I’m Pretty Sure I’m Harder On Myself Than You Could Ever Be…

 

shame
Photo credit: Frankieleon

 

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. 

-Brené Brown

You know how Jesus famously told his followers in Matthew 7:1 not to judge? And then how we have only taken that half seriously?  Because we often give others tremendous grace and then lash our own backs with a cat-o-nine tails whip of shame, self-deprecation, self-loathing, and repeated mantras of how unworthy, stupid, and ridiculous we are.

OK, maybe YOU personally don’t do this, but trust me, I’m not the only one out there who judges themselves more harshly than the rest of the world could ever possibly. I meet people on a very regular basis who fight a constant battle against demons within their own minds about their self-worth. I once thought that Satan was a real being. But now I know what the Accuser really is: it is all the lies that we’ve been told about ourselves, and all the traumas we’ve experienced and were never counseled through; it is all of our internalized fears and failures that have never had an avenue for expression and the chance for the light of truth to be shed on them…all of these tangle together into a dark web of, dare I say, evil?, in our minds that taunt us and judge us and hinder us from grasping on to the divine within us.

Some days, like yesterday, I sink into a state of despair where all I can see when I look back on my life is failure upon failure upon failure. It’s the kind of despair that paralyzes your breathing and your mind plays a non-stop reel of memory after memory where you could have done better, acted more kindly, been more patient.  And after the reel slows, you teeter on the edge of panic, knowing that you won’t get a do-over.  Your kids won’t get younger; you can’t undo the decisions you made that have lingering consequences; you can’t ask the questions of your dead loved ones that you should have asked years ago. As far as we can tell on this side of death, we only get this one shot at this life. (Who knows, maybe there are parallel universes where we’re living the same lives but making different choices…I find that doubtful.)

I called my best friend for help; she is brilliant, is a therapist, and knows these places of despair intimately. She reminded me using the rational mindset she always takes when dealing with my life drama, that my despair and self-judging of myself to be a failure is a learned behavior.  The reason my mind can only remember my mistakes and failures in the past is because that is what it was trained to do. The neural grooves of my brain have been firmly set over the years, and so the paths of self-hatred and judgment are much easier trails for electrical signals to travel down then trying to forge new paths of self-acceptance, and reframing, and learning to focus on the things I’ve done right and well.

I am getting better over the years at being easier on myself, and not sitting in self-judgment for as long as I used to. But I still face the same triggers again and again and know that only by being aware of the pain and discomfort that comes with them will I be able to rise against the shadow monster in my mind.

Here’s an example, maybe you can relate:

This last week I had a nursing clinical to attend based on a varying schedule. On the day of the clinical I looked at the schedule twice, but somehow managed to misread it twice, and thus retained incorrect information about where I was supposed to be and when.  I’ve prided myself on the fact that so far in this program, barring ice storms with resulting standstill traffic, I haven’t been late or missed any school or clinical events.

On this particular clinical day I made my way to my afternoon session only to find that I was 45 minutes late – and all the while I had thought I was 15 minutes early.  I made a quick explanation to my preceptor, who I don’t think was particularly thrilled with me….and the self-judgment commenced.

For the next hour and a half I struggled against the lies and self-deprecating thoughts that came flooding down my brain’s pipeline:  “Julie, how could you be so stupid; Julie only horrible people are late for clinicals (this is a stupid thought from the start because I don’t generally judge other people for being late to clinicals); Julie, you’ve just defined your character to your preceptor – you’re irresponsible, have substandard morals, and possess poor character.”

It’s totally like the “devil on one shoulder and angel on the other” image.  My brain projects an untruth out in front of me, and the little bit of me that is learning to discern my true-self musters up the courage to refute those accusing comments.  And it really seems like a battle…I have to force those signals in my brain to go off-road from their traditionally laid paths and forge new connections that are based in new beliefs.  I can almost feel my brain heating up in exertion when I do this.  Anyone feeling me here?  Know that I”m talking about?

