All we need

I recently had the honor of contributing to the naming ceremony and bris for dear friends of ours. While I found many beautiful buddhist prayers and writings, none resonated like the heart inspiring yet simple words of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Adapted by me and read by my heart centered friends to their newborn son;

“We will love and support you to be aware of your innate goodness.
The seeds of love, compassion, generosity, patience and wisdom already exist in your heart and mind.
We will help you to cultivate this aspect of your true nature.

We will cultivate a self confidence in you that is not based on transient, superficial factors, but on a deep awareness of your own inner goodness.”

If only every child could start out in the world with parents that start from here.

They all showed up

all six of them for my 10th birthday, sweaty and red faced from playing tag.  Barone’s pizza grease dripping from our faces. Wild and happy. He came stumbling up the driveway, the undigested pizza in my stomach threatened to show itself. I stood and smiled. He tripped past me up the porch stairs, threw the door open, struggled not to fall while his shoes came off. The hot garbage stench as his foot released from 12 hours in railroad boots punched me in the nose. He was slurring and screaming, wanting to know what the hell all these kids were doing in his house. Running to my room i cried, for barely a minute, taking a deep breath before returning outside to play again, telling them my dad was sick, not to worry. He wouldn’t make it for the singing.

Habit

We are our habits, whether we like it or not.  Many neuroscience studies indicate that our brains are made up of about 40% (the low estimate) habit.  Meaning that as we do an activity over and over again, the decision making part of our brain starts to shut down and the routine is automated.  The good news is that this frees up our brain to do other things – the brain takes up more than 20% of oxygen, blood and energy to function, so in order to allow up to do higher functioning tasks it needs to automate as much as possible.  The bad news is that it doesn’t differentiate between good and bad habits.  That is where awareness comes in.  In order to change or shift any habit we first have to be aware we have it – the excuse that I just am the way I am doesn’t fly.  We are changeable adaptable, malleable beings.

I will be talking about this subject a lot in the coming weeks as I am working on a project that i think will eventually change the way people look at their behavior and provide the necessary tools to make sustainable change.

As I was doing my research I started to think about all the ways in which habit effects our lives and I immediately thought of my three year old son.  I realized that all the conscious and unconscious decisions my wife and I make in his life are forming habits that he will keep for a lifetime.  Whether we are talking about the basics such as eating and sleeping, or we are talking about how he interacts and thinks of himself, how he interacts and thinks of and treats other people.  Many of you have children, think of how quickly something can become part of their routine, how quickly they come to expect something to happen the same way everyday…

For example, Henry has a bedtime routine, as I am sure your child does.  He takes a bath, brushes his teeth, we read three books and sing three songs, he sleeps with his favorite love thing (he calls him baby E) turns on his lantern and goes to sleep.  We have been following this routine most of his short life.  He expects it and can rattle it off, he will even correct a babysitter if they miss a step.  This isn’t a rant about what routine any child should have, it is about being deliberate and fully aware that whatever you are doing, you are creating a routine and creating a habit – good or bad.  And if you aren’t following a routine than the non routine becomes the habit.  It is about realizing that every choice we make, in our lives as well as the lives of our kids could result in a habit.

So, as you ponder this I highly recommend taking an inventory, maybe just starting with yourself or if it is easier, think of your kid(s) or your pets.  What habits have you cultivated without realizing it?  Write them down, the good and the bad.  Now what habits would you like to cultivate?  Write those down too.  It is the start of creating awareness around how we behave.  Pick one habit from you list – good or bad.  And think back to when the first time was that you did that thing…

It helps me if I do a short meditation before I do the reflection.  Set a timer for 5 minutes –

Arrive – get comfortable and be where you are

Awake – start to hone in our your breath – breathing in on the count of 4 and out on the count of 6

Just breathe – when you mind wanders to the next thought as it will, come back to breath and start counting again

Aware – continue breathing – allowing your self to only have to do this one thing – let go, let be

Back to the breath, counting in and out

When the 5 minutes are up, take out a piece of paper and try the exercise above, you may have opened up some more space to remember more details.

We are all imperfect beings, with good and bad habits.  For change to happen we first have to come to know ourselves.

stay tuned.

