Category: Summer 2016

The Power of Vulnerability and Presence

I remember almost 25 years ago, sitting in my friend’s apartment crying in Marie’s arms as the waves of old (but now fresh) grief flowed out from my heart. Once again, I stepped through the fear and shame that my grief made me weak and incompetent, un-intelligible and less than. And even while I was openly and unrestrainedly expressing my grief and deep sadness 18 years after my father’s death, I feared that doing so made me even more unacceptable and displeasing. I feared what she was thinking about me, how she might judge me. But slowly, the fear began to dissolve as she uttered some compassionate words: “Of course you miss and grieve your dad. Your grief and tears are beautiful. You must have loved him with all your 10-year-old heart. We all have to tell someone. And you are wonderful.”

A year later, I had a very difficult experience with a friend I confronted on what I experienced as very disrespectful behaviour. That confrontation was met with anger and great displeasure and I was left feeling humiliated, confused and ashamed. Part of me wanted to hide in my apartment, to shut down my heart, to repress all the deeply painful feelings flooding me. But another part of me knew that hiding was the ego story of shame and humiliation. The heart story of humility, vulnerability and self-compassion knew that I had to reach out, be vulnerable and through humility and full presence to the moment, find my centre, reclaim my light and discover the wisdom available.

I called upon another friend who listened compassionately and quietly, who just sat with me as I worked it through. He didn’t try to fix it for me. What he did do was affirm that I’m a wonderful woman in what felt like my weakness and wrongness. What he did affirm was my hurt beneath the shame and that this encounter was not my wrong-doing alone. I felt loved and accepted. In that love and acceptance, my shame scattered and became undone.

I share these two experiences to highlight the power of appropriate, respecting and safe vulnerability. To experience the power of vulnerability, we invoke, even if unconsciously, the virtue of humility and the presence of a higher reality of love.

Humility differs from humiliation in that humility calls us to respect our humanness and divinity simultaneously and equally. As a human being I have limits. These limits are good and life-giving here. Without the use of some sort of flight mechanism, for example, I cannot fly. I cannot live years without food, water, sleep, shelter. As empowered as anyone can be in their imagined potential, we are grounded into the critical point of our actual human potential. In our bodies, we cannot live outside the human experience.

While we humbly acknowledge this truth, we also can and need to acknowledge that we too are spirit within. Spirit and matter meet within, which is the blessed incarnation of our unique existence. Humility calls us to claim both and so when we feel naked in our vulnerability, we equally are invited to claim our inner light and cherished essence.

In acknowledging that I’m both divine and human, I can trust that my vulnerable encounter with my own deeper being will lead to healing, love, and wholeness. The fear that my friends would criticize, shame or reject me was a smokescreen to my deeper ego fear. My deeper fear was that ‘my vulnerability and inner light were wrong’.

However, the power of humility called me into full presence, full vulnerability with my heart. When I humbly open my heart and become vulnerable to “what is, as it is”, as in the moments described above, I become fully present to me, to the other, to my experience as I am rather than my ‘ideal’ of who I am. In that presence, I stepped into the acceptance that I am loved. True vulnerability is pure presence. And pure presence to “what is, as it is” radically transforms us and those equally sharing this moment of presence.

Richard Rohr, a contemporary Franciscan mystic puts it this way: “In being humbly vulnerable, you give a piece of yourself to the other. You see a piece of yourself in the other (usually unconsciously). This allows the other to do the same in return. You do not need or demand anything back from them, because you know that you are both participating in a single, Bigger Gazing and Loving—one that fully satisfies and creates an immense Inner Aliveness. Simply to love is its own reward. You accept being accepted—for no reason and by no criteria whatsoever!”

We often consider those who are vulnerable as beings who are weaker than us, such as children, animals, our ecosystem, women in many countries, and spiritually speaking, the path to the Divine Feminine. However, mystically speaking, being vulnerable as a child or as an animal or our ecosystem is to be without the personal ego’s rationalization, judgements, analysis, ego constructed intellect and shadow defenses. Such vulnerability, mystically speaking, often invokes compassion, delight, joy, open to the wonder and awe and natural rhythms of life without needing to control or dominate the resources that sustain life. Mystically speaking, such vulnerability calls us to be fully present to the moment as it is, without dividing the moment. And such vulnerability is a practice of humbly accepting one’s beautiful place in the ebb and flow of all life. It’s the practice of deep acceptance of who I am as I am, neither greater than nor lesser than any being.

This is the radical nature of true vulnerability and humility. It is the practice of ‘Presence’. Presence shares with us the gift that we are loved, accepted and worthy as we are in this moment. Humbly, we tell our truth to ourselves and to the compassionate other. It’s about sharing our heart story, embracing that somewhere in our pain or shame or weakness, we are light, love and worthy. To the ego, vulnerability must be controlled and dominated. To our hearts, vulnerability or true presence to ‘what fully is as it is’, is a radical blessing of empowerment, truth-telling and healing. And so it is!