The good news is, this struggle is getting easier over time.  If the above scenario had happened to me a couple of years ago, I would have shamed myself for the next three days before finally feeling some relief.  But that particular day I was able to let go of my self-judgment after only two hours, accepting that I had made a mistake but that it offered no real reflection of my true character and intentions. I simply needed to apologize and make corrections for the future to try to make sure similar things don’t happen again.  And my preceptor – she may or may not have formed a poor opinion of me for the rest of my life, but that’s really out of my control.

For the population of we people who are cruel and harsh with ourselves…it’s because we’ve never learned to question our thoughts. We think we ARE OUR THOUGHTS.  But there is a real YOU, and a real ME, that reside beneath our thoughts, separate from them.  Our thoughts are simply streams of consciousness that pass through our minds, random lava flows of miscellany from all the stored up memories, knowledge, and experiences bound up in synapses.  And all of those stored bits and pieces are there in particular forms because of how we perceive the outside world and what happens to us – they aren’t definitive truth and reality.

Back to Jesus and judging…the end of his statement is “lest you be judged.” I really don’t think here that he means God will judge you. And I don’t necessarily think he means that you will be judged based on a one to one ratio for every time you judge.  I really think it’s all about attitude and perspective on life. Even though it may sound a bit woo-wooey, I believe on some level we manifest stuff in our lives.  Or maybe, as a different way to frame it, we unconsciously seek out those things that align with the way we understand the world.

For example, if we believe the universe to be stingy and stacked against us, we will project that onto everything we come across and thus truly experience it as stingy and mean.  But, if we perceive life to be one of abundance and the universe as good, then we will see those qualities in everything we encounter.  The same is true in our interactions with people: if we view ourselves or others through a lens of judgment, we will see whatever comes to us through that same judgment lens.  So ultimately, Jesus isn’t just giving us another injunction to govern our external behavior. He is trying to teach us that how we see the world and approach the world is how we will perceive the world is treating us.

So, if you’re anything like me…if you berate yourself regularly, if you are harder on yourself than any other person has ever been with you, if all you can see are your mistakes and not your wins…you need to commence with some hard questioning of all that comes down the thought pipeline that you grab onto without thinking. A huge help to me with this has been The Work of Byron Katie. This systematic inquiry practice has shown me that if you relentlessly question everything that happens to you, it is easier to see what is really true and what is just the story we believe about ourselves and the world around us.

 

 

 

 

It’s Actually An Interesting Process to Donate Your Body to Medical Science

cadaver
Photo Credit: Shannon Carabajal 

Disclosure: For those who avoid morbid light-heartedness and sarcasm, perhaps you won’t enjoy this post.

Over the last year and a half, since getting divorced, I’ve been getting my  “affairs” in order.  I don’t plan on kicking the bucket any time soon, but in case I do, I want things to be in place for my boys.  So, I’ve designated a power of attorney, set up an estate trust, gotten ample life insurance, and set up a living will and advanced directives…you know, adulting kind of stuff.

Having gone to about a billion funerals in my life, and helping plan a few, I realize how expensive and stressful funerals can be. Even the cheapest, absolute bare bones funeral home services and coffin package costs several thousand dollars.  Even cremation comes with a noticeable price tag.

In many areas of my life, I’m pretty frivolous and excessive.  But when it comes to me dying, I have always aimed to be as practical as possible.  Salvage what you can for those needing transplants, and let medical students hack away on the rest of me. Morbid as it may sound, I’ve just never been keen on being stuck in a box in the ground or set in an urn on a fireplace mantel somewhere.

I made my wishes clear to my power of attorney in the unforeseen event of my demise and may have daydreamed a tiny bit of how my earthly self might help further the causes of medical research.  That is until I talked with a local hospital marketing employee who told me that in Indiana, it’s actually sometimes more difficult than you would think to bequeath your freshly dead self to science.  I was really disappointed, both regarding my fantasies of my altruistic sacrifice, but also because my plans to make things super easy on my kids and family when I die shriveled up before my eyes.   Just to be on the safe side, I decided to look into the process, and here are a few random but interesting facts I stumbled across on The Google.

