It starts with you

These are two of the most important practices I’ve learned this year.

I’m very nervous to publish this post. It’s more of the type of writing I might do privately. Sometimes I worry (is this a throwback to old me?) that someone will take something I say personally, even though everything I write on here is a record of my own humble learning.

I learned from one of my students yesterday that when she takes something personally, it’s not because it was personal but because she recognizes with a twinge that it reflects something about herself she knows she should change. And I thought she was so wise for saying that, because ME TOO. But I hope anyone who reads this knows he or she is not the target. I’m the target of this blog. Just me, with my sometimes crazy ramblings and new understandings of myself and the world I inhabit.

The mind is not, I know, a highway, but a temple, and its doors should not be carelessly left open.  — Margaret Fuller, Summer on the Lakes, 1844

We all have the power to direct our emotional energy. When a difficult feeling arises, like anger or envy, we can release it by directing at someone. We can repress and deny it, however consciously or unconsciously, creating all kinds of problems for ourselves. Or, we can recognize and acknowledge, and then let it pass, without any collateral damage to ourselves or others.

When I think of the mind as a temple, those are the options I see. All day, thoughts and feelings fly through our brains at warp speed like balls of light shooting down a highway. But if we stepped in more often, like air traffic controllers or guards to a sacred temple, how much clearer would our perception be?

We are not our thoughts. And we are not our feelings. We just are. Our thoughts and feelings take up temporary residence in our minds and bodies, but we have the remarkable capacity for metacognition, for self-awareness. Our thoughts and feelings don’t have to direct us. We can guard the sacredness of our interiority. It’s extremely difficult, and even when I first learned it was possible, I refused to do it. It was much easier to wallow in sadness and helpless victim-mode, or righteous anger.

Me change? No, everyone else change, please.

But my life is better for changing. Energy I never thought I would have. Boundless creative potential. Strengthened relationships. It really does start with you.

Theoretically we all know that total love is the solution to all our problems, but in practice most of us behave most of the time as if this truth has never been discovered.  –Laura Huxley, You Are Not the Target, 1963

Along with recognizing our emotional responses, we also have the ability to practice love. To answer with love. In any self-help book, in any religious practice, the answer is always love. How can I stop my suffering? Love.

Love can be many things. Self-love: stop hating yourself so damn much. You are a wonderful, miraculous being, just as imperfect and groping through the dark as everyone else. But it’s wonderful. Loving others: stop hating everyone else so damn much — the reckless driver, the critical boss, the careless loved one. It just hurts you, even though it feels like you’re directing emotion outward.

I started trying this in earnest a few weeks ago. Whenever I feel conflicted about how to respond to circumstances, I ask myself, “What would love do? What would love say?” And not only for people, but for tasks!

If it sounds a little self-righteous, I feel that. I thought it was for a long time. And before I thought it was self-righteous, I thought it was impossible. I remember sitting in church growing up, learning about total love, and thinking, yeah, but I’m just a regular person and plus everyone around me who professes this faith is kind of a jerk.

Once I learned how to feel my difficult feelings instead of repressing them, and once I saw how clear the world became when I had more control over how I directed my emotional energy, I found that responding with love made ME feel better. But it’s not always easy.

Old me would have never thought to respond with love because that means the other person wins. And I didn’t want to be a loser. It was a competitive world, and we got points by winning emotional takedowns. First place was righteous anger, second was woe-is-me victim/martyr mode. But in this new space of clarity I see that really there are no winners or losers. We just are. The amazing thing about being human is that we always have a choice. And with choice, we have the ability to choose.

Selfishly, responding with love makes my life better. It makes me feel better about everything. It clears the air. It makes everyone around me feel better. It gives me energy. This sounds totally crazy, I know. Maybe because so few of us have felt total love. Conditional love is much more common. “I love you when…” is more common than “I love you even when…”

But when I am able to pause in the small space between stimulus and response and I ask how love would respond, everything becomes clear and easy. I feel weightless.

I’m not saying I’m able to do this all day every day. Like my skeptical 14-year-old self would say, “I’m just a person!” Especially at the very end of the day, when I’m tired and I just want to be unbothered, I find it difficult to think beyond myself. But ultimately, I have the power to control my behavior. When I don’t, it’s because I don’t want to or because I don’t have the tools, knowledge, or resources, whatever those may be.

Still, a few times, throughout the day, I try to be a break in the chain of what Huxley calls “not-love.” Just a little disruption. A little less cortisol released. Fewer teeth clenched. Blood pressure stable.

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