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The Silence Beneath the Chatter

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.

Back to the Sea

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?

Is Your Ex REALLY a Narcissist?

Guest blog by my friend Linda Carroll, Marriage Therapist and author of Love Cycles, a book I highly recommend to clients

“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:

1. Narcissist

“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.

2. Sociopath

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:

  1. Exhibited a lifelong history of deceitfulness for personal profit and pleasure;
  2. Behaved aggressively toward others without regret, and
  3. 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

Commencing with Summer

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?

An Impatient Patient Surrenders

It’s a month now since I found myself climbing on the surgery gurney for a knee installation on my left leg. My right leg, ever the competitive First Child, was there first, six months ago. With the help of family, friends, and a whole infield of life coaches, I convinced myself it made sense to complete the job on the other side. The logic was watertight: I’d profit from my first experience and skate through it the second time.

What Does Life Want to Make of You?

“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” Parker Palmer, Letting Your Life Speak.

Since one of my (somewhat) official titles is Master Life Coach, I talk to people pretty often who ask for help making something of their lives. They want an advisor, strategist, and a wrangler to help them get this unwieldy thing called Life back in control. At the very least, they’d like a lasso to round it up a bit. Nothing wrong with that approach, except the fact that Life usually has its own way with us when we’re fighting it. This is the source of abundant stress.

What if the Food Thing Is Simple?

“It’s just that food…diet…food choices…are so complicated.” This was my stated conviction last week as I began a three-day Eating Peace inquiry retreat with dear friend Grace Bell.

My confusion about nutrition and diet has increased over the years, and that’s saying something given my birthright as a woman and my family issues with overeating . Ever seeking a fix for various bodily challenges (such as carrying twenty extra pounds, mostly on my hips and thighs), I have tried these “deep fixes” in the last ten years alone:

Now . . . A Pause from Self-Improvement

Who is this one who’s convinced she must improve me?

She tramped through the oxalis on a wet January evening, wondering at the recirculating advice device that seemed to be her brain.

A “retreat of solitude.” That’s the way she had described her coming week in the half- collapsed cabin, hunkering up to a leaky wood stove.

“Alone with my own thoughts” she had said. “Away from the breakneck speed of screens, terrorists, presidential candidates. (Really? Him? Again? She thought. That’s reason enough to hide in the woods for two years, not just a week.)

The Wildish Truth

Wild, a film about a young woman’s transformational hike, is causing a fair-sized buzz here in Oregon. Forget the Academy Awards nominations in the actress categories. The author of the book, Cheryl Strayed, is one of us. In her real-life story, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the film, she may be ill-prepared and bumbling, but she’s determined. And real. When she’s finally able to lift her ponderous pack at the beginning of the film, it’s somehow familiar. We recognize the determination we can all access when we must bear the unbearable. She’s a pin-up woman for authentic courage, and the local backdoor – from the Pacific Crest trail to the Bridge of the Gods – defines our sense of place.

Starting Close In

To learn a poem by heart is to feel it in my body. To learn a poem by heart is to live with it in my pocket. I’ve long been a fan of Kim Rosen’s book Saved by a Poem. For a time I forgot how it feels to stay close to my own marrow with a poem as my guide.

But sometime a couple of months ago, Irene, one of my beloved yoga teachers, read a David Whyte poem I’d never heard before. (Wonder of wonders!)

When Liminal Time Meets Technology

It’s Epiphany morning. Here’s what I wrote at earliest light, following my purest intentions and my personal tradition of defining Epiphany as a time-out-of-time. Just before a tiny techno glitch grabbed me and shook me by the heels:

I love this liminal time. The time between dark and light. I resist electricity and grope my way by candlelight before meditating each morning.

Major Gratitude for Shelter from the Storm

What’s the difference between major surgery and minor surgery? I’m at a special pre-op session led by the hospital physical therapist. I had no idea. Didn’t care. Hospitals aren’t my thing. I just wanted to get this knee replacement over with without breaking stride in my full life. I know. I missed the irony at that moment, but I get it now. I get the punch line to the joke, too. Minor surgery is someone else’s. Major surgery is mine.