I just completed my fourth day of an at-home retreat. It was supposed to be silent. I truly intended it to be silent. After all, my home is in a forest-like setting near a park in a quiet neighborhood, with towering trees bearing silent testimony from every window. My ever-understanding husband took off for our cabin in the woods so I could have silence and the Internet for a couple days at a time. (I was participating in an online retreat that featured silence except for six or seven hours of inquiry a day with Byron Katie, a teacher of mine).
I rearranged clients, family, friends, errands and life as I know it. Except…
And there were many “excepts.” The neighbor at the door, the phone. The refrigerator. My dog. I took care of these as I could, returning to meditation and inquiry as I could. I complained about the interruptions some, but mostly I just did my best.
A quasi-silent retreat is better than none, I told myself, even as I complained a bit in my mind. And it was. Especially because I have memories of other times of silence when I was away from home and distractions. And they were also far from silent. As I searched for the retreat notes yesterday, a poem I wrote back in 2006 popped up:
Silent Retreat (Talk Radio)
I came here to be in silence
but I seem to have brought along this radio host,
Desperate to keep ‘em callin’ in.
And here I am surrounded by green silence
But the Oval Office keeps me posted
Strategic planning committees, discourse on success.
Counting the losses, planning the next big moment.
When all I want is a change of occupancy,
To kick the bastards out of office
And then after that, we’d see.
I’d keep the dial on to the channel
Where the butterflies veer past the hummingbirds.
And the moist skin shivers as the morning
holds the sweet night air a little longer.
And I would stay tuned.
What I’ve learned since then is this: the Oval Office in my head is doing its best. They’re not “bastards.” They just want a little love. And when I’m not busy kicking them out, I notice all the beauty I was missing before, just on the other side of the belief.
Oddly, this is where I’ve ended this last “urban” silent retreat of mine. The channel is much the same. Life’s juicy sweetness is there to be sucked in. Without the war with the voice in the head, that’s all there is. And I intend to suck away, just like the hummingbirds that throng my fuchsia. We’re all just savoring this juiciness of summer. And freedom.
Come along. Where do you fight the talk radio in your head? Check it out. What’s on the other side? What’s always there, whether you notice it or not? This is your birthright. Claim it in a few silent moments every day. See what shifts in your world.
Mother, carry me,
Child I will always be,
Mother, carry me,
Back to the sea.
My sister and daughter and I wind our voices together in a song new yet ancient, returning from the Oregon coast. It would be the last trip I would take with my sister. My daughter, at eleven, was a skinny sprite who invited her aunt again and again to come back, with her sand castles and stick-writing and cartwheels.
“I can’t help but think I would have gotten well if I’d come here to heal instead of the hospital.” After a year and a half, Cathy had chosen to leave a well-respected residential treatment center without her doctor’s agreement. Her dissociation made this risky, but she had long ago left her healthy self behind. And so we were all giving it our best shot by taking her back to the sea.
The sea wasn’t a long-term solution to her mental illness. Within a year her candle flame waned and wafted out. I was now the One Who Lived, the one who moved on with my life. Also the one who cleaned up a lot of messes.
The first year after her death I took a day of solitude at the ocean to grieve and to cry, echoing her hope in the healing powers of the ocean. All the painful memories bubbled to the surface. And the sea seemed to wash away the pain.
Thus came about the yearly ritual. Solitude and silence for a day or two. Sound of ocean. Settling of thoughts. Being the feet in the sand. Woman being alive, grateful for the past year. Emptying and clearing for what may come.
For the past twenty years, I’ve taken a few days out of my life around the time of my birthday to clear my windshield of the flies and bugs and sticky things.
It’s always a holy time of being transported by saltwater, sea air, gulls, wind, and Her Majesty herself, the Sea. My family and friends respect this way of mine. They know that I will return more myself than before.
