The Importance of Being Present to Pain

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Often, for weeks or months at a time, I have very little negative self-talk about my body. Then, sometimes with a distinct trigger and sometimes without warning, the negativity begins…a single, seemingly rational, thought (“You ate too much today”) followed by a fear-based attempt to control something (“You should skip dessert tonight” or “You shouldn’t have any cappuccinos this week”). I often catch myself before I get swept away in the undertow, but not always.

Today, as I frantically headed outside for a walk (not with the intention of enjoying the scenery but of burning off calories I ate while out to lunch with a friend), I suddenly realized that not only was negative self-talk present with me, it was running ten paces ahead, begging me to stop being a loser and catch up. So, I did. I caught up to those thoughts and realized what was happening.

In the past ten days, I have mourned with the nation over the senseless deaths of 58 country music fans. I have learned that my beloved spiritual director is leaving the area to pursue a new ministry. I have said goodbye to my pastor of 10+ years at her retirement service. I have listened to my clients’ stories of pain and loss. And I have been unable to stop or control any of it. Although I’ve cried often and engaged in meaningful self-care, it wasn’t until my walk this afternoon that I realized my mind is trying to control something (someone) when everything feels like it’s slipping away.

And when I realized that was what was happening, I was disappointed and sad. I slowed my pace and started sulking. I remembered my spiritual director’s oft-asked question, “Have you taken this concern to prayer?” and my usual answer, “No. God knows my suffering already.” But this time, I decided to try it. I started talking out loud to God. “Why do I keep falling back into this pattern? Why can’t I be free from this negativity forever? Why can’t I just love myself 100%, all the time? Why do you let me suffer? Why do you let any of us suffer?! WHY DO SO MANY OF US SUFFER?!” I kept walking. I didn’t hear God’s voice responding. The clouds didn’t part. Nothing magical happened. So I kept walking, silent now and more calm.

As I rounded the turn of the last road that would take me back to my apartment, I took a wider path than I usually take, one that took me closer to the road than the houses. I paused to take a photo of some pansies on the corner and then looked up and saw a magnificent tree with sunlight streaming from behind it. And in the middle of the tree was a heart-shaped hole…a scar of sorts. (The photo is kind of dark. Can you see it?) I smiled. I stood in awe. I tried to think of something profound and meaningful to sum up that moment, but the only thing I can say for sure is that it was a moment of True Presence — my presence with pain and God’s presence with me. I took a photo and started walking home.

I still don’t know the answers to my questions, but I know the value of being present to pain instead of running from it. I pray for the courage to continue to be so and for the awareness of God’s presence in my and others’ pain.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

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Looking With New Eyes

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It’s been two months since I posted on my blog. In that time, I left my job of 6 years to pursue two part-time jobs in my field. While I don’t regret the decision to leave, it brought new challenges, one of which was an unanticipated month-long grieving process during which I focused on all I had lost: the closeness with my colleagues, a steady routine, predictable income and benefits, my summers off, feelings of competence and pride in my work, and the general approval of others. I didn’t realize how much these losses would affect me. And, for a while, loss was the only thing I could see.

During my grieving, I noticed an increase in emotional eating. I was eating when I was bored, sad, lonely, anxious, or frustrated. I noticed an increase in calorie counting, body-part checking, and obsession with the number on the scale. I increased my exercise and slipped back into thinking certain foods are “bad”. All the while, I noticed my desire to isolate and not talk to anyone about it. However, I did talk to God. I wrote in a prayer journal, prayed out loud, cried about my struggles, and practiced Centering Prayer. I read books by wisdom teachers that reminded me of God’s presence with me…especially in my struggles. Somehow, I was able to trust that this was a temporary relapse into familiar coping skills and not a permanent abyss.

