Presence, Self Compassion and Connection: Keys to Wellbeing and Resilience

How would you rate your current level of wellbeing on a scale of 1 to 10? How about your resilience? Are you feeling present, compassionate and connected to yourself and others?

We are living in a time of heightened anxiety and fear, and many of us are feeling disconnected and isolated from friends and loved ones, perhaps struggling financially due to loss of income, or with the loss of loved ones.

As much as the coronavirus vaccine is being rolled out to more and more people, and many of us have already or will soon receive it, the virus still represents a more or less unknown and continually evolving threat in our midst.

We’re in a liminal space, where little in life looks the way it did just over a year ago, and what lies ahead is unknown.

Whatever you are feeling right now is understandable and normal. Whatever you are doing to cope right now is understandable and normal.

Let me say that again:  Whatever you are feeling right now is understandable and normal. Whatever you are doing to cope right now is understandable and normal. 

I’ve felt depressed and anxious, I’ve gained weight, lost sleep, lost my temper, lost income, and forgotten to do more things than I can count.

I’ve also found ways to keep going, to adapt, to learn, and even grow, as I navigate that transitional space between no more and not yet.

Three of the most important factors contributing to my resilience have been presence, connection and self-compassion.

Since my dog died in January, my contact with other living breathing beings has been restricted solely to Zoom and other electronic forms of communication since the global pandemic was declared in March 2020.

There are days when I cry myself to sleep longing for a simple hug or someone to squeeze my hand. And there are days when I think I can’t possibly sit and look at a screen for another minute.

I’ve had many more days of remembering to let my attention drop into my heart, anchoring it there with the warmth of my hand, as I look at each of the little squares in front of me, rousing a gentle, friendly, curiosity about what might be arising in their hearts as we share this virtual space together.

In those moments, I offer myself a silent “Oh, sweetie, this is so hard. And just like me, all these beings are scared, overwhelmed, grieving, longing for connection.”

If I happen to be leading a meditation gathering on Zoom, I share what I’m feeling and invite others to join me in dropping their attention into their heart, perhaps placing their hand there, and looking at each little square in the same gentle, friendly, curious way. I also invite the awareness that even as we are seeing, we are also being seen, and a further invitation to notice what that feels like.

When I crawl into bed at night after one of those Zoom gatherings, I feel more connected than ever, and I know that I’m going to be okay.

Presence, Self Compassion, Connection, Resilience – Defined

Let’s unpack this a little bit, beginning with some definitions.

Presence: According to Doug Silsbee, founder of Presence-Based Coaching and Leadership, “Presence is an internal state: the inclusive awareness of stillness, possibility, and immediacy.”

Self Compassion: According to Kristen Neff, PhD, associate professor of educational psychology,  University of Texas at Austin, widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on the subject, “self-compassion involves responding in the same supportive and understanding way you would with a good friend when you have a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself.”

Connection: According to Brene Brown, professor of social work at the University of Houston, “Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

Resilience: According to the American Psychological Association, “Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress…”

Bamboo, bending, but never breaking, a symbol of resilience that features prominently on my website and in my life.

Putting It Back Together

My own felt experience of presence, whether I’m alone or with someone, is being, fully embodied, in that stillness between past and future. I’m not lost in thoughts and emotions, they might arise in my awareness but I’m not engaging with them. I’m aware of what I’m feeling inside, sensations, temperature, movement. I’m attuned to and curious about myself and others.

From that place of presence, attunement and curiosity, I’m able to notice the subtle tightening of my belly in fear, my jaw beginning to clench in anger, or the rising heat of shame, and pause and give myself what I need, whether it’s compassion, a hug, a walk, or some time in nature.

Self-compassion doesn’t come easily for many of us, myself included. It takes practice. It can feel vulnerable to acknowledge our pain, opening us to even deeper pain. We might feel undeserving of it, especially if we’ve not received it from others in the past. We might have been raised with the idea that it’s weak, that only tough love will help us grow.

We are relational beings. We are wired for connection.  We need others.

According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, our need for love and belonging is basic, second only to safety and physiological needs, and essential to our survival, as well as our capacity to attend to higher needs.

In his book “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect” neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman argues that our need to connect with others is even more basic than food and shelter, and the primary motivator of behavior.

We’re also wired with stress or survival responses, (fight, flight, freeze) and when they are chronically activated, as they have been for so many of us throughout the past year, our health and wellbeing suffer.  We become even less able to cope with stress, less able to bounce back from adversity – less resilient – and more susceptible to illness.

Moving Forward

There is so much that is beyond our control, in general, and specifically with respect to the coronavirus pandemic.  That makes it even more important that we take the time and are intentional in learning about and offering ourselves and others opportunities to build up our resilience.

In this blog post, I’ve named only a few of the factors that have helped me and those I work with be more resilient and have a greater sense of wellbeing, and perhaps even learn and grow, over the past year. There are others.

Let’s continue to learn and explore together in my upcoming free workshop, Presence, Connection and Self Compassion: Keys to Wellbeing and Resilience, on Saturday April 10, from 11 am-12 noon eastern. Register here!

The Shape of Love

Well. It’s been quite a year hasn’t it? In addition to the usual ups and downs of everyone’s life, which are unpredictable and ongoing, we’ve had and are still in the midst of a global pandemic. Jobs have been lost, homes, family members, and more, including our individual and collective sense of relative safety and stability.

What has kept you going in the midst of so much loss and uncertainty?

