The Limits of Kindness

A list is circulating social media, offering ways of tipping the balance toward the good in fraught times. Such as opening doors for people, offering a smile, letting other vehicles in a long line of traffic.

I have often written of small acts and their power. I believe that these kind of kindnesses are true and useful and so so needed, and I believe that every small act has resonance beyond its immediate impact. I am a fervent believer in the power of kindness.

And I see the limits of kindness. There is also a need for intervention. Making room for others in our heart is a great thing—and may it nudge us to stand for justice.

“The heart and the fist,” is how activist/visionary Valarie Kaur puts it. Rage, she says, at least maternal rage, is a “biological force that protects that which is loved.”

Photo by Eliza, via flickr.com Creative Commons

What this looks like in practice, I’m still figuring out, but one thing’s for certain: The coming years will not relieve the need for the heart and the fist. I want to be part of the movement toward a better future, where all are valued, respected, and safe, and no one is targeted for being Black or brown or immigrant or trans or female or poor or any other scapegoat status.

In thinking about the violence at the Capitol, it helps me to anchor into the big-big picture. First remembering that this small human body is truly, ultimately safe, always one-with-Source—realizing energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed. Then seeking to understand:

Are we seeing the last gasp of the dinosaurs, as Octavia Raheem’s beautiful post suggests? Is this the patriarchy making a final last stand? Brene Brown has said of this ugly era: “Last stands are violent and desperate and scary, and know no boundaries and no rules, and do not follow any protocols.”

Kaur uses a birthing metaphor, saying we are in a stage called transition: “It feels like dying, but it is the stage that precedes the birth of new life.”

I’m struck by what these stories have in common—their implied faith that something better is on the horizon. I am a proponent of hopeful narratives, and yet I know that nothing is assured. That is why Kaur says transition is a dangerous time, and calls us to labor. To embody what she calls Revolutionary Love.

She advocates a fierce brand of love that asks us to “see no stranger,” as she learned from her Sikh faith. (Note: Read her book by this title and you will never be the same.) To Kaur, everyone is a brother or sister, an uncle or auntie. Instead of “otherizing” those who think/live/look different from us, instead of dehumanizing any member of our human family, she takes the attitude: “You are a part of me I do not yet know.”

That is how she looks at everyone, even those who do egregious things. This isn’t about being a doormat, and she’s very clear that if you are the one who is under the knee of the oppressor, your job is not to attempt this transcendence. Your job is to survive, then tend to your own trauma.

This is where community comes in. Those of us not in immediate danger must step in and do this work. It’s hard. Empathy and kindness are not necessarily the starting point. Wonder can be enough to start, says Kaur. To wonder, for example: What are the life experiences that lead to violent white supremacist attacks?

To support this hard work, she has conceived of The People’s Inauguration as a way to recognize that we are the leaders and healers our country needs. Set for Jan. 21, the day after the inauguration, it is a pledge to help heal and rebuild America as an anti-racist, equitable, sustainable nation. For 10 days thereafter, supportive teachings will be offered online. I have signed up. Join me if it resonates.

Learn more through this Sounds True podcast.

Real Safety

Someone suggested to me that a thing I’m involved in is sketchy. It’s an experiment that admittedly looks mad from the dominant worldview. A project based on generosity, reciprocity and trust—making something our hearts know, that we are all One, tangible in the way we give and receive.

I have felt incredible support and uplift from the experience, almost a magical boost catapulting me—no, sustaining me—in this expansive place of possibility. Extreme self-responsibility—taking nothing personally—is the watchword.

Then I tumbled, with the questioning comment. I felt my ego rise up. Don’t let someone think ill of you! Defend! Explain! (Take it personally!!)

I had a visceral shift, lying in bed after this deflating exchange, in which I could feel my constriction melting and my consciousness merging with the All. It’s hard to describe, but I felt that I was expanding out beyond a fear mindset to a transcendent place that makes both suspicion and defensiveness irrelevant.

I still had trouble falling asleep. The ego does not go down lightly.

The ego talks my ear off all night, tightens up my body, obsesses over all my to-do lists. It’s all about proving itself right, and hiding vulnerabilities, and being in charge.

