Archive for October, 2011


Photo by Squish_E on Flickr.

“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”

                             –Reinhold Niebuhr

Photo by Aaaarrrrgggghhhh! on Flickr.

Photo by pol sifter on Flickr.


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image from vvonstruen on flickr

From my recent compassion/social engagement class notes:

Iris Murdoch’s definition of love: “the non-violent apprehension of difference”

a definition of compassion: “being moved in one’s depths by the suffering or bliss of another, and responding in ways that intend to either ease their suffering or promote their flourishing”

a definition of forgiveness (which can happen without reconciliation): “to heal from wounds, to have a safe place to grow strong enough to let go of the harm, to be free internally”

a definition of reconciliation (which cannot happen without forgiveness): “a right relationship restored between two people”

on brushes with the sacred: These moments are self-authenticating, complete–we feel as though we could do anything…and yet, we can’t hold onto that feeling. This is the tension of living a spiritual life.

on “bad feelings”: “Every single internal reaction we have is there for a reason.” These “bad feelings” aren’t the sin; they are the starting place.


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This is the “Danubio Esven Hair Curler Machine,” manufactured and used in Uruguay since 1932.    Photo from Vince Alongi on Flickr. My own hot rollers are not so draconian-looking; they are powder blue with “velvet” rollers.

I start with the piece above my eyes, where my bangs would be if I had them. When I started this process, heat and spray once a day, every morning and maybe an evening extra, I did have bangs.  I roll the swath of hair around the heated velvet surface, careful not to touch the end that went into the base. I could do this blindfolded, half asleep; I’ve been hot rolling my hair since junior high, twenty-one years minus the few when I had perms.

My hair is naturally wavy. If I let it air dry, it will wave and some strands will curl. You’d think this would be desirable, but I don’t like that I can’t control how exactly it will wave, and what it will do over the course of the day. I prefer to heat it all, section it off into two sizes of roller, and spray with hair spray for good measure. This way, I can predict how my hair will look throughout a day, after brushing again in the afternoon, and even the next morning.

Hair spray! Control! Not the stuff of meditation, or so I thought until this morning.

This particular morning, I was in a hurry because I had an appointment at the Rancho Cucamonga DMV. Also, because I thought they might photograph me for my driver’s license, I was being sure to hot roll my hair carefully. No messy side part or wonky curl-out-of-place for me—you keep your driver’s license for years and see it near daily; having an ugly photograph would require me to “lose” it so I could go and get another.

I usually curl my hair in seven portions; three along the top of my head, in the “bang” section and directly above and behind it, one over each ear, and the final back piece—right above the nape of my neck—usually gets divided in two.

This morning, when I got to that last section, above the nape of my neck, part of me said, “Oh, just put it onto one curler. No one will notice.”

Immediately another part said, “Shut up! We’re going to the DMV. We need to do this right.”

Two months ago, I would have done one of two things. Either I would have listened to the first voice, and said firmly to my-self, “Don’t be stupid. No one is going to see the back of your head, let alone photograph it. You’ll look good enough.”

Or, I would have listened to the second part, and said, “Absolutely. We’re going to be carrying this card around for years. We’ll feel bad if we don’t do the best we can with our hair.”

Either way, I would have shut down the alternate view, without a second thought.

On this day, as I started to follow the first part’s suggestion, I thought to my-self, “Well, that was a little harsh. I didn’t have to say ‘shut up.’”  So, I thought the following:

“I can see why you feel it’s so important to have great hair. Having pretty hair has been a currency, and gotten you a lot of good, for a very long time. You’ve had a lot of success from having great hair. And you’re right—it feels good to have a nice driver’s license photo. I appreciate that you care about that. I think in this case, though, we can still have a great photo and good hair, even without the one extra curl. The front of the hair will still look good for the photograph.”

That felt good. And then, like the sliding of an ice sheet when it starts to melt, something very slight but solid shifted inside of me. I suddenly remembered all of the interior words of judgment I’ve had for other women over the years. A day in NYC might have included the following interior monologue as I observed and judged others:

I can’t believe she’s plucking her eyebrows here on the train. How can she stand for us to see that? Why is she wearing white shoes with her black uniform stockings—even if she wants to be comfortable, she should buy some nice looking flats. Doesn’t that girl know that you don’t carry a straw purse in winter? Look at that fake Coach bag. She has lipstick on her teeth. I can see her bra straps. Why doesn’t she buy a new belt if she’s going to wear it every day? Our uniform is navy; I can’t believe she wears black with that. She needs to moisturize her cuticles. Her roots are showing…

Of course, a similar voice runs alongside, pointed at myself:

Why don’t you wear heels? It’s only a few blocks walking. You’re so slovenly to keep choosing comfort. I don’t care if your back hurts, you’re not carrying a backpack to the party. You need to get up early to put your hair up because it’s going to rain tomorrow and you’re not going to the meeting looking sloppy. Do not touch those cuticles. It doesn’t matter if the corset digs. You’re being photographed. No salt for three days before the pictures. I can’t believe you didn’t floss. It doesn’t matter if your ears hurt; these earrings make a statement…

Judging the appearance of other women was just an amplification of my own really harsh inner critic. And each fueled the other: the less patience I had for myself, the more hateful my thoughts about others—even my dearest friends. And for every negative thing I noticed about someone else, my own critic flared double time.