I’m fortunate, despite the loss and uncertainty, to continue to feel resourced on many levels. I’m still healthy and have enough money for food and shelter. I have dear friends and family (even if I can only see them on Zoom). I can still go for walks among the trees nearby. I have a mindfulness and awareness meditation practice, and am part of a community within which I can practice and share with others (even if it has been exclusively on Zoom). Something very close to my heart for many years, and during this time in particular, that has gotten me out of bed on the mornings I’d rather not, has been ensuring that others have a time and a place to practice meditation, even if that has just meant committing to being there at a certain time with the Zoom room open and a timer ready.

In addition, continuing to work with my own coach, mentors and teachers has helped me see the blind spots and ways of being that keep me stuck in habitual fear-based patterns that no longer serve me and, in fact, keep me from doing what I can, for myself and others, during this incredibly challenging time in my life and in the world.

One practice in particular that has seen me through the loss of a primary relationship, seeing my income drop to and hover between nonexistent and insubstantial, the “is it safe to even leave my house, even with a mask on?” and most recently, not quite a month ago, the death of a beloved furry companion, has been presence.

Presence, for me, is that feeling that comes with slowing down, letting my attention drop from the swirl of thoughts in my head down into my body, into my heart, acknowledging what is there, opening and softening to it, and trusting the aliveness stirring within me to lead me into the next moment.

Some days that has been and continues to be easier than others. There were, and are, many moments where parts of me resist, with a loud, “OH, HELL NO!” Perhaps you’ve heard it?! Those are parts of me that feel small and frightened, parts that want to know there is still going to be a roof over our head and food on our table next month, parts of me that need a hug, a gentle, loving touch, from another living, breathing being.

Those are all very valid needs and concerns for all of us as humans. But I can’t address them skillfully when I’m caught in that blinding swirl of thoughts in my head. When I drop into my body and feel the fear, the sadness, the grief, and open to it, it softens, and what emerges from the depths of my being is what has always and will always be there. Love. All I have to do is remember to open and soften to it. The more I do that, the more I can do that. When I respond to my own and others’ needs from that place of aliveness, of being, of love, good things can happen.

This isn’t the romantic love that we feel for a partner, the parental love that we feel for children and other small (and sometimes furry) creatures, the love that we feel for friends and family, etc., though I believe it underlies all of those. This is something else and it is something that can never be taken from us. I wrote a poem several years ago trying to capture my experience of it, inspired by seeing a heart-shaped clump of snow on a windswept sidewalk during my morning walk:

Made by this
Made for this
Made of this
We are that which can never be swept away
We are Love

I’d love to share this practice with you so I’m offering a free mini workshop this Saturday called The Shape of Love: An Embodied Approach To Discovering The Love Already Within Us. During this hour-long workshop I’ll share a little bit more about the practice, how I work with it and how it has helped shape me and my response to challenge and loss, we’ll practice together, and discuss our experiences.

I hope you can join me! Sign up for your free ticket here. This will also give you the option to join my mailing list, which I’d love, but you don’t have to!

This is Shadow, who passed away on January 21, 2021, two months before his 15th birthday.

What’s with the logo? And the bamboo?

Great question!

Before I answer, I’d like to ask you to bring to mind a time when a loved one placed a gentle hand on your cheek. What were you feeling at the time? How did that gesture make you feel?

For many of us, myself included, that gesture evokes a sense of feeling safe, seen, and cared about. I notice a warmth and relaxation in my belly and chest, accompanied by sort of an inner “Ahhh” as I recall such moments in my life. Occasionally that sense of safety allows me to shed tears I’ve been holding inside and I’m left feeling lighter and more open.

What would it be like to offer that gesture to yourself in a difficult moment? What a precious gift it is to feel seen and cared for by ourselves – to acknowledge and allow ourselves to be touched by what is in our own heart.

Taking it a step further, imagine how it feels to allow your heart to be touched by someone else, and to know, to feel, deep in your heart that someone else truly sees and cares about you.

Bringing the two together – feeling your own heart and feeling felt by someone else’s heart – is the relational alchemy that is at the core of how I coach, and facilitate change.

The outer circle of the logo is called an enso and it comes from the Zen Buddhist tradition. The circle is drawn with one brush stroke and requires that the artist relax the mind and allow the body to create.

If you’re a meditator, you’ll know that relaxing the mind is much easier said than done, but in those moments where we can relax, there is tremendous spaciousness, full of possibility. (If you’re not yet a meditator, and would like to learn, ask me!)

It can also be said that the incompleteness and imperfection of the circle are actually very much a part of the circle, they belong there and are part of its beauty.

The invitation, then, is to allow yourself to relax into the space, whether it’s the one created by being in one of life’s many transitions, or the space of the container of the coaching relationship, allow yourself to be seen, just as you are, and let your innate worth, beauty and potential shine!

Bamboo, pictured in the header image here, is often thought to represent the perfect combination of strength and flexibility. What might be possible with that combination?

When I guide meditation, I invite people to feel into the strength of their back as they sit with an upright, relaxed posture, and the soft openness of their front, and consider the same question: what might be possible with a shape that is soft, strong and open?

A little story for you. Last year, on a meditation retreat away from home, I went to a grocery story to pick up a few things, one of which was going to be a bouquet of flowers to place in the meditation space. As I stood looking at the bouquets, I glimpsed a display of glass containers each with two or three bamboo stalks that stood about 3-4″ high. I’ve long been inspired by that perfect combination of strength and flexibility, and was actually in a difficult period of my life, so I had to have one.

Fast forward 12 months, I’m living in a home that doesn’t get a lot of natural light, the bamboo has outgrown its glass (and the ceramic pot I put it in 4 months ago…) and is the only plant that I’ve been able to grow in my new home!

That brings me back to the question I posed a couple of paragraphs ago:

What might be possible with strength and flexibility? With staying soft, strong and open?