Mary Licanin

An open letter to myself

You are going to be okay.
No, actually, you are going to be absolutely fine.

You’ve been through so much in your life, you’ve learned so much from all of it, and you are an incredible person because of it.
You are kind and compassionate, empathetic and unconditionally loving. There are no stronger traits than these in human life. You are amazing. You are a minority in your field. You have survived personal abuse and neglect. You faced situations that seemed impossible to find your way through. You stumbled and you fell – many times.

Yet, you became something because one by one, you defeated the demons.

And then, when you weren’t satisfied, because you don’t settle, you went after more, and you became something more. You became someone admirable. Not many know your story, but you know where you’ve been and what you’ve overcome. You are strong. You are the bravest person I know. And you are my hero.

Now, the next challenge begins. I want you to take all of that compassion and loving kindness you’ve learned to give to the world, and start learning to give it to yourself. Hard.

If it feels selfish (which, remember, isn’t a bad thing), think about how much more you’ll be able to put back into the world once you accomplish that. It’s time.

The Lover

Imagine you are your lover – because you need to be your first and last love. You came here together and you will leave here together. The love and attention of others will always be changing, always impermanent. Sometimes there will be an over abundance of it, other times there will be none. Learn how to have to make room for it when it comes, and how to once again let your own self love and attention ease back to fill that space when it’s gone. Yours can be reliable if you ensure it. Only you can do that, and this is the only love and attention you can guarantee yourself forever. Without it all other love becomes less valuable, less important, less like something that can bring you joy and more like something that will bring you trepidation.

Inevitable Darkness

When you start feeling the darkness coming, be kind to yourself. Understand that everyone has a threshold for stress tolerance and you are not weak because of this. If the darkness turns into a void, find patience for yourself. You’ve been there before and you will, with time and patience, find your way out. If you can do nothing else, get up, dress up and show up. Push yourself to stay active and socially connected, even if that means going to a meetup or talking to a colleague about work. Hell, just go to Starbucks and order, and call it an accomplishment for the day. Do something to ensure you’re not isolating or withdrawing. We all need human connection. If you feel like you crave it more than most, maybe it’s because you look outside yourself to validate your worthiness, success, beauty, importance….

You will always have more worth to yourself than to anyone else.
Your success will impact your life more than anyone else’s.
You will be most beautiful if you can be beautiful to yourself, because you know your ugliest self best.
You are the best person to love, care for, and nourish your soul, because nobody will ever know you like you know yourself. External love is garnish.

Take damned good care of yourself. You have gotten this far, and you will continue to go even further. You, yourself and you.

The Toxicity of Cynicism

That said, I know that time and experience has started to make you cynical. Let this wash off of you. This is toxic to your joy. Some people will come and go quickly, maybe they see a shallow opportunity in knowing you, or they just move on for reasons you may never understand. Others will not have yet grown to understand how to love with the same vulnerability as you have. They are all traveling their own journeys and that has nothing to do with you. Others will love you to the best of their ability. Don’t compare it to the way you love, because it will never seem to be exactly the same. Learn to appreciate and accept love in whatever form it takes. As innumerable as grains of sand in the desert, so too are there as many different types of love. Every one is a precious gift – accept them all.

Every person that comes into your life offers a lesson you can take away, if you keep your mind and heart open to listening and learning. Cynicism closes that door, if you allow it.

Remember, too, that relationships will change over time, and everything is impermanent. This may mean that someone you love goes away, and it may mean someone draws nearer to you. Open your heart to both extremes, and to all shades in between.  Don’t be afraid of pain, welcome it. Sit down and have tea with your sadness when it visits, and lean into it. Remember the dread will pass, and remember that every interaction enriches your life experience and ability to offer compassion to the world. And if you remember nothing else, remember that your first love (you) will always be with you.
Out of the ashes rises the phoenix.

