Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Surrendering to Love

“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps 
the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test 
and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke

The movement towards emotional intimacy is the process of getting close enough to someone to truly know them--and through them to really know yourself. Because when you invite honesty, when you are open to it, then the person in front of you will respond by showing you exactly how they see you, by showing you what you really are. If you cause them any discomfort, they’ll tell you so. Being able to open yourself to this requires an enormous amount of faith--in them, surely…but even more importantly, faith in yourself. You must trust yourself not to turn away if you don’t like the you that’s being reflected. To make this commitment, you must see that your capacity for love is greater than your fear and greater than your desire to feel secure. It will require great courage.

My advice to you is to fan the flames of your love, make it burn as bright as it can. Shine your love on anyone you can--your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, casual acquaintances, even complete strangers. Steel your resolve--can you love them enough to give up your personal desires, to reign yourself in? If it comes down to a choice of their happiness or yours, will you sacrifice? Will you mercifully, tenderly, lovingly surrender what you want to bring them joy? Can you love them more than you love your own self-image?

Day by day, as your heart softens, you see more clearly how much you have to give. You see that love isn’t in what they do for you, or what they say, or how much they give you. It’s not about getting something back. Love is in what you can be for them. Yet, there is a responsive flow back to you. When you get it right, you can tell just by the smile, the twinkling of the eyes, the ineffable warmth, once you get tuned in to these subtleties.

Gradually, you push your heart to expand. To fully express your love, you must see others as they truly are, and put away your expectations and projections, so that you can be what they really need. You find that to fully show your love, you need grow your awareness to include all the others in their lives, and help them improve those relationships as well. To fully express your love, you find that you must acknowledge reality as it is and not live in the narrow view of self, because you can only respond well to the situations that you see accurately. You willingly turn away from jealousy, envy and greed because you find they just bring pain to yourself and to those you love.

Your generosity and capacity for love increases. You dig deep into your soul, you call up your compassion again and again. You pray “Love, help me see what needs to be done, help me know what to say, help me to respond in ways that bring comfort and joy to those I care about.” You keep on trying, even when you think you’ve really messed things up. You’ve let someone down, you beat yourself up, you pick up the pieces, and you give it another go. And you keep right on trying, even when you have to swallow your pride. You affirm that you won’t give up on them, even when the going gets tough. When it hurts, you chalk it up to learning.

You feel woefully inadequate to this task, but you know, deep down, that it’s the only path that’s really worthwhile. You let your heart lead the way. Suddenly, you begin to overlook all the little shortcomings, the petty disagreements, the disappointments, and the moments of frustration because they just don’t add any joy to your life, so there’s no need waste one unnecessary second dwelling on them. Now, the big obstacles fall off into irrelevance.

You’re throwing your whole self into it now, and your heart is on fire. Your patience and your willingness to persevere become infinite, and you vow to never give up on anyone you love. You will always be there for them, no matter what. One day soon, you will drop through the hole in the bottom of your heart and into the ocean of love that fills the world. If you can love even one person truly and fully, you will find that you must love everyone else and love everything that is, just as it is, because only then can your love be complete. You stop seeking anything for yourself because you discover that it’s all been yours anyway, right from the beginning.

Only you can walk this path, only you can realize that in the end, all your desires have been nothing but the desire to be loved, and being loved is nothing other than becoming love. At the bottom of it all, we are all one, and that one is love.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Nothing Else

I’ve had three really intense spiritual experiences in my life, each of which left me profoundly changed at the core of my being. The last one happened about three years ago. It was an ordinary day and I was leaving work. I was driving out of the parking lot, and I passed one of my coworkers walking to her car. I smiled and waved at her as I normally do with people I pass on the way out. About 30 feet or so behind her was another woman whom I did not recognize at all. However, I began smiling and waving at her too. At first, a look of utter bewilderment crossed her face. I knew she was thinking, “Do I know this woman? Why on earth would she be waving at me?” but I went on smiling and waving anyway. Then, she broke into a beautiful radiant smile, and I knew that she understood that we didn’t know each other at all, but it just didn’t matter. Suddenly, this overwhelming feeling of knowing beyond any doubt, that the universe is filled with love—knowing that, in reality, nothing else ever has been nor ever will be, enveloped me. Behind this woman’s look of confusion, behind her radiant smile, was a deep longing to be recognized and loved. It’s a deep longing in me too, and in all of us. It’s an aching need that is, at once, the desire to be loved, the capacity to give love, and love itself. It relentlessly urges us to reach out to one another, deeply yearning to connect at the level of our vulnerability and our imperfection, trying urgently to show each other the truth that just can’t be told.

