the original kStyle blog.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Becoming a Transformer (Warning: Infinite Navel-Gazing Ahead)

One of my aspirations is to become a transformer. There are those people who can truly help others transform their difficulties, sorrows, anger. Thich Nhat Hanh is the obvious example for me.

It's so easy to absorb rather than transform. When a friend tells you about her bad day and then you feel weighted down--absorption. That's how I've spent most of my life so far, absorbing. I think I was taught, not overtly, that this is the proper and compassionate response. But really, absorption just adds more "icky" to the world and doesn't help the first person feel any better. And I've noticed that champion absorbers become very tired and burnt out and then can't even listen to their friends or family. I've been there. I've been a sponge.

I've learned not to absorb, mostly, and I'm so grateful for that. I learned that as part of my shiatsu training. One day in my first semester I told my teacher that I developed the symptoms of my shiatsu recipient, but the recipient felt better after the treatment. My teacher--I will always love her for this--told me that we should not have porous energy that lets in the pathologies. We shouldn't be sponges! I'd never heard that before, not really. So I began making myself solid, and finding I could help others better when I don't take on their stuff.

Then, through the teachings of Thich Hhat Hanh and other great Buddhists, I've been learning not only not to absorb, but to transform the negative emotion. Watering positive seeds in myself and others. Sitting with hurting people and listening without judgment. And this really works, even in my barely-developed capacity to practice. The first step, of course, is to do it for myself. For myself and for the good of others! What a concept for someone raised Catholic.

Since returning from the retreat, I've been trying to find ways to water positive seeds. My grandma was complaining that all the "old people" in her assisted living community talk too much to her and ask her whenever they need help. Why do they ask me? Why do they talk to me so much? My former response choices would have been: 1. agree but later roll my eyes about how Grandma is such a complainer; 2. sympathize and possibly feel irritated along with Grandma; 3. ask follow-up questions that reinforced Grandma's negativity and feeling of victimization. Instead, I breathed in and out, smiled, thought for a moment, and replied, "Grandma, it's because you have a such a friendly face and a nice personality." And I could see it--her perspective changed, she smiled and looked more relaxed, dropping the subject. It was no longer that they were taking advantage--it was a compliment!

Over the weekend, my mother was stressed out (and resentful) because she had to plan Grandpa's birthday party at last-minute. I'm familiar with many of the storylines that run through her head: I'm the child who does all the work and is never appreciated, I hold the family together, my parents manipulate me. So after the party, at which Mom was in an anxious and irritable state but putting on the tight smile, I wondered how to approach her. Usually I end up reinforcing her storylines, which makes no one happy; or retreating from the unpleasantness and leaving Mom hanging, feeling badly. I didn't want to do either. I said lightly, "Mom, you did a great job pulling together that party at the last minute. Everyone seemed relaxed and I think everyone had a good time." That night she was still crabby (but not directed at us; directed inward, but I can still feel it!). Then, a few days later, she called and thanked me for saying that! She said it made her feel so much better! It was wild, and such a nice thing for me to hear--I felt good, too.

Oh, and at the party, Grandpa couldn't finish the clams he'd ordered. He first announced generally that we should all eat some clams. No one wanted any. Then he called each of us until he got our individual attention (interrupting conversations etc) and offered the poor clams. Everyone said no. But he wouldn't let it drop. I could feel irritation rising. I could see that Grandpa was for some reason anxious about leaving all the clams and he almost couldn't let it drop. So I said, "Sure, Grandpa, I'll take a clam. Thank you." I put it in my mouth, Grandpa relaxed and moved on with life, my stomach said, "Don't you DARE swallow that thing," and I discreetly returned the gritty clam to its shell. (Note to restaurant: You're supposed to clean the steamers. CLEEEAAAAN them.) In the past, I never would have thought to make this ceremonial gesture, but I was glad it came to me. I was the Sacrificial Clam that night, but we all won in the end.

The Buddha is the great physician and his teachings are the great medicine, they say. I'll agree with them.

