I’ve often turned to spiritual teachers during difficult times in my life, and most often I’ve found them in a book passed into my hands by a friend. One such book was given to me by a friend of my mother’s who dropped by one evening three years ago. She said as she was leaving, “Oh, by the way, I think you’ll like this.”
The book was When Things Fall Apart, Heart Advice for Difficult Times, by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun. I had never heard of her, but the book became a constant companion that I referred to almost every day to guide me through the ups and downs of coming back to live with my mother and sister.
I bought and read a second book by Pema, The Places that Scare You, A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, which I’ve just picked up again and begun to re-read now, as I face another challenging time in my life. This is the page I want to share with you today. It’s from the chapter about the ‘in-between state.’
“We are told about the pain of chasing after pleasure and the futility of running from pain. We hear also about the joy of awakening, of realizing our interconnectedness, of trusting the openness of our hearts and minds. But we aren’t told all that much about this state of being in-between, no longer able to get our old comfort from the outside but not yet dwelling in a continual sense of equanimity and warmth.
Anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness mark the in-between state. It’s the kind of place we usually want to avoid. The challenge is to stay in the middle rather than buy into struggle and complaint. The challenge is to let it soften us rather than make us more rigid and afraid. Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of nowhere only makes our hearts more tender. When we are brave enough to stay in the middle, compassion arises spontaneously. By not knowing, not hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access our inner strength.
Yet it seems reasonable to want some kind of relief. If we can make the situation right or wrong, if we can pin it down in any way, then we are on familiar ground. But something has shaken up our habitual patterns and frequently they no longer work. Staying with volatile energy gradually becomes more comfortable than acting it out or repressing it. This open-ended tender place is called bodhichitta. Staying with it is what heals. It allows us to let go of our self-importance. It’s how the warrior learns to love.
This is exactly how we’re training every time we sit in meditation. We see what comes up, acknowledge that with kindness, and let go. Thoughts and emotions rise and fall. Some are more convincing than others. Habitually we are so uncomfortable with that churned-up feeling that we’d do anything to make it go away. Instead we kindly encourage ourselves to stay with our agitated energy by returning to our breath. This is the basic training in maitri that we need to just keep going forward, to just keep opening our heart.” (p 120-121)
This has been the focus of my recent practice: finding the in-between state commonly referred to as ‘the middle way.’ I’ve been anxious and finding myself more frequently at either extreme – aggressively fighting uncomfortable challenges, or running away from them altogether (denial). I learned the old fight or flight thing by watching my parents. Dad was into taking the fight into the arena, Big Time. He burned some bridges in the process, and a lot of calories on our bare bottoms. Mom spent her time avoiding conflict, and pretending that everything was just hunky-dory, even when we all knew it wasn’t. ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ was her frequent rhetorical question. Nobody ever answered. No one knew how.
I’m an excellent learner, and have both dad’s and mom’s method down perfectly, but I find myself not happy about either. There must be a better way. So I’ve turned to spiritual teachers and people who seem to have a spirit of equanimity and joy as my guides. How do they do that? I want to be like them!
My most recent guide, other than Pema, is the lead character in the movie, Legally Blonde. Surprised? Spiritual teacher?? Elle is friendly, honest, AND firm. She knows what she wants, and goes out to get it without stepping on other people or pushing them out of the way. She keeps her heart open even when she is judged unfairly and treated despicably. And she makes friends with the impossibly cold-hearted just by being an example of goodness. I call that a pretty good model to follow.
Role models help me. They provide the words and actions to help me out of my box of fixated responses. They give me a new script, a new way of seeing and behaving, that is far more effective. I’m not blonde, but I AM beautiful, and I can be kind AND firm, with practice.
Hello Everybody! It’s been a LONG time since I’ve been a presence on my own blog.
However, it’s harvest time, and there are important things to share. I know I need to smile more, but that’s really hard to do because I freeze up in front of the camera.