 

Having journeyed through that shadowy valley to where I can now feel the sun again, I find myself looking back at it with wonder, noticing the tools I used, the self-care I maintained, the people I stayed connected with, and the belief I maintained that “no matter what happens, I am beloved”. I marvel at those blessings, having not seen them when I was in the midst of that valley. Then today I picked up my book — published almost 10 years ago — and started reading. 50 pages into it, I started to cry. What an incredible, blessing-filled journey my recovery has been!

Reading my own story certainly brought back for me the pain and suffering I experienced, but I also saw all the grace-filled moments, moments when God was present with me through my dad’s willingness to share with me his experiences with binge-eating disorder; through my mom’s research about B.E.D. in 2005 and encouragement through buying me my first self-help book; through my therapist’s gentle persistence in helping me cultivate self-compassion; and through my recovery community’s support during relapses. At the time, I overlooked God’s presence in those people. Today, I couldn’t help but see it.

This experience has me thinking about the power of changing our focus. In mindfulness practice, we learn not to stop looking at our pain (in other words, not to avoid it), but to view it with new eyes, eyes of curiosity, not judgment. When I picked up my book today, I was curious about my own story. In viewing my story with new eyes, I saw it differently. I wonder how I can look at other aspects of my daily life with the new eyes of curiosity instead of resignation or judgment. Perhaps my losses would be seen as “a natural part of the ebb and flow of life” and other moments of struggle would be seen as just that: a moment of difficulty, not another line added to a narrative made up and stoked by my egoic self.

Perhaps there’s an aspect of your life that needs to viewed differently. Consider the power of being mindfully aware instead of judgmental, critical, or resigned. If you’re unfamiliar with mindfulness, the body scan meditation on UCLA’s website may be a good place to start your practice: click here.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

Self-compassion

A month ago I wrote about my tendency to take on the role of SuperWoman to myself and others. At the time, I recognized the troubling aspects of this voice and vowed to speak kindly to the go-getter in me, thanking her for her efforts and releasing her from her role. The next day I read my blog post to my partner. His candid response was, “That’s great, Meg. Do you think it will stick?” I paused. “This time, I think I’ve finally learned my lesson,” I said. “I’m done with trying to prove myself and be efficient and impress others.” Ahem. Yep. Not so much.

I am who I am. I am driven, compelled, obsessed (?!). I tackle everything on my to do list like it has to be done now and it has to be better than the last time. I have been like this for as long as I can remember. As a child, every moment spent playing would be more interesting or memorable than the last. I would make it so! As a teen, every journal entry would be more inspired. I know I can do it! As a college student, every boyfriend would be closer to my perfect match. If I just try harder, he has to be out there! As an adult, every difficult moment in life will be my greatest lesson. I WILL grow wiser…even if I die trying!

Cue my new superhero: Self-Compassion. This is something I have read about, practiced (loosely) in my recovery from Binge-Eating Disorder, and preached to my clients. Yet, it wasn’t until I was tackling another thing on my to do list last week that it dawned on me just how essential self-compassion is…for me and for all of us.

As I sat down to watch a recorded workshop by self-compassion “guru” Kristen Neff, PhD, I thought, “Let me just watch this on fast-forward and then take the online exam and get these CEUs out of the way.” But she opened with a guided meditation for self-compassion and I thought, “Well, this might be nice. I’ll just listen for a while and then skip ahead.” I ended up listening to the whole thing. And I felt better. It was as if all the rough, jagged edges of my inner struggle were softening. I began seeing my compulsive drive to succeed as it is, without judging it as good or bad. I felt as if I was breathing more easily (or for the first time). I cried. As the tears spilled down my cheeks, I gave myself a gentle hug and rocked from side to side. It was one of several suggested physical gestures of kindness that Dr. Neff says is part of compassion. And it felt so good. I realized how much I wanted to be held and rocked…how much the inner child in me misses being taken care of by others instead of having to do everything myself. And I felt relieved. I felt okay, as I am. That moment of self-compassion opened my heart to the power of self-love.

