About “The Journey”

I have loved to read since I was a little girl. However, writing is a more recent love. During my years in seminary, I discovered that I loved researching topics I wanted to learn more about and putting words together in ways that expressed what I had learned. By learning to be present in every moment, I discovered the joy of reflecting on life around and within me.

Also, during that time, I embraced seeing the world with non-duality. I realized that most everything had a “both/and” that must be seen and held in tension. That creative tension, seen in God, Me, my Neighbors, and all creation, opens up the world to wonder and awe.

Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

– James Baldwin

It’s not enough to merely notice. I agree with James Baldwin. Once we see injustice or harm, will we allow compassion and mercy to arise? Will we slow down and take the time to feel our own and other people’s feelings? Can we ask, “Tell me more?” Will we give our full attention to what is occurring? For me, these are the key questions that help love begin to flow.

Then the question, for me, becomes, “What is mine to do?” I grew up in the era that proclaimed that women could, and should, be all things. I believed Helen Reddy. But that was wishful thinking on my part. It took several significant, unfixable incidents in my life for me to begin to accept what is. Some things just are. There are other things that someone else is better suited to handle than me. Some things I am suited to do, but the timing isn’t right. I’m on a journey now to build a life that includes caring for myself in preparation for the moment when I’ve listened and discerned that it is the time; this is the thing I can do to make a difference.

Writing helps me process what I see, to pay attention, and discern. You’ll also find book reviews and reflections about things I’m thinking or wondering about that are going on in the world. My prayer is that something resonates with you and is helpful along your journey.

Is Change A Choice?

Life is meant to be lived from a Center, a divine Center. Each one of us can live such a life of amazing power and peace and serenity, of integration and confidence and simplified multiplicity, on one condition – that is, if we really want to.

Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion

I was introduced to Thomas Kelly’s writing in a contemplative study group. After a few moments of silence, questions were posed. “Is it enough to want to change? Can we simply choose to live our lives differently?” We repeat sayings that seem to promote the idea that we can simply choose.

. . . My daughter still remembers her fourth-grade teacher telling the class that life was “all about choices.” She was trying to make them think about the consequences of their actions.

. . . When someone would ask, “why would they do that?” my father used to say, “People do what they want to do.” I hated when he said that, but logically there is a consequence for everything we do. We are choosing not to do the opposite. There is an opportunity cost,[1] and we can never return to that moment and choose differently.

. . . “Change is hard.” Not sure where this one comes from, but I agree.

. . . There’s another old saying “Know better, do better.” It implies that if we are aware of a choice that would provide a “better” outcome, we should, or would, choose that option.

All these sayings may contain some truth, but, as with most things in life, it’s much more complicated. They imply that our choices are made consciously and rationally. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t choose over and over to do something harmful to ourselves or others. Don’t circumstances sometimes dictate what we can choose? Aren’t there things that get in the way of making the choice we want?

There is so much advice out there telling us how to change that it can be overwhelming. Each self-help guru states their case so positively and emphatically that we believe theirs must be the way, the magic bullet, the 1, 2, 3 approaches that will not fail.

My experience is that change is a process, a practice, and lots of things get in the way.

Let’s use exercise as an example. Why is it so hard to overcome a lifetime of not exercising if all I must do is really want to exercise? Just make a choice, right? If only. With just a little research, I found three categories of advice on making that change.

Believe the Science

The body of science on the benefits of exercise is quite large and very compelling. A Harvard study shows that exercise, along with healthy body weight and overall physical good health, predicts a higher level of satisfaction with life.[2] A Chapman University research project by Julia Boehm, Ph.D., suggests that if we can increase our activity levels early in life, we can “reduce the burden of poor health in later life.”[3]

Who wouldn’t want to be more satisfied with life and have better health in our old age? If it is a simple choice, we should be able to believe the scientifically proven benefits of 150 minutes of exercise per week and start doing it without all the resistance we actually experience.

Reimagine Your Identity

I’ve been interested in personal and group identity interplay for quite a while. James Hollis describes our personal identity as a “provisional story about who we are and what we’re supposed to do and not do.”[4] I grew up with the identity that I wasn’t very good at sporty activities. I inherited a theology that promoted shame around the female body. My family system emphasized that utilizing the brain was super important. I didn’t learn the skills that would be necessary to build a positive body image or create an athletic identity.

