As we set out on the adventure that will be 2022 we know that it will have its joys and its sorrows, its ups and its downs – its good times and its not so good time; that is called life! We know that on this adventure we will fail. No one is perfect. Knowing that should be a great consolation to us all. We all have feet of clay – innate to our human condition – and that gives us a shared brokenness and it will be from this brokenness that our greatest growth will occur.
My experience of life’s journey has taught me that one of the things in life I find most difficult is to be ‘gentle with one’s self!’ I find it difficult to forgive myself, to accept myself, to let go of shame and failure. I don’t think I am alone having this difficulty.
It is no secret that I am odd. Sometimes I will find myself walking along and suddenly out of nowhere a memory of failure or shame from my past will return and I will literally cringe. I have my own cupboard full of past anger, blame, victimhood and ‘poor me’ tapes all ready to jump out and take over my life. In my childhood as a skinny (chicken legs), hairy armed, stammering, fearful adolescent I wished I was anyone other than myself. I spent an inordinate amount of time admiring the young men around me who had it all together, who were a ‘man’s man’, for whom life was easy and who were popular and cool. I did all I could to hide my way through my adolescent years to the extent that at my twenty year school reunion, the group I was sharing a beer with at the start of the night could not remember my being in their class – until I stammered. Then the response was, “Oh yes, you were the guy who stuttered!” No name – no story – no narrative – just “the guy who stuttered!”
This blog is not about you feeling sorry for me nor me feeling sorry for myself. Rather as we go through life we all build up a backpack full of regrets, times of failure and shame, hurts and fragility. In the midst of this journey it is so hard to forgive self or accept self let alone celebrate self!
So my life’s journey has taught me (ever so slowly) some simple practical ways to be gentle with myself. To hold the pain of my life more lightly. To let go of that which holds me back or burdens my shoulders. To find some perspective. To look into the mirror and love what I see. My ten guides to being gentle with myself follow. What are yours?
Damien’s guide to self gentleness.
Number 1 Did you try your best? I have lost count of the number of times I have been hard on myself and have reflected on some project I have been involved with and had a sense of falling short. I once taught in a school where there was an especially difficult fourteen year old boy. The boy was an exceptional swimmer and good football player. But he appeared to have a whole forest of ‘chips on his shoulder’. No matter what I did or said he was negative, constantly paid out on me behind my back, did all he could to undermine my initiatives and never gave me more than a grunt in response to my greetings. I chipped away at my relationship with this young man, doing that tango between engaging with him but not doing so too much, for some four years. I affirmed his swimming results when I met him in the corridor, I watched his football games and in offhand ways noted good tackles and more and I invited his involvement in projects. But I also challenged him. When he did not respond to my morning greeting I would stop him and gently demand an acknowledgment. When he made snide underhand comments to members of his pack sitting either side of him in assemblies I would challenge him – not normally in front of the group but privately afterwards. I dug deeply into my trove of ‘working with adolescents’ wisdom and tried everything but to no avail.
In the week after graduation the young man left the most abusive phone message on my mobile phone – leaving me with a sense of failure and hurt. What more could I have done? Where did I go wrong? When I discovered that this failed relationship was haunting me still some twelve months later I said to myself, “Damien, this is crazy!” Then, from deep within a voice said, “Damien did you try your best in this relationship?” My answer was an unequivocal yes!
Now I know that we will all wrap this element with statements like, “Yes, but my best was not good enough!” That is crap. My best is my best. It is all I can give. I can give no more than my best. Sure, our best, given the limits of our human condition may be 97% – no one can nor should nor could give 100%. But when we, in the context of human frailty, give our best then that is it. Let it go! Accept and move on. You did your best – you can do no more.
