Being a Gentle Warrior

We seek happiness by believing that whole parts of what it is to be human are unacceptable. We feel that something has to change in ourselves. However, unconditional joy comes about through some kind of intelligence in which we allow ourselves to see clearly what we do with great honesty, combined with a tremendous kindness and gentleness.

Pema Chödrön, American Buddhist Nun

It’s been a long and challenging week, hence no posts the last few days. The flu plague that came to dinner has been reluctant to leave our house. Accumulating bodily injuries have left me limping and shuffling about like Quasimodo on his slow trek to the bell tower. No broken bones, just a foot injury, forced rehab and a break from high impact activities. Cumulatively, it has sent me into a mild depression.

I badly need that runner’s high and the adrenalin I get from sparring at taekwondo. I am so overwhelmed with “to do” lists that I do nothing. My desk pile has spread like some sort of mildewy growth. My writing is excruciating. My brain operates sluggishly, completely uncooperative, rife with doubt and dullness. This is where the bottom is for me.

When I hit mental bottom, it is in my nature to assume I must get up and duke it out with the saboteurs in my brain that make me unproductive and resistant to taking proper care of myself. I mean, haven’t we all been taught that it’s all about willpower and discipline? The problem with this reaction is that it usually doesn’t work and only ends up making me feel worse. I am learning to make friends with my dark, obstreperous side. And to gently coax myself into affirming behaviors, while riding out the malaise.

I turn to the very basics: Sleep, water, good nutrition and gentle exercise. I’ve made it through the first two steps, which explains why I was up once an hour last night. It’s like Rock, Paper, Scissors – small, aging bladder always beats restful sleep. Today, I’ve got to work on the last two steps. I’ve dutifully thawed out salmon, taken my vitamins and plan on doing some juicing today (the icky vegetable kind) and yoga is on the agenda after leaf-raking and pumpkin carving.

My sole work goal today: clear my desk, so that I start off the week with no hidden worries that I’ve forgotten something underneath that pile. My desk is wonderfully representative of my brain. I am concise and clear and organized when I have a pen and a notebook and little else on the desk. When not a clear spot can be seen on the desk, I’m overwhelmed and struggling. By cleaning it off, I’m taking a stand against paralyzing stress and shaking my mental cobwebs loose.

The approach of gentleness, compassion and curiosity about the destructive side of my nature is a relatively new idea for me. With my family history of mental illness and substance abuse, I have operated constantly on the defensive against any suggestion or possibility that I might have my own issues. I would force march myself out of bouts of depression and make too many commitments during periods of mild mania. It was demoralizing and I was always at odds with myself, constantly battling my demons.

Now, when the depression comes, I let it roll like a gentle wave over me. I know it will pass and I remind myself to focus on one step at a time. I try to be kind, not self-flagellating. When the mania comes, I have learned to say “no” even when my impulse is to say “yes”. I enjoy the energy and the level of productivity, and take advantage of the creativity. I am lucky to be able to manage things this way. Low environmental stressors and regular exercise keep the ups and downs as hills, not mountains.

I often write of battles and fights and struggles. I am learning that being strong does not mean showing physical toughness or saying hard words. Being a true warrior means that you have the courage to face who you are and to learn to work with your weaknesses, as well as your strengths. Sometimes that just means cleaning off your desk and giving your mind space to imagine life on the other side.