reaching for my diet ginger ale, and when I finish that I’ll brew some loose-leaf herbal tea and head to bed with my meditation app and my ear buds.

My uncle wasn’t the crazy one. I was. I have new habits now and I don’t miss the old ones.

It really is that easy.

And it’s more complicated than I can say here and now.

It’s one of the easiest hard things a person can do.