Capable of Change

Sharon Salzberg, from "Embracing Our Enemies and Our Suffering," On Being, October 31, 2013:

They say that metta or lovingkindness is a practice of generosity. It's like generosity of the spirit. And the best kind of generosity comes from a sense of inner abundance, because if we feel depleted and overcome and exhausted and just burnt out, we're not gonna have the wherewithal inside, the sense of resourcefulness, to care about anybody, even to notice them all that much.

It's not only a kind of self-indulgence, but it's a self-preoccupation that happens when we feel so undone, so unworthy, so incapable of giving or whatever it might be, however it might manifest. So I really do see that factor of lovingkindness for one's self is this tremendous sense of strength and resourcefulness in terms of connecting to others.
 
I guess the one question that's very interesting to reflect on is how do I actually learn best? How do I change? How do I grow? Is it through that kind of belittling myself and berating myself and humiliating myself? Or is it through something else, some other quality like self-compassion and recognizing the pain or unskillfulness of something I've done or said and having the energy to actually move on?

So where does that energy come from? It comes from not being stuck. And how do we get unstuck? In fact, it's from forgiving ourselves and realizing, yeah, it happened. It was wrong. I'm gonna go on now in a different way because I'm capable of that. I am capable of change.  

March 1971

Listening to the recent On Being conversation with Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman on "Embracing Our Enemies and Our Suffering," reminded me just how significantly Sharon's practical insights have impacted my life.

I listened to an audiocassette version of Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness back in 2002 when training for my first marathon and before my first silent retreat. It was during this time that I also decided to leave the field of social work. I was tired. I felt exhausted, not by the people I tried to help who were suffering from mental illness or child abuse, but from the lack of reliable resources to give them. I spent my days evaluating emotional pain employed by organizations who seemed to have almost nothing (tangible or intangible) to provide in response to it.

So many of the professional helpers I worked with were glaringlly ill equipped to manage their own often serious problems let alone the challenges of people with billable issues. None of us were taught skills or strategies for taking care of ourselves or for maintaining healthy boudaries. A supervisor once said, "Social workers are a dime a dozen. If you don't want the job anymore, there are a line of others who will take it." This was in response to my trying to argue that the quality of work I was providing was beyond the expectations of the role as evidenced by my willingness to facilitate difficult treatment planning meetings in the absence of engagement from higher paid professionals.  

When you decide to leave the helping professions, people squint at you and shrug and tell you that you're burned out. But this diagnosis never rang true to me. We were constantly documenting that our clients needed to gain insight. It usually felt like a hollow goal. An imposed ideal. Everyone knows it's easier to be objective about another person's problems and what she could do to improve her plight. Isn't that what makes the perspective objective. But what was consistently lacking was an independent variable to test in the laboratory of the suffering person's life. Even if there was such a variable to tweak, however, there would still need to be some investment on the part of the person himself.

When I left social work, it was not due to burnout, it was the result of gaining insight.

I went in search of practical strategies I could experiment with to try to take better care of myself. I'd been attending weekly yoga classes with an exceptional teacher who uses a meditative approach. She pointed me to Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are which inspired me to experiment with bringing the practical strategies learned in yoga out into the ordinary activities of my life. When I heard about a four-day silent meditation retreat lead by Phillip Moffitt, I signed up months in advance. His wisdom articles in the Yoga Journal reminded me of the practical wisdom I'd discovered in these other books.

I was nervous about not talking for four days, but realized a few hours into the retreat that my worries had been misplaced. The silence ended up being a remarkable luxury, one that becomes more valuable as opportunities for experiencing it seem to become more scarce. What I wasn't prepared for was the rigorousness of the sitting and the boredom of the walking. This was problematic since these were the main activities we engaged in from very early in the morning until late at night. I was so physically and emotionally uncomfortable that I wanted to leave after a couple of days.

But when I met for my brief interview with Phillip, I told him that the only strategy that seemed to work when the physical pain became too intense to bear was the lovingkindness strategies I'd learned from Sharon's book. They involved considering the well-being of others and yourself. He suggested that if this approach brought relief, then perhaps it would be a good idea to include at least a bit of it during my daily meditation practice over the next two years to see if I noticed any impact.

I decided this prescription was either completely absurd or the most realistic suggestion about addressing some amorphous internal resistance that I'd ever encountered. Is it the consumerism that we're swimming in that makes us insist on instant resolution to our decades-old problems? When does anyone ever suggest more than ten or thirty days before promising to give your money back.

So I took him up on the challenge.

I attribute the consistency of my mindfulness practice since that day to this experiment. And I did notice an impact. But instead of noticing something being added to my life, I observed an erosion of an invisible barrier that I didn't know was there until it began to wear away. A wall between me and other people, but also between me and aspects of myself.

One of the most significant challenges I faced early on in the lovingkindess practice was trying to wish safety, happiness, health, and comfort for myself. Considering the well-being of the most difficult people in my life was much easier than this. I could simply not do it. It felt like a physical impossibility. One of the things I love about this work is that I did not need to get bogged down in this problem as a story to resolve. I did not go looking for causes, although looking back from the distance of years, I have some strong guesses about where the deeply ingrained self-loathing orignated. But reason alone would never have been enough to help me untangle them.