James Hollis would say that an image of “body bad” and “brain good” can keep us from believing in new possibilities.[5] The authors of Responsibility Rebellion tell us that when a behavioral change requires an alteration to our identity, we start to see change as huge and scary.[6] That makes sense because years of “behaviors, routines, beliefs, and habits” have created that identity. Now we want to change it, and that feels risky.[7] That feeling of risk can cause us to unconsciously cling to our old identity and choose ways to avoid the reality of the need to change, escape or put off the hard work of change. That route keeps us from learning and growing into the authentic life we desire.[8]

Utilize External Motivators

You may have been told you just don’t want to change badly enough. That you just aren’t motivated. We’ve all used forms of punishment or reward to change behavior. I’ve tried to reward myself for walking with “don’t break the streak” on my Apple watch. We use sticker charts to get children to do their chores. Physical education teachers give popsicle sticks to incentivise kids to run and give out prizes for the number of sticks earned. It’s called operant conditioning, which uses one behavior to teach someone to acquire another behavior.[9]

But there are concerns about how effective external motivation is for long-term behavior change. Extrinsic motivation may work in the short term. It may result in only doing the action if there is a reward and not because the person becomes passionate about the new activity.[10] Michelle Segar, Director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center, says that for adults over 20, short-term motivation, guilt, shame, stating values, and setting future goals don’t work in getting people to exercise. She said, “If you need the willpower to do something, you don’t really want to do it.” [11]

Look Out for the Unexpected Roadblocks in Life

It’s so easy to assume we know the reasons for people’s choices. We often overlook the practical realities of life that get in the way of implementing change.

In the case of exercise, having to work multiple jobs, a long commute, or working 60 to 80 hours a week may leave no room for anything else. After all that work-related stress, there might be no self-control left for exercise. Some women may feel guilty about the time they take for themselves or feel pressure to spend any available time taking care of others. Other people may also feel their neighborhoods are not safe enough to walk in. Even if they can afford to go to a gym, many people are intimidated by unfamiliar gym equipment or exercising in front of others.[12]

We may try all the popular advice that seems to work for others and find it does not work for us. Making changes is hard enough without dealing with the shame of being judged by others. Dr. Frank Sniehotta, Director of the National Institute for Health Research’s policy research unit in behavioral science, might say that trying and failing or even just taking a break from exercise could lead to giving up on the effort to make the change.[13]

So what can we do to create personal change?

I’m wondering how we ever manage to make alterations in our lives. What practices or processes work for creating change?

James Hollis says the “ability to tolerate ambiguity and change” is essential in creating a moral culture. When trying to implement internal change, is building our tolerance for the anxiety raised by the change process the critical step for successfully implementing the change we desire?[14]

I was able to find some additional resources for successfully implementing regular exercise and quickly started thinking they sounded like the process of implementing spiritual practices for living a centered life. Spiritual practices have been instrumental in grounding me through challenging external changes in my life.

Find Motivation From Within

You may have been told at some point, “know your why.” The idea is to understand the internal motivation or reason to keep you going towards your goal. Knowing your motivation allows us to pinpoint what intrinsic or internal satisfaction we receive from pursuing the changes necessary in the long term.[15] Writing this out and regularly referring to it can keep you connected to how you will benefit when staying with it gets difficult.[16]

I was particularly interested in the suggestion of “cleaning house,” going back through your life experiences to identify where your attitudes and automatic responses originated. Writing stories about life events related to what I’m trying to change is a way of thinking about what might serve me better today.[17] I’ve also found regular journaling about what works or not and how I feel about my experiment is also helpful. My journaling practice keeps me from trying too many things without discerning what is working. It helps me stay focused on “choosing curiosity over comfort”[18] and not getting discouraged or overwhelmed.