Interconnectedness

If you have trouble thinking about yourself as a lover, and I can understand why you might because it’s pretty fluffy and ethereal, think about it from the Buddhist perspective and almost the polar opposite, that there is no “me” or “I”. We are all one. Okay, this may be ethereal too, but you do understand it, reach a bit if you need to.

While there is much suffering in the world, and you give your compassion and positive energy to those enduring hardships, so too are there parts of this great collective sending out loving kindness to you. Open yourself to allow feeling it. Since you can’t always see it or directly witness it as an outpouring, this is a kind of faith in humanity. Even in the darkest times, you know in your heart there is kindness in the world. All you have to do is open your eyes to it to see it in all things.

And if all that fails you, find a dog.  No, seriously.

Be Mindful of Goals
(but not absorbed by them)

Ease up on hitting your goals. I know this sounds contradictory to what you think every self help book teaches, and to what you’ve always done. I’m not saying to travel through life aimlessly, but let go of being goal oriented. It’s going to sound cliche, but learn to truly see the value in the journey getting to your destination. You face challenges to meet your goals. You have countless opportunities to accomplish milestones along the way. While you’re preoccupied day after day lamenting in the fact you ‘still’ haven’t reached your goal, you’re missing out on the joy you could be finding in all the little milestones you’re hitting. You only get to do today once. Find the joy of accomplishment in every one. Some days that will only mean you got up. Other days those accomplishments will feel bigger, more tangible or seem more meaningful. None are better accomplishments than others by weight of what society values. You are your harshest judge, and you need to set your sights on those things that make you a better version of yourself, because in the end, that’s what really matters to you. Don’t ever change that, because that is what makes you so uniquely you, and so very precious to me.

I love you,
Me.

bubble

Touching a Bubble with a Feather

When I was a kid, and parent teacher conference day would come, my mother would reluctantly take me with her – not because I was a bad student. Quite the contrary, really. Teachers usually wanted to meet with her alone, so I’d sit outside the classroom door “patiently” waiting…and then grill her about everything they said about me as soon as she came out. “Oh Mary!” she’d say, “I should bring a tape recorder – you have to know everything!” Of course, mom was right (and yes, I’m old).

As an adult, I still look for answers. Okay, ‘look’ is too soft a verb, and is way too passive and calm. The fact is that I can research things until my eyes bleed for desire for knowing a thing, quite past the point of obsession. I know it can be unnerving to those around me. “I just have to know!” I bark, with the frenzy of an addict fiending for her poison, and in my feverish thirst for the answer, continue reading, asking what should be rhetorical questions and grueling ‘the google’ like a sadist leading an inquisition,  ravenous for information like a starved animal at a feast.

I am like the two year old that relentlessly keeps asking, “but why?” and I show intolerance of answers like, “I don’t know.”  “Well,” I reply, partly joking, mostly not, “make something up!” Unanswered questions feel like a single dirty dish in the sink,  an unmatched sock, or the stray fingerprint on a mirror. Untidy, outstanding, neither here nor there.

When I step back and look at this part of me, I see the flaw. I always kind of sensed it was there, but I could never quite put my finger on it until, I think, today. It’s part of my struggle against impermanence. Isn’t it more likely that understanding or obtaining mastery over a thing would mean I wield some kind of power over it and can better control it?

Don’t get me wrong – there’s absolute utility in knowing some things. For example, I probably wouldn’t be very good at my job (or have one) if I hadn’t had some drive to learn software engineering. I wouldn’t be a responsible citizen of this country if I didn’t question my government. There are definitely times when persistence in seeking understanding is crucial and not seeking it is irresponsible. “Knowledge is power!” can be celebrated when it addresses objective knowledge, and in knowing of things that can be learned and mastered…but this is not the case, for example, in trying to find every possible outcome of some event the future.

There is a tendency, (at least by me) to strive, beyond the point of insanity, in order to find the answers to philosophical questions, subjective questions, questions that arguably have no answer, because there is no answer at the present moment in time. These are the questions that drive me to the edge of madness at times, and where colorful stories are created in my mind.