It’s too easy to get caught up in the presentation of ourselves. “Am I acceptable? How do they see me? What does it mean when someone waves at me? What does she want? How should I react? Will I look like a fool?” But truly, love is simple, love is obvious, love doesn’t expect anything, love understands your confusion, love patiently waits for you to drop your self-doubts, and let it in. Nothing and no one you seek out can ever convince you that you are loved, until you are willing to see it for yourself. Only one thing hides behind a radiant smile or a look of utter bewilderment. You are love.

Can you see it?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Challenge of Overcoming Shyness

Shyness is a problem that I’ve lived with for most of my life, and still live with now, but to a far lesser degree than in the past. I’ve always felt self-conscious and awkward in social situations, but one of the biggest problems for me has been making phone calls. I never had any trouble answering the phone, it was just making calls that terrified me. If I made a call, the first thing I had to do was explain why I was calling. I had to sound calm and professional, and make sense. I found that really hard to achieve when I was sweating profusely, breathing at twice my normal rate, and shaking like a leaf. Fortunately for me, email came into common usage around the time I began my professional career. I found that I could easily substitute email for any phone call. Well, almost any phone call. Every now I then, I had someone coming in with a name and a number on a little slip of paper, saying “I told this person that you would give ‘em a call.” Ughhhh!

The turning point came when I decided to sign up for a research study on social anxiety. Of course to get into the study, I had to make a phone call and set up the initial appointment! (Here’s an important word of advice to anyone out there trying to recruit volunteers for a social anxiety study: USE MAIL-IN CARDS!) Having overcome that one big obstacle, the experience went very smoothly, albeit with lots of paperwork for me to fill out on every visit. I met the diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder, which seems to be distinguished from shyness only in that it must have the additional effect of causing a person distress or of being debilitating in some way (so people who are happy with their shyness wouldn’t qualify). The study’s purpose was to investigate whether a combination of medication plus therapy was more effective than medication alone or therapy alone. I was randomly assigned into one of five treatments: fluoxetine alone, therapy alone, fluoxetine with therapy, placebo with therapy, or placebo alone. I received a container of pills, so I immediately knew that I was either in the fluoxetine group or the placebo group. At first I wasn’t sure what I taking, but after about two weeks of pills, I went in for an evaluation. The psychiatrist asked me many questions about whether I detected any difference in my anxiety level, and I could tell by the way she reacted to my answers that she’d concluded that I was in the placebo group.

After several weeks, the study ended and I was officially told that I had been taking a placebo. However, the study stipulated that every participant was entitled to a real treatment, so at that point, I was offered a choice between six weeks of therapy or six weeks of fluoxetine. Since I personally dislike taking any medications, and I wanted a permanent change, I chose therapy.

The cognitive-behavioral therapy had two basic components. One was to examine and counteract my negative self-talk, and the other is to confront my fears in a graduation and controlled way while the therapist provided lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement. I was asked to write down my thoughts when I got anxious. Many people with social anxiety talk to themselves in a negative way: “She’s not going to like me. She thinks I’m an idiot”, and so on. I didn’t have very much of that, although I do tend to assume that people won’t be very interested in what I’m saying. The second component was more useful for me. It consisted of making a list of goals. I had to write out the things I was afraid to do, then rank them in order from easiest to hardest. Then each week, I had to do one or two things from the list, beginning with the easiest, and report back on how it went. So, I began making phone calls. The easiest kind of phone call for me to make is the short business phone call, so I started by replacing some of the interactions I would have normally done by email with the phone call. One really useful thing for me is mental rehearsing. If I was having trouble making the call, I would relax, breath deeply and imagine what I would say in detail. I would also imagine getting a courteous response. After a few iterations, I was able to feel calmer about making the call. I moved from there up to making social calls, but just with the intent of asking a question, not extensive chatting. My therapist and I got along quite well, and she kept asking if I wanted to keep on coming, which evidently wasn’t a problem within the constraints of the study, so I ultimately had about 20 sessions with her.