Understanding the years of habits and experiences that have created your current identity can take time and effort. But, with a bit of curiosity and openness to discovering new ways of being, it will be easier. Neophilia, or openness, has been shown to increase happiness through approaching life as an exploration of possibilities. Curiosity will help you find ways to try different paths or activities to reach your goal.[19]

Embrace Freedom and Hope

Once we have faced and examined the things that have created our current identity and may be keeping us from making the changes we desire, we can grasp hold of a new sense of freedom for making new choices. We can use the exhilaration of recognizing a new sense of freedom to carry us forward to making the necessary changes.[20] With that freedom comes hope which gives us the courage to act and will support us as we evolve into a new aspect of our identity.[21]

In his book How We Change, Ross Ellerhorn says that “hope is connected to contemplation” which allows us to detach and notice what is working or not and how to make choices to adjust.[22] Awareness, courage, and perseverance will be necessary to keep showing up to execute our exercise practices on the days we just don’t feel like doing it.[23] To make the change stick, we will need to make time for thinking about how the steps taken are leading to the change we desire.

Using The Action Reflection Cycle of Contemplative Practice for Transformation and Change

My musing about whether change is a matter of choice began and ends with the contemplative practice of action and reflection. In my contemplative group when the question was posed, “Is it enough to want to change?” I reflected on the question and went in search of an answer.

This cycle of reflection, action, and reflection is foundational to all types of change. This methodology is utilized in studies of organization and business systems, education, personal growth, and contemplative spiritual traditions. We study what exists to see what is working or not working and why. We talk with the people involved and seek out alternatives to recommend changes. Once the changes are implemented, we wait and observe the outcome. Another round of reflection begins.

On a personal level, contemplative practices of action and reflection are helping me dig deeper into what I’m feeling and thinking. To observe what is going on in my body. To listen to my soul’s deepest desires. To trust that the connection with the divine Center that Thomas Kelly wrote about in the opening quote is within me. It’s a journey, but with attention and practice I’m able to discern a next right step.

You may have figured out that I chose exercise as an example to research because it is a lifestyle change I’m having trouble sticking to in the long term. I’ve had week streaks of adhering to my practice, and then several weeks go by with nothing. Intellectually I knew that exercise is necessary for a long and happy life. So, I needed another approach.

It’s been fascinating digging back into my life to uncover the events that shape my identity around movement and exercise. I’ve spent some time journaling to discover my internal why for making this change. I’m incorporating exercise and how I feel about it in my body, mind, and spirit into what I write about as I reflect on the past week and plan for the coming week. I’m feeling much more hopeful about my chances of showing up and moving regularly. I need to apply what I’ve learned and continue to reflect on my progress.

I can choose to change . . . but, it’s a process!

[1] Kain Ramsay and Cynthia Dubois, Responsibility Rebellion an Unconventional Approach to Personal Empowerment, Kindle (Houndstooth Press, n.d.), 316.
[2] Arthur C. Brooks, Strength to Strength Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life, Kindle (New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2022), 1596.
[3] Sheri Ledbetter, “Psychological Well-Being and Physical Activity in Older Adults,” Chapman Newsroom (blog), December 1, 2016, https://news.chapman.edu/2016/12/01/psychological-well-being-and-physical-activity-in-older-adults/.
[4] James Hollis, Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey, Kindle (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2018), 1176.
[5] Hollis, 902.
[6] Kain Ramsay and Cynthia Dubois, Responsibility Rebellion An Unconventional Approach to Personal Empowerment, Kindle (Houndstooth Press, n.d.), 412.
[7] Ramsay and Dubois, 382.
[8] Hollis, 1176.
[9] “Extrinsic Motivation: Examples, Pros, and Cons,” Psych Central, September 23, 2021, https://psychcentral.com/health/extrinsic-motivation.
[10] Psych Central.
[11] Emine Saner and Guardian readers, “How to Stay Fit Forever: 25 Tips to Keep Moving When Life Gets in the Way,” The Guardian, September 12, 2018, sec. Life and style, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/sep/12/how-to-stay-fit-for-ever-25-tips-keep-exercising-expert-advice.
[12] “Ten Reasons You’re A Couch Potato,” Forbes, accessed March 25, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/2008/02/27/health-couch-exercise-forbeslife-cx_avd_0227potato.html.
[13] Saner and Guardian readers.
[14] Hollis, Location 125.
[15] Psych Central.
[16] “14 Ways to Actually Enjoy Working Out,” Byrdie, accessed March 25, 2022, https://www.byrdie.com/how-to-actually-enjoy-working-out.
[17] The Atlantic.
[18] Ibid.
[19]Arthur C. Brooks, “Don’t Approach Life Like a Picky Eater,” The Atlantic, May 27, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/05/neophilia-novelty-happiness/618998/.             
[20] Ross Ellenhorn, How We Change and Ten Reasons Why We Don’t, Digital (New York, New York: Harper Wave, 2020), 42.
[21] Ellenhorn, 43.
[22] Ibid, 48.
[23] Hollis, 969.

