Tag Archives: emotion

Self-Esteem or Belonging?

On a discussion forum recently someone brought up the issue of low self-esteem — feeling ugly, worthless, low.

I think in the past 30 years I’ve come from the deepest pits of hell to a peaceful grassy hill (which occasionally dips down into a dark swamp) on this one.

I clearly recall sitting in the hallway of my high school, crying my eyes out because I believed I was hated, ugly and worthless. I think it was freshman year, and it must have happened at least four or five times that year.

Somewhere in my brain, I thought it made sense that my extremely public distress was going to cause someone to realize how wonderful I was, invite me to hang out, and I would have friends.


By the time I graduated, I had a boyfriend, I’d been captain of the cheerleading squad, I’d been secretary of the student body, I had enough self-esteem boosting experiences under my belt that I no longer cried out for random help in the hallway.

But was it a build-up of self-esteem, or was it that I belonged to different groups, had a place among certain people, and was accepted?

The days when my self-esteem feels lowest now are when I’ve spent a lot of time at home surrounded by children who are whining, criticizing, and using every trick in the book to undermine me and get me to give them cookies and cake for dinner. At those times I feel like the world is against me, and there is no one in my immediate vicinity who actually wants, likes or needs ME.

When I’m feeling high self-esteem it’s because I’ve felt like I’ve been able to help one of my children with something, a neighbor has stopped to chat, someone has liked one of my blog posts, or some other indication that I belong in the world and that people are able to get some joy from my existence.

So when I think of the suggestions I passed along to the forum poster, I don’t think any of them were wrong: avoid magazines that make you feel lousy, for instance, and try to spend more time around people who make you feel good for who you really are. But I think I forgot one.

Know that you belong, and that your belonging brings others joy. Pay attention to those moments when you really know your belonging, and when you really see the joy you bring. Let those moments be your shining truth when the sun goes behind the clouds.

Now someone please remind me of this when I’m slogging through the swamps.

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From Furious to Curious

Maybe just a cutesy saying, but after I saw it on a Facebook wall photo, it stuck with me all day. In my quest to heal myself from my angry outbursts, I will consider any possibility to reach that goal.

I get the “curious” part on an intellectual level. Instead of lashing out in fury, allow your energy to focus on the situation with an open mind, allow your pointed rage to ask questions instead of shouting: “What do I need in this situation?” “What is most important here?” “What wonderful thing can I help bloom out of this chaos?” Or whatever inquiry fascinates you at the moment you find yourself about to blow your top.

Yesterday this technique, being fresh, was enough to distract me. There were a couple of situations in which I was able to turn my anger into an internal dialogue that siphoned enough of the frustration that I was able to be chill.

But then I went outside to water the garden. I’d been watching the sky all day and seeing big dark clouds come and go, hoping they would just go ahead and dump some of their load on us and do my work for me. No dice. So I’m out there, on edge waiting for one of the kids to come out shrieking, whining or begging, as is their habit.

And my new hose keeps kinking. Everytime I so much as breathe much less take a step the stupid thing twists and stops the flow.

The first couple of times I felt the anger, I remembered the idea about turning it to curiosity and I was very curious about what I could possibly be curious about in this situation.

About the tenth time it got kinked and I had to stop what I was doing and go over to untwist it, I was just royally pissed. What can I possibly want to know about any of this? I know why the water keeps stopping. I know what will happen to my plants if they bake all day in this Southern summer sun and get no drink. I know precisely how much they mean to me.

I learned that sometimes I am just tired and don’t want to keep encountering obstacles to accomplishing the things that need doing but which I have no energy for. Sometimes I am too tired even to be curious.

Which strikes me as frustrating, in and of itself.

My Anger

I found an old freewrite from 1996… making me realize that I’ve been struggling with feelings of overwhelming anger for far longer than I’d been mindful of.  By way of warning, I think this freewrite gets a little intense, but when I do these kinds of exercises I try not to censor myself.  The words express the intensity of the emotion more than representing any kind of reality.