  1. You have to apply to donate your body, and…you might be rejected.  In general, having things like cancer, arthritis, or dementia won’t exclude your bodily donation from being accepted.  However, if you have a communicable disease, hepatitis, HIV, are taller than six feet, or weigh more than about 200 pounds, your chances of being selected to grace the cadaver table of a med school gross anatomy lab are slim to none.  Apparently, the embalming process adds another 100 to 150 pounds of weight to a corpse, making them wieldy to handle.
  2. Who would have thought that airline mergers would have any bearing on gifting yourself to a research institution? But it does. According to US Funerals Online, the changes in major airline companies have made getting donations to where they need to go more costly and cumbersome. If you’re concerned about the transportation industry ruining your post-mortem travel plans, consider pre-registering with a for-profit cadaver company to donate your body so you’ll know ahead of time what your options are.
  3. Donating your body to medical science isn’t free. In some places, like Indiana, where I live, there is a 24-hour phone line to call with inquiries about donating a recently deceased person. A quick phone screening by the Anatomical Education Program of Indiana University School of Medicine will determine eligibility for donation. If the family of the deceased requests it, the program will come pick up the body, use what it can, and cremate the remains.  If the family doesn’t want the ashes back 18-24 months later, there is a cemetery specifically designated as an eternal resting place for them..the ashes, not the family.  This is all done with no expense to the family.  However, it costs the School of Medicine significant funds to carry out this program.  But an added perk?  You can donate funds along with yourself when you die to ensure that the program will be able to afford to dissect you, for educational and medicinal purposes, of course.
  4. Supply of cadavers for research and medical school is low, even as many medical schools are moving away from using cadavers. In the past, it was legal to use unclaimed bodies as research cadavers. Perhaps you’ve even heard stories of grave robbers and body snatchers. Here’s an interesting bit of history and social injustice surrounding that. Now, in states like New York, years old traditions have been upended by new laws requiring explicit consent by family to use a body for research.
  5. Body farms – enough said.  A few years ago I started reading Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by science writer Mary Roach. In one chapter she described exploring an outdoor scene where corpses lay in various degrees of decay.  I had forgotten all about the detailed imagery in her book until reading articles for this blog about body farms.  This is the less glorious side of donating one’s body to science.  Rather than be sliced and incised by a fresh-faced doctor wanna-be, bodies are laid out on plots of land so forensics specialists can learn about how bodies decompose over time and when exposed to the elements.  However, the noble side of body farms is they can help provide justice for victims of abuse. Also, on a lighter note, if you get rejected as a body donation by a medical school, you might be welcomed at a body farm.
  6. You might not be accepted as both an organ donor AND a whole body donor. Organ donors are more common than whole-body donors, and it seems more culturally accepted here in the United States.  But many places, like the Mayo Clinic, won’t accept a body for donation after organs have already been removed for other purposes.  So, another reason to plan ahead of time which rite of passage is most important to you?- transplants or research.
  7.  There are alternatives to traditional funerals and cremation through funeral homes. Apparently, there is a trend called “green burials“, which is legal in all 50 states, where one can be allowed to decompose naturally without the use of embalming chemicals like the carcinogenic formaldehyde.  There are 30 or so specific “green burial” cemeteries across the United States.  And unbeknownst to me, you can still be buried in your backyard on private land as long as proper protocols and rules are followed.  This sort of necessitates pre-registration as well to ensure all the necessary paperwork is filed before you die.  Finally, only seven states require that a funeral director presides over the comings and goings of a person who has died. In all the other states, body preparation and services can all be performed at home.   Kind of like a home birth…but the other direction.

In reading up for this post I found quite a number of humorous articles related to body donations, as well as sites of companies that ironically make money off of body donations by taking them and piecemealing body parts out to needy institutions.  But the overall lesson? Body donation is not always a firm guarantee, so deciding on a backup plan for your body’s final destination is a good idea.

As a last side note, consider setting up an advanced directive for how medical care should be organized in the event you can’t make decisions for yourself.  It’s not difficult, it sure helps healthcare professionals and your loved ones when hard, emotional choices are required, and it’s a good way to maintain your self-agency in death instead of letting the courts have authority over who makes decisions concerning you and your care.