What’s Keeping You Behind the Fence?

We didn’t have a television in my childhood home and activities centered around our church, so the news didn’t penetrate my little life bubble. Even if it had, the people around me were very conservative and not very open to the changing social dynamic. I wasn’t aware of much of the struggle for equality and dignity black people face.

Display at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia

This past week, we went to The National Center for Civil and Human Rights. It’s located here in Atlanta, but I had never visited. As I walked around the museum, little bits of memories floated up. There was a display about the activities of southern anti-integration politicians trying to enforce segregation. I remembered that George Wallace had run for President and that my father was a supporter.

Down a little further were old TVs playing newsreels of protests and sit-ins where white people, police and civilians, battered people dressed in their Sunday best singing as they marched or sat peacefully at lunch counters. The loathing was palpable in the actions of these white men wielding bats, batons, and lead pipes. How could they hate these men and women, mostly black but some white, they had never met? Why was their rage so out of control? What was beneath the emotion on their faces? These scenes of brutality bring up a heavy sadness.

I sat for a while reading the history of school busing and remembered how on edge all the students were as we tried to navigate the new normal of integrated schools. I had forgotten that the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education was in 1954, and Ruby Bridges integrated a New Orleans school in 1960. However, Florida’s middle and high schools were just integrating in the mid-seventies. I was in quite a large school, and even though going from sixth grade in a small elementary to seventh grade in a large middle school is terrifying at any time, we were all very much on edge. Every bump and jostle in the hallway exploded with harsh words and threats with box cutters and pocket knives. Cops roaming the hallways caused even more dis-ease.

My only personal encounter with the violence was in gym class and seems minor looking back on it. I was twelve years old when I started seventh grade. We had to change clothes to an ugly t-shirt and shorts uniform and shower during “physical education.” The locker rooms were very crowded. Embarrassed and uncomfortable, I tried not to look at the nakedness of other girls, some of them a few years older than I was. I don’t remember whether I accidentally invaded a black girl’s space, or we just happened to cross glances, but anger flashed from her eyes. She challenged me to a fight after school. I didn’t even know her name but was afraid I would run into her for the rest of the day. I ran for my bus as quickly as possible when the closing bell rang.

Remembering that moment in the context of the Civil Rights Museum, I let the memory wash over me. Neither of us had any nonviolent communication training as those who had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. had undergone. Teachers and administrators didn’t have assemblies to educate us on respecting other people’s differences and similarities. We were just thrown together and had to figure it out. My parents certainly didn’t even talk about integration with me, and perhaps hers hadn’t either. Or maybe she was more aware than I was and reflected the feelings she had heard expressed. Underneath the anger, was there fear? I’d be willing to bet that neither of us had help processing the events of that day. I didn’t even mention it to my parents.

I moved into a room where a multi-media presentation surrounded me with graphics—first, a chain-link fence.

Display at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia

And then hands raised in the sign for peace.

Display at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia

I sat in the middle of the room for quite a while, thinking about the juxtaposition of the fence and my desire to live out the peace of Christ in the world. Not the stereotypical southern type of peace that is really conflict avoidance. The appearance of peace at any price. I want inner peace, or Shanti, the Buddhist and Hindu threefold inner peace of mind, body, and Spirit —the type of peace that God offers us through the gift of the Spirit. That peace allows me to stop and think, to inquire before I respond.

The fence and peace.

On this day, when we honor Martin Luther King’s life and work, I want to reflect on how I can hold myself to the standard Jesus taught of loving not just friends but enemies. Even the people I just don’t like but wouldn’t call enemies exactly are my friends or neighbors.

What is the fence that keeps me from experiencing God’s peace and truly loving my neighbor? Those I disagree with politically and theologically? The people who exhibit patriarchal, hierarchical, or authoritarian behavior? What do I not see or am avoiding?

Lord, open my eyes to the beauty in all your children.

You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies.

Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the supple moves of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.

This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.

If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.  

In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.

