Mindfulness, Sickness & Health

Never surrender?

Earlier this week I had my 5th follow-up diagnostic mammogram and breast ultrasound in under 3 years. The first time I found out I needed these scans was a few weeks into starting chemo for ovarian cancer. I had tested negative from the BRCA mutation, so I was very much in a What, are you fucking kidding me? place.

The scans were negative then, as they are now, but the thing that is different has been my admitting fear beforehand. My brand, for as long as I can remember, has been “quietly brave, strong, and independent”. I don’t know if that’s how others would describe me, but inwardly, a part has regularly incanted, It’s not a big deal. Don’t cry over nothing. You’re not going to cry until we know there’s something to cry about.

But this time, on the day before the imaging, I told my mom, “I’m nervous about this.”

And that “quietly brave” part of me was like, Nooooooooooooooooooooooo! Never admit weakness! Under any circumstances!

It’s okay, Sweetie, I told it. We’ve tried stoicism for a while now, let’s give honesty a go, just for a bit.

As I lay on the cot, my arm above my head, warm goo being chased around my breast by an insistent probe, I breathed and thought about how, in the past, I had focused on looking calm, breathing deeply, smiling and joking to put the technician at ease—all to show how “quietly brave, strong, and independent” I am.

The truth is, I am all those things. Sometimes. AND, at that moment, I was also scared of how “bad news” might impact my life. AND, I was tired of having these scans done. AND, whether I liked it or not, I was dependent on both the health professionals conducting the appointment and my family at home wishing me well.

Abandoning my former actions, I melted into one word: surrender—to the mattress beneath my body, to the breath that has never once abandoned me, to the kind woman pressing deep into my flesh to get the best picture possible.

I allowed the fearful thoughts, the what-ifs, to trot around my brain, unbridled. I caressed each one with tenderness, and before too long, the hoofbeats quieted.

Funnily enough, I didn’t feel less brave or strong. If anything, I felt a deeper sense of trust in myself and in the willingness of Life to hold me—no matter the circumstances. It seems that in softening, I am starting to realize how durable I truly am.

Mindfulness, Sickness & Health

Let yourself be

Mindfulness was not the first form of meditation I tried. Starting before the age of 10, I experimented with visualizations, self-hypnosis, breathing practices, and more.

I pictured myself walking through forests. I imagined orbs of light permeating my being. I repeated “I am still,” over and over again, all in the hopes of being able to heal, to change myself into something I liked better. Most of the practices left me feeling incompetent and more tired than I had been before I’d started. I thought of myself as a spiritual person, but I was not getting this meditation thing—at all.

I had just about written it off entirely, when a few of my friends recommended Jack Kornfield’s teaching on mindfulness. I put on the CD, aware of equal parts hope and fatalism thrumming in my chest—maybe it could help? But it probably won’t.

The beginning was what I’d expected—about adopting the appropriate posture and taking some deep breaths. Grudgingly, I complied.

I don’t remember exactly what words came next, but at some point, he told me to just let things be as they are, without judging them and without trying to change them.

A wash of relief flooded my body. You mean I don’t have to make myself somehow feel better than I do? You mean I can just sit here and let my body and heart hurt, and not try to do a damn thing about it? I don’t know if I cried, but I was achingly grateful. I hadn’t realized that the reason I wasn’t “getting” meditation was that I had always been attempting to make something happen. I had been all effort and no flow.

I can just imagine whatever angels that may have been looking out for me wrinkling their foreheads in compassion. “Honey, could you just loosen your grip . . . like just the teeniest, little bit? No? Well, that’s okay, too.”

It may sound counterintuitive, but allowing my body, my mind, my heart to all be okay—even though they decidedly didn’t feel okay was lifechanging for me.

Even so, after more than a decade of practicing mindfulness and two years of studying (in a program co-led by Jack Kornfield, as it happens) to become a meditation teacher, it’s easy to forget that I am not meditating to make myself better, more successful, or more acceptable to the world.

I am meditating to remember—that though I may not be healthy, I am whole. Though I’m not super-productive, I am enough. And though I might not fit in with my culture, I am absolutely loveable.

All I need to do, is let myself be.

Mindfulness, Sickness & Health

Making peace with reality

I am in the middle of what I have just decided to call “the October grunts”. It’s that time when the weather changing from summer to autumn wreaks havoc on my body. The fibromyalgia pain activates, allergies intensify, fatigue wraps around like a suffocating blanket, and I often just feel like lying around moaning.

I am wrestling with reality. A part of me insists that “this shouldn’t be happening.” Another chastises me for being lazy. And another devises ingenious plans for how to surmount my obstacles—often through the meticulous employment of a planner, countless colored pens, and a compassionless iron will to keep soldiering on no matter what.

