I’ve written often about the importance of being able to access the skill sets we work so hard to develop, when we actually need them.  Understanding what drives our behavior is critical if we want our actions to be commensurate with our insides.  But we need to do more than just read and understand these concepts (theory.)

We need to practice what we have learned, and continue to apply this knowledge in new ways for our healing paths to spiral up.  We can’t just collect information and store it away.  We have to know where it is, how to get it quickly, and which material we need for which situations.  Thus the word “practice” this is not an end game but a series of choices we create, as we try to apply what we hope we have learned.

Having the ability to experience the full gamut of applying several concepts to a random situation I used to regularly dread, and now eagerly look forward to, is what we are going for in our work together.

You may have noticed that our homeless population seems to be growing.  When I worked in WDC pre-pandemic, I took great Joy in bringing food to the homeless spots around the city.  Nothing earth shattering, just bulk granola or protein bars that I could leave on the benches.

I used to love starting my day this way.  I have written about this many times (click here to check out a post from earlier this year.)  I miss my WDC wayward peeps and wonder how many of them may have perished since pre-pandemic when I used to regularly interact with them.  I don’t think I realized how healing it was for me to be regularly generous, since I thought I was helping others, not myself.

And if you have a tendency toward being empathetic like I do, you may have noticed that it started at an early age.  I know mine did.  I remember crying my heart out when a boy in my first grade class was publicly spanked by the principal.  I recall seeing a different boy at school get teased and having the memory of that keep me up at night.  I always felt it all.  It was heavy and visceral and felt like the pain and shaming somehow also belonged to me.

I have another distinct memory of feeling it all, which happened when I was in NYC as a young girl and seeing so many people ask for money.  The adult I was with mentioned that they should get jobs and stop pandering.  Even as a 10 year old I remember saying something in the spirit of:  “Imagine how hard, how embarrassing it would be to have to beg.  I think if they could work, they would.  Let’s give them some money.” 

As Lady Gaga so eloquently says, “I was born this way.”

Fast forward, back to the present.  Now that I am semi-retired I rarely go all the way into Washington.  But I have been noticing the increasing number of people standing at intersections, holding their signs, and setting up with their baby strollers, all with the goal of conjuring up enough empathy from strangers that we will reach in our pockets, purses and glove boxes and share what we have with someone we don’t know.  It’s an easy sell for me, but I used to dread seeing these folks because they appear so vulnerable, and I can always see myself in them.  I wonder what their stories are, and what happened to them.  I want to hear what they have learned.  I want to help them feel seen.

So here’s where it gets interesting.  My understanding of myself and how I see others in the world could be considered theory.  I have meditated, read, studied, contemplated, journaled and spent time getting to know myself.  Getting curious about my propensity toward “empathy” is a major component of finding the best way forward, given the constraints of my own personal reality.  And if an understanding occurs, an ah-ha moment even, that is amazing.  And if that is as far as you get with theory, it will may still be life-changing.

But now that I am working toward being that warrior of the mind, I don’t just seek to understand.  I want to know how this understanding can be applied (practice) and hopefully eventually result in a behavior or mind hack that will help me celebrate my empathy instead of feeling suffocated by it (mastery.) And here is how I did just that:

Until recently, when I saw people asking for money at the intersections, it made me squirm.  I might even go out of my way not to have to stop right next to someone.  It wasn’t because I didn’t care about my fellow humans, and was actually quite the opposite.  Seeing people in need, triggered the helplessness I felt in not being able to save everyone, which paralyzed me at times.

Even if I gave some money, or food the feeling of impotence scratched the old itch of not being about to save my own children from death.  Of course I didn’t know that at the time.  But this is such a beautiful process, and I was part of it.  Once I really sat with and opened to my experience of feeling powerless, I could investigate those feelings and even ask myself what if anything I need.

By inviting these feelings into my awareness, connecting with them, and trying to really know the emotions, I was able to make sense of the reasons why I was being triggered by these folks (practice). But more hopefully, now that I have this understanding I can behave differently when I do see them.  I can react in a way that honors my empathy instead of spitting on it (mastery.)

Realizing that my squirminess and nausea originated from my perceived inability to help, I decided that if I could help, even a little but on a regular basis (consistency over volume, sound familiar?!) that I might be able to celebrate my empathy and in doing so bring myself into a better quality of life.  One that wasn’t easily triggered by those in need (which is all of us btw.)

So I got to work.  I put together small goodie (ziplock) bags to keep in my car and hand out during the course of my days.  I included some protein bars, Halloween candy, granola bars, napkins, and a $5 bill in each.  I keep a stack of these in my garage and when my car stash is emptied, I grab a few more and throw them in the car console for easy access.

And here is the moment where all the work of practice and theory unfolds in a way that brings about mastery and ultimately peace.  Now that I am “prepared” to serve people asking for help, I actually look for them at the stoplights.  I am now fueled by the fleeting but genuine connection that occurs when I share the festive ziplock.  I am moved when I notice curiosity and gratitude when a stranger’s eyes meet mine, and I hand them them a token of humanity.

“I now look forward to, and am personally enriched by a situation that I used to run from because it brought me anguish and stress.”

Mastery.  This is the moment when all of the blood, sweat and tears of embracing life as an empath, (or whatever you need to accept about yourself that you have run from because it made you squirmy) becomes its own reward.  Giving has always made me feel good.  Not being able to give has always made me feel bad.  So knowing myself this well, I took some steps to put myself in a position of acting in a way that is consistent with who I am:  a giver.

I no longer dread seeing people at the intersections asking for money.  I do what I can to get closer because I am ready.  When I hand them the treats, I look in their eyes and connect with their humanity.  I take their smile and imbibe it, as if it was liquid gold.  A little money and care creates a win for them, and a win for me.  And this is the magic of mastery.

This example of my own ability to convert a situation that formerly and regularly brought me suffering, into one that now brings me Joy is the big prize and the one I am always going for.  Because the suffering itself is not the problem.  The problem is ignoring our suffering, which is actually where our power lies.  If we investigate and are open to understanding why certain situations make us cringe, we might be able to make a different choice, one that is healing for us instead of incessantly caustic.

And choices are what we train for.  The more options we can see, the better shot we have at choosing to act in a way that serves our own well being.  And often, we can serve others simultaneously.  When that happens, we can take a stressful situation and transition it into one of comfort.  And oh what a life we can live, when we learn to do this on a regular basis.

Are there any recurring cues in your environment that you run from, and perhaps can learn to understand well enough to transition them to bringing you Joy instead of anguish?

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