In her workshop, Dr. Neff shares oodles of research on the positive impact of self-compassion, not just on ourselves, but on others. She shared a personal story about how showing herself compassion while her autistic son was having a meltdown on an airplane actually calmed him down, too. This makes so much sense to me. And it makes me want all of us to be kinder to ourselves. We need it. Our world needs it!

So here are the three components of self-compassion for those who want to begin practicing it: 1) mindfulness of suffering; 2) recognition of our common humanity; and 3) kindness to self. Mindfulness of suffering goes against our inclination. We want to avoid it, right? I used to avoid my emotional pain by over-eating , restricting, or over-exercising. Now I over-work. It’s still avoidance of pain. So, being mindful of my suffering involves taking a breath, turning toward it, and saying, “This is a moment of suffering.” or “This is really hard for me.” or “This hurts.” Then, I can remind myself that others have probably hurt like this, too. (We want to claim ownership of this pain and believe that no one else in the history of humanity has ever suffered this way. But really…!) Lastly, I can show myself some kindness — something as simple as sitting still and breathing or resting my hands over my heart or giving myself a gentle hug.

Since watching Dr. Neff’s DVD, my eyes have been opened to how often I am self-critical and how much in need I am of self-compassion. If you’d like something more concrete than what I shared, I encourage you to listen to any or all of Dr. Neff’s self-compassion meditations on her website (Click here).

I hope that you grow in self-awareness and self-compassion. It’s certainly the next step on my journey.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

On Being Superwoman

In about a month, I’ll be leaving my job of almost six years and starting two new part-time jobs. The intensity of my current job has increased recently and I’m finding it difficult to simultaneously keep up with all of the paperwork and training requirements of signing on to my new jobs.

“You’ve got this, Meg! You’re superwoman! Just sleep a little less, work a little harder. Don’t let anything slip. Show your new bosses how much you can handle!”, says an insidious voice within me.

The voice is very familiar. It’s a cousin of “Ed”, the former voice of my eating disorder. Ed’s comments were always focused on calories, food, weight, shape, and exercise. Ed’s underlying fear was gaining weight; gaining weight to Ed meant I was a “failure” or “unworthy” or “unlikable”.

This voice, which seems encouraging at first, is anything but. It pushes me to ignore my emotional, physical and spiritual needs. Just like Ed. It tries to manage anxiety for me by dictating my behavior. Just like Ed. It puts conditions on my worth and likability. Just like Ed.

This Superwoman voice is just another manifestation of my False Self, my ego. But tonight I recognize it and am speaking words of compassion to it from my True Self:

“Superwoman, I know you’re scared. I know you think you won’t measure up in your new jobs. I know you’re sad to leave beloved co-workers and clients. I know you’re unsure about how you’ll connect with your new clients in this new setting. I know your way of managing that fear, sadness and uncertainty is by telling me to stay busy, to try harder, to get things done a week before the deadline, to prove myself worthy of these new roles. But your way is not helpful to me. Your way wears me down. It causes me to ignore my needs until I’m exhausted and depleted. So, tonight I choose a different way. I choose to sit in stillness and listen to my needs. I choose to respond to my needs. I choose to communicate to my new employers about my need for more time. I choose to remind myself that I was hired because they believe I’m a good fit for the role. I choose to believe that God wants me to be still. I choose to believe that I am already beloved: just as I am without having to do or change or prove a single thing. So, thank you for trying to protect me, Superwoman, but I know how to protect myself…with self-compassion, self-awareness, humility, and love.”

How are your inner voices (Perfectionism, Superhero, Ed, Victim, etc) dictating how you behave? Are you willing to practice self-compassion and speak kindly to that voice? What False Self need (esteem/affection, safety/security, or power/control) is driving you today? Are you willing to take time to tune into the immutable True Self which already knows your needs and how to meet them?