 

with love,

kelley

Looking outside of myself

I turned 35 yesterday.  Funny how some ages hit you and others don’t.  35 hit me.  I have always been an overachiever, trying to prove to everyone that I am different than my parents, that I won’t be a victim and that I can succeed regardless of my circumstances.  In most things I never had innate talent, just a will to be better than people thought I could be.  I measured myself on whether I was working harder than everyone else, because I assumed that was the only way to set myself apart.  For many years I was right.  I ended up playing Division 3 basketball, but not because I was talented, because I worked my ass off.  Unfortunately, once you hit college trying harder can only get you so far – talent in addition to effort will surpass you (and size).  So I was 6th or 7th off the bench when I was used to being the star of the team.  This was my first lesson what worked for me in the past may not work for me now.  Life changes, perspective changes and what you put in will not always get you the same results.

I am having a similar experience in my life now, turning 35.  I have always been the young one in my peer group at work, always.  It felt good, to exceed people’s expectations, to surprise them.  My gift has been my intuition for people, how to connect with them, how to motivate them, how to help them uncover their best self, and my insights. I live for the moment that I would be sitting in a room full of executives in some seemingly important meeting.   I would revel in the moment that I would wow someone with an observation or insight.  I especially loved the moment when someone was there that didn’t know me, and would make small talk after and ask me my age and the look on their face would make my whole day.  I felt special.  Wow, they would say, you are wise for your age, or you are an old soul, or, where did you learn how to do that at your age.  The point is, I felt like an overachiever, I felt different.  I stood out.

Now, I am 35, and for some time now the things I have accomplished are no longer special.  The job(s) or roles I have held are now what could/should be expected at 35.  So yesterday, more than any other time, it really hit me, I look to others to validate my success, my worth, my being.  Does being the age that others are make me any less.  No.

So it got me to thinking.  In what ways am I looking outside myself for validation?  So I did a sort of meditation on my life.  And thought through everyday experiences (big and small) such as my bike ride to work and whether or not I looked like a tourist or a local (I live in Amsterdam) compared to the person next to me, or to being at the park with my son and comparing myself to the other parents or comparing him to other kids, and to having friends over for dinner, what would they think of the wine, the food, was my cooking better or worse than theirs, was I serving better or worse wine, and when I am at work, do I find value in my work if others don’t praise it, or what if they are the same age or younger than me and doing a similar level job, do I feel less special or like I am less valuable?

You get the idea.  Once I catalogued all these situations in my mind, I stripped the outside people the “others” away.  I started to imagine each scenario without someone else to compare to or someone else to praise or criticize me.  And I found that in most of my life I am looking outside as opposed to inside.  The funny realization for me is that I felt like i have been doing this work for years, uncovering neurosis, building self awareness, following my intuition, having a strong sense of self etc…and have been coaching others to do it themselves.  I laughed.  Sometimes you can convince yourself you are living the work you do, but really you aren’t.  Awareness is everything, almost.

Clearly the journey is never ending, what we think we know we can know again, in a different way.  The uncovering of self and who we are with others never ends.  So my new practice these days is to visualize a situation in which no one else had an opinion or judgement, and it was just me.  What would I do then?  What would I think of myself if there was no one to compare myself to.  Who am I, really?  I pick one a day and journal about it or just meditate on it, or sit with my coffee and think alone.

I encourage you to try the same.  In what ways are you defining yourself compared to others?  Who are you when there is no one?

Now, I realize that this is the other extreme, it is just an exercise, to create more awareness, to create more space for other possibilities.

“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”   Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Trigger – no not that kind

It happens to all of us, you may not even know it is occurring when it does. Your heart rate increases, your face may flush, maybe your palms get sweaty, if you have a nervous twitch it may show itself, and likely you get defensive, that is if you are like me. It is that moment when someone says something that irritates you, sets off an alarm, or otherwise triggers a reaction in you that likely stems from some set of experiences from growing up.

If there was ever a trigger in my life it is my mother. She has been visiting my wife, son and I for the last two weeks. What that means for me is I have been in my version of hell for two weeks. Culminating in last night’s conversation that started with:

“I feel like you constantly have a wall up with me. I thought we were going to be close again” quickly followed by, “what did you think of your childhood”. Now, of course she waited to have this conversation until my wife was safely out of the country (home for her brothers graduation) and of course not until she had a good two or three glasses of wine topped off by a few tokes of hash. I think I should provide some context here.