I carry a really heavy anger, it’s shaped like a cube with orange and purple stripes all over it.  I keep trying to lose it, at the bus stop, in the grocery store, under the pews at the church, but it’s got my name and address written in permanent marker, and I’ll be damned if people don’t keep bringing it back to my doorstep, all heaving and sweaty from carrying that horrifying weight.  “You left this ugly thing on my porch!” They shout at me.  “Keep your stupid crap out of my face!”

Often times I’ll leave it outside for a while, try to pretend it doesn’t exist.  But sometimes I actually miss it.  I’ll bring it in and put a little doily over it, put my feet up on it while I watch the tube.  I’m not sure exactly what it’s for, sometimes someone’ll piss me off when I’m out walking and I’ll think about throwing it at them.  But somehow I know I’d never get the red stains off where it bashed their skull in, and then it would be an even uglier thing to carry around.

How Big is Your Heart?

Lately I have been struggling with overwhelming feelings of being hurt by and resentful towards someone and I feel like it poisons not only my relationship with that person but, to a small, insidious degree, the rest of my life as well.

I tried the trick of opening a book randomly (this time I chose The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh, which is sort of cheating because every page is brimming with wisdom) and hoping to find just the answer to my question.  Which I did:

If you take a handful of salt and pour it into a small bowl of water, the water in the bowl will be too salty to drink.  But if you pour the same amount of salt into a large river, people will still be able to drink the river’s water… Because of its immensity, the river has the capacity to receive and transform.  The river doesn’t suffer at all because of a handful of salt.  If your heart is small, one unjust word or act will make you suffer.  But if your heart is large, if you have the understanding and compassion, that word or deed will not have the power to make you suffer.  You will be able to receive, embrace and transform it in an instant.  What counts here is your capacity.  To transform your suffering, your heart has to be as big as the ocean.

The Pacific

This resonated as exactly the perspective I need.  When I feel hurt, it does feel like my heart, like the Grinch’s, is three sizes too small.  I feel very closed off and vulnerable, like a little critter hiding wounded under a log.

How to cultivate a heart as big as the ocean?  How to encompass the power, capacity, endurance, the inexhaustible ability to receive and transform without being poisoned in the exchange?  I accept that suffering will return again and again; my focus is not to avoid the hurt.  It is to avoid the carrying around of the hurt in my tiny jar of a heart, where the momentary conflict displaces all the fluid of my emotional self and results in my heart becoming a little cesspool of negativity that I pull from in my interactions with others.

I have no strategies yet, other than my new awareness of my feelings, and how I imagine I might someday, ideally, handle them better.  I visualize mentally and emotionally what an oceanic heart would feel like, and it feels wonderful. 

How big is your heart?  Do you find that the smallest drop of hurt fills your cup?  Do you receive the hurt, embrace it and transform it into something loving?  Do you have any advice to share from your experiences in expanding your capacity to love?

The Pain of Joy

Shadows and Light - Grand Canyon, 2007

I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy lately, which keeps me mindful of sensory experience, the fleeting nature of thoughts, interbeing and the simultaneous possibilities of suffering and joy.  Our animal nature instinctively wants to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and so the idea that we might accept both of these in order to reach joy takes some getting used to.

Parenthood has taught me a lot about accepting the paradox of opposites emerging from the same situation, existing in the same space and time.  Among other mind-blowing revelations surrounding my first child’s appearance on this planet, it occurred to me that as I gave birth, I also gave death.  We cannot bring a person into the world without simultaneously condemning them to face their last breath someday.  The pain of joy!

So philosophically I’ve understood the idea of the connection between pain and pleasure, but my body finally truly got it the other evening.  I was driving to teach my Spanish class and mentally reviewing the events of the day, which included some wonderful news from several members of my family.  I began to feel proud, relieved, excited, happy.  Instead of judging these feelings as “good” or “pleasurable,” I just felt them as they welled up.  I quietly watched how my body was responding to these emotional thoughts.  (Somehow I kept driving too… not the best situation to get distracted by an awareness exercise, but that’s about the only quiet time I get these days.)  My eyes were tearing up, my chest was squeezing tightly, my breath was shallow and strained, my head felt like it was going to explode.  From my removed perspective, I realized that it felt exactly like grief.  This overwhelming wave of happiness resembled exactly my recent experiences with crushing sorrow over the loss of my Grandma, except that normally I would have labeled it “good” and so it would have felt amazing.  When it is about something “bad” then it feels awful.

I’m not sure what to do with this new physical awareness. Does “good” become tainted with “bad”?  Having seen the man behind that curtain, do they both become irrelevant?  Is there no longer pleasure or pain?  Can we trick ourselves into thinking “it’s all good!” and avoid pain forever?

The Overlook - Grand Canyon, 2007

Is there a new place to dwell, a mountaintop above these paradoxical dualities, where we can see something more true and real than animal emotions and senses which flash hard and random like lightening through our conscious minds?

Using the Negative

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” — Kenji Miyazawa

Lao Tzu says that we must feed the good and the bad will wither and die.  This approach feels right to me, as I see so many people stuck in the “bad,” whether it is being trapped by worry or feeding negative fantasies until they come true or even talking obsessively about the “devil” and what he is trying to get them to do.  If we pour our energy into the positive, we cultivate the positive, and the negative has nothing to feed on.  (Why the “devil”-obsessed folks don’t just turn their attention to their faith in Jesus I cannot understand.)

So the negative withers and dies.  Compost!  It is still usable.  The idea of turning to the positive is a helpful reminder, but to turn our backs on the negative permanently encourages a dangerous denial; we don’t have to be afraid to look the dark side in the face and use it for good.

I think I have resisted optimism for so long because it seemed pathetically passive, to be a weak pawn clinging desperately to happy thoughts against the raging storms of chaos that toss us all around.  I could never understand how it could be better to be clueless about how bad things really are and to pretend that everything is okay.

But to be optimistic in the face of the suffering, the horrors, the pain of life, what courage and strength!  True optimism does not deny the negative, it simply acknowledges it, refuses to feed it, and converts it to positive energy to move forward along the path.

Cynicism and pessimism, which I used to think demonstrated a brave, bold acceptance of reality, I now believe are signs of defeat, of allowing the negative to swamp you and take over your life.  It is a cowardly surrender to despair.

There is suffering.  The negative does exist, and you will meet it on the path with alarming regularity.  But it is not the Way.  If we keep to the Wise Way, we will find love even in the midst of pain and sorrow, and our hearts, minds and wills can follow that light through any darkness.

Harmony, humility, compassion

Taoism offers three elements that can help one along the Way: harmony (balance, moderation, surrendered will), humility (open mind, open eyes), and compassion (open heart, empathy, love).

Three resonates as a powerful arrangement: body/mind/spirit.  The Blessed Trinity.

Similar to the way the Kabala is used as a system for organizing knowledge, I find myself organizing ideas I encounter into these three spheres.

Harmony: In surrendering to a Will greater than myself, I let go of my own desires and embrace What Is; striking a balance, I ride the wave of energy of the Here and Now; in tune with What Is, I respond to people and situations in the most loving way possible.

Humility: I relax into a quiet mind and clear awareness; letting go of thoughts, allowing them to pass; being open to What Is instead of coloring my perception with desires, wishes, fears, etc.

Compassion: Keeping an empty heart, I become continuously filled with Spirit; I let go of ego and emotions as they pass; I accept union with Oneness.

Emptiness, letting go, opening to the flowing wonder of the world.  Keeping the energy moving with grace, centering senses  and freely releasing love.

Whether I read a Buddhist text, the Tao Te Ching or the Bible, I hear a resonance of this wisdom and the meanings become brighter.

I want to share my inner work as a way to get a new perspective and thereby learn more, and also as a way to invite you to share yours.  In this sincere exchange, the seeds of our inner work can meet in a middle ground and grow amazing new flowers.