Peace to you on your journey,

Megan

Facing Abundance When Others Face Scarcity

On March 10th, Time Magazine ran an article about the U.N.’s dreadful report that 20 million people around the world face scarcity and starvation. They’ve declared it the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945. I read the article (read it here) and it sickened me.

Then Monday night, as I sat in my warm, safe apartment eating a home-cooked meal, BBC America News continued their coverage of that story, showing “images which may be upsetting to some viewers”. I sobbed as I saw mothers in Nigeria holding babies who were struggling to breathe due to malnourishment and one mother’s desperate words, “I just want my child to live.” Good God! What a simple request! I put my fork down and wondered, “How can I take comfort in my abundance when 20 million people (in the U.S. and across the globe) are at risk of starvation?”

As a human who believes in the interconnection of all Creation, I feel called to do something about this crisis. As a woman who is in recovery from disordered eating, I’m well aware of my old habits and that my former eating disordered self would see this as an opportunity to restrict calories — as if eating less would somehow make me more virtuous or one with those who are starving. My healthy self can hear how ridiculous that sounds. So what CAN I do?

After prayerful consideration, here’s a brief list of actions I came up with, small though they may seem:

  1. Keep my heart open. By remaining open to the suffering of others, I am emotionally vulnerable. But I am also saying, “We’re connected. Your suffering is my suffering.” Of course the impact of that suffering is vastly different, but spiritually, I am connected to everyone across the globe. So, I vow to keep my heart open to the suffering of others.
  2. Pray. I’ve always told myself, “I can’t change the world. I can only impact those around me.” But God can change the world. God can stir us into action to overcome enormous obstacles. So, I commit myself to praying for those who are starving or food insecure and for those who are already offering them medical, financial, and physical aid.
  3. Eat mindfully and sustainably. Mindful or intuitive eating has been a big part of my recovery from Binge-Eating Disorder. Lately, though, I’ve begun to think of eating as an act of stewardship. No matter what’s on my plate, I can recognize it as a gift, be thankful for it, and savor it, or I can mindlessly “down it”, thereby ignoring my connection with those who grew it, harvested it, and made it. So, I commit myself to being mindful that I am eating foods that are grown sustainably and with as little impact on the earth as possible.
  4. Contribute locally. CityTeam Philadelphia is a homeless shelter and food pantry located in Chester, PA. I used to live two blocks from the site and often saw the long lines of people waiting for a meal or some groceries. For almost ten years, I’ve given money to the organization whenever I could. It’s a small way to connect with my neighbors in need. Just as helpful would be for me to volunteer. So, I commit myself to volunteering and giving locally.
  5. Contribute globally. There are many international aid organizations that offer food to the hungry and medical aid to those suffering from the complications of malnourishment. I need to do some research to determine which organizations are best to contribute to, but I commit myself to contributing globally.

This list is just a beginning. I pray for the wisdom to know how to act in more impactful ways in the future. If you have some ideas, please share them with me in the comments section.

Peace, joy, and wisdom,

Megan

 

Women Who Matter To Me

Today is International Women’s Day. (For a terrific list of ways to participate in this day, check out UpWorthy’s article.) As a woman, you would think I’d have heard about this or known about this sooner than yesterday, but I didn’t. My supervisor (a woman) brought it to my attention yesterday when she requested that I and other women on our staff do not skip work today. We didn’t.

For much of my life, I have wrestled with feminism, longing to feel part of an important movement for change, but disliking any efforts that tear others down in order to build one group up. Too many feminist efforts appeared to me to be focused on negativity and hatred towards men or “the establishment”. However, as I shed my tendency toward all or nothing thinking, I begin to see a middle ground in which I can participate in feminism in a way that feels comfortable to me. I can do so by increasing my awareness of empowered and impactful women across the globe. I can do so by advocating (through my blog, through letters to my representatives and senators) for women’s rights to make choices about their bodies. I can do so by celebrating women of all sizes and shapes and confronting those who denigrate people of size.

