The Mindful Mean Girl

“Real beauty is in the inside.” We have been taught this since kindergarten and many of us would agree that it’s true. We try our best to remember this yet every now and then we just can’t help it: we analyze, we critique, we judge.

For example, I see a woman in shorts and a T-shirt. I make a snap judgement and label her as beautiful/not beautiful or whatever and then move on.  If the judgement I made was negative I sometimes feel guilty and then try to chase away those guilty feelings with thoughts like, “Why should I care? She is a stranger after all,” or, “No big deal. It’s not like I said that out loud. All that matters is that I’m nice in real life.” Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. If I still can’t shake the guilt I may go so far as to full-on repent like, “I know that was a mean. I’m sorry. For now on I’m going to stop judging people.”

Stop judging. Right. No matter how determined or sincere I am when I say it, I’m starting to realize that it cannot be done. My theory is that as humans we are constantly analyzing our surroundings as the primitive parts of our brains try to protect us from potential threats. The primitive brain has not gotten the memo that it’s the inside that really counts. It seems to me that the answer is not to deny that we judge each other but rather recognize it and use it as a reminder to come back to ourselves and think deeply.

Again, see the woman in shorts and a T-shirt. Why did that woman choose that outfit? Maybe that woman saw an advertisement for a similar outfit and she wanted to look like the model in the advertisement. Now that thought may lead us to think, “Well, wanting to look like a model is a little arrogant.”  Okay, sit with that thought for a moment. Wait for the next thought. Another possibility is that maybe she wanted to look like her friends. That makes our hearts soften a bit and we may think, “I do the same thing.” Then we look over at her friends or imagine what they may look like in our minds. That may cause us to think, “They have expensive stuff. Maybe they’re rich.” This may make our hearts harden again. We may then think, “Maybe they come from a privileged family and never had to work a day in their lives.” If we have negative thoughts that’s okay for now. If those thoughts cascade into negativity and become more and more mean and vicious so be it. It’s okay. You’re okay. Everyone is okay. Just let all those thoughts and feelings wash over. Let them float by without censoring them or criticizing.  Sit with them a bit. Think until the thoughts stop coming. Breathe. Feel the feelings. Wait.

I think that in doing this we can give the brain a chance to start putting pieces together. Instead of dismissing emotions when we feel them we can give ourselves the opportunity to actually feel. The brain will start to process.

By feeling and processing we may come to realize something about ourselves.  Something like, “The way she looks reminds me of this girl who bullied me at my first job,” or, “I remember struggling when I was in college and not being able to afford a similar colored shirt. I felt really bad.” Our negative thoughts may be tied to something in our past. We all have old wounds that are buried away and our primitive brain makes connections to things we see in the present to try to protect us. Now that we can identify this with our intellectual brain we can heal and better move on. It is healing to have compassion for ourselves and where we have been in our lives. Also, we may recognize, “Hey, this isn’t her crap, it’s my crap.” Which is fine. We all have crap. Gaining such insights help negative thoughts dissipate. The primitive brain can release the notion of thinking that person is a potential threat.

Now let’s look at that woman again. She certainly looks dressed up. That leads us to remember the times that we’ve dressed up. We felt happy and excited. Maybe this woman is dressing up because she wants to feel happy too. We can relate and understand.

When we gain that moment of being able to relate to this other person, then something happens: we can suddenly really see that other person.  We are able to realize that that person is not just another body but another human being. And in gaining that moment of understanding we cannot help but to feel caring for that person. Even though that person is a stranger. Because we realize that we all follow similar motivations and patterns and do the same things. In her we see our self.

When our inner mean girl creeps up and whispers something catty in our ears we can presume that she may be just trying to protect us. Let her have her piece and listen with mindful breathing and compassion. She may lead us to heal something in our past and learn something new. Let yourself heal and let go.  Be left with peace. Peace inside and out, for yourself and others.

Real Beauty is Modesty: Part 1

“For women, real beauty is modesty.” This statement is from a book I’m reading.

Hmm. Let’s think about this statement literally.