This is a follow up to the post about being an adult child and finding a 12-step program that really fits me- Finally! I hope it’s helpful to someone here
If you want to know more about the recovery work of Adult Children of Alcoholics (and Dysfunctional Families), the following 18 minute video is my outline of the Promises and the 3 stages of recovery. You can also scroll down to read the Laundry List and the Promises. Thanks for stopping by 🙂
The Laundry List (14 Characteristics of an Adult Child):
- We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.
- We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.
- We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.
- We either become alcoholics, marry them, or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.
- We live life from the viewpoint of victims and are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.
- We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves; this enables us not to look too closely at our own faults, etc.
- We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.
- We became addicted to excitement.
- We confuse love and pity, and tend to love the people we can pity and rescue.
- We have stuffed our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much (denial).
- We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.
- We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.
- Alcoholism is a family disease and we became para-alcoholics and took on the characteristics of that disease even though we did not pick up the drink.
- Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors.
If you identify with most or all of these traits, you may want to search online for telephone meetings or local groups in your area. If so, I may see you there!
The ACA Promises:
- We will discover our real identities by loving and accepting ourselves.
- Our self-esteem will increase as we give ourselves approval on a daily basis.
- Fear of authority figures and the need to ‘people-please’ will leave us.
- Our ability to share intimacy will grow inside us.
- As we face our abandonment issues, we will be attracted by strengths and become more tolerant of weaknesses.
- We will enjoy feeling stable, peaceful, and financially secure.
- We will learn how to play and have fun in our lives.
- We will choose to love people who can love and be responsible for themselves.
- Healthy boundaries and limits will become easier for us to set.
- Fears of failure and success will leave us, as we intuitively make healthier choices.
- With help form our ACA support group, we will slowly release our dysfunctional behaviors.
- Gradually, with our Higher Power’s help, we will learn to expect the best and get it.
Living life from a basis of fear
Comparing myself to others
Never thinking it was safe to play
Surrounded by people who didn’t respect me or treat me well
Afraid of authority figures and tending to isolate myself
Frightened by angry people and any personal criticism
Feeling overly responsible for others as a way to avoid looking at my own faults
Being my own Harsh, Harsher, and Harshest judge and critic
Feeling tremendously guilty when I stand up for myself instead of giving in to others
Addicted to excitement in its myriad forms
Stuffing feelings, and not even able to remember or feel what they are now
Continuing to live with sick people who were never there emotionally for me in order not to be abandoned.
Yes, Yes, Yes, and Yes. I recognize myself when I read the Laundry List – 14 Traits of an Adult Child. And when I introduce myself at an ACA meeting, ‘Hi, I’m Robin, an adult child,” I’m embracing a reality I have always lived and struggled to hide and accept.
The Red Book has 648 pages, so it can’t be summed up in a paragraph here. What I’d like to do is offer a few bits and pieces as I work through them. Right now I’m working on reparenting myself: learning to be sensitive to my needs and my background experience. For me, I need a lot of validation – that my feelings make sense given my family history.
I encourage myself in many ways. For example, I remind myself when I start to slip into that spiral of self-doubt and condemnation that I’m actually doing a pretty good job; that I am not a bad person; that I have something valuable to share with the world. I repeat Lady Gaga’s words to my hurting hating Self, “You’re on the right track, baby! God makes no mistakes.”
I also tell myself that growth doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye. Patience, my dear! I sing songs with empowering messages, take time at the water’s edge, and share my experiences with trusted friends both in and out of the program.
And like Joe Walsh, I’m taking it One Day at a Time.
ACA is a 12-Step program for Adult Children of Alcoholic/Dysfunctional Families. I joined a local group in January 2016. We meet once a week for about 75 minutes, and we’re all women. When I first walked in, I felt I was home. Part of it was the warmth of the room’s furnishings: sofas, big comfy chairs, big windows and a lot of light. Part of it was that the women there had been meeting for 25 years, and there was a peaceful practice of acceptance in place that I could feel immediately. But really, the biggest part was that I knew on some level before even opening my mouth or hearing anyone open theirs, that this was a safe space- a place to explore and discover my Self.