And, I can do so by honoring and acknowledging the women in my life who have positively impacted my self-esteem. That’s how I want to spend International Women’s Day. Here is a very brief list of the dozens and dozens of very special and wonderful women in my life:

  • My mom, whose deep integrity moves me and whose courage to face her fears inspires me
  • My former counselor, Pat, whose words “be gentle with yourself” still ring in my ears, a decade after she started with me on my recovery journey
  • My current counselor, Donna, whose empathic understanding and validation helped me gain awareness of my feelings, tolerate them, and express them appropriately
  • My spiritual director, Sister Julie, whose humility and Presence reveal to me the love of God every time we’re together
  • My former boss, Myrna, whose actions and words built up my self-esteem and professional identity early in my career
  • My friend, Mary, whose centered and patient presence encourages me to look within myself for answers and for peace
  • My friend, Christine, whose creativity and authenticity inspire me
  • My friend, Cynthia, whose unconditional love for me has been more healing than she knows
  • My friend, Meg, whose ability to laugh at life has saved me from despair many times
  • My friend, Becky, whose profound care for others challenges me to look outside myself for opportunities to serve
  • My friend, Karen, whose willingness to share her anger about injustice has inspired me to find my own voice
  • My friend, Faith, whose openness to the Divine and continued search reminds me of the greater value of asking questions than finding answers

There are so many more women I could name, but this list will do for now. This International Women’s Day, I hope you’ll take some time to think about or thank the women in your life who have had an impact on you.

Peace, joy, and inspiration,

Megan

NEDA Week – Let’s Keep the Conversation Going

It’s the last day of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2017. I’ve enjoyed the conversations and activities happening on the college campus where I work. The topics have ranged from signs and symptoms of eating disorders to mental health stigma to eating disorders among athletes to cultivating cultural criticism in order to combat the negative messages we receive from the media. This week’s theme (“It’s Time to Talk About It”) has reinvigorated my interest in advocacy and reminded me of the power of sharing our stories…the power of connection with one another.

So, how can we keep the conversation going? How can we ensure that fewer people feel stigmatized, fewer people are impacted by the insidious body-hating messages promoted by the diet/fitness industry, and more people seek treatment? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. When you notice friends or family members talking negatively about their bodies or shaming someone else, draw their attention to it. Your way of doing so may not be my way, but I might say something like, “I notice you’re so hard on yourself. What do you like about your body?” Or, for someone who’s shaming someone else: “Hey. Everyone deserves respect. Appearance-based comments hurt all of us.” (This goes for commenting on any aspect of another person’s appearance — the recent barrage of appearance based insults about our President are no better than his own comments about women’s bodies!)
  2. Become critical of the media, especially the diet and fitness industry. Notice the overt and covert messages: thinness = happiness/success; fat is bad; healthy looks a certain size, etc. When you recognize the absurdity of the messages and talk about that with others, more people’s eyes will be opened. The capital t Truth is that true joy comes from within and can only be cultivated by being present to each moment as it unfolds. It has nothing to do with size, weight, or shape.
  3. Practice mindful eating by yourself or with others. Take note of the sensations of eating and the feelings it evokes for you. Talk about this experience with others. Check out The Center for Mindful Eating for more on the principles of mindful eating.
  4. Before eating a meal with a friend, imagine and discuss the many people who were involved in bringing that food to your plate. For example, take a simple slice of bread: the farmer who planted the seed, the person who invented the harvester that harvested the fully grown grain, the people involved in processing the grain into flour, those who baked and packaged the bread, the person who stocked the bread on the shelf, and the cashier who sold it to you — so many people involved in bringing this bite of food to you. It’s so important to take time to notice our connection to one another as it cultivates gratitude.

These are just a few ways to keep the conversation going as National Eating Disorders Awareness Week draws to a close. Best wishes as you continue your journey of awareness.

Peace, joy, and good conversation,

Megan