I know you are terrified, I tell the ego, but I am going to let another/greater part of me take the lead now.

Perhaps this is a microcosm of the wider world, in which the dominance model we are living under is not going down lightly.

I’ve been listening to interviews with Elizabeth Lesser, who wrote Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. She referred to the “death rattle of the patriarchy” that we are experiencing as a collective. We see this globally, as the old guard hangs on tooth and nail to a way of life predicated on subjugation of people and planet.

Brene Brown, writing in 2016, predicted a “last stand” of this dominant worldview, and foresaw its messy, violent, chaotic trajectory. Last stands are desperate.

These systems live in me, and in each of us. My own desperate ego, afraid of dying, mirrors that death rattle. What will happen, yells my ego, to all my specialness, all my control, all my plans, if you move about the world in some kind of transcendent state? How will you stay safe if you change the story and make me irrelevant?

Real safety, I respond, comes from knowing who I really am, which is a part of the All in All.

If I holler back at the ego and make it bad and wrong, if I try to vanquish it with its own tools, it only deepens the chasm I’m trying to heal. But if I can speak kindly to that ego (while redirecting with both compassion and firmness), might it help to melt those systems of control—not just in myself but in the collective?

Well, even if it is just a moment here and a moment there, the experience of Oneness creates a template that has its own resonance.

Solar Eclipse, May 2012, Arizona

“When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.”
—East German dissident Rudolph Bahro

I’m so there. How about you?

No Matter What

I cried already this morning when walking Opal on the golf course, where the line of voters snaked out to the street and the overflow cars were parked on the green. No matter what happens, no one can say the populace is apathetic.

Most of my friends are on edge today, fervently hoping for a particular outcome of the election, worried about what comes next. It struck me this morning that it might help to look at what I can count on, no matter what.

I know that no matter what, there will be major healing to do, and being a bystander is not an option for me.

I know that I will always be a person whose heart lifts with the kingfisher’s rise over the creek. I will always find comfort in my furry companions who will always love me (in succession; I know these particular friends won’t be around forever).

I will always thrill to the sight of birds flocking and wheeling across the sky in great numbers, as they do this time of year, even if it is “only” starlings. I will always be a person whose face defaults into a smile for random strangers. Who wells up to see humanity in its marvelous shapes and forms and shades, feeling our oneness even in our division.

I will always care deeply and seek to be fully alive to everything, even the hurt.

None of that says all that much about me… except perhaps that I have been extraordinarily lucky.

This birthday card from my sweetie …

The inside of this card starts out, “In a world that can be a little rough around the edges, you soften the lives of those around you…” Cue the awww.

All I can say is, may it be so.

Force ≠ Power

Everyone’s working so hard these days, trying to figure out how to parse the new COVID-19 reality, trying to deal with massive uncertainty and upheaval.

A long time ago, an intuitive told me that “trying harder”—my usual tactic for getting through difficult things—was a habit that didn’t really serve me. I cut my teeth on the Mennonite work ethic though, and it’s a hard one to let go. Even now, knowing that it doesn’t really help, I’m not too long at a task or goal before my eyeballs get all squinched up and I hold one shoulder tighter or squeeze up my right thigh. It’s natural, right? I’m working hard!

We did an experiment in yoga class that showed me how truly unhelpful this pattern is. My teacher Gaynell had us swim our arms through space, bounce at the knees, forget about holding a certain posture. Get a little playful. Then she directed us to feel our “energy ball.”

You can do it right now just by shaking out your hands, rubbing them together, shaking them out some more, and then holding them a little bit apart. There’s a staticky feeling, a sort of fuzziness, between them—you feel it? That’s your own energy field.

So we have this energy ball and we’re playing with it, expanding the space and closing it, in touch with flow, and then Gaynell has us CLENCH EVERY MUSCLE IN OUR BODIES. You can do it right now. Really go rigid. Tense everything up completely. Your face, your toes, your glutes, everything. Then: Feel for your energy ball. Where did it go?

Mine collapsed. I mean, I couldn’t feel it AT ALL.