The first thing that struck me about the meeting was that no one said a word while someone else was talking. There was absolutely NO CROSSTALK. I was a little uncomfortable about it. I’m used to nodding my head, saying ‘Uh-huh!’ or ‘Really?’ and making eye contact with the speaker, at the very minimum. More often, I like to give my feedback, my Two Cents. In this room, the speaker takes her turn when she’s ready, breaking the silence to say her name and be greeted. After that, no one offers any comment. We just sit and listen. And we Thank her when she’s done. That’s all. Then we return to silence.
The term ‘crosstalk’ means interrupting, referring to, commenting on, or using the contents of what another person has said during the meeting. Many ACA members come from family backgrounds where feelings and perceptions were judged as wrong or defective. When we were growing up, no one listened to us; or they told us that our feelings were wrong. As adults, we are accustomed to taking care of other people and not taking responsibility for our own lives. In ACA we speak about our own experiences and feelings, and accept without comment what others say because it is True for Them. We work toward taking more responsibility in our lives rather than giving advice to others.
In ACA, we do not touch, hug, or attempt to comfort others when they become emotional during a meeting. If someone begins to cry or weep, we allow them to feel their feelings. We support them by refraining from touching them or interrupting their tears with something we might say. To touch or hug the person is known as ‘fixing.’ We learn to listen, which is often the greatest support of all.
I’ve come to cherish the ‘no crosstalk’ rule. It’s still a challenge for me to remain silent but I’m getting more comfortable with sitting in silence. And I have experienced first-hand how effectively freeing and validating that silence is. There is nowhere else in my experience where I can share what’s on my heart without being interrupted, interpreted, advised, judged, or in some other way verbally responded to, even positively, with questioning or other kinds of feedback. The silence of the group around me is a reward in itself, and I know I have been heard.
I found this book in a box in Belgium when I went home to sort through the things I’d left behind three years ago. I don’t remember where I got it, but I hadn’t read it yet, and the cover looked intriguing and right up my current alley, so I took it with me on the plane back to the US. I’d like to introduce it to my over 55 friends, men included. Although it’s written especially for women, any one of us older folks can benefit from the ideas Frances Weaver writes about.
Right off the bat, I’d like to say something that has seriously stuck with me ever since reading it last week: We older women are no longer the center of our grown children’s lives! That was a bombshell. What? How could that be?? Frances tells the story of how after her husband died, she sold the big house and moved closer to her children, expecting them to gravitate around granny for all the holidays and vacation times. Wrong. She waited and waited, and when all she got was excuses, she decided that it was time for her to live her own life, not theirs.
I have to admit this was a shocking and revelatory idea for me. A few days later I was visiting my daughter for the weekend and happened to spy her diary on the floor half under the bed. Against the chiding of my conscience, I picked it up and leafed through it, searching for any mentions of my name. Yes, I wanted to prove to myself how important I am to my daughter. I was expecting to read things like: My mom said this, and I was so inspired; My mom did this, and I was so inspired; My mom my mom, my mom…..you get the picture. I couldn’t find one mention of my frequent presence in her life, and realized that Frances was right. Thinking back to my own journals, how often was I quoting my mother or waxing poetic about her? Unless it was something extremely negative, she wasn’t in there very often. I had other things to write about. I was living my life, not hers.
They say we have to let our children go, spread their wings, fly the coop. I am reminded of Kahlil Gibran’s poem, On Children:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
The best thing I can do for Emilie at this stage in both of our lives is to be that stable bow, and to encourage her to fly while I do the same! Having come to that realization, I understand her response to my recent FB post about being 66 and feeling so happy about my life. She said, “Mom! I want to be like you when I’m 66!” No sweeter words necessary!