Namaste,

Shirley Lynn

The Power of Empathy

propeller-801851_640I just finished reading The Aviator’s Wife, an historical novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the lyrical author and first female aviator whose marriage to Charles A. Lindbergh brought her both joy and huge tragedy. This story narrates Anne Lindbergh’s inner despair and pain in seeking her husband’s empathy throughout their marriage, especially following the kidnapping and murder of their first child. However, Charles Lindbergh, whose courageous solo flight across the Atlantic had made him a hero of mythic proportions and the most famous man in the world, abhorred emotional displays of connection and empathy in his wife and his children. It cost him his happiness and ‘his crew’ (She flew with him around the world and had trained to be his ‘crew’ in these ground-breaking flights). His lack of empathy and connection with her cost her depression, a life of seclusion for which she sought regular psychotherapy later in her life, and finally and bravely, stepping outside the marriage to get what she needed.

Recently, I was helping a client understand an emotional-relational pattern where she vacillated between hiding behind protective walls to block ‘getting hurt’ on one hand, and over-empathy on the other hand, which denied them the kindness toward self to say ‘no’ to situations and people who did not share their core values or may even have been deeply disrespectful or abusive. In over-empathizing with others, she put herself at risk of taking in and absorbing another’s emotional energies and attitudes for hours or days at at time, exhausting her inner reservoir for her own goals and heart-felt desires. She thought they were creating connection, but instead found herself sick and depressed.

love-482709_640And in a recent email a client shared some deep challenges she was experiencing with new information about her family’s history. As I was reading, I opened my heart to be present to her sense of betrayal and abandonment. I even caught a glimpse of my own memory of having felt abandoned and betrayed. It was a moment of acknowledging that she is experiencing abandonment ‘just like me once upon a time’. As I let that pass through my heart, I returned to the space of connecting with her true essence. I returned to the belief that she held the inner strength to heal and take the ‘right action’ and restore the love and belonging that was so deeply violated. I shared my love, and yet in kindness to myself, I trusted her to gather her self love and power to transform her sense of self regardless of her family’s history. This was her experience, not mine. I did not need to fix anything.

Three vignettes. Three different life stories that all reveal the power of empathy. The first one speaks to the power of empathy by its absence. The second speaks to its power by its over-empathy and the last one speaks to its power in healthy balance. So what is empathy really if we can be out of balance with it?

Brene Brown speaks of empathy as what fuels connection. Empathy fuels connection because we choose to take the perspective of the ‘other’, staying out judgement, recognizing another’s emotion and attending to it. We are feeling with (not for) someone. It is a vulnerable choice because in choosing to feel with someone, Brown says, we are also getting in touch with that same emotion in ourselves. You and I become deeply and authentically linked in the expression of empathy. It is the skill-set to bring compassion alive and respect the I-Thou in our perception and belonging in the circle of life.

To express empathy well we need boundaries – healthy and functional energy fields and truths and values that sustain our hearts, our energy, our relationships and even our sense of self over time and space. Boundaries communicate what we are okay with and not okay with in our lives. Boundaries take care of us and offer guidance in what to say ‘yes’ to, what to say ‘no’ to and what to say ‘not now’ to. They determine our display of respect both to ourselves and others. As Brown shares in an interview, “empathy without boundaries is not empathy. Compassion without boundaries is not genuine. Vulnerable without boundaries is not vulnerable. Generosity can’t exist without boundaries. ” Healthy boundaries keeps us from being a fool with our empathy.

A lack of empathy leads to the social ills and discord rampant in our world. In the movie The Nuremberg Trials, a Jewish psychiatrist interviewed Nazi generals being tried for war crimes. After his interviews with countless people on all sides, he concluded that the atrocities of WWII occurred because of apathy, the lack of empathy. This lack of empathy leads to the deep sense of hurt, disconnect and betrayal which can painfully destroy relationships, marriages and communities who gather around these relationships.

The flip side are those who express so much empathy or who over-identify themselves as empaths and open their hearts to the extreme where they become depleted, feeling used, depressed and over-identify with others stories and emotions. We now have this new social phenomena called ‘compassion fatigue’, or empath fatigue, where we have become so depleted we are burnt out. And this ‘burnout’ can turn into depression, anxiety attacks, apathy and more. What happens in these situations is that we get overly focused on the needs and emotions of others while under-attending to our own needs, values and true life purpose.

aware-1353780_640As a professional in a ‘helping role’, I had to learn to balance my needs for self care and self-nurturing with client’s needs for connection, empathy and compassion. I had to learn to reach out to appropriate resources to help me care for me and my own vital energy. I had to choose my responsibilities and focus my time wisely, so that both my needs and my clients needs could be met. Above all else, I had to sustain and balance my sense of I-Thou in our relationship. I had to reconnect with my core value of love and truth and my soul purpose of ‘being peace’ to hold my centre.