 

 

Subluxations and Where the Light Gets In

 

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Photo credit: Bipin Gupta

 

I used to think that chiropractors were quacks – until I visited a chiropractor who specialized in prenatal care, when I was 10 months pregnant with my third son and miserable with back pain. Not only did she relieve much of my discomfort by ever so carefully realigning my spine and hips, but I went into labor within 24 hours. By that point of my pregnancy, I was DONE, and very grateful.

Fast forward several years. I was doing alot of running, and at some point developed a sharp burning pain along the IT band of my left leg.  It would start hurting after only walking a few blocks, and so I let my running regimen fall to the wayside. No amount of noodle rolling, stretching, massage, or rest would keep the pain away.  I decided at one point to go visit a local specialized chiropractor who emphasized more than just adjustment – she was into holistic care – nutrition, lifestyle, all of it.  During my first visit she took X-rays of my back to find out where kinks were. Meanwhile, she explained that we usually come to the chiropractor for help when we are experiencing physical pain.  However, this is a later stage in our injuries.  Nerves that supply our muscles also supply our organs, and the same pinched nerves that cause noticeable pain also cause impairment in organ function. Furthermore, pain in the body that seems unrelated to our backs might actually be directly related.

This, as it turned out, was true in my case.  As I visited her regularly over several months, she would make gradual adjustments and apply traction to reverse the multiple kinks in my back. Lo and behold, my relentless leg pain went away and has never returned, even after I started running again.  Moral of the story?  I’m now a fan of quality chiropractic care.

This week Rob Bell interviewed a holistic chiropractor that he had met on tour, and they discussed the philosophy and history behind chiropractic.  It was a really good podcast…you can listen to it here. Early on, Dr. Beuerlein talked about the root meaning of the word subluxation, the term used to describe structural displacements within the spine. “Sub” means less than, below, or beneath.  “Lux” means light or illumination.  So, put together, subluxation means “not enough illumination” or “not enough light”.  Or, you could say it this way – there’s not enough energy getting through. Restoration of proper electrical conductance (or energy flow) through the nerves requires gentle manipulation of the injured places on the spine. Kinks must be straightened and the skeletal components must be positioned into correct symmetry for ideal nerve signal transmission once again.  Taking a pill won’t help.  The specific injury needs to be addressed in order to regain full original function.

Of course, when I heard this, my mind insta-beamed to Rumi. Love me some Rumi.  One quote attributed to him is as follows: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” I started chewing on both of these ideas in my mind, considering how this physical idea of subluxations is also analogous to places we get “stuck” emotionally and spiritually.

Our backs acquire subluxations from physical traumas – sometimes from big massives ones, and sometimes through small, reoccurring ones. The same is true for our psychological selves. Emotional traumas can cause kinks within our minds and hearts. They cause tangles of fear and beliefs that block love and life energy from being able to pass. As a result, we become disabled – handicapped in our ability to move through life with ease and freedom.  If we don’t address these kinks, we are more likely to grow bitter, resentful, and hateful towards life and those around us.

When we have injuries, physically or emotionally, we usually want people to leave our pain well enough alone.  Don’t touch it. You’ll make it worse.  And so we nurse our pain, and pull in tighter to ourselves, guarding our wounds.  The problem is, this guarding and pulling inwards only restricts energy flow more. We become more contracted and our pain increases.

Pain is actually a gift to us, even though we prefer to avoid it at all costs.  It shows us where we are hurt and the places of our lives that desperately need to be addressed. It reveals the kinks that keep our life energy blocked and hinder us from being who we are meant to be.

The trick to dealing with pain in life is to go straight to the subluxations, the source of pain. Attempting to fix my hurting leg where it actually hurt didn’t yield any progress.  My pain only dissolved when its root cause was addressed. It is the same with emotional pain. We can treat symptoms out on the periphery all that we want, but this won’t bring long-term results.  Light and life energy can only get in at the site of injury.  And this requires that we stop contracting ourselves, admit and accept that we are injured, and work with that injury so that it can be healed.