In the past, when I’ve considered compassionate practice, I’ve done it from an either-or perspective. Either in therapy I’ve worked on a kinder self-voice, or working alone a harsh “Christian” inner voice would insist that judging others is a sin. I am not surprised that I never made much progress in either; it seems that neither voice was being listened to or affirmed, and without me attending to them, they were all the more unhappy and pointed.

Pema Chödrön’s simple, encouraging voice is a great model for this work. She uses phrases like, “no big deal,” and “simply label it.” Even when we want to curse at our slow learning and sharp internal thoughts, she reassures us that this is part of our human habit, and practicing compassion will encourage more fruit than continuing in our brittle way.

Chödrön’s optimism that we have more going on inside ourselves that we think—that is, she sees the positive potential in me, when all I see is a brittle pattern of self-blame and not-enough-ness—this also is such a relief in a sea of self-help articles and quizzes to see how self-centered or “dependent” we are. Chödrön writes, “To your surprise, there’s a big world there,” and “The world opens up and suddenly we’re there for what’s happening…we have the ability to drop our [previously deeply held] story line, to rouse ourselves” (66).

This rousing is what I experienced when I felt my “ice sheet shifting.” I had an alternate story line—one of appreciation and delight at my own blessed body and those I encounter moving through the world—there in the possible undercurrents of my heart all along.  And not that I needed to silence the voice that kept me from seeing/sensing this—Earley’s words of compassion for every part of myself allowed me to hear, identify, listen, and affirm even the parts I would have thought were keeping me from a more life-affirming stance. Instead of getting rid of those voices, I gave them a bit of light and a bit of fresh air—that which we all need!—and to my surprise, I discovered more about myself from recognizing it.

I notice now that when Jay Earley describes “developing a trusting relationship” with a part, or an exile, he’s really encouraging us to develop a trust-worthy center. That is, I will be more free to express my varying internal thoughts if the responses I give myself are kind, or at least not harsh. Long ago, a therapist taught me that feelings are feelings, and will find a way to express themselves. We can try to push them down, or away, or deny that we’re having them, but they will find a way to come out. Earley revealed one way to do this—to listen. Why am I surprised that a technique that has helped me in relationships, in teaching, and in mentoring teachers would work within myself? Chödrön modeled the kinds of phrases I might use instead—words of welcome, and patience, and affirmation.

John Makransky’s exhortation that we “discover” and then remember, receive, and reflect upon the “benefactors” of our life gave me concrete examples of how to marry my individual class work reflection on gratitude for compassion in my life with specific examples. I have had so many benefactors! And Makransky is correct—although my life has been filled with and shaped by their kindness and attention, it can be difficult to fight the habits of complaint, judgment, narrowed-eyes, and distrust of the people in line with me at the DMV (for example.)

Makransky shares Chödrön’s premise that we are essentially good, and capable of good. Makransky writes,

When we receive the wish of love, the wish for our happiness, we are instructed to trust that wish more than any limiting thoughts of ourselves…This takes us beyond our usual limitations, to extend the wish of love more inclusively and enduringly than we may have previously thought possible. To extend love ultimately to all beings gives us a glimpse into the vast capacity of love that was hidden in our being all along (96, emphasis mine).

I note that Makransky specifies that the wish of love is ours to “receive,” that is—it has already been given. What a revolutionary idea in a world where we are seduced into consuming the accoutrements we believe we need to “be” better versions of ourselves. We lack nothing—the love has already been given. Lest we doubt, meditating simply on a few people who have shown us care, however small, can begin a new habit in our minds.

My “compassion and gratitude notes” from the last few months include phrases and names:

“the lady at church who said she liked hearing me sing,” “the guy at the bike shop,” “the woman in the president’s office who took time to talk to me,” “the ING lady on the phone who was happy to keep explaining things to me,” “the old man at church,” “my old professor,” “Mrs. J always wrote such great comments on my papers,” “Miss Marilyn always made sure I had a dress to wear on Sundays,” “my stepdad was worried that I might not have a good TV,” “Sister CM always checks in on me.” And even: “bus driver was patient,” “the receptionist smiled encouragingly,” “the lady next to me squeezed my hand during prayer.”

It is as if, once I learned the posture of receiving, there was an abundance for me to receive. Once I opened my arms, they were filled with blooms of compassion. While I was practicing opening my arms to receive, I was also noting without judgment the inner thoughts that ran throughout the day. Instead of labeling them good or bad, I just followed Chödrön’s example and tried to say, “Huh. That’s a frustrated thought. Look at that.”

