Friday, April 3, 2015

Watching, Waiting, Learning: Reflections on end of life.


A new time in my life has arrived. My father in law is ill, at home with hospice. He is the first of the four parents (my two and my husband’s two) to become ill. Pancreatic cancer.

Our humanity is rooted in our ability to die. We are manifestations that have arisen and that will pass away. Being human we know this deep down inside, which is why we have so many skills, preferences, and biological systems to support our staying alive. One of my meditation groups is studying the chakras right now and the first chakra (at the root of the spine) deals specifically with our basic needs to stay alive:  food, water, safety etc.  I also learned recently that we remember the “bad things” much more easily than the good because the memories of bad things or situations (poisonous food, unsafe areas etc.) help keep us alive. For example, if we forgot that a big hungry bear lived in a particular cave, we would be putting ourselves in danger each time we walked past or looked inside. Our memories of the negative are strong and emotionally powerful because they help keep us alive. All of this is to say that we, by our own human nature, know our vulnerability.  We know what will threaten our lives, and we do whatever we can to avoid it. 

So, when the time comes for us to pass, all of our life experience and biological hard wiring is put into action and into question. Of course this is essential for the person who is passing, but it is also something we experience as by-standers.  As we watch someone become weak, become confused, or debilitated by pain, we are confronted with our own fragility and our desire to keep those we love safe and with us. 

My father in law’s confusion is one of the hardest aspects we are experiencing.  The spreading cancer (to the brain) in combination with the strong pain medication is a recipe for disorientation. But, why is disorientation scary, to experience and to watch? Perhaps because our survival depends on our ability to orient ourselves in time and space.  As a healthy independent person, being lost threatens our survival. Being lost or the feeling of being lost triggers all of our fight or flight systems as we try to orient ourselves and find our way back home to safety.  In this way, the sensation of being lost or confused is as scary as actually being lost. And, seeing someone lose this skill is hard to process.  Of course, when we see a baby experience confusion, we have compassion, because we understand that it is our role to take care of the infant or child until they are capable of doing it themselves.  But, to see an adult we love and admire lose this ability after decades of being capable somehow seems a tragedy. 

But, this is the tragedy of life. This is why the Buddhists say life is suffering.  Our being human is the condition on which suffering rests.  And, that is also beautiful. That is the Buddha nature. 

Some people are torn from this life before we can see what is happening. Accidents, sudden heart failure or stroke do not give us the chance to witness and learn from the process of illness. Such a situation has other lessons to be learned. But, we cannot choose our fate nor the fate of those around us.  So, we respond with compassion. Compassion as we would for a baby. Compassion toward our loved ones, and toward ourselves.  Our systems for survival will kick in at every turn. That is their job and they will do what they do. We get to watch, wait, learn. This is our chance to notice our deep desire to survive and then to release that hold so we can be free of the chains of fear and accept what comes, as it comes. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Tell me you love me!

We all need to feel loved.  It is essential to our health and well being. Not to mention our quality of life!

Feeling loved comes from feeling supported, connected and accepted by others. We exist in this world together. We live together, work together, play together, and dance together. Our sense of self is undoubtedly tied (in some way) to how we relate to others, as individuals and as groups. Others' reactions offer us feedback on who we are and how our actions have influence or not. But, for some of us, external feedback becomes more than just feedback. It becomes the test of whether we are worthy of being loved.

When we base our self worth on others' opinions, we enter the role of victim. We are subject to the highs and lows of that feedback.  We lose our sense of personal power when we give it away to the whims and preferences of others. On the flip side, we can't disregard all opinions of those around us.  That would be completely narcissistic and sociopathic.

It is not an all or nothing situation.  And, that is exactly what makes it so tricky and so emotionally confusing. 

I recently had a friend who posted a sort of "challenge" on Facebook, requesting those who actually care about her and the relationship/friendship to post one word in the comments about how they met.  On first glance it is a fun a playful game.  

But, when we look deeper, we can recognize the challenge as a powerful strategy for getting positive feedback which can momentarily bolster our sense of worth and importance.  Of course, the people who see it will respond!  They will want to pass the test and are now obligated if they want to affirm the relationship.  But, the strategy comes at a severe cost.  Those who don't post (for whatever reason including the fact that might not see it) have now "failed" the friendship. Is it an accurate portrayal of your friends? Or is is just a coincidence as to who was on a phone or computer at that given moment?  The test is imperfect, hugely imperfect. While it might seem benign at first, it can foster unhealthy ways of thinking about ourselves and who we are in relationship to others. What do we actually gain from asking people to post proof of their commitment or love? What happens if people don't post? And, ultimately, how does all of this affect our sense of self worth?

What does this painfully faulty, certainly imperfect, and potentially power sucking experience teach us?


Social media is entertainment (and marketing).  It is not about meaningful connection.  It can include meaningful moments, but that is the exception to the rule. In short, social media is a faulty feedback system.  As a choreographer and event director, I have learned just how easy it is for people to "like" an event or even join an event, but to actually show up at the event is another story. Social media is just plain inaccurate at times.

We know all this deep inside. Yet, we continue to play the game, and the neurons that fire together wire together. The more we engage, the more we think it is a good idea to engage.  But, it is certainly not a good idea to disengage, right? The feedback back system may be faulty, but it can still be useful, right? 

For me the key lies in the questions:
What do I hope to gain out of my time on social media?
With whom am I connecting and for what reasons?
How am I connecting and is it reflective of my real values or sense of self?

If we start to look to social media as our strategy for earning love, we will fall into a deep hole of powerlessness. This includes the moments when we feel "victory" for having 30 likes on a post, or 50 or 200! The moment of joy we feel when we get recognition is the moment we should question because it is in those moments that we have given away our power of self worth to someone else. Inevitably, the next post that only gets 2 likes will feel like a failure. Our self worth plummets again.

How do we protect ourselves from this vicious cycle?  We don't have to close our accounts, but we do have to practice awareness at every turn.  To check the highs as much as we check the lows.  We notice again and again when we are using the tool as a strategy for a deeper need like love, appreciation, connection, or acceptance.

Then we forgive ourselves. And. . . try again.