Matthew 5: 43-48 (The Message)

Steadfast Love – New Every Morning

As many of us do, I spent some time at the end of 2021 looking back at my journal and calendar to remember what I learned, how I felt, and the connections I could see over the year. The pandemic required constant practical adjustment for all of us. I could see a thread through my journal entries that showed my consistent commitment to meditation and contemplation had made a difference in helping me maintain some equilibrium. I was filled with gratitude for those who journeyed, taught, and encouraged me on the contemplative path during the year.  

There were also some bumps and sharp turns during 2021 that I didn’t handle as gracefully as I wished. A brief phrase from scripture came to mind as I pondered them.

God’s mercies are new every morning . . .

That fleeting thought kept me from dwelling too long on the not-so-great parts and gave me the courage to see them as learning moments. To move to the question of “what can I do differently?”

Last week, I searched out that important phrase and found it in Lamentations Chapter 3. The book of Lamentations is five chapters of poetic lament to God by the Jewish people. It was a way for them to express their grief over the destruction of Babylonian aggression and ask for help in the midst of it all. It’s striking that the phrase I remembered appears in three verses of hope from the middle of the book. Lament comes before and after it.

God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,
    his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
They’re created new every morning.
    How great your faithfulness!
I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).

Lamentations 3:22-24a (The Message)

I’m taking a slower approach to discerning what I’m called to be and do in this new year, going gently into a year that still contains a vast amount of uncertainty. I’m carrying into this year both hope and lament. Hope for a growing trust and awareness of God’s presence and constant love. Hope that I can be present in my daily life and see opportunities for love. I’m giving myself permission to acknowledge all my feelings, even the sad and mad ones. To sit with all the emotions as they arise and look beneath them for the message they are trying to send me.

Both hope and lament have something to teach and can guide me as I choose to live a life of love.

Let your love flow outward through the universe,

To its height, its depth, its broad extent, 

A limitless love, without hatred or enmity. 

Then as you stand or walk, 

Sit or lie down, 

As long as you are awake, 

Strive for this with a one-pointed mind; 

Your life will bring heaven to earth.        

Attributed to the Buddha


I have been meditating on equanimity this past week. The focus began because I wanted some peace from all the turmoil swirling in our country and within my community.

I couldn’t escape a feeling of dread as I listened to the possibilities that the Supreme Court may take away some of women’s hard-won rights. There’s a feeling of futility as I listen to commentaries on the power plays in Congress that could keep them from providing the support so many families need. “Those people” aren’t even trying to love their neighbor.

But closer to home, I watched as people who I know are trying to live Godly lives lose sight of love and compassion and, instead, push their own agendas causing pain and suffering for themselves and those around them. It would be so easy to just write them off also.

Even as I felt frustration and judgment rise within me, I knew I was also guilty of leaving behind my intention to love God, self, and neighbor. I returned to my breath and tried to still my mind.  

Buddhists claim that equanimity is the “ground for wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love.” It allows us to have both clear insight and inner balance. [1] I can’t help seeing what is happening in the world around me. I don’t want to try to avoid seeing suffering by closing my eyes. What I do want is to maintain an internal equilibrium where I can fully experience my feelings without causing harm to myself or others. I want my rational mind to be able to use what I’m feeling to determine if there is something I need to do in the situation.

Equanimity is the desire of my heart. To maintain inner peace within the chaos of life. To stay grounded in God’s love. To act with compassion towards myself and others.

In the following selection from a new translation of Psalm 27 by Rabbi Jamie Arnold [2], I hear God’s voice asking: “what is your deepest desire?”

Your Deepest Desire?

Voice whispers through my heart and says,

            Seek my face.

I will seek your face, the hidden light,

             reflected in every face, revealing light.

Do not let anger distract me from seeing your majestic face

            tucked away in the creases of faces furrowed

            by anger in the face of injustice

            and a fear of being forgotten.

My father, my mother, yours, all beloved

            parental protectors will die.

            time will orphan me if I live that long.

And yet, magnetism prevails, a law of nature

            in-gathering, out-glowing

            showing all the wisdom of your ways

            paths paved by and for service and song

Don’t let worry distort these nefesh-soul, body-based truths

            with false testimonies, hyperboles, and half-truths

            blowhards fermenting fears to safeguard their power.

 Our Declaration:

Lulei.  What if? What if it were not so?

 Doubt. Division. Danger.  Death.  As if!