One the most valuable things I gained from the therapy experience was getting reassurance that my social skills are actually pretty good. I had this lingering fear in the back of my mind that maybe I grated on people somehow, that it might actually be unpleasant for them to talk with me. But I asked my therapist that, and we had practice conversations, which both of us seemed to enjoy greatly, and she told me that my social skills are fine. Knowing that it’s someone’s job to tell you the truth means that you can have total confidence in her answers. My hangup is just fear really, and the only way I’ve found to diminish fear is to do the thing I fear and see that it’s not so scary after all. It was really helpful to me to go through the experience, and to learn that my fear really doesn’t know best. The fear was telling me that something bad might happen, but when I pressed on through the fear, the bad thing never came. I learned to challenge my fears and not be ruled by them. I’ve also come to distrust strong emotion in generally. I find if I’m feeling calm and relaxed, my intellect and my intuition work pretty well and can be relied on, however, if I’m upset, fearful, angry, or even highly elated, then my judgment needs to be questioned much more carefully.

What’s been really helpful to you in overcoming a fear or negative experience in your life?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Prayer for Today

May my heart be soft and my vision clear.

May I have the strength to see things just as they are, and not retreat into self-deception to appease my emotions.

May I show generous compassion and respect to those who have great wisdom, to those who are seeking wisdom, to those who are just faking it, and to those who are utterly lost in confusion, for I too am all of these.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Emotional Balance

You may recall that on January 19th, in my post The Goal, I said that I wanted to take a closer look at why I don’t share particular thoughts with others, and question whether my reasons are valid. I’m happy to report that I’ve been doing that, and finding that I’ve often held back for no good reason at all. Once I started examining this self-censoring process at the level of individual thoughts, I found that I either couldn’t think of much justification for holding back, or I had a vague sense that someone might react negatively to my comment. If I had the fear of negative reaction, I’ve generally challenged myself to reword the comment in another way to make it less objectionable, or to just say it to see if I really would get the reaction I was expecting.

Because I’m now examining my thoughts and feelings in greater detail now, I’m also noticing something else that’s really important. I’ve become aware of how I shape my own emotional states through expectation. I’m finding that if I say or do something expecting that it will have a positive result (like someone will be pleased or impressed), most of the time the reaction I get falls short of the expectation, and I feel disappointment. On the other hand, if I have a negative expectation, like someone will frown at me in response to something I say, then I tend to restraint myself. If I don’t actually say it, then my assumption never gets tested, and it’s as if I did get the negative reaction (thanks to my own imagination) because I never gave reality the chance to disprove my belief.

By being able to observe these states inside myself, I’ve been developing emotional balance, and I can feel when I am emotionally centered, and when I am starting to get off-balance. When I sense myself beginning to imagine a specific positive outcome from something I’m doing, I now know that I’m setting myself up for disappointment. When I sense myself beginning to imagine a specific negative outcome, I now know I’m setting myself up for fear and self-restraint. The ideal state seems to be uncertainty. In the state of uncertainty, I am receptive, curious, and sensitive to meaningful feedback. In the state of uncertainty, I can change my plan in appropriate ways as new information becomes available. But one of the many hazards of being human is that humans don’t like uncertainty. When we’re trying anything new or different, we like to have some sense of what the risks are, and what the payoff will likely be. We like to be secure in thinking we understand the probable consequences of our actions. But, ironically, thinking we already know the likely outcome may keep us from seeing the actual outcome, or may lead us to disappointment because the small positive we achieve fails to measure up to the big positive we expect.