Empathy opens us to loving-kindness. It heals us and our relationships. It is a powerful path to restore peace. Empathy also requires healthy boundaries. And boundaries require our commitment and courage of the heart. So take heart. Practise empathy. It has the power to stop atrocities on both small and grand scales.

This fall, I will again be facilitating a two-day workshop called The Self Kindness Response: Boundaries for Healthy and Joyful Living on October 28-29th, 2016. It’s been a couple years since I have taught this transformative workshop so I am looking forward to it. It’s always amazing to me what happens when a group of people get together around a common theme. So don’t miss out on this wonderful opportunity to learn how to develop and strengthen your own healthy boundaries so you can embrace the practice of empathy.

Namaste,

Overcoming Obstacles. Lessons of the Breath

I was born utterly vulnerable, dependent and skill-less. And in the moment of my death, I will once again be vulnerable, dependent and my acquired life skills won’t change the outcome. The bookends to being human are profoundly mysterious and difficult to embrace. The first independent act we do is breathe on our own. The last independent act we do is release our last breath. What an extraordinary natural process within which we are invited to compose our great story in the time between our birth and death. Breath is foundational to life.

To be successfully alive, we have to win the battle of taking what we need from our mothers. Quite literally, we need to take the proteins from our mother to build the cells that create life. To be successful in our death, we lose the battle of staying alive. And somewhere in between these miracles of life and death, we ask some pretty fundamental questions and experience some powerful challenges that influence who we are.

This process is called life, filled with obstacles and challenges. It’s a process that we all have the privilege to learn from, be blessed by and make peace with somewhere in the heart of our souls.

What does birth and death have to do with overcoming our blocks, barriers, burdens or bondages? I believe the bookends of life help us frame the questions and wisdom gained to transform who we think we are in relation to the obstacle – for in every obstacle there is the path of life and paradoxically the path of death.

The Buddha taught the necessity of letting go of attachment. Jesus framed this same principle by inviting us to be in this world, but not of this world. Lao Tzu said when you let go of what you are, you become what you might be. This collective wisdom highlights a couple of key points for me in overcoming obstacles:

1. We need to become aware how we are mentally framing our story about the obstacle. Years ago in my seminary studies, a professor stated that until the church re-frames its conversation about the inclusion of LBGT people, it will remain polarized in this conversation, resulting only in conflict and division.

A light came on. Function follows form. The riverbanks shape the water flow. Poor ‘mental frames’ about these obstacles lead to poor questions and poor questions lead to worse solutions. Change the frame or form (of the obstacle) and often our perception of what we can do with the obstacle changes. Recently a client shared a concern she had sitting at the back of her head. It was an old pattern. I asked what happens when she relocates this concern in the back of her head and puts it in her buttocks. She did that and started to laugh. Changing the form it had in her body, released the power of this obstacle.

2. We need to release our emotional attachment to our ego identity in bondage to this obstacle and surrender to a greater wisdom within. Our ego seeks to control life and maintain the status quo. Yet, when life offers us some of its biggest challenges, the story and identity of who we are no longer serves. Releasing my ego identity, who I think I am, who I believe I am supposed to be, who I have practised being, the story I’ve been told about who I am and the one I secretly tell myself, is my biggest challenge.

For most of my life, our property was organized for hobby farming. The barn and shed were homes for pigs, chickens, ponies, a horse, calf, etc, for many years. After my father’s death, the barn transitioned to a chicken barn for almost 20 years. Following a short period of no function, the barn eventually became the Toonie Barn, a place to collect, store and re-purpose household items primarily for migrant workers, others with limited incomes, and the occasional seeker of the weird and wonderful for $2.00. But this too had to die away, leaving the barn empty and without function. We did use it as a training and play area for our dogs and their friends. For almost 50 years, this building had the same structure, but with changing function. However, last year a portion of the roof caved in. The structure now was dangerous. Great care and organization was required to take down these buildings.

The buildings were part of a story about who I was, but one which could no longer sustain me in my future. Like the barn, letting go of our emotional attachment to our identity constructs can often be difficult because it means emotionally letting go of the past. It means emotionally letting go of the old beliefs which bookend why we couldn’t participate in life in a certain way.

However, letting go of the buildings or the outdated ‘frame’ has allowed a whole new future to be possible, to be life-giving. Likewise, in becoming what I might be, I am no longer tied to the narrative of who I was and what was possible just as with the ‘frame’ of the property. I am now free to breathe into my life and what is possible in a whole new way, just as we are with our property.

Breath is foundational to all life. Obstacles are one part of life. We are given the opportunity to release who we have been and become who we might be through love, trust and surrender. Your breath frames your life. With your breath choose to release and re-frame your emotional attachments. Choose to live who you might be.