One more quote from Rumi:

“Don’t get lost in your pain; know that one day your pain will be your cure.”

 

Life and Death are Programmed Within: A Brief Reflection on Telomeres and Interdepedence

A few years ago, after just moving to the Boston area, I discovered that the Dalai Lama was going to speak downtown at TD Garden.  I wasn’t very familiar with the city yet or how to get around, but I hopped on a train anyway and made my way up to see him.  Until that time, I had read bits and pieces of his writings and listened to a few short YouTube videos that featured him being interviewed or teaching.

The stadium was packed when I arrived, drawing in crowds from all different backgrounds.  The funny thing is, I hardly remember a thing about what he actually said.  But what I do remember is that he basically made the throngs of people melt.  We sat still and quiet, hanging on to every word that he said, and giggling every time he laughed or made a joke. We didn’t just hear a talk by an amazing religious and political leader; we felt the presence of someone who was joyful, and compassionate and seemed to know something that most of the rest of us didn’t.

I fell in love with the Dalai Lama that day. He’s very high on my “People I desperately want to meet but there is very little chance of that happening in this life, gosh darn it!” bucket list.

I own several books written by the Dalai Lama, and was very excited to read The Book Of Joy, which records conversations between the Dalai Lama and his good friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, about what it means to live a joyful life.

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In one particular chapter, the Dalai Lama and Tutu discussed death and how we need to learn to face our own mortality, and the fact that things in life constantly change and cease to exist.  Here’s a short excerpt that caught my attention:

“In fact, as the Buddha reminds us, the very causes that have given rise to something, such as our life, have created the mechanism, or the seed, for that thing’s eventual end. Recognizing this truth is an important part of the contemplation on impermanence.” (p.165)

When I read this sentence, my mind immediately flew to cellular activity and little bits of DNA sequences called telomeres. When I think of telomeres, I envision health status or life remaining gauges that are common in video games.   Telomeres are short nucleotide sequences that “cap” the end of chromosomes in our cells to help keep them from effectively fraying or fusing with nearby chromosomes.  Another analogy here would be to think of those little plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces that hold the threads together to prevent splaying.

 

telomere
Chromosome highlighting telomere sequence

 

Telomeres can be lengthened with a special enzyme called telomerase, which is present during development in fetal tissue or in adult germ cells (think sperm and egg cells), or cancer cells. It is an important component of the “life-giving” cells, the ones that will reproduce and differentiate into new tissues.  In other normal adult cells, telomerase activity is diminished, meaning that telomeres will inevitably erode every time cells divide.  Ultimately then, each time a cell divides, it ages just a bit more.

Eventually, as a telomere shortens after repeated rounds of cell division, it reaches a critical length. This critical length affects a cell’s ability to divide and reproduce.  Certain tissues in our bodies “age” more quickly because of lots of cell division, like our skin and hair.

While telomere length is negatively correlated to aging (as length decreases, aging factors show increased appearance), shortened telomeres are not necessarily the primary cause of aging.  However, studies have shown that individuals with shortened telomeres have increased risk of things like heart disease or infectious disease. If you’re interested in reading a review of the subject, click here.

What I find intriguing about telomeres is how an old Buddhist saying reflects some biological truth.  A telomere is a seed or mechanism that is crucially involved in both life, and death.  Something that is needed for our development and growth (life processes) also inherently seems to program our length of life to some degree. Sure, we may be able to alter the timeframe a bit with lifestyle choices and staying away from copious amounts of radiation and things like that, but as of right now, we get what we get in regard to telomere length.  In other words, our death isn’t something that just “happens” to us because of external causes.  Death is inextricably part of the same processes that bring us life.

This all brings us back to the Dalai Lama and his reminder that all things that come into existence will end, and this is because everything is interdependent.  Nothing exists independently.

We, as Westerners, are often terrified by our mortality, and we do whatever we can to avoid it. But I think we can learn much about what it means to be human by understanding that nothing stays the same forever, and that the dying process is just as natural as living.  The key then, I think, is to learn how to go through both processes with meaning and joy.