Then, incorporating Earley’s suggestions, I might add, “I can see that you feel frustrated. What do you need right now?” Remembering Makransky’s and Chödrön’s assertions that kindness, receiving, and listening are more fruitful than judging, I’d try to listen to that need, and even if I couldn’t hear it, respond with a kinder inner voice.  Of course, this is a new habit, and radically in opposition to the habits reinforced by the blogs and magazines I read daily, and the packaging of the things I buy.

I have noticed that I move easier in the world when I attend to my own thoughts and needs. I have also noticed that being compassionate to my self has encouraged a general posture of gratitude, openness, and willingness to be delighted by benefactors I come across.

Am I willing to let my hair wave on its own, to cede control over something to which I could simply let be and be grateful? Not yet, but the daily practice of curling my hair has changed—and the patience I now show myself is a growing patience I have for others.

And, as I am learning, the gratitude I can begin to feel when regarding my un-controlled hair is a gratitude I have access to all of the time. The love and affirmation are there; I must only practice receiving.  And above all, I remember this is practice—I have two decades’ worth of old synapses that are in a pattern of self-judgment and seeking glossy control. Makransky, Chödrön, and Earley reassure me that as I continue this new practice, it will be like warm streams of water on the rigidity of my old judgment; over time, those sheets of negative self-regard may finally break and float freer, leaving me better able to connect with myself and others.

I wrote this reflection on “self compassion” for a class on compassionate social engagement. Before we can begin the work of restorative justice and engaging socially, we must first learn to listen and show compassion for ourselves and those in our immediate communities.  To begin this work, I highly recommend the Pema Chödrön text.

Works Cited and Consulted

Chödrön, Pema. Start Where You Are. Boston: Shambhala. 2001.

Earley, Jay. Self-Therapy. Minneapolis: Mill City Press. 2009.

Makransky, John. Awakening Through Love. Boston: Wisdom Publications. 2007.

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I’m a month into my studies. I’m thankful I’m a quick reader… I’m ahead (touch wood) in my readings for two of my three classes.

It feels strange to only have three classes, and only have my job at the journal. No teaching, no Sunday school, no babysitting.  No fitting in editing, phone calls, and e-mails between teaching, or on a subway, or right before kids come running to me. I am thankful to do one thing at a time.

This time around, I also purchased many of my books. At Union, I got all of them from the library– I never bought a single book in three years there, unless it was a workbook for language study.  The books for these classes were cheaper, and often available used on Amazon. The history books I read at Union were thick, rare, and expensive. I just used the inter-library system and got them from as far away as Yale or Harvard.

I didn’t really think about the convenience of writing in my own book, or marking pages. I used to dog ear pages that had something I would need to or wanted to remember, and then fill up my notebook with quotes and page numbers. Now, having all of my books (mostly), I don’t have to spend that time doing the “second” step of writing things down.

Luckily, I also have a pretty good memory. I would often remember much of what I read, and even the chapter and location, without writing it down. So even in a seminar, I could make a point, and say, “Pelikan brings this up in the ninth chapter? I think early in the chapter, maybe two pages in?” without having the book.

I much prefer having the books, though. And I wonder how much mental energy I’ll now use for other things instead of having to instinctively memorize content I might not need.

I’ve continued my old, old practice of writing “new words” in the margins of my book or notebook as I read. I’m a stickler for always going back and defining the terms. For me, at this point, a new word is a term or phrase that I couldn’t use confidently on my own. For example, I can accurately guess what “positivism” means from reading it in a sentence, but wouldn’t know it well enough to use it myself.

New phrases from this week. I have not yet found definitions for them yet… I think I’m going to have to read articles in Google Scholar that use them.

disembedded cogito

other-oriented induction techniques

interpretive ethnography

New words for which I have learned the definitions include: sequential analysis, actus purus, Tonglen practice, positivism, alterity, noumenal, militates, and non-teleological.

Places I study: on our balcony in the sun, in the library on our campus in deep leather couches, and at the grad school library further into town. I’m mostly only reading at this point, but keeping a running list of names, curricula, books, and programs I need to research or follow up with for future papers and projects.

One of the best things I’ve read so far is a book called, Children, Youth, and Spirituality in a Troubling World, by Mary Elizabeth Moore and Almeda M. Wright. It’s a collection of essays documenting the voices, struggles, and expressions of young people– they include discussion of Disney’s Princesses and their charismatic power, young adults who survived the war in Bosnia, eyelid surgery and young women in Asian-American communities, the power of testimony in African-American communities, liturgies designed by incarcerated teen girls, and questions about God from queer youth.

Every single one of the essays has made me underline furiously, read sections aloud to Matt, wish I was still teaching, and revealed something about the world I didn’t know. This is a great place to be for early October, surrounded by not-yet-read books and pages of notes.

sample of notes– and note, I’ve had this pencil and used it nearly daily since 2001

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