Back to The Girls with the Grandmother Faces, A Celebration of Life’s Potential for Those Over 55: A second big takeaway is that when we are older and find ourselves with more time on our hands, we need to “get back out there among ’em, drop the safety net, and move on our own steam.” Here are a few more quotes along those lines:
“Our world has more for us to do than we have imagined. Until now, we hadn’t the time, but now that’s pretty much all we have….With our eyes and ears open, we can find new and marvelous things to do, then pass the magic along to other women like us.” She’s talking about going back to school, getting involved in community activities, travel during off-seasons, and taking advantage of all the many senior advantages available. One of the things Frances took up (at the age of 55) was kite flying. It became an obsession, and she found others who enjoyed it too, and has a collection of kites and kite-flying friends from all over the world. Who would have thought of that?
She’s speaking directly to where I am at these days- wondering what to do with my time? I’m getting the idea from her that before I go out looking for a ‘regular’ job, I should try my hand at something creative that I’m already doing and loving. The author’s story is just such an example. After she became widowed, she booked a thirty-day cruise. Never having traveled by herself, she felt the need to find out if she could. She had so much fun, and felt so good, that she began helping a travel-agent friend sell group tours in return for an agent’s rate, and created a temporary job for herself as tour director. Then she went back to community college, which included a move clear across the country, and took Creative Writing, Poetry, and Spanish. Finding that she liked to write, and against the admonitions of her less adventurous friends, she self-published the “Grandmother Faces” book. Shortly after putting copies in her local Colorado bookstore, she was invited by a Denver publisher to write a travel book for older single women (like myself), which she did. It’s called, This Year I Plan to Go Elsewhere. It’s on my reading list!
Next, she was interviewed on a nationwide cable channel, and somehow or another, the department of tourism in Malta invited her to spend a week in Malta, all expenses paid! She was subsequently hired by a cruise ship line to be a guest lecturer, and for the next 10 years traveled all over the world. Reading her story has been electrifying. It sounds like the perfect scenario: travel, creativity, writing and speaking, and meeting all sorts of people.
I’m not divorced or widowed, but I’m living alone per an arrangement that is working well for both me and my husband of 35 years. Both of us are having to rethink and recreate our lives, and learn to live what we have left of our lives in a satisfactory and inspiring way. We are each learning to make and trust our own decisions. Having no one else to blame helps. Creative living requires an amount of risk-taking, but what’s to lose? “One risk often leads to greater discoveries of our own capabilities,” Frances writes. That’s been my experience, for sure. I’m thinking of a recent risky behavior I embarked on when I responded to an add on Craig’s List looking for a backup vocalist for a local musician. Thrilled and terrified at the same time, I picked up the phone and made the call. We agreed to meet at the open mic a few miles down the road, and both signed up to perform separately so we could appraise each other’s musical talents before deciding to work together. I had no idea what he would look like, nor did he have a clue that I was 65. That in itself was one of my biggest fears – that he would reject me immediately because of my age. It turned out that his music was deplorable, and his personality not much better, and he left the bar without saying anything, which was a relief. On the other hand, I had a good set, and realized I can do this performance thing still, even at my ripening age, and I met a fantastic bass player in the process.
“Recycling ourselves means getting rid of whatever serves no useful purpose, whatever our lives no longer depend on. Recycling also means discovering the unused, still-new interests, options, and opportunities that did not fit the younger version of ourselves.” Yes! My parents are both gone, and I was lucky I didn’t end up being saddled with their long-term care as many boomers are finding themselves. My daughter is a grown woman, and has left the nest. She’s making decisions for herself, and I have been learning to trust that she can take care of herself now and doesn’t need me sticking my nose into everything. I’ve got my health, and I’m basically free at this stage of my life. I don’t want to waste the precious time!
I’d like to suggest this book to anyone who has recently found themselves facing a new phase in life, wants to make a new start and needs some direction, or is feeling old and tired and knows there’s more if they could just figure out what. A final quote that sums it all up for me comes from Jane O’Reilly, New York Times, July, 1986: “The most important mission of a woman’s life is not to hold onto her looks. Our mission is the same as a man’s….to grow up.” Yes. And no one else can do that for us!