I think of people I’ve seen who are covered up.  In some Christian denominations, women wear long skirts.  Nuns wear habits, Amish people wear Amish clothing, and Muslim women wear long skirts, sleeves and headscarves.  Modern American women sometimes dress modestly too like wearing a sweater over jeans.

Women who are dressed modestly can certainly still look pretty. Jeans and sweaters can look nice. Some long skirts are colorful and gorgeous. There are ways to intricately tie a hair scarf so it looks just striking as the fanciest hairstyle. Nuns, Amish people, and others who are dressed plainly can still look beautiful since simple dress can really makes a naturally beautiful face stand out.

Now what about people who wear revealing clothing?

I see people walking around in dresses and skirts in various lengths.  I see women at the gym wearing shorts, t shirts and tank tops. Women wear bikinis at the beach. I think many of them look beautiful too.

Do I see people who are not beautiful? Sure.

Reveling does not always equal attractive. Some who are dressed in revealing clothes don’t look so great. Sometimes the style is not the most flattering to that person.  Sometimes I see a woman constantly pulling down their skirt or pulling up their shirt to cover her cleavage and she just looks very uncomfortable rather than attractive. Sometimes it’s freezing out and girls are shivering in short skirts.

And modestly dressed people have the same issues. Sometimes the style not so flattering. A woman may look uncomfortable, stressed out, sick or tired. Having negative feelings will register on our faces and then we do not look as beautiful.

Sometimes we can cover up skin issues or dark circles with makeup, try to dress a certain way, do our hair and force a smile on our faces so we can still try to look nice even when we are not feeling well on the inside. If one does not believe in wearing makeup or showing her hair she would not have the hair/makeup options. However, that type of person also saves on time and the stress of going through these cover-ups and can save her energy to work on whatever her real issues are at that time.

Neither modesty nor showing some skin can guarantee beauty. It seems to me that real beauty depends on being happy, healthy, confident, and at peace on the inside.

Let’s Talk About Donuts

I saw a show on PBS where kids were making necklaces. A little girl said, “I picked these beads because they look like donuts. I like them because I remember going to the donut shop with my dad.” I thought, “Me too!” As a child, I loved going to the donut shop with my dad.

When I was little, my sister, dad, and I went to this donut shop next to my Grandma’s house called Evergreen Donut.  We would pick one donut each and my dad would get coffee. It was family owned we played with the owner’s daughter who shared her Spirograph set with us.

That donut shop is still there to this day.  It’s under new ownership and the new owner’s daughter is about the same age as my two daughters.  Now it’s me taking my kids there and telling them to pick out whatever donut they want.  We all eat our donuts and I drink a coffee while my girls play with the owner’s little girl.

When I was a teenager I read an article that said donuts are the worst food you can eat.  It said, “The word ‘donut’ would make any nutritionist shudder.”  We all know that donuts have sugar, fat, and white flour. After reading that article, I did not touch a donut for years.  I tried to think of ways to make healthy donuts. Something golden, sweet and round with a hole in it but healthy.  Then I realized that’s already a thing-it’s called pineapple rings. Sigh.

I realize that these days there are all kinds of drama around food. Especially for women. People struggle with food addictions and poor nutritional habits. Plus there are food sensitivities, intolerances and allergies. The emotional attachment and relationship with food is what makes eating healthy hard sometimes. I imagined myself as a teenager, when I was most tortured by my food drama, making necklaces with those kids on T.V.

Teenage Allison: “These circular beads remind me of pineapple rings. And these square ones remind me of protein shakes. I don’t know why, but these red ones remind me I should go to the gym.”

Little girl: “The circle ones look more like donuts to me than pineapple.”

Teenage Allison: “Now this whole thing reminds me that I hate myself.”

It appears to me, when we say that a certain food is “bad,” especially when we had wholesome childhood memories of that food, then we reject a part of ourselves. This can be confusing and damaging.

Now I realize that donuts are not something to be feared. I think of Evergreen Donut where a nice family makes donuts fresh everyday with simple ingredients. Going to a donut shop once in a while can be a nice treat for families to do together.  If you go with mindfulness-thinking of your childhood, thinking of the nice family who made the donuts, thinking of being present there with your children as they make their own memories-then that donut will nourish you.

Let drama go and don’t be scared of anything. Not even donuts.

The Psychology of Cleaning

Some days, it is very hard to meditate.  My mind keeps thinking about this or that and I feel very irritated with everything and everyone.  When this is happening I realize it is not because of any one issue or person but it’s just my brain being irritated in general then running around from thought to thought trying to pin the cause onto something tangible.

During those times, what helps me is to start cleaning and bagging stuff up that I don’t need to take to Goodwill.  I believe that there is some truth in the expression, “A cluttered house is a cluttered mind.”  Our primitive brains may register piles of junk with anxiety.  Although our intellectual brains know that the pile of junk is not going to hurt us, the primitive brain cannot tell the difference between those piles of junk and piles of rocks that can topple over and kill us all. And that mound of laundry waiting to be put away?  Our primitive brain might be thinking that deadly insects could be hidden in the little crevices.  It will then releases stress chemicals until the laundry put away. The primitive brain is only trying to save us!

Working for the Benjamins

The life of a nursing assistant is sooooo hard!  OMG the poo! Poo to clean non-stop. Poo on the floor, on wheel chairs, in showers, in the bed, on patients and all over the sheets.  Poo: the stuff of nightmares. When an emergency occurred such as a patient pulling out one of the tubes or a patient falling in the shower and it seemed that things where their lowest and could not possibly get any worse, the patient would then poo as if to put a cherry on top of it all. Ask any nurse or nursing assistant why their work is stressful and I one-hundred-percent guarantee they will go on to tell you, often with a haunted look in their eyes and a low whisper, “I’ve seen….somethings. Some things only God Himself should know.” And then dive into a long ranting, speech similar to the one I just subjected you to, usually about poo.

Why do we do it? Why do we drag ourselves from our comfy beds to face the day? To face the poo (symbolic or actual)? For many of us, the answer is money.

On my very first day as a nursing assistant, the person training me, Assan, said, “Don’t worry about anything. If it gets hard just think about your pay check.”

I asked Assan, “Seriously, has anyone ever just walked off the job or left this place screaming and crying?”

He answered, “If you do that you would not be the first one, or the second.”

OMG!!!

Being in the medical field first as a nursing assistant then as a nurse has been both the most rewarding and most difficult thing that I have ever done. And comparing being a nursing assistant to being a nurse, a nursing assistant’s job is about twice as hard physically although they get paid about half as much. It’s non-stop stress.  There are screaming patients who depend on you for their every need such as feeding, cleaning, bathing or, you know, moving. There are harsh words from coworkers who are also stressed out and driven to the brink of what humans can tolerate physically and emotionally. When I woke up the morning after my first day I was so sore I literally could not move. I thought that I needed a nursing assistant for myself. This was a little terrifying for a 24-years-old very in shape woman who did cycling and aerobics classes several times a week (more or less, thank you very much). To regain mobility, I had to go to old-people’s aerobics where we used chairs to gently stretch and circle our weary, fragile limbs.

Later at work when the hard times inevitably arose again, Assan’s advice, “Just think about your paycheck,” became my mantra.  Screaming patient? Just think about your paycheck. Missed lunch? Just think about your paycheck. You really need me to come into work tomorrow? Just think about your paycheck. I was basically thinking work=stress=money and those three things became interchangeable in my mind.

On the flip side, I would spend money to try to relieve my stress. When I wanted something very badly that I did not have the money for I would say, “Oh, if I just had X dollars I can have what I want and I’ll be happy.” We all have heard that money cannot buy happiness but when you have money in the bank and unbearable stress today, even if it is your day off, you get the urge to treat yourself hoping that whatever you are buying can help you relax and feel better. I would save up and buy whatever that was which would make me happy for a while until I would want something else and the process would keep repeating. In that pattern I viewed work simply as a means to an end.