I choose to live as if I have the courage

            to act in the face of doubt

            to see the hidden connections and blessing

            to belong and be beholden to the living land, eretz chaim.

Together, let us draw new kinds of lines in the shifting sands.

I choose to trust you, to empower you, to re-see you,

            to celebrate your courageous heart, amatz lev

            to reshape this longing in your likeness.

Psalm 27

[1} See the entire Psalm translated by Rabbi Arnold here.
[2} Insight Meditation Center

Listening to the Body

I was on a Zoom call and suddenly realized that I was leaning forward in my chair towards the screen. I was holding my breath so my frustrated response wouldn’t just pop out of my mouth as I waited for my opening to speak. My chest was tight, and I had tensed up my shoulders around my ears. I took a deep breath to steady myself and finished the conversation more calmly, knowing that I must revisit this awful feeling to figure out the message my body was trying to send me.

After hanging up the phone, I immediately started berating myself in my head, saying things like, “How did you end up here again? This feels very familiar and not in a good way. Well, at least I was able to pause before I acted out that feeling.” I shoved it away to think about later.

The following morning, I was still unsettled and ashamed of those unloving feelings towards myself and others. I began to journal.   My instinct was to distance myself from the relationship, thinking it just wasn’t going to work out. I started writing out why pulling back was the right thing to do and listing how the person frustrated me. It was their fault for pushing my buttons.

I paused a moment in my writing, echoes of other occasions where this had happened bounced around in my head. My writing changed, and I was curious to locate the point in the conversation where the emotion had risen. What was the old pattern I had repeated? Still focused on preventing feeling the feeling, I asked myself, “What could I do differently next time to avoid this situation?”

I pulled out all the books I could find that I thought would help me figure this out. Going to seminary got me in the habit of research and reflection when I’m unsure what’s going on with me. As I read, I recalled that being human includes having reactions and feelings, and I gratefully began to write about the feelings the conversation had stirred up in me. I quickly realized that I needed to establish a plan for alleviating intense emotion in the moment and a process for asking the bigger questions that could allow for growth and change.

After several days (more than a week, actually) of journaling and reading, I returned to my guiding scripture with a new perspective on how God was calling me to live.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12: 30-31

In the Moment

In my early thirties, my therapist had introduced me to the concept of the inner child and suggested that as adults, we can re-parent ourselves. A few years ago, I even took a course in compassionate mindfulness, but it never entirely made sense to me. The only thing I knew that helped me get through challenging situations was to slow down and pay attention to my breathing. But that wasn’t enough. A residue of that high energy was left racketing around in my body.

One of the books I read was Kristen Neff’s recent release called Fierce Compassion. She talks about the need to offer ourselves the same “tender self-compassion” that caregivers provide to a crying baby. We know that crying is a child’s attempt to express an intense need. Caregivers do whatever they can to satisfy the need with food, a clean diaper, a hug, soothing rocking motions, or soft backrubs while gently speaking words of comfort.[1] It hit home. I deserved to be comforted as much as a baby does. My pain needed comfort no matter the reason I was feeling it. I could deal with why I felt that way later after the pain was acknowledged and soothed.

Neff calls these moments of self-soothing compassion breaks. You can try some of them for yourself at her website. My favorite method is putting a hand over my heart with gentle pressure, as that is where my body gathers emotion. I’ve also tried rubbing a smooth stone between my forefinger and thumb. I’m still trying out other ways I’m comfortable doing when other people are around.

Figuring Out the Why – Two Old Beliefs

Once I soothe my nervous system, my thinking brain can kick in. Kristen Neff reminded me that besides God, I’m the only person who will be with me 100% of the time for my entire life.[2] Looking back at my guiding scripture, it makes sense that Jesus included loving self, along with God and neighbor, in the greatest commandment. There’s an old saying: wherever you go, you take yourself with you.

I’ve been on a journey to loving myself for a while now, so I know I can only change myself, but I also know that beating myself up or trying to suck it up and do better just makes me more anxious. It doesn’t make a long-term positive difference in my behavior. So, taking a loving deeper look at what was going on inside was the next step.