The other element of ‘giving my best’ is that in any relationship it takes two to tango. My effort can only go so far. The other in the relationship has to tango as well. I have no control over what dance card they will pick up or even if they will venture on to the dance floor; that is life. So coming back to the young man of my story. I have no idea what was going on in his life. I have no ideas what demons he was fighting. I have no idea what pathology framed his journey. What I do know is that I tried my best. What I do know is that if that young man ever gets to a space in his life of balance and perspective and fairness he will look back on his relationship with Damien and know that Damien tried his best. I am not perfect. I fail and failed in my relationship with him to some extent – but I tried my best. He may never admit that; that is more than ok. He may never like or admire me; that is more than ok. I have no control over the other in relationship – but knowing I did my best helps me be gentle with myself.
Number 2 It is as it is. You will often find me quoting Eckhart Tolle and his wonderful book, ‘The Power of Now’. Central to Eckhart Tolle’s work is the belief that all we have is the present moment. The present moment just is. Too many live in the past or the future; we are regretting or longing for the past or forever wanting the future and one that is better than the only thing I have; the present. Ultimately, it is as it is.
Acceptance that it is as it is creates a profound energy shift. This acceptance is not surrender nor is it fatalistic. This acceptance that ‘it is as it is’ is not second best nor resignation. Acceptance is a positive response. Acceptance allows and acknowledges the reality around me. Acceptance names and celebrates my reality and then invites me to journey from that space.
It is as it is. My father died when I was seventeen. My father spent his whole life battling mental illness. I have a stutter in my speech. I am thin. I am a mixture of cultures; Welsh, New Zealander, Irish, German and God only knows what else. All of these and more are my ‘it is as it is’. So on life’s journey when things come my way – an accident – good fortune – a great teacher or mentor – opportunity – loss and more – these all go to make up my life circumstances. There is no value in my fighting the ‘is-ness’ of my life. I could go through life fighting the fact that my wonderful father struggled with mental illness or died when I was still quite young. My time and energy could go into battle or my time and energy can go into acceptance and from that space – grow.
As I grow in acceptance that ‘it is as it is’ my inner energy is freed up. I can begin to see the beauty around me and within me because I am no longer fighting ‘what is’. As the door of acceptance opens – it reveals a vista of possibilities. As I grow in this acceptance I will be gifted with a growing gentleness with myself just as I am.
Number 3 Stay in the present moment – deeply present. One of the other gifts of Eckhart Tolle’s reflections is the power of the present moment and of being present in and through that moment. I love the title of Eckhart Tolle’s book – ‘The Power of Now!’ Yes, the now has great power. But it’s power lays in being aware – in being truly present in the present moment. Much of the victim thinking, the ego battles and the ‘poor me’ narratives that can be like a stuck record or tape on ‘loop’ are broken when we come into the present moment. This presence liberates us. Being deeply present grows awareness of our blessings, of our gifts, of being loved, of being grateful, of the bigger picture that is more complete and whole.
Being present takes us out of our victim selves and into a bigger and infinitely beautiful universe. Four years ago I was going through a really difficult time. I felt unfairly treated. I felt that my loyalty had not been honoured. People whom I thought should have had my back were nowhere to be found and like Custer’s Last Stand or the battle of Rorke’s Drift I felt surrounded on every side. My ‘poor me’ and ‘victim’ tapes were running overtime and in the midst of all of this my mental health suffered greatly.
What got me through this time was the love and loyalty of dear friends, regular exercise, centering prayer and conscious awareness leading to service of others. What my friends did was to invite me out of my cave and back into life. In all of this the more I thought about others and attempted in small ways to ‘serve’ others the more perspective I gained and the energy shifted and I was slowly able to be much more gentle with myself. It now sounds so simple but I was invited to eject the ‘poor me’ tapes and insert awareness tapes of how loved I was and my call to be that love for others.
Number 4 Focus on the other – sense of service. As already indicated above when our growing awareness and sense of the present moment and not living in the past or future is coupled with service we gain perspective, balance and peace. When I am hard on myself, when I blame myself, when I am digging an ever deeper pit of anger or depression it is all about me.
The happiest times in my life have been when I have been other focussed. But not in a ‘hero’, ‘aren’t I good’ way – but genuinely and out of a sense of our shared humanity knowing that the other holds me gently as well. The hundreds of hours I have spent on the streets breaking bread and sharing a coffee and story with the homeless taught me so much. When I concluded my time in Brisbane and got a new job in Melbourne back in 2008 the most meaningful send off I got was from the streeties that I had come to love through Eddie’s Van. The gift beyond all others that these broken people gave to me was that it is ‘more than OK to be me!’ Warts and all! The homeless had that unique ability to accept me for just who I was. I was valued for me. No labels were used – no titles – I was just ‘Pricey’ and Pricey with his chicken legs and stutter was more than OK.
I tried to give them my fidelity and my presence – they more than gave me theirs in return! In doing so – they helped me become more gentle with myself. It was not all about me. Get out of yourself – focus on the other and allow the magic of encounter to heal.
Number 5 Cultivate reflective practice. I am totally convinced that we need to work on fitness. Immediately we all think of physical fitness and sure one needs to work on that with persistence and discipline. But we need to work on our heart or inner fitness too.
Just as when one works on a physical fitness goal we go through the stages of hard work. We run five kilometres and then each day add another two hundred meters or attempt to do the run in a faster time – every second to be celebrated. We do our weights – and slowly add extra weight to the barbell or add extra repetitions. We go through those days and weeks of sweat and pain motivated by our desire to be more fit. And then, one day, we discover that we get our breath back faster, we are not as sore, we lift the weight that we struggled with six months previously now with apparent little effort. We look back on the journey and marvel at where we have come from.
The same is oh so true of our inner struggles and our inner ‘heart’ work. Key to this work will be our reflective praxis. By reflective practice I mean YOUR method of being still, of being quiet, of being ‘gentle’ with your spirit! Meditation, yoga, centring prayer, stretching, beach walks, listening to music and more are all ways that we can stop and just be. We hold the stop sign up to our rush, our endless mind and ego chatter and the clutter of noise and busyness that too many call ‘life’. When we do this – we give our deepest inner child room to breathe. When we do this – we can hear our own deep inner wisdom. When we do this we will grow wise and our wisdom will gentle us.
Like physical fitness we will not see the results of our slowing down and being still immediately. Like the gaining of cardio-vascular fitness or muscle bulk etc the results won’t be immediate. But one day we will notice our new physical strength or balance. Similarly with our inner work one day we will notice that we are less reactive, we are more serene, we are less ego driven. The benefit of stillness and silence will creep up on you; the work is done on the inside – deep inside.
For the last 18 months I have been quite faithful to my 20 minute morning Centring Prayer ‘sit’. I simply make myself a cup of coffee and sip it slowly in the community’s sacred space. When I am finished it I do about ten deep slow breaths. Then I close my eyes, focus on my ‘sacred word’ and then ‘let go’ and surrender into the present moment attempting to do ‘nothing’. When I am distracted I simply return to the space of nothingness through my sacred word. When my chimes go – I turn to my next heart activity by recalling five things I am grateful for. I am convinced that over the last 18 months I have grown to be much more gentle with myself.
Number 6 Cultivate your sense of humour. Can you laugh at yourself? Can you take the ‘mickey out of yourself?’ It is so important to be able to laugh at your foibles, your stuff ups and your Mr Bean moments.
In one school I was famous for forgetting to turn my computer volume off after conducting the reflection at the beginning of school assemblies. The Principal would be in the middle of his speech and Damien would go to turn off his computer and the highly amplified ‘bing-bong’ of the turning off process would reverberate through the auditorium. I was nicknamed ‘Pirate’ by one group of students for my habit of running along the side of the football field shouting ‘hard hard hard’ to the player who had made a line break. When giving a keynote address at a University about Youth Spirituality one time I went to show a video clip to support my main point. We could not get the Video system to work no matter what we tried. After two frustrating minutes – a woman in the front row politely said to myself and the audio-visual technician who had been called, “I think you may have forgotten to insert the video!” She was right!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Life is too short! Laugh at yourself! Smile at your foibles! Share the joke back on yourself and laugh along with life. It is amazing how your humour will give you permission not to be perfect, not to have every answer and invite you to join humanity in our shared imperfection.
