Buddhism, Family, Marriage, Meditation, Mindfulness, Parenting, Special Needs, Uncategorized

Acceptance is not giving up..

Very early on right after Mae was diagnosed I had a constant and overwhelming desire to try and fix Autism.  I was convinced that there would be a doctor, a supplement, a therapy that would unlock the words from my child’s mouth.  We traveled from New York to Boston consulting every expert we could. We tried every combination of nutrients and foods imaginable.  Every conversation, every thought was consumed by the need for answers.  I struggled at the time to reconcile this endless search with my Buddhist studies.  Those studies told me to live in the moment, to be present with whatever arises, to learn to love what was right in front of me.  I wasn’t sure how to align the need to have answers about my child’s condition and my belief that honest and loving acceptance of what is in front of you is the best way to live.  

 

We don’t really understand acceptance in Western culture.  Or at least I didn’t.  I felt like accepting my daughter’s diagnosis was a kind of capitulation.  Acceptance felt like giving up, so I resisted it.  We spent every penny we had. We turned every meal into a therapeutic endeavor. We sued our school district so she could go to private school. We watched her like hawks waiting for evidence of improvement. Our sense of wellbeing was entirely wrapped up in whether or not Mae had a good day or a bad day, on whether or not she was “improving.”

 

After almost two years of battling with an enemy of our own making we couldn’t do it anymore.  We had no more money for therapies. We were tired of meals whose success hinged on whether or not she sat and used a fork. We just wanted to enjoy our family again.  So we stopped. Instead of trying to solve the “problem,” we worked on accepting our daughter for who she was.  She stopped being a diagnosis and became our daughter again.  It doesn’t mean we don’t work to make sure her life is filled with activities and people who nurture and care for her, or that we don’t high five her when she joins us at the table, or demand that she use her limited language skills whenever possible. We do all those things.  It also doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally get sad about the things she could be doing this summer if her brain were wired just a bit differently.  I would be lying if I said I never think about it.

 

In our case, acceptance was not capitulation. It was actually a very conscious and loving gesture towards both ourselves and our child.  Learning to accept her diagnosis and what it meant both for her and for us as a family liberated us from our own expectations.  I have found that the more willing we are to accept the truth of difficult situations the more easily we can adapt to them.  When we resisted the hard truths of Mae’s diagnosis by insisting we could fix it we were blind to what was really in front of us, which was a beautiful little girl with a twinkly smile and an awful lot to teach us.

Buddhism, Family, Marriage, Meditation, Mindfulness, Parenting, Yoga

By Any Means Necessary

As school vacation ended this past week, I was desperate for my children to go back to school.  When we have all been in the house for a little too long there is an itchy, restless feeling around the edges of everything they do.  In my body it manifests as massive fatigue. When they were all home it felt like a huge effort to do anything, the second they left I found myself energized and able to address my to-do list.  

I don’t like that itchy, cranky feeling, it feels like a lack of gratitude.  Sitting in my warm safe house with my three kids and my loving husband and feeling unsatisfied seems fundamentally wrong.  I know I only feel this way because I am desperate for us to return to the routine that comes with school and work.  Even knowing that, I search for an antidote, I remind myself how lucky I am, I sit for meditation, or go for a run.  Truly there is only one thing that really helps, and for me it is reflecting on the alternative.

Last New Year’s, Colin wasn’t feeling well.  He was tired, stressed and his back hurt.  In fairness, we are both tired and have been since Ben appeared in 2004, so when he complained of exhaustion, I ignored it.  When he talked about his back hurting I told him to stretch, put your legs up the wall and breathe deeply.  When he said he was going to see a doctor, I shrugged.  The doctor ran a million tests and they were all inconclusive. Colin’s face  was slowly turning gray but I couldn’t see it.  I was too busy thinking about the details of our life.  The kids’ schools, our leaky roof, our muddy driveway, my own aches, pains and frustrations.  I was so engaged in our day-to-day that I wasn’t able to see that my husband was fading away.  Or maybe I didn’t want to see it.

In February he had an angiogram, and they found and cleared a significant blockage, one they call the “widow-maker.” At the time I just focused on how lucky we were. I heaped praise on Colin for seeking out a second opinion. I talked about the miracles of medicine and joked that he had eaten his last cheeseburger.  We have a habit in our family of turning difficult realities into punchlines and this was no different.  He would joke that with his new “gear” as we referred to the stent that he was like a newborn; he could throw himself into bad habits with gusto.  I would feign horror, knowing that we would find some easy middle ground.

It wasn’t until the end of this year that I really thought about how differently the story could have ended.  There are many skilled practitioners of Buddhism who can find gratitude without thinking of what could have gone wrong.  I am not one of them.  As 2015 ended, I found myself thinking more and more about what could have happened, about my life without Colin.  Not just the practical financial aspects, which would be grim at best, but also the impossible loneliness I would feel in his absence.  When I find myself irritated by the hundreds of water glasses he manages to use and leave behind in a day, or the peanut butter with a knife sticking out left on the counter after lunch, or the fact he never quite remembers to close the fridge….  When I see those things and start to think to myself “what the ????” I think about the other ending we could have had to 2015, the ending where my husband got so gray that he disappeared altogether.  When I think about that I don’t even see the water glasses or the peanut butter.

One of my favorite phrases in Buddhism is “skillful means.”  It is used to describe the many different methods available to people as they search for truth.  The longer you practice, the more clear and efficient your means become.  It isn’t especially skillful to appreciate the life you have by imagining the worst case scenario.  But for now it’s what i am working with.  I cannot seem to learn the lesson enough times that the real treasures are hidden in the most ordinary days.

Buddhism, Family, Meditation, Mindfulness, Parenting, Yoga

It’s not really a superpower

Last weekend, I was talking to a friend about yoga and meditation and she told me she didn’t feel like she was good at either because she could never “clear her mind.”  It is a fact that we all believe that we are the proud owner of the world’s busiest mind.  Every one of us is convinced that no one’s head or life is as busy as our own.  However, “clearing one’s mind” is a common, but impossible directive.

In a yoga practice, one’s attention should be primarily with the breath, and then, with where one’s body is in space.  When you look down at your feet and see that you desperately need a pedicure, note it.  But, you can’t do anything about it in the middle of a yoga class so go back to your breath. It is not about “clearing one’s mind” at all, it is about returning your attention to where your body is, neither in the future or the past but right there on your mat.

The same is true with meditation.  There is no better way to bring your “to-do” list front and center than to try and not to think about it.  In meditation, we try to just watch our thoughts. Knowing that we are safely seated somewhere, we can just observe our chaotic mind, as if we were at the top of a tall building looking down on a busy street.  If you find yourself so swept up in a thought or fantasy that you are no longer in the present moment, you are either in an imaginary future or a completed past.  

When we meditate we are actively watching our thoughts and when they move away from the present moment we notice it by labeling it “thinking” and then return our attention to the present moment.  It may be that the labeling “thinking” has made students believe that they should not be thinking, that they are chasing a state of thoughtless bliss.  This is not the case at all.  Thinking in and of itself is not a bad thing.  Meditation is an opportunity to sit quietly and pay attention to the direction your mind is going.  Can you gently steer your mind and attention back to the present? When you notice your mind has wandered, label it “thinking” and return your attention to your breath, or the sound of your feet as you walk, or your body in the water as you swim.  We are practicing paying attention, which doesn’t involve having no thoughts. It means investing all our attention in what we are doing.

Just as we can place our feet on our mats, or sit on a cushion, we can also learn to place our attention where our body is, and try and develop some clarity about where our mind is going.  If your habit is to put your body somewhere and let your mind race anxiously into the future or lope around in the past, then ask yourself if that is really serving you. Isn’t it better to try and keep our attention in the one place where we can actually effect change, which is the present moment?

Whether you are practicing yoga, going for a walk, or eating a meal, see if you can’t try to keep your attention on what you are doing, or at least notice when it has shifted and bring it back.  It’s valuable to have clarity about where our thoughts go, but clarity is not developed by pushing our thoughts into some sort of corner where we pretend to ignore them in search of a “clear mind.” Clarity comes from watching our thoughts with a generous and loving attitude towards ourselves and making every effort to let go of anything that doesn’t serve us.  

It’s easier said than done, but like anything, it’s a habit we can develop, not a superpower that’s out of our reach.

Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Parenting, Yoga

Nothing interesting happens…

I have this battered green spiral notebook that I have used for all my teacher trainings and meditation retreats. It is in many ways my spiritual brain. It sits on the bookshelf next to my desk and I pull it out periodically when I am feeling stuck. Every yoga sequence I have ever really loved is scrawled into it, as well as bits of wisdom from all the teachers I have worked with. At one point, Peter got his hands on it and covered a few pages with some construction vehicle stickers and elaborate drawings of rocks. He must have been about three when that happened.

Today while leafing through it a phrase that I had scrawled in the margin caught my eye. In my barely legible script it read “nothing interesting happens in your comfort zone.” I have been turning the phrase over in mind ever since.

I wondered about the context of the phrase. I bet it was in the spirit of encouraging yoga students to push themselves a bit. To try something new and surprise themselves. Or was it part of a meditation training, a nudge to connect with our students in a more meaningful way. Did someone else say it, or had it occurred to me? The rest of the page is blank, so I don’t know how that phrase ended up in the margin, a footnote on a blank page. It made me think of Ben off to middle school and pushed out of his comfort zone whether he likes it or not.

All of childhood seems to have built into it this concept of constant change. Even my children’s bodies are forever stretching and growing, their comfort zone as challenged as their pants to keep up with the endless transformation of their limbs and identities.

I feel a little envious of how, within my children’s lives,there is the built-in expectation that they will grow and change, the idea that a comfort zone is more of a launchpad and less of a trap. I would like to think of my own comfort zone that way, a safe starting point for unlimited potential. As adults our lives and habits can easily become fortresses Old relationships and safe places keep us from building new connections and stretching ourselves. We retreat to the familiar, the safe, the stable. These things are not inherently bad; we all need a strong foundation. Ideally, it should be one that supports us enough that we can safely test the edges of where we are comfortable.

You don’t have to jump out of airplanes, or start middle school to challenge your comfort zone. It can be as simple as smiling at a stranger, picking up a new book, letting go of an old resentment. We hold on to all sorts of ideas, places and things because we think we need them to feel safe. When we hold on to them too tightly they become walls that keep new ideas and new information out. It is only when we are open to peeking around the edges of our life that we will turn our comfort zone into a launchpad rather than a stop sign.

Family, Parenting, Special Needs

Tread lightly…

mae every dayRecently, I attended a meeting of our local school board.  They  were getting together to discuss a projected budgetary shortfall and, as a new member of the school community, I am interested in learning more about how it all works.  I introduced myself as a parent but didn’t indicate that I had a special needs child.  Truthfully, it didn’t seem to me to be relevant; I was just a parent wanting what is best for her children.  Although, as a special needs parent we aren’t allowed to think about “best.” By law, we are entitled to “appropriate” so the word “best” is far out of our reach.  But, that wasn’t on my mind at all as I settled into my seat and made polite small talk with the woman next to me.

The budget conversation inevitably included discussion of special education.  There was a moment when someone suggested that they used to keep a financial cushion because the boiler could explode. Now you had to maintain a cushion because you never know who could move into your district.  This was followed by a comment from a school board member, “We have a $50,000 child we have never even met.” I guess she is referring to a child whose needs are so severe that they have an out-of-district placement. The district pays for the child to go to a school that can meet their needs since the district, for whatever reason, is unable to “appropriately” educate that child.

I didn’t say anything, my heart was beating too fast, my skin was too prickly and there were tears in my eyes and voice.  What I would have liked to say is: “A $50,000 child you will never meet? This probably means that this child’s parents have never really met him or her either.  They don’t know what their child’s favorite color is, or what they would like to be when they grow up.  If a child’s needs are severe enough to be placed out of district, chances are that child will never be a grown up, but a child forever. I bet that child doesn’t speak, maybe isn’t mobile. These kids are unpredictable, don’t always sleep through the night, require a small army of specialists and doctors.”

As a special needs parent I often feel like we are taking more than our fair share. It is clear in the glares of airline passengers or even glances over magazines in doctors’ offices.  I get it, my kid is ruining your peace and quiet.  Special needs parents have to develop a thick skin.  That’s been a little easier for us because Mae is totally unconcerned about whether or not someone wants to read quietly.  If she wants to jump and sing at the top of her lungs, she will do so with abandon…It is her blessing and her curse.

Mae had a rough start to the week at school, prompting a staff member to say to Colin, “You are lucky she is cute.”  Later, when he told me about it, we were laughing, “lucky she is cute? Or else what?”

When you have a special needs child, people say ridiculous things to you all time.  My favorite is: “I don’t know how you do it.” As if there were some sort of roadside dropbox I wasn’t taking advantage of.  She is my child.  I don’t spend my days wishing I could find some reasonable alternative to being her mother.

So, I have been reminded yet again this week how important it is to watch our words, and to remember that you have no idea what someone’s story is just by looking at them.  I don’t believe that any of these people meant to do any harm with their words.  I also know that whatever people may see when they look at my child is different than what I see.  She may be a budget line item to some, or a cute nuisance to others. To me she is magic and fierce. She has an amazing belly laugh and can jump higher than anyone in our family.  I don’t know what her favorite color is, but I know she hates jeans.  Chances are she will never be an astronaut, an actress, a fairy princess or a veterinarian, but she is my child and she always will be.  It is a lesson to tread lightly on ground we have never walked.  You never know when you could unwittingly cause pain.