I had a fabulous ethics professor in seminary, Dr. Marcia Riggs, who helped me explore identifying needs in myself and others. In my family, no one ever explicitly talked about what they needed. You were just supposed to figure out what the other person wanted based on the reactions you ran into at any given moment. Not a great plan as it led to lots of frustration and anger on everyone’s part. So, I pulled out my needs and feelings wheels (you can search the web and find lots of examples of these). What was it that I needed and wasn’t receiving that triggered the unpleasant feeling and reaction on that phone call?

Looking at the needs wheel, I started thinking about the basic need to be seen and heard. I remembered a passage from a book Kain Ramsay wrote with Cinzia Dubois, where he talks about a rule from his childhood that children should be seen and not heard. He says that teaching children to keep their thoughts and opinions to themselves often carries over into adult life as an underlying fear of not being valued.[3] This belief was a rule in my family system as well, principally because I was a girl. There was a deeply held theological belief that women are to be submissive. When I moved into the world, I struggled with not being heard as a woman in business. I could see that, over the years, I created a narrative that I had to get angry and work up the courage to demand people listen. When played out, there were often external negative consequences.

I would often berate myself about causing a scene, so I spent a lot of energy holding myself back from speaking up. Kristen Neff talks about what happens in our bodies when we turn anger inward to try to regain control of our equilibrium. The cortisol, which by design started the fight response, now causes inflammation and can lead to eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.[4] These internal consequences for living with anger were equally harmful.

But there was more to the story than just wanting to be heard and valued. What held me back from speaking up earlier, vulnerably, and clearly saying what I needed from the relationship? I began to see that I was caught in a double bind. I returned to Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown to consider how keeping sight of my internal boundaries and believing in my value might be the answer to keeping my balance.

In Chapter 2 of that book, Brené talks about the need for belonging. She defines true belonging as “happening only when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” She goes on to say that our “sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”[5] Valuing myself is the starting point of belonging to myself. I needed to get comfortable with feeling separate from others even as I sense my deep spiritual connection with those around me. Brené was challenging me to practice the skills of trusting myself to stay grounded, vulnerable, and authentic while trusting that others can do the same for themselves.

Kristen Neff describes how anger can be helpful as a messenger if we listen to what it can tell us. [6] I heard it saying that I could parent myself by listening to the anger and actively remembering that my value does not fluctuate depending on how well I am heard and understood by someone else. I do not need to make them hear me. It doesn’t matter if they never see me clearly. I am not responsible for their actions. I am accountable for valuing myself enough to listen when my body speaks.

A Loving Relationship with Myself

So, what does it look like to value and love yourself? Our sense of self-worth, Ramsay says, is based on our understanding that we have intrinsic value. That value is not based on how we act or whether we are learning to be a better person.[7] It starts with understanding that the essential nature of God is love. (I’ve written about this in my post called God is Love.) I believe that intrinsic value comes from knowing that this loving God chose to create us. With that foundation, the value of each component, animal, vegetable, and mineral, of creation has incredible value. When I lose sight of the reality of God’s loving and creative presence being always with me and for me, I must ground myself again in this truth.

I am also working on the concept of accepting all aspects of who I am while continuing to learn new ways of being in the world. Ramsay includes “extending yourself to others, sharing your value, taking responsibility for your emotional and mental inconsistencies, and embracing imperfections[8]” as part of that journey. Kristen Neff includes an entire chapter in her book to “caring for others without losing ourselves.” She tells us to “turn inward” to the “wellspring of warmth and goodwill as the source.” Neff encourages us to experience the full range of human emotion. We will also have to honor our human limitations, including time and energy [9]. We celebrate the beauty of who God has created us to be in our complete humanity when we live in this way.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Both. For me, this is the hardest part of the Great Commandment. On this leg of the journey, I uncovered and let go of some old beliefs, practiced ways to self-soothe my inner child, and clarified my boundaries a little better. I still have some miles to go. This journey is becoming a way of life, not a destination.

[1] Kristin Neff, Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive, Kindle (New York, New York: Harper Brothers, 2021), 113.
[2] Neff, 290.
[3] Kain Ramsay and Cynthia Dubois, Responsibility Rebellion An Unconventional Approach to Personal Empowerment, Kindle (Houndstooth Press, n.d.), 88.
[4] Neff, 68.
[5] Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness, Kindle (New York: Random House, 2017), 31.
[6] Neff, 68.
[7] Ramsay, 120.
[8] Ramsay, 122.
[9] Neff, 253.

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash