Since last night, I’ve been grappling with yet another troubling situation and trying to sit with my own worry and suffering. We are experiencing a heat wave here. My children are spending the week with their father, as they do during the summer every other week. He lives with his parents and the living conditions are less than optimal. In addition to many of the challenges the children tell me they encounter there, I learned yesterday from Caroline (6 years old) that there is not only no air conditioning in the house, but that there is also only one fan. The children usually sleep in bedrooms on the second floor, but because those rooms are too hot, they are sleeping on the floor and on a couch in the family room with a single fan.
When I heard this, I truthfully was not surprised, but given the severity of this heat wave, I responded like any mama bear would. In my head I was saying things like, Are you freaking kidding me? Can’t you people spend a couple of hundred dollars and get at least one window unit? How can you subject small children to such an unhealthy and uncomfortable environment? Don’t you care? You don’t deserve to have these children in your custody for any amount of time. You’re clueless and this is unacceptable. I need to save them from this reality.
After I allowed these screaming thoughts to stream through my consciousness, I had to regroup and begin practicing what I’m learning. I had to return to center and look at myself as well as my attachment to my children’s reality, which I cannot control right now. So I started asking myself these questions: Where do I feel the tension in my body? Why is this familiar/Who does this remind me of? And where have I felt like this before?
First, as with most of my anxiety, I felt this recent bout in my chest and my head. I felt constricted and agitated. Second and third, I was reminded of my own childhood when we never had air conditioning. We lived in an old house without window units, let alone central air, and we used fans even when it was 95 degrees. My room was always sweltering, and I remember being unable to get comfortable in my bed and sleep came only sporadically. I also remember visiting my grandparents in Florida. They did have central air, but they usually kept the temperature at some crazy high point, like 78 degrees. There, too, I remember never being able to get comfortable enough to sleep. I still recall trying to find a restful position on a little twin bed in the guest room. I usually ended up shifting my body so my head was at the foot of the bed and that much closer to the vent in the wall.
The point of this exercise is that when we experience anxiety, especially when triggered by another’s behavior or suffering, we need to examine ourselves. It’s too easy to simply say, Well, I’m upset because they are upset. I’m angry because the situation is unfair. I’m angry on my children’s behalf. Of course I’m furious; the children are being mistreated. This has nothing to do with me; it’s all about “them.” If it wasn’t for those people, I’d be fine.
But of course, if we’re experiencing pain or anxiety, even in response to another, it’s almost always about us. In contrast, when we are feeling full and peaceful and capable, someone else’s trauma or behavior simply doesn’t trigger us. Or, if we do feel the pang of anger or anxiety, it is tempered by our own self-awareness and ability to consciously detach from the person or situation.
And here is the final point. When we do the work to examine these feelings and discover the roles we play in our own pain, we then can begin to heal ourselves and ultimately detach from the exterior trigger. In this case, I acknowledge that my response to my children living in a hot house was triggered by my own memories of discomfort and unrest, as well as my inability to control their living conditions and hold their father accountable.
But then you might say, Well, what about the children? Our consciousness of our own stuff doesn’t negate the reality of the children’s suffering. And here I would say, No, it doesn’t. But I cannot help them from a place of anger and enmeshment. Like every other situation they face with their father, they are on their own journey. They are separate from me just like their father and grandparents are separate from me. I cannot control any of this. Do I want it to be different? Of course. But I believe there is another way to respond so I can better affect change.
This is how I am choosing to respond right now. As Terri Cole remarked to Danielle LaPorte on her podcast recently, “Practice radical acceptance [in order] to obtain spaciousness and freedom.” Similarly, as Dr. Kim d’Ermo asked on one of her recent You Tube shows, “What do need to let go of to move into freedom and effortlessness?”
The changes I wish to make and see in my children’s lives will not happen through resistance, anger, and fighting. They will only evolve when I first accept things as they are and then detach myself from the discomfort and suffering so that I can freely and effortlessly move to help them in any way I can. I need to step out of the fight so I am well enough and conscious enough to be of use and comfort to them.
At first, this might simply mean that I maintain a home that is cool and beautiful and healthy so that when they are living with me they are comfortable and happy. At some point, this might also mean that I am able to affect change by modifying our custody. Unattached to the outcome of my efforts, I calmly present to the court the less-than-adequate living conditions the children are exposed to when they are with their father.
This one thing is certain, though. If I simmer in anger and frustration, enmesh myself with my children’s suffering, and try fight my way, flailing and screaming, towards change, I will definitely fail. When we are anxious or angry or despairing, it is so easy to point the finger at others and blame. When we are worried about our children, these feelings are intensified and we understandably feel righteous in lashing out and blaming in an effort to save them.
I am comforted and affirmed, though, by what J. J. Virgin said recently: “Don’t wish [the situation] was easier; make yourself stronger.” Whatever the struggle, it’s ultimately about us and how we show up. We can complain about the challenges at hand and how unfair life it, but where does that get us? Feeling victimized, helpless, and generally pissed off.
Instead, I am committed to using these struggles as invitations to not only look at myself, but also to get stronger in every way. I intend to gain clarity, as well as determine the best way to enlist my mind, body, and spirit in the challenges I face everyday.
Sisters, this is our calling—to be mindful, loving, and courageous. As we shine the light on our own consciousness, we radiate it on others. It is in the midst of this enlightened truth that we can truly affect change.