Every year I spend at least a full day in silence, which implies solitude, since I have a lifelong habit of distracting myself through conversation with anyone in a 25-foot radius. This year, however, I felt like a radical change. These days I’m making a practice of breaking my own rules. So I flipped the ritual and allowed one person, my beloved husband, to join me for a day at the beach. It’s a simple hour-long drive from where I live, and yet it’s a trip we don’t often take together. (He’s a “mountain man” and I’m an “ocean woman,” or at least that’s the story I made up.)
And so, on July 15th, my midsummer birthday, I did the “normal” thing. My husband and I went on a walk on the beach. And out to eat together at a nice restaurant. For the first time in seven months of knee surgeries, I was able to pull myself over the dunes and walk a half a mile on my new knees.
It was a great day of celebration. After all, if I am indeed This One who Lived, I’ll need those knees and appreciate that husband for a while yet. These are the things I’ll be savoring and remembering, perhaps, as I retreat to the silence of solitude this weekend. Cleaning my windows and preparing for this next year of life.
While I listen to my grown-up daughter’s CD version of Back to the Sea (originally by Diana Hull),
What are your rituals of grief? Celebration? Where do you find solace? Solitude? What personal rituals hold you together? What needs to be freshened?
“My boyfriend is a narcissist. That’s why we broke up,” says Amy, case closed.
“My ex-wife has a borderline personality. That’s why we aren’t together,” says Jake, and no one asks if he had any part in the demise of the marriage.
“My brother is a sociopath,” says Todd. “That’s why our joint business venture was doomed.” End of discussion.
More and more, I hear people sum up failed relationships by using clinical terms like the ones above. I’ve noticed, too, a myriad articles in blogs and magazines that advise us to get out of relationships if our partner fits one of these tags.
It’s true that some people are deeply affected by what are called “personality disorders.” That being said, it remains highly unlikely that your ex can legitimately be labeled as a narcissist, a borderline personality, or a sociopath, even at his or her worst.
That’s because the way we act when we’re in the middle of a difficult time in a relationship is never the basis of such a diagnosis. Our emotional and psychological makeup consists of a continuum: at one end lies aspects of our personality which surface under stress. At the other end is our underlying condition, that is, the organizing principle of our personality both in good times and bad, during periods of calm and under stress, whether we’re in a state of well-being or trauma.
It takes a long time to observe the complex series of symptoms that constitute a psychological condition and arrive at a legitimate diagnosis. So why has it become the vogue for so many unhappy partners to toss around these very serious and complicated labels?
When we’re hurt in a relationship, it’s tempting to make the other person the problem and to select evidence and events that diminish their credibility and value. This tactic may even have the temporary effect of making us feel better. If we slap a label on our ex, what went wrong is a “slam dunk.” The certainty with which we come to this conclusion short-circuits any pain we might suffer, and shields us from our sense of loss. Most of all, we can duck out on seeing our part in the unraveling.
So let’s examine a few of these labels, and re-consider how we are using them:
“Narcissist” is probably a label we hear most frequently, and is one that is also frequently misused. Let’s start with an example …
Meg, who always thought of herself as somewhat sickly, mildly attractive and “reasonably intelligent” (but not startling so), blossomed at 32. Her career as an editor in a yoga magazine suddenly was flourishing, and her fitness achievements and radical health improvements made her a sought-after blogger and speaker. As someone whose self-estimation had always been “just OK,” she was deeply excited by her new achievements.
Her old friends, meanwhile, began to notice how she tended now to focus on her accomplishments and her long list of admirers. They saw her less in person and more on social media, where she constantly posted selfies of herself in amazing yoga posse. Was Meg a narcissist? Or was she just going through a transition period, which caused her to be especially self-centered?
True narcissists are the loneliest people on the planet. Unable to connect with and claim their actual strengths and positive qualities, they rely almost entirely on how others see them to achieve a sense of self. Their moods tend to swing between the ecstasy of grandiosity and the agony of deficiency.
Most of us can relate to some of the characteristics that define a narcissist. We may even exhibit narcissistic traits or qualities for extended periods of time. A true narcissist, however, maintains this defining attitude always, because he or she knows no other way.
Here’s another example of how another label can get misused. Christine found out that her partner, Manny, had been dating her best friend for months behind her back. Enraged, she threw his clothes on the lawn, reported his cheating to his sister, and on impulse posted a photo on Facebook of the two traitors kissing on a running trail.
So is Megan a sociopath? Or was she temporarily blinded by anger and pain and did things she would later regret? A true sociopath lacks empathy all the time, and often is actively contemptuous of other people’s suffering.
To receive such a diagnosis, a person has to have:
- Exhibited a lifelong history of deceitfulness for personal profit and pleasure;
- Behaved aggressively toward others without regret, and
- Shown a lack of remorse for the harm they have caused.
3. Borderline Personality
Likewise, borderline personality disorder is not simply a synonym for your ex-wife, who you think is punishing you by changing her mind about when you can have the kids, or by sending you mixed messages about her residual feelings for you.
The main feature of BPD is an ongoing pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and emotions. A person with this disorder is impulsive, often self-injurious, and often has a history of self-cutting and suicide attempts. Such a person lives with a frantic need to avoid real or imagined abandonment and expresses chronic feelings of emptiness and emotional instability, even during periods of calm and well-being.
Recall those times when you’ve been at your angriest while interacting with your partner: would you like to have had a video camera record your responses in that state? Probably not. Would your behavior indicate that you’re a person with BPD? Again, probably not.
Typically, personality disorders are diagnosed by a trained mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. Even family doctors are not trained to make a diagnosis, let alone upset friends and family.
So please: let’s stop flinging around labels that most of us are fortunate enough not to fit.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com
Summer abounds with opportunities to notice our place on the Great Wheel of Life. And it all begins with June. Graduation. Weddings. Reunions. We gather to acknowledge movement from one part of life to another. For just a few minutes we come together like a tribe to remember, to catch up with ourselves. We look forward and look back, trying to make sense of this world where children transformed into young adults overnight while we forgot to notice. And then we begin to make room for the next opening.
I’ve attended a ton of commencement ceremonies in my life as a teacher, a family member and a friend. I love the way you can eat hopefulness with a spoon at every one of these occasions, even if you’ve felt immune to all the sentimentality. For me there’s a moment or two of reflection and a chance to quietly celebrate all the commencements in my life, past and present. That moment has always been there, even when I was mostly celebrating never having to try to usher reluctant seniors through the last spring of high school ever again.
There’s a whole lot of commencing going on in most of our private lives, too, this time of year. During this season of refulgence, it’s as if nature outdoes itself and won’t back off on its gifts. Warm weather and long days take us by the shoulders and demand that we celebrate possibility. There’s an expansiveness of hope right now. We plant starts in our gardens. Attempt to wrangle our summer plans for trips, activities. Savor sunsets and picnics and reunions.
From this vantage point, it seems these long and hospitable days will never wane, and all that’s ahead is an endless summer. I’m often shocked when September comes that it all could have been here and then disappeared so quickly. But every year I believe in the myth of the endless summer once again. I’ve often wondered why.
I can think of a couple of reasons: first, as the world around me gets warmer and business as usual is interrupted by vacations and celebrations, as things slow down, so do I. There are more opportunities to sit in the shade, stare into space, surrender the efficient schedule. Weather and nature and the world around me invites me to show up, to Get Here when I can. Which is now.
Or in the next few minutes. After all, it’s the season of the slacker. I still have a lot to learn…or unlearn.
What opportunities to do you foresee this season to reflect on where you’ve been and where you’re going? Are there opportunities to do this with friends or family? What can you create? Can you do that as a slacker, making it simple and slow?
Where and when will you find time for yourself to be where you are for a few minutes (or more) during your day? How can you make this a habit, when you remember?