Staying emotional balanced means not letting yourself get too far into either a positive or a negative expectation. If you can’t maintain an attitude of uncertainty, at least try to balance out the positive and negative expectations. If you’re imagining you’ll get a big reward from something you’re working on, stop to think about what could go wrong and how you might deal with it. If you’re imagining a negative outcome, stop to ask yourself why you think this will happen, and whether you could possibly be wrong.

What strategies do you have for staying emotionally balanced?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Another Hazard of Being Human: The Popularity Game

When I was a kid, I was what was then known as “shy”, now called “having social anxiety”, an affliction that involved, paradoxically, both wanting to be with people, and being very afraid of them. If you’ve ever been a kid, you probably know that school is the worst possible place to try to develop social skills. I had a few friends when I was in elementary school, and those friendships were pretty good. However, once I got into junior high, friendship became a competitive sport called popularity. Like any other sport, it had some basic rules, which I didn’t really understand, and lots of injuries. I decided I didn’t just have the stomach for the game. In the many years that have gone by since I was that age, I’ve come to realize that neither my school nor my experience was really unique. The basic dynamic gets reenacted in schools throughout this country, probably even throughout the world. Putting a bunch of immature humans together in close confinement, with no way to effectively escape each other and very little adult supervision, is just a bad idea.

In the junior high social scene, there are always a few individuals who cement their social standing through fear and bullying. If, like me, you endured junior high, I’ll bet that sentence just made one or two faces appear in your mind. In my school, their names were Mary and Amy. During the first half of the first year of junior high, Amy had been my friend, and I swear to you, she was a nice person. That was before she became Mary’s minion. One day, she abruptly turned to me and said, “I don’t like you anymore and I don’t want you hanging around with me.” That was the moment that I began to seriously distrust other people. Up until then, I had recognized and was willing to accept that some people wanted to be friends with me and others didn’t, and I was fine with that. Suddenly, I was confronted with the reality that someone who I liked and trusted could just one day stop liking me. Now, of course, I know that it happened because of Mary’s jealousy. Once Amy and Mary became friends, Mary insisted that Amy drop me so she wouldn’t feel so insecure.

Mary also seemed to dislike me forever afterward, and would take every possible opportunity to embarrass me in front of others. One day, I wore a new pair of shoes to school. “Are those your grandma’s shoes?” Mary asked loudly from across the classroom, “ Cause my grandma has a pair just like those.” My strategy was to try to remain invisible. I stopped talking to anyone or trying to be friends with anyone, because I felt like there was no one I could trust. I bought clothes like everyone else wore, not because I liked them, but just so I could avert the chance that someone would notice I was “different” and draw it to everyone’s attention.

However, I did make the mistake being one of only two girls in a drafting class, and that, I learned is a very bad thing. The other girl changed out of the class after about a week, and I was the only one left. The teacher, apparently a smoker, would disappear for about 15 minutes during the last half of every class. There were a couple of boys who would persistently tease and harass me from the back of the room. They would ask me if I was having my period, whether I used pads or tampons, and try to convince me that I had blood stains on the back of my pants. Later on one of the other boys from that class (not known to be part of the teasing group), came up to me and said that his friend, Roy, liked me and gave me a note from Roy. I asked myself what the odds were that Roy was sincere. I couldn’t know. I asked myself what the odds were that they were setting me for another joke and more humiliation: “Ha ha, you really thought Roy had a crush on you.” I decided it wasn’t a chance I could take. I told Roy’s friend, “Sorry—not interested.”

Truthfully, it has been a long road back from those early experiences. I’ve always had a difficult time accepting friends. Sometimes, I just can’t believe that someone would actually just want to sit and talk with me. I tend to ask myself, “What do they really want?”, or I start to feel like I’m imposing on their time. It’s only been during the last few years or so that I’ve made real progress in that area (I’ll tell you more about that later on).

Now, I have a daughter who is eight years old. We are fortunate to be able to homeschool her. When people who learn about our decision ask me, “But what do you do about socialization?”, I want to respond, “Oh, you mean the experience of having your peers torment and humiliate you until your self-esteem is beaten to a pulp, and you conform to their wishes just to “fit in” and try to survive another day? That’s actually the aspect of public school that we’re most happy she’s missing out on.