What if we lived in a society where there was no money?  How would we get people to work?  This kind of moneyless society is shown in the popular TV shows and movies of Star Trek.  In one of the movies of Star Trek, Star Trek: First Contact Captain Picard and his crew travel back in time from the 24th century to a post-World War III earth and need to explain their society to a person living in the 21st century. Captain Picard states, “The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century. The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”  In this futuristic world there is no money. People work at jobs that they are truly passionate about to better themselves and others.  They do not work themselves to death just to attain more and more money, or, conversely, do not underwork and lay around just because they have their basic needs met.  Their driving force is their passion. It is such a pure and beautiful vision of what work should be.

Imagine what it would be like if we lived in a society where there was no money. I could say to someone, “I can care for your grandma, I’m a nurse. And while I’m doing that can you watch my kids?” And we could do that just for a change of scenery. Maybe I can find another nurse who is caring for another sick person and we can come together and work together just for the sake of company.  And that other nurse could tell her babysitter who is watching her kids to hang out with my babysitter and then the kids could play together and the babysitters could talk. And we would take care of the grandparents and sick people with care and love and know that the babysitters were doing the same for our kids. Somehow in this fantasy we would have food, clothing, and housing brought to you by the technological advances of the future. Also, in the future, hunger, poverty and all major illnesses are conveniently eliminated.

If we could live in an ideal world that I described above where I work for my friend and my friends work for me it would be awesome with love and rainbows but alas, that society does not exist (yet).  Obviously, I cannot help it that I live in a society where people work and get money.  If I show up to work, the hospital will pay me and if I tell them to stop they will think I am crazy. Plus I need money to pay my bills and feed, clothe, and house my family.

The problem starts when the craving sets in for more and more money.  Living in the consumer culture of America and being surrounded by nice things where others always seem to have better, nicer things it’s easy to forget that if we have food, medicine and shelter then we have enough. Having these basics needs met makes us richer than the majority of the world. (See the statistics on the World Health Organization’s website, Who.org.)  Anything above that is truly just a luxury. When I crave money and am tempted to overwork to buy this or that I try to remember what one of my favorite thinkers, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, said in his book, Being Peace: “So many conditions of happiness are available-more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.”

I’m not saying we should live in misery, bath in cold water, give the majority of money to charity and then hoard the rest under a urine-stained, mattress. No. Money itself is morally neutral and things that we buy with them are also morally neutral. It’s our motivations and attitude while we are spending and earning that matter.  For example, have you ever gone to work totally stressed out, sick, are working in overtime, and having just one of those days where coworkers are asking you why you didn’t just call in sick?  What do you tell them? And what do you tell yourself? You say, “I need the money.” I know I have done this before. Next time, if you ever find yourself doing this again, stop and think about if that statement is really true. It’s probably not. Do you have basic food, clothing, shelter and medicine?  Then it’s not true.  When you work like that, under the threat of “needing money” we damage ourselves. It damages our health, it damages relationships with coworkers and family members as you interact with them under stress, it damages our emotions making us depressed and anxious, it damages our passion for our work. Although we get the money in the short run, in the long run we pay the ultimate price.

Before I started practicing mindfulness I worked by living on stress and thoughts like, I “need the money” and “just think about your pay check.”  I lived and breathed it and fed it with coffee and sugary snacks, stressful, thinking and complaining.  This way of being can be highly addictive. If I stop stressing myself out how else can I motivate myself to work?  What would be left? What happens when you consciously and deliberately stop the internal chatter of negativity? Well, what you would be left with would be the work itself.  For nurses it’s an infinite number of things-the pill passing, the lifting, the feeding, the hand-holding, the charting, the teeth brushing, the laughing, the IV pump beeping, the patient taking their first steps with a walker, the doctor talking, the checking the laboratory values, the left-sided facial droop, the refilling the tube feeding, the patient’s family member arguing, the blood drawing, the CODE, the laughing with coworkers, the checking the patient ID band, the mixing IV medication, the poo-of course-we can’t forget the poo-all those countless things that is nursing that are mundane, horrible, terrible, and beautiful. Strip everything away and really see what you are left with. What you are left with is the work.

The work. What if you traveled to the 24 century Star Trek future? What would you do in a world where all your basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and medicine were met and there was no money? If it were me, I would work as a nurse.