Family, Meditation

The company you keep…

We are in the new house this week doing errands and scheduling estimates for shockingly expensive home improvements.  I keep walking around this town and looking at people and wondering if I will be friends with them.  It is a very funny thing to do, to look at a stranger and wonder if you would like them.  Essentially, what you are doing is weighing how familiar they look.  The more familiar they appear the more likely it is to imagine that you could have something in common.  It is probably a hangover from some animal part of our brain that prevents slugs from going out and trying to make friends with eagles.  But in human beings it can easily turn into a kind of judgment that doesn’t really benefit anyone.

I have no idea what kinds of people I will make friends with, I walk around the grocery store and find the anonymity both thrilling and terrifying.  I would like to approach building our new community here with an open mind.  I would like to break the pattern of just gravitating towards the familiar and come more from a place of genuine curiosity about who people are.  It is sort of an embarrassing thing to realize that at almost 40 some part of me is still wondering who the cool girls are.

Building a community will take time and I don’t know yet who the new faces are that will one day be old friends.  It is an interesting time to observe my mind and see how quickly when faced with a situation I am drawn to the safety of the familiar.  When we first moved to our last house, I had no children.  Many of the friends I made in those early years are people who have watched our family grow and change.  Those relationships are very dear and those connections so important.  Our new friends won’t ever meet my children as babies, or know that there was a time when we were not special needs parents. In some ways it feels like we are bringing a life in progress to a new place, I am not sure I have ever had that experience before.  It used to be that new beginnings coincided with milestones, the beginning of high school, college or married life.  Our peer group was clearly defined by circumstance which in some ways made creating a life easier.

New experiences are the best way to study our habits. When we take ourselves out of our comfort zone we can see the ways in which we protect ourselves.  I am excited about the prospect of building a community, I hope it is filled with all sorts of different kinds of people and their stories. Every new relationship, be it friend, teacher, or student is kind of an adventure in being human. Seeking out ways to surprise ourselves is one of the best ways to stay awake to all that our lives have to offer.  We don’t have to shake things up in huge ways to experience this, it can be as simple as changing your morning coffee shop. Any time we allow ourselves to experience things in a new way we are waking up a little bit more to all that our life has to offer.

Family, Marriage, Meditation, Parenting

Grateful for champagne problems

photo (11)My new favorite phrase is “champagne problems.”  A friend of mine used it recently to describe the intense angst that people she knew were experiencing about their bright, healthy, normal kids not getting into competitive private schools.  We both have special needs kids and would like very much to have our greatest fear about our children be that they won’t get into a top tier college.

Yesterday, in the middle of a beautiful day, I found myself with a free hour.  I decided to sit outside and read my brother’s book.  First the Fed Ex guy came, then a garden crew showed up at the house next door, the the propane guy came to fill the tank.  Each interruption made me more irritated.  I was feeling cheated out of my quiet hour in the sun.  As my blood pressure started to rise I began to feel sorry for myself that my one quiet hour of the day was being ruined, I heard the phrase champagne problems in my head and had to laugh.

Sometimes it’s important to have champagne problems.  I can’t walk around all the time thinking about world hunger, climate change, or what will happen in my own future and that of those I love.  I am not sure how much fun I would be having if I walked around all the time intensely focused on all my fears.  We should be mindful of the realities of our life, and of the greater world.  We should live in a way that aligns with our values: recycle, be kind to others, do your best, but also give yourself a break.

Trouble arises when we can’t tell the difference between champagne problems and genuine heartbreak.  We all struggle with real problems and real insecurities, but it’s easy to distract ourselves with superficial ones.  Perspective is being able to separate an irritation from a crisis. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference because our bodies respond to them similarly.

The gritting of teeth, the tightness of shoulders and the elevated heart rate are the body’s way of sensing and dealing with danger.  The trouble is that a driver in front of you going slowly, or a quiet afternoon being ruined by noise are not danger.  They are irritations or champagne problems.

I am learning that I need to spend some time each week on a walk or a run reflecting on how I am responding to the unexpected ups and downs in my life.  If we aren’t careful we can form habits that turn everything into a calamity when really very few things are. A champagne problem is one that I can catch and release quickly, I can be disappointed or irritated for a few minutes and then let it go.  I know I need to conserve my emotional resources for the moments that matter both good and bad, because life is certainly filled with both.