Number 7 Reward yourself. Sadly there has been a belief that when you do something kind to or for yourself you are being selfish; nothing could be further from the truth. I love hiking. I am at home when after a arduous morning of zig-zagging up a mountain ridge I stand looking out over a vista from the mountain top. From above the tree line – sometimes surrounded by snow, one can see for miles. I can still remember the climb up the Travers valley in the North of the South Island of New Zealand (Nelson Lakes National Park) to the saddle at the top of the valley. The views were magnificent. Standing beside my nephew Daniel and my good friend David we took in the vistas, grabbed some well earned photos and then made a brew. The simple brew (a billy of tea made on our gas burner) tasted SO good; a simple reward for a long morning’s work.
Over the years I have got into the habit of gifting myself with some small reward after I have worked hard and concluded a project. I might purchase a special plant for the garden, grab a friend and go to a special coffee shop for a catch up, go to the movies or create a bacon and egg storm in the Brothers’ kitchen. Whatever!
The effect is that the choice to reward or celebrate has an indirect effect of giving myself an inner hug. Indirectly the reward is saying, “Well done Damien”! I am giving myself a pat on the back. I am celebrating me – not in an arrogant egotistical way – but in a simple way that honours your dreaming, your effort and your self belief. The more this has become part of the rhythm of my life the more I am able to be truly gentle with myself.
Number 8 Forgive others. Forgiveness and its twin ‘compassion’ are wonderful companions on life’s journey. I can remember clearly in my early 30’s having someone in my life who hurt me deeply. I carried a lot of resentment within me. I avoided them, I dumped on them a mountain of passive aggression, I whinged about them behind their back and I cultivated a multi-layered victim persona to justify it all. I did not like the Damien I had created.
Thanks to a wise priest that I shared some of the above with I set out on the journey of forgiveness of this person. My priest friend had shared with me;
“From the perspective of love and spirit, forgiveness is willingness to let go of the hurtful past. It is the decision to no longer suffer – to heal your heart and soul –it is the choice to no longer find value in hatred or anger – and it is the letting go of the desire to hurt others or ourselves because of something that is already in the past. It is willingness to open our eyes to the light in other people rather to judge and condemn them.” (Jampolsky)
“Forgiveness is a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgement and indifferent behaviour towards one who has unjustly injured us while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love towards him or her.” (Robert Enright)
So I set out on the journey of attempting to see the goodness in this person, to thank and appreciate them when I honestly could, to become aware of any hardening in my attitude and to pray for them and for forgiveness. Now I know the concept of “praying for them” may sound pious and fluffy but when you are praying for someone or something you are holding them gently before your God. Hopefully you are holding them freely and lightly. Then miracles happen – YOU change inside. Like the fitness referred to earlier this does not happen immediately but it sneaks up on you.
One day I met the person who had deeply hurt me – we were sharing a professional facilitation space and I became aware as I engaged with them that the energy of hurt within me had dissipated. They certainly had not become my best friend but I was equally aware that I no longer was bound by resentment, hurt or anger towards them – I felt free – I had forgiven!
No 9 Cultivate hobbies and your particular love of beauty. One of my key ways of continuing to be gentle with myself is through the choices to make to engage in hobbies: the things I love. My time in the garden and my love of bush walking are two key facets of my life. I try to do a little of each of them each day. As I engage in the garden (today I thinned out some Poinsettia that were blocking sunlight from our paw paw trees) or go for a walk (today along the edge of the local creek) I consciously switch off and take in the beauty around me.
No 10 Know that you are held lovingly by a Universe that is benign. Some call it God, others life, other mystery or awe – who cares about the name. To know deep within, to choose to believe deep within that we are good at our core (our innate dignity), that we are known and called by name and that we are loved totally and unconditionally leads to the ultimate self gentleness! As the bumper sticker says, “God don’t make junk!”
What are your ways of being gentle with yourself?
Don’t forget to check out my new website at encounter the heart!