The wisest part of me knows that this is just the way it is right now. It invites me to inquiry. “How can these limitations serve me?”

They can instruct me in the wisdom of kindness—which is always a good idea, even when I’m not struggling.

They can remind me to, as Thich Nhat Hanh’s said, “Go slowly, breathe, and smile.”

They can help me implement the advice of Martha Beck (from whom I learned life coaching) to take turtle steps toward my goals because, right now, I don’t have the ability to take any other sized steps.

They can bring me back to the moment, back into my body to discover the places where the pain is caused by the way I’m holding my body rather than by something over which I have no control.

They can encourage me to not overthink things and, for heaven’s sake, stop pretending that perfection actually exists!

I would much rather not have them, but these “limitations” can serve me in any number of ways . . . if I let them.

How, if at all, are limitations serving you?

Art & Crafts, Making, Mindfulness, Writing

My word for the year

For a few years now, like many creatives, I have chosen a word for the year—a touchstone that helps me remember how I want to be and where I want to place my attention. In past years, I have picked words like “joy” and “open”. At the start of 2020, when I was recovering from a substantial surgery to remove ovarian cysts and what turned out to be cancer, the words I lived by were “tenderness” and “kindness”. I had not planned to pick a word for 2021, but a few days ago, one picked me.

I have long struggled with perfectionism and have come to realize what a large obstacle it has been to my being fully present in the world. I have written less (as evidenced by the lack of posts on this blog). I have shared less. I have made less art. I have been less of myself, because I was afraid of being judged and found lacking. And of course, I will be judged, and some will find me lacking. That’s not the point. The point is that the expression of life that comes through me—through each of us—is unique and as Martha Graham put it “If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.”

Since perfecting my output has been the biggest block to sharing, I have decided to make the lusciously flawed nonword “imperfect-ing” my guide this year. There is a practice in Persian rug making in which an error is always included in the final masterpiece. This is to acknowledge that only Allah is capable of perfection. I am not talking about this kind of intentional imperfect-ing. I mean acknowledging the bounds of my energy, time, and abilities, not wishing them different, and, from within those strictures, making something with great love and dedication—and then sharing it, so that if it’s meant to, it can touch someone else in just the right way, in just the right time.

Mixed media stitched collage

There’s so much more to say about this, and about my hopes and plans for this blog and this year, about how I’ve been and what I’ve been learning . . . but this is all there is right now . . . And, with a little luck, and a lot of imperfect-ing, there will be more here soon.

Until then, what are you working on? What words are guiding you?

Art & Crafts, Mindfulness, Travel

My First Foray into Art Abandonment

I’m starting an eleven-day trip today. In anticipation of this I made little art cards from an old pack of playing cards (an idea from Nichole Rae’s book Art Journal, Art Journey), with the intention of letting them go along the way. “Art abandonment” was developed by Michael deMeng. The idea is that you make some art, attach a note to it explaining that it is up for grabs, and leave it in a public place for someone else to find. I wanted to try it because I liked the idea of scattering a little art during my travels and maybe, just maybe, adding a tiny bright spot to another person’s day.

Here’s a little sampling:

If you happen to find one of these guys or have any questions about them, please feel free to comment below.

Thanks for reading! 🙂

Mindfulness, Nature & Spirituality, Sickness & Health

Taking a Nice and Easy Day

2017-02-10-taking-a-nice-and-easy-day-dianaklein-com

Yesterday was a busy day.

So was the day before.

And the day before that.

Life has been piling up. Mostly it’s been good things.  It’s been me taking steps in the direction of my goals.  It’s been me investing in my family and my community.  It’s also taking care of my ailing cat (who is completely recovered now, by the way!).  And unexpectedly having to take my car to the garage.  It’s been a lot.  And, somehow, there always seems to be more.  One more thing I must do today, this week, this lifetime—just so that everything will turn out the way I want it to.  Do you hear God laughing at me right now?  Yeah, me too.

I still have several things on my to-do list for this week, but I know I’m not going to get to all of them, so I am making accommodations. For one thing, this was not the blog post I had planned for this week.  I was going to make a video and write about making art every day.  I was excited about it, but it’s too much.  A part of me says, Hey, just push through. It’s just one more thing.  Pour another cup of coffee.  You can do it!  And that part of me is right.  I probably could do it, but at the cost of becoming more energy indebted and less, well, me.  Does that make sense?  Have you  noticed that when you overextend yourself for too long that you turn into an ugly, ungrateful, wretched, slobbering monster?

Or is that just me?

Anyway, the biggest problem with my monster is that she invariably makes things worse. Every little molehill becomes Mt. Everest.  Every tiny slight becomes a gaping wound.  Every mistake becomes life-threatening.  This attitude perpetuates a cycle of unhappiness and, ultimately, under-productiveness.