We all have a story, mine may or may not be like yours, to some degree. I grew up the oldest of three, (sister than brother) in a small house in a wealthy suburb in Illinois. We, however, were poor. My dad was a train conductor (ticket taker) and my mom stayed home. Not because we could afford for her not to, but because my dad did not allow her to work. My dad looked like a guy who worked on the railroad. A little over 6 feet tall, balding black hair, mustache, about 50 pounds overweight, all in the belly with a loud voice you could hear booming even down the street. The funny thing about his job is that he would take the commuters in and back on the morning ride, and then hung out at the station until rush hour that evening. During that time he drank beer, smoked and played poker with his buddies. For 5 hours! And somehow was paid to do this. What that meant for me is he always came home drunk, before the night even began. My mom had her own addiction issues, pills, coke (though not ever day), a smoker and light drinker, at least at the time.

We lived in a tiny bungalow on Brandon Avenue. I shared a bedroom with both my brother and my sister. There was puke dried on the carpeting in the hallway to our upstairs bedroom from the previous owners dog, I think it was permanent. Most of my friends came over one time to play and then weren’t allowed over again due to the daily screaming matches in my house and the never-ending flow of drugs, booze and cigarettes.

And that is just the beginning, really just a light-hearted set up to what was to follow. So you can imagine the trigger reaction I had when my mom challenged me as to why we weren’t close, and what I thought of my childhood. I mean, I have been in therapy for 12 years and have had my own executive coach for five, I coach people for a living to further help me get away from the childhood that I never stopped running from. So much so that I am 34 on the very cusp of 35, a Global Manager of Organization Development for a multi-billion dollar global company, have moved 4 times in 9 years, all for promotions and each time happier that I wasn’t living near my mother. In case I haven’t mentioned it, my dad has been missing for 18 years, so I didn’t have to work to get away from him.

She really didn’t know what that question was going to get her. And I am certain now she wishes she never asked.

One of the quotes that I use to remind myself that life is just life, and with it comes both suffering and joy is below:

“Pain is not punishment, and pleasure is not reward.” Pema Chodron

I don’t think my mom found it helpful when I ended our conversation with that. But it helps me realize life isn’t out to get me, or reward me. It just is.

Queensday – or weeks for some

Today is Queensday, the day in the Netherlands that the Queen is celebrated – the ultimate matriarch. Unlike in other countries where there is much pomp and circumstance, the Netherlands celebrates with a giant party, drinking, music, and…wait for it…a giant tag sale. The entire city of Amsterdam empties out their closets and cellars and throws down blankets to sell the crap they no longer need. Walking through Vondelpark where the “children’s market” is reminiscent to walking through grant park on the 4th of July during the taste of chicago, but with used clothes and toys for sale.

On this particular day my mother is in town visiting, and has been for two weeks. While she is technically the matriarch of my family, since my father has been missing for 18 years, she doesn’t embody any of the traits. Pill addicted, on disability for “pain”, she has spent the trip like a raver from london, taking her pain pills, drinking, hash, weed, cigarettes, sleeping until 10, and more drinking (did I mention it was my good scotch and cognac???). My mother has been here for two weeks and has acted as if it has been her queensday every minute of it. While I mistakenly thought she was coming to visit her grandson and help out around the house a bit, she was here to party. If you are like me in any way, spending more than 4 hours with your mother triggers you into some moment in the distant past when you were 16 years old – my skin prickles at the sound of her voice, everything she does sets me off, crunching potato chips and talking so loud it indicates she is in desparate need of a hearing aid.

Now you may think I am a bitch, talking about my mother this way. I have always had a hard time with the idea that “blood is thicker than water” or the “come on, she’s your mom” – we all have heard it. However, in my humble opinion, getting knocked up and giving birth does not entitle you to a lifelong loving, close relationship with your children in which they in turn take care of you (yes, there is some resentment there). You have to earn that. We do not owe our parents for giving birth, putting a roof over our heads and feeding us. That was a decision they made when they decided to get pregnant and go through with it. My mother is still making my sister pay her back for when she was in rehab at 13. Not kidding. I digress.

It is this feeling of entitlement that gets people, including me, into trouble. As adults no one owes us anything and vice versa. We can make the conscious choice to particpate in this world and give of ourselves. Give by listening, being compassionate, loving, taking care of ourselves first (yes, i said first), at the very least, treating people as you would a campsite in a national park – in better condition than it was before you arrived.

So how does one survive a two week visit by someone who triggers the worst of you? Well, a good friend of mine reminds me ofter of the Prayer of St. Francis, particularly three lines:

Grant me the ability to comfort rather than be comforted;

to understand, rather than be understood;

to love rather than be loved.

I use these three lines to deal with difficult people, including my own mother. I try to have compassion for her, she is unhappy, so I manage my expectations and don’t expect of her. The trick is not to lose yourself in this. For another time.

Happy Koninginnedag!

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