In the same vein, I once saw a demo with a personal trainer who tightened every muscle in her body… and was measurably weaker on a strength test, vs. staying loose and using only the muscles needed. This surprised even her.

These experiments tell me that force ≠ power!

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Photo by “orangemaniac” via Flickr Creative Commons

True power is quiet humming fuel, the life force underlying everything. Forcing, clenching, pushing, driving… these are all things I’ve been enculturated to do when my energy runs low. Just push on through. But, what if I’m just making life harder for myself and everyone around me?

What if there’s a way to reconnect to that hum every hour of every day, and use it to fuel my endeavors, instead of listening to the busy mind that overrides every small signal and tells me to press on? To drop any unneeded “efforting,” as yoga teaches us?

What if, indeed, this energy source is key to transforming this messed-up world from the inside out?

If I were to stand in my energy, could I listen more deeply, engage more fully, relate more authentically, even with people who push my buttons?

Could I have access to inspiration, innovations, and solutions that get cut off every time I tighten up?

Could I, through an easeful resonance, alter the energy of any place I enter?

I’d like to think so. Remembering to remember to remember… that’s the key.

Gratitude: Where would I be without yoga, my yoga community, my yoga teachers? Clenched-up, lonely, and snappish, that’s where. I’m especially grateful that some classes are now offered outdoors. If you need some support, check out Irvington Wellness Center for virtual classes and—if you’re local—for select in-person offerings. (I also offer Soul Realignment via Zoom, and you can book through IWC.)

Tip of the Day: If you read through my post but didn’t try the experiment… try it out now!

Resource of the Day: How to rewire the fear response through love. Check out this article by happiness specialist Arthur C. Brooke (four tips at the very end). 

Not your Sister’s Self-Care

I was asked to write a wellness article for a local women’s magazine, sharing practices that can help us find our footing in the midst of uncertainty. I was in the midst of drafting it when the world blew up for the second time in a few months, with George Floyd’s murder.

Not for the first time, that confluence of events made me really think about self-care in the context of  inequity and social change. Is self-care an inherently selfish act? Does it require donning blinders and living in a syrupy bubble of pampered and precarious comfort?

Not the kind of self-care I mean.

Embodiment teacher/activist Abigail Rose Clarke has said that having the time and space to do mindbody practices is a privilege. And the very fact that this kind of practice is a privilege, she notes, makes it a responsibility.

We who have the time and space to create the change within ourselves that can help heal the world, must do so.

I believe that building our personal resilience does in fact heal the world. I think of the white woman who called the police on a Black birdwatcher and claimed he threatened her, after he lawfully requested that she leash her dog. The level of reactivity in that act, aside from its painful demonstration of racism, indicates (to my mind) someone who is not awake to her own need.

Self-care, and not your sister’s self-care of pedicures and bubble baths and pricey skin toners, is a muscular act. It requires facing up to the boiling mess of emotion inside us, and giving it room to flow and transform. So often we suppress the things we don’t want to feel, but they don’t go anywhere but underground.

Then they burst out in annoying and sometimes dangerous ways, like chronic pain or low-grade irritability. Or acute reactivity that puts another in danger.

In actual fact, turning towards our emotions on the regular, with self-kindness, is what relieves and releases them. And it may not look pretty or feel yummy. Rolling on the floor and wailing is not a Calgon-take-me-away moment (totally dating myself with that reference). But I would much rather have a private tantrum than inflict that pent-up frustration, fear, and resentment on another.

(It doesn’t necessarily have to be a tantrum. Maybe it’s just experiencing that inward trio of sensation, thought, and emotion—and following where they lead with curiosity.)

By turning to kinder practices that nourish the body and soul, we become more resilient and less reactive. As we move through our day with less fear, suspicion, and hostility—less triggered, or more able to stay with the triggers and breathe before acting—we truly do build a more compassionate community and world.

I used to teach a class I called Radical Cell(f) Care, offering self-care practices I’d gleaned from various energy healing traditions. I called it radical because this kind of practice gets to the root, because it gives us tools to pause, because it creates change from within. It generates more kindness in a world sorely in need of that.

portulac

The portulaca blooms closed up in yesterday’s rain, and opened again when it stopped. Life inhales and exhales, contracts and expands. 