A few months ago I read a blog post on Kris Carr’s website titled The Myth of Finding Your Purpose. She says it’s her most popular post of all time and I can understand why.  In it, she begs the question, “What if finding your purpose is about . . . nurturing yourself?”  At first, I felt a little perplexed by this.  How can that be a purpose? Isn’t that just something that happens when you pursue and achieve your true calling(s)?  But when I thought about it, I realized that my callings—literally, the things that call to me—are simply things I do in service to my purpose.  And my purpose is to be the best—the healthiest and happiest and kindest—version possible of this particular conglomeration of cells and spirit that my parents happened to name Diana.  My purpose is to spend as little time in the monster skin as possible.

So today, I am taking a nice and easy day. Not a vacation day.  Not a sick day.  I thought about both of these options.  I thought about not blogging, but I realized this is one of the things I do that feeds my spirit, and I didn’t want to rob myself of that.  A nice and easy day means being honest with myself about what I can and cannot accomplish.  It means not expecting too much.  It means reminding myself that even though all those things on my list seem imperative, probably none of them are actually life and death  It means going slowly, taking the most important thing first, and letting it take however long it takes.  It means remembering to breathe, to release my shoulders from their defensive stance next to my ears, and to enjoy the sunshine flowing through the window.

 

Mindfulness, Nature & Spirituality, Sickness & Health, Writing & Reading

How and Why I Give Myself a Little Credit

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Where am I losing energy? I ask myself this question a lot.  I want to know what is draining me, what is pulling me down.  I want to minimize those influences.  Sometimes these things are, partially or completely, beyond my control—doctor’s appointments, conflicts with loved ones, stores with disturbing fumes.  In these cases, I can take deep breaths.  I can take it slowly.  I can limit my exposure to necessary, but distressing situations.  But, in the end, I really just have to shrug my shoulders and go through them (Squelch! Squerch!  See last week’s post about this.)

I’ve been realizing recently though, that there is at least one way in which I am losing energy that is completely within my control. It’s the way that I talk to myself.  I know, this is not news.  Some 2500 years ago, the Buddha was warning folks that “what we think, we become”.  But I’m speaking very specifically here about my attitude toward how I am approaching any given task.  I have noticed that very often I am telling myself that I am not doing a good enough job.  The song goes a little something like this: It’s taking me too long to shop. I am paying too much for this box of granola bars.  Why can’t I write faster?  Why can’t I always make the perfect egg?  I’m not learning fast enough.  I should be making better progress.  I can’t believe I spent so much time playing games on my iPad today.  I should have been nicer to that stranger.  I should be getting more done.  I should have gone to bed earlier . . .

You get the idea. If I let it, my dissatisfaction with myself becomes a constant drone behind all my other thoughts.  It’s not fun.  And it’s been kicking my ass.  It’s been me, kicking my own ass, draining my energy, allowing my power to squirt out every which way.  Not cool.

So what’s the antidote? Well, of course, there is the wonderful practice of mindfulness in which I catch myself having these destructive thoughts and counteract them by expressing self-compassion—maybe with a hand on my heart and an internal assurance of, “It’s okay, Sweetie.”  If there are any casual observers of my behavior out there in my town, they can vouch for the fact that I have my hand on my heart, a lot.  It works. But, what if I forget?  What if my mindfulness is not working very well, and I get to the end of the day, and find that not only have I been disapproving of myself all day, but I didn’t even notice I was doing it?  Well, that’s when I get out my gold stars.  You think I’m joking.  I’m not.  gold-stars-learning-to-give-myself-credit-dianaklein-comI now have several exciting sheets of congratulatory stickers (like the ones used by kindergarten teachers) and, as I record the events of the day in my journal, I think of at least one thing I accomplished, write it down, and I plop one of those stickers down next to it.  Sometimes it’s for doing something I was scared to do—like expressing myself honestly even though I feared retribution.  But the bar is not always that high.  Sometimes I give myself a gold star for vacuuming.  Sometimes it’s for self-care, like say, napping.  You’re laughing right now.  I get it, but the truth is that if you’re like me, you do a whole bunch of things during any given day for which you give yourself no credit, whatsoever.  Why?  Because “You’re supposed to have done that.  You don’t get a gold star for brushing your teeth, or feeding your family, or hugging your kids when you’re an adult.  That’s ridiculous.” finished-productivity-stuff-learning-to-give-myself-credit-dianaklein-com I agree, one hundred percent—but ONLY, if you are asking for that gold star from someone else.  I can’t expect other people to get excited about my taking good care of myself.  I can’t expect them to reward me.  But when I acknowledge to myself the things that I am doing—even the stuff that I “should” be doing as a matter of course—I shift my self-attitude from a person who’s failing all the time, to someone who could maybe do some things better, but who is also doing a heck of a lot of things absolutely right.  And that chick, definitely has more energy than Perpetually Failing Woman.  Plus, she’s a lot more fun to be around.

