Life Behind These Bars

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.
~ Lewis Smede

A few weeks ago, my father-in-law had a heart attack. A piece of plaque that had plastered itself against his heart became dislodged and blocked the free flow of blood to his body. He felt uncomfortable, his chest constricted, he became short of breath. Thankfully, he noticed what was happening, sought treatment, and was saved. It could have been worse.

Much worse.

This is a man with no previous risk factors, and his condition was a surprise to anyone who found out. But for most people who face this in their life, there are red flags, whether they pay attention to them or not. And as with everything, change is possible. Tragedy is avoidable.

Many years ago, someone in my life hurt me. You know what I'm talking about. It's happened to you, too. Right when I said that, it's the first person you thought of in your own life that hurt you. That one situation you just cannot let go of, no matter how much you think you have, or how much you try.

It just sits there.

For me, this thing that they did has been sitting inside my heart, like a little stone, around which the entire rest of my body has learned to function. And since then, all of the joy that I have felt with that person still flows through my body, but always passes by that little hard spot, nudging it gently, reminding me of what they did to me. So that all of my happiness with them is tainted just a teeny bit by that one hurt.

There are warning signs.
The occasional smart remark I slip into the conversation.
The opportunistic jab at them.
The odd irrational outburst.
Risk factors.
Red flags.

This thing they did to me is like that little plaque that glued itself to my father-in-law's artery. And every time I pretend not to notice what is happening, my heart constricts, I am short of breath, and it continues to block the free flow of love through my body. And I bring myself this much closer to a potential tragedy. To my heart closing down a little bit more.

My anger at this person is like a cage. And I foolishly look through the bars of this cage and think that I am free and everyone else is caged in. But it's me who is locked inside of it.

I am the prisoner.

But, in this prison of my own making, I am also the warden. I hold the key. And I can decide to open the door and let myself out at any time. But I haven't made that choice.

What I've chosen is to imprison everyone else in my anger. To look at the world and live my life from behind these bars. To let that little stone sit there. To let every good thing flow past that little plaque in my heart. To harden up. To let my heart close up a little more every day. Every day I choose to hold on, I do an injustice to our bond.

We all do this. We carry around a hurt in our heart and we lock ourselves inside of it. We let a wrong attach itself to us and decide our fate. We let it harden us just a little bit. We ignore the red flags. We do not change. And for every day that we decide not to make a change, we walk a few steps closer to tragedy.

And it's not just that one hurt. We do it with all our hurts. With all our wrongs. And they stack up inside of our heart, and slowly, we close up. And this affects how we are. It affects who we are.

For me, it has tainted my perception of the world. It has affected the bond between myself and that person. It has affected the bond between myself and other people.

But most of all, it has affected the bond between myself and my self.

So today, I am going to stop ignoring the red flags. I am deciding to make a change.

Today, I am making the choice to walk the path of forgiveness.
To dislodge this little plaque on my own, before it can do me any more harm.
I am unlocking this cage and setting this prisoner free.

I am going to free me from me.

Think of one situation in which you were hurt. Can you make the choice to set yourself free from it? 

The Silence of Madame

Do not speak unless it improves on silence.
~ Buddha

I am a woman of words.

Which means I know how to use them well - to heal - and I know how to use them poorly - to hurt. And I do both.

But for a long time now, I have been wanting to be in silence. I guess, since words are so important to me, it seemed apt that I would want to take a vow of silence to explore wordlessness. Every year, as I transfer my life's to-do list to a new page, I have kept this 10-day silent meditation retreat on the list. I've never known why I have wanted to do it, but I've always known that I have wanted to do it. This year, instead of waiting to get it together and sign up for the retreat, I thought maybe even just one day of silence could work. And maybe after one day, I could try two, and then three, and who knows... maybe one day make it out to that retreat for ten.

So when the new year rolled around and I was writing down the things I hoped to undertake this year, I kept Silence on the list. And one day last month, I decided January 31st would be my first attempt at a day of silence. So much happened in the two weeks prior to my Silent Day that I almost thought I wouldn't go through with it. But it seemed apt that in all the fuss, I would take this time to be in silence with myself.

I looked at it as an opportunity to reflect on the past month; to realign myself with my goals for the next month; to take some time away from the everyday bombardment of communication; and to hopefully learn something.

The night before the big day, I wrote myself a little note that said "Today, I am in silence." and carried that little piece of paper in my pocket throughout the day.

I can't say being in silence was hard, but it was different. For one, people still tried to communicate with me, which made it a bit frustrating since I couldn't communicate back. And within the first few hours, I began wondering why I was doing this. Somehow, I felt I was missing the point.