Now, kindness alone won’t solve the pattern of deadly force against black people and the dearth of justice for their murders, or other ways massive inequities show up in our society. It won’t halt a pandemic’s spread (but may slow it down, as people take precautions, expressing their care for each other). On its own it won’t fix the breakdown of our planetary systems, or the rise of fascism, or other seemingly intractable problems. But I still contend it is a vital tool for addressing the general awfulness that faces us at every turn.

Policies are behind much of the awfulness—policies set by people with power. We are also people… with our own power. Our choices and behaviors can uphold the awfulness, or challenge it, transcend it, create something brand new.

We need to continually refuel for the big and small acts that will make change. We need to embody and radiate the kind of muscular compassion that doesn’t look away from the awfulness, and doesn’t allow it to persist, and points the way to a different kind of world.

Gratitude: I am grateful for the view I have from my desk—our tiny back yard, where I can see young robins eating mock strawberries, and all the garden freshening under rain, and all the chipmunks, neighborhood cats, hummingbirds, bluegray gnatcatchers, sparrows, cardinals and so on making it their playground.

Tip of the Day: From the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is HardI learned that willpower is a finite resource. We exhaust ourselves quickly if we power through with grit alone. It’s not high-quality fuel. I’ve been cultivating a new motivation to fuel I do throughout my day, connecting to a feeling-level motivation where I can. Positive feelings like love, kindness, pride, excitement, and joy have staying power. If you are working toward change, it might be useful to check your fuel levels!

Resource of the Day: I started watching the Reimagining and Remaking America replay with activists Valarie Kaur and Van Jones. Now I can’t wait to read her book, See No Stranger, which makes a case for the ultimate long-haul fuel: revolutionary love.

A Safe Space

When someone says all is lost, do you agree? Do you match her intensity of lament with your own, amping up the despair?

Or do you try to talk her out of her fear and angst, knee-jerkily attempting to cheer her up so you don’t have to hear her pain?

Or do you make a safe space for her to express what she needs to express, without agreeing or negating, so she can hear herself and move the lostness and pain out of her body and mind?

I do all three, though I aspire to the latter. Depending on my own emotional state of the moment, I may or may not be able to offer that spaciousness. Sometimes I turn away from another’s declaration of lostness. My own fears get triggered, and I shut down. Or try to shut the other person down. “Don’t catastrophize,” I snapped once when a friend told me of her overwhelming fears. Not my finest moment.

Sometime earlier this week the streetlights on my block mysteriously went out. I am sure someone is following up with the city, keeping the neighbors informed on Facebook, monitoring when they will be turned back on. In the meantime it seems more important than ever that our porch lights stay on and illuminate the street. (I’m adjusting the timer on ours today to match the shorter day length of this season. Happy fall, though it feels like endless summer around here, just another disquieting “new normal.”)

But you get what I’m saying, about the lights, right?

Last night in yoga class our teacher guided us through an experience of mutual support that could be felt in our very bones. We stood four and five across in the small studio space, and each took a tree pose (balancing on one foot with the other pressed into ankle or thigh) while pressing palms into our neighbors’ palms. Some worried they would destabilize those around them and trigger a domino effect of falling tree-bodies.

But that didn’t happen. We stood separately yet connected, a grove of human trees. No one toppled, and if we wobbled a little, the contact with another’s hand steadied us.

I was in the back row and got to glimpse this roomful of interlinked trees, like life-sized paper doll chains.

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Photo by The Real Estreya, via Flickr Creative Commons

Balancing in mutual support felt effortless—even when Gaynell next had us reach one leg backwards and bend forward into Warrior Three, this time with our arms outstretched and resting straight across the arms of our neighbors.

What a pleasure to bend forward in synchrony with my yogini friends. I felt that we could sail across an ice rink as one! Simultaneously holding and being held.

When times seem dark, we have this to count on. In the press of each other’s hands, we are stronger and steadier than we could ever imagine.