P.S. If you like the opening image, you may want to follow me on Instagram or Facebook. I post new art images daily.

CFS, Mindfulness, Sickness & Health, Writing, Writing & Reading

The Power of Small

I crashed last weekend—exploding pain, unforgiving tiredness, the works. It was particularly disappointing because I had been starting to feel like I was building up a head of steam—moving in the direction I wanted to go.  I had plans.  I had thoughts and ideas sprouting and multiplying.  There’s so much I want to do!  And then plop—the other shoe drops.  It happens to all of us—we feel energized to make exciting, positive change and something happens that we didn’t plan for or something reoccurs that we should have seen coming.  A fly gets in the ointment.  A wrench is thrown into the works.  Our best laid plans go so infuriatingly awry.

When this happens, my instinctive reaction is to do a post mortem: What happened? What did I do wrong?  What did I not do?  This picking apart usually takes place in the presence of my mother, who listens patiently and then says, “Or maybe it’s none of those things.  Maybe it’s just the cycle.  Maybe it’s just what’s happening now.”  At which point, I take a deep breath and grumble, “Yeah, maybe.”

Of course, she’s right. Most of what’s going on is beyond any sense of my control, and I just need to ride it out.  My struggle with it, however, has to do with my expectations.  They have a tendency to get away from me.  I do one thing and then want to, or feel I should, do more and more.  Some years ago, a member of my then writing group brought up the notion of setting a deceptively small goal.  I took to the idea and kept telling myself to “start small”.  However, in the hands (and mind) of a Type A personality, this mantra developed a major flaw.  I might be willing to start small, but all too soon, my mind says, Hey, we better put the pedal to the medal if we’re ever gonna get anywhere! Which, of course, devolves into a wild attempt to do more, which in turn tires, overwhelms, and frustrates me to the point where I am ready to throw in the towel.

start-small-snail-dianaklein-comIn light of this, my new motto is: Start small—and then keep going small until you get whatever the thing is you need to do done. It doesn’t quite trip off the tongue, but, when I think about it,  it is pretty much how I made it through college.  When completely cowed by the mountain of writing I needed to do and the soul-crushing fear of not being able to do it, I would start by opening a document, forcing myself to add one sentence (more if I could) and then, moving to the next paper, do the same.  I would rotate through all of my current projects in this fashion.  Write a line, switch, write a line, switch.  After I had a draft down, I could go back and check for cogency and fix any problems, but it was getting that first layer down that was the biggest challenge—which I overcame only by taking it piece by piece, sentence by sentence.  I still write this way when I am stuck.  I ask myself, What’s the next line? I don’t think about what will come after.  I only have to write one sentence.  And once that’s done.  I do it again.

It can be hard to commit to small steps like this because societal norms so often tell us that if you can’t have the thing you want by tomorrow, you’d best not pursue it at all or worse, it’s not worth having.  I mean, why even bother?  Many of us, when we decide to turn over a new leaf, want to jump in feet first. You see books on lifestyle makeovers and they are all about making wholesale changes to one’s life.  We tell ourselves, we will do everything according to this new code: eat better, sleep better, do yoga, meditate, be creative.  And we forget that our lives are still our lives.  I think people feel either: that they want to change everything all at once without regard to whatever else is going on in their lives or that they are too overwhelmed by their lives to make any changes at all.

do-the-thing-you-can-do-the-power-of-small-dianaklein-comThere is an alternative. Start small.  Do the thing you can do—this is advice I have given myself regularly over the past 20 years (when I haven’t been busy trying to outsmart myself).  If you can meditate for two minutes a day, then meditate for two minutes a day.  If you can eat more vegetables, but can’t eat less sugar, than eat more vegetables and don’t eat less sugar.  And, *this is key*, don’t let your mind sell you a bill of goods that you are somehow falling short!  The saying A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step is, perhaps, a cliché, and, of course, you do have to take all the succeeding steps after that first one if you want to get to your destination, but if you tell yourself that that first step is not, won’t ever be, enough, you will never take the second.

I have big goals. I don’t know if there are enough steps in this body to get me there, but I want to keep walking towards them.  I want to do the thing I can do, consistently, and be proud of each step, giving it the recognition it deserves, because, in a one million-step journey, step number 45,682 is no less important than number 999,999.  Without either, small, seemingly insignificant movement, you will never reach your goal.

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