But then, in the afternoon, as someone was speaking to me and I was listening, they said something incorrect. I wanted to correct them, but not being able to talk, I couldn't. The conversation went on without a hitch, and that's when it dawned on me:

It didn't matter if I corrected them. It didn't matter if I had the right answer. In the grand scheme of inconsequential things, what I said or didn't say right then didn't actually matter. And I realized that most of the things we think we need to say - we don't.

But more importantly, most of the things that actually matter, we never even say.

And worse yet are the meaningful things left unsaid that we can no longer say.

Further into the day, I found myself noticing the sarcastic remarks I might have said but that remained muted on my tongue, and realized that it was better to not have said anything at all.

Benjamin Franklin said: "Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment."

I sure hadn't been doing that in my life.

There is a French saying along the same lines that goes: "tourner sept fois la langue dans la bouche," which translates to "turn your tongue seven times in your mouth before speaking." 

What I found was that in my life, I wasn't turning my tongue even once. I was giving in to temptation and saying anything that came to mind - sometimes even things I didn't really want or need to say. I wasn't thinking before I spoke - I was just reacting. I realized that there have been a lot of words I wish I had never said, and so many more I wish I had.

And I think that's an affliction most of us face. We just say what comes to us. We say things that don't matter. We say things we wish we could take back. We even make it a point to say things we know we shouldn't. We don't think before we speak.

And we also don't focus our energy on saying the things that do matter, the things that make a difference, the things that lift us and others up.

And who knows when we won't be able to say those things any longer.

In my life, I don't want to regret the things I said or the things I didn't say. But I want to be aware of both before I decide. And so I realized that I would like to cultivate silence in my life, and take a moment before I speak. 

I cut short my day of silence in the evening. I felt I had learned what I needed to for that day. And after it was done, I wanted to make sure that when I spoke again, I would be improving on the silence.

And so for the rest of the night, I didn't have much to say.

Can you hold your tongue at a tempting moment? 
Let me know how you felt afterwards.

Awakening Joy

The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.
~ James Openheim

At one time in my life, when I was working really hard at changing my perspective, I decided to write a journal. This was not an ordinary Dear Diary type of journal. I decided that before I went to bed every night, I would write down a minimum of five things that made me happy that day.

Let me tell you, it was hard at the beginning. When I started off this project, I would sit in my bed and have to painfully eke out good things from my day. It was like pulling teeth, and at the beginning, I dreaded it.

But then a strange thing happened. Slowly, when good things happened throughout my day, I started paying attention to them. I started thinking, "Oh, maybe I could add this to my list. And this." And soon, I started noticing so many good things that I had to write them down during the day so I wouldn't forget all of them.

It was amazing.
I had actually managed to shift my perspective.

Suddenly, even the littlest things started being noteworthy. The crisp breath of fresh air when I stepped outside. The guy who let me merge into the lane. The woman holding the door for me. A smile. A conversation. My mother's lap. My father's laugh. I was inundated with goodness. Everything was a blessing. It was so wonderful. Life was so beautiful. I was soaked in joy.

After the year was over, I kept my journal. But I didn't start a new one. It had fulfilled its purpose. I had found gratitude and appreciation for everything, and I even managed to maintain this feeling of thankfulness long into the coming years.

A few years later, I did the exercise again, when I felt I needed it in my life. It was wonderful again to find the good things in my day. Even on the bad days, I would force myself to see how much I had in my life that others didn't. Even if I had to write down things like "good food" or "warm blanket", it just made me realize how much I had. And once again, I managed to shift my perspective toward joy.

Things changed over the years, and I admit now that my gratitude has waned. But since this year is my year - the end of my trying 7 years - I was so happy when my sister suggested we take a course called "Awakening Joy".

I needed it.

The first session of the course began this week, and one thing it suggested was that we start noticing the joyful moments in our life and spend even just five seconds soaking it in when it happens.

Let me tell you: it's not easy. When you've programmed yourself to have a general negative sentiment override, you forget how to notice the good things. You forget how to appreciate them. You even forget (sometimes) that they exist. You forget what true joy actually feels like. But I guess that's the shift. That's why I wrote those journals years ago. And that's why I am trying to shift my perspective once more.

I have spent enough time focusing on the negative. The blur that I sometimes feel my true self is stuck in is fading and I am getting back into focus. And like when I started my journal long ago, I am ready to reawaken my joy.

And I think it will be as simple as that. Deciding to do it.

Because when we put our genuine intention out into the world, we get what we need. It may not be in the form we hoped or expected, but it comes. And we have to notice it right when it happens, and then revel in it.

So I am done seeing happiness as a goal that exists somewhere in the distance. Instead, I am going to plant its seed under my feet.

And I know that I will grow.

Can you name one thing that made you happy today?