And yes, there are weird family dynamics on my mom's side.


Blogger Narya said...

Though I suspect it hasn't been in much evidence in my own blog lately, I do know exactly what you mean. Sometimes I think it comes down to figuring out what someone is really saying, and responding to that. (With my own mother, often it's fear--that I don't love her, that my life is too strange for her to understand, that Something Bad will happen.) Regardless of whether that happens, being able to listen, and hear, and neither judge nor absorb is truly wonderful. And, btw, you provide that to me, and I appreciate it.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Narya said...

Incidentally, all families have dynamics, and they're all weird, in my experience. Though I'd say there's a difference between the dynamics that occur when unhealthy-ish meets another (form of) unhealthy-ish and when unhealthy-ish (or healthy-ish) meets (another form of) healthy-ish.

6:35 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Thanks for your kind words. :) You do the same for me.

I agree, it has to do with hearing what's behind the words, and sometimes also with subtly and skillfully helping the person to reframe the situation.

Excellent point about family dynamics. Food for thought.

An ancient story on my Mom's side: my grandparents' history of alcoholism, with alcohol’s sneaky friend Denial muffling the demons Fear and Anger. The muffling makes the demons more clingy, transforming them into pervasive Anxiety and Irritation, who bring along their lumpy friend Guilt. These guys stick around for generations, even when the alcohol itself has left. I feel that Fear and Anger, terrible and wrathful though they are, are almost easier to clear out than this trio of middle-managers.

Still, this does not really solve the mystery of anxiety over uneaten clams.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Narya said...

Could it be that he felt as though he was being wasteful by not eating them? Was he trying to share something--other than clams? Did he just want attention of some kind?

I think Fear and Anger show up everywhere, alcohol or not. Denial is a particular friend of addiction. Guilt I know less about. I think it's a difficult one, because the line between Guilt and Responsibility is probably grey.

4:29 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

I think you're right--it was the fear of waste.

Guilt and Responsibility--unless I'm misunderstanding what you mean by Responsibility--are very different. Guilt is, at least when I've seen it, a longstanding neurosis which begins with the presupposition that you are inherently bad/unworthy and then all events reinforce that idea.

But don't I sound negative! I think we have to recognize these things, though, or Denial wins.

10:41 PM  
Blogger Narya said...

I don't think you sound negative at all! Guilt is, perhaps, centered around a notion of unworthiness. I think people should take responsibility for their actions (behaviors, feelings, thoughts, whatever), and make amends when they screw up, which they will do; some people think that includes Feeling Guilty, which seems to me to be a whole 'nother level of things.

I think the Fine Line comes in because one can either say, "We all make mistakes, I just made one, la-la-la, whatever, I'm just human" or "We all make mistakes, I just made one, and let me fix this or apologize for this," or "I just made ANOTHER mistake, because I'm so worthless." or something. I don't know the "guilt" soundtrack very well. And another fine line is figuring out which part we're actually responsible for doing/fixing.

10:36 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

I like what you say. Do you ever watch "My Name Is Earl"? Great show.

I was just reading Chapter 2 of "A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life" by Santideva, a classic of Tibetan Buddhism. I was struggling with this chapter, as it brought back all my "I'm an inherently bad person" Catholic Original Sin crap, guilt guilt guilt. But then I read the excellent commentary by Pema Chodron, a Western nun. She commented that we need to make a distinction for the Western audience that is understood in the Tibetan world. This "sin" Santideva speaks of is, in Buddhism, a clouding over of our own inherently good nature. We clear away our "neurotic crimes", as another translator put it, to shine our true selves. In Christianity--ergo, in much of the Western world--sin is a reinforcement that we are inherently bad and need an external salvation. I was raised that way--what a relief to hear otherwise!

You are lucky to be spared guilt.

6:24 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

PS Forgot an important detail--Chapter 2 was on The Confession of Sin. All its language could have been Christian, except that the context is different!

6:25 PM  

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