While I think it is healthy (and vital) to have some level of curiosity about the world, as with all things, moderation is key. So when does a healthy drive to find answers become unhealthy? I think the answer to that might be, when the drive to know a thing supersedes our ability to be okay with not knowing the thing.

Back to the concept that knowledge is power with a smattering of logic. If knowledge is power and power is control, then knowledge is control.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. That can be upsetting and scary when all I want to do is find solid ground, to know that xyz is xyz. That it has always been xyz and will always be xyz. But as I seek answers to the bigger questions, I become more and more aware of the impermanence in all things. The whole concept of ‘all life is suffering/impermanence’ pokes me like a dull pin over and over, stubbornly persisting as hard as I try to ignore it and as much as I try to prove it wrong. Every time I try to grab at something, I do so in trying to find the satisfaction of some sort of permanence but knowing, in the deeper parts of myself where there’s no pretense and no facade between me, myself, and I, that this concept of impermanence is inescapable and unavoidable in all things.

It sounds pretty dreary and depressing I guess, until you dig deeper.

When I get through struggling with the idea that no matter how many questions I find (or don’t find) answers to, and that power over impermanence isn’t possible, then I am faced with thinking about this in a mental space where I almost understand but keep losing grip of it. Like trying to ride a bike for the first time, or that state when you’re teetering on the edge between a dream and being awake enough to be aware that you’re in the dream, dreaming. The concept is that this awareness of, in this case not knowing something, can actually bring contentment, if we can just relax into it. In other words, we can stop the tantrums and grasping at mirages of permanence, and instead become aware of impermanence – or not knowing – and by accepting it we can let go of the struggle and feeling of discontent. Basically, being okay with it. Being okay with not knowing. Being okay with things beyond our control. Being okay with change we know is inevitable. How free that feels! (At least, for the 0.0031 seconds I find and hold on to that place. It seems that, too is impermanent.)

I read an article today from Pema Chodron on loneliness, and at first I thought, oh hey, this will help me to not feel lonely when that feeling creeps over me. Cool! To my ignorant surprise, as I read, I began to realize that I had been thinking about loneliness (and subsequently, not knowing everything) quite in the wrong way.

In it, Pema talks about meditation, and that in meditation we’re taught to acknowledge the stray thoughts that enter our minds, but rather than sort of reprimanding ourselves for the thinking that’s happening while we should be meditating, simply acknowledge the thought as label it as neutral ‘thinking’ and gently dismiss it. She beautifully analogizes this as letting the thoughts “come and go as if touching a bubble with a feather.” When I read that analogy, the hairs on my arms stood up. I visualized what it would be like to touch a bubble with a feather. That helped me to understand how to find a kind of non-dramatic way of dealing with not only stray thoughts that enter my mind during meditation, but also how to deal with the addictive need to know the unknowable.

Here’s to the next 0.0001 second of doing just that.

Act without expectation

Quietly helping others

It’s amazing, that ripple effect we have on others. This description was the closing remark in something that someone wrote and asked me to read over this weekend. It came across my desk in such a timely way, it’s hard not to feel like the universe was reaching out and thumping me on the head.

Three simple words that struck me as an incredibly profound sentiment; one that could only be used to describe the most humble of people, and the type of person I aspire to become. I think that helping people without the expectation of recognition or acknowledgement is the highest form of service we can offer each other.

Act without expectationI think we can all recognize quiet help when we see it. Quiet help is what we witness when we see a stranger helping another stranger, reach something on the high shelf at the supermarket. Quiet help is found in volunteerism. Quiet help can be found in financial donations, when there are few beans to ration, but they are rationed nonetheless. Quiet help is a kind word. Quiet help is where we find true happiness, it is the place we go to turn our positive energies outward. More than all of these, quiet help is giving of ourselves without expectation of something in return. I think this quote (Dao De Jing, Ch 77), speaks to this point (bold mine).

The Master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and doesn’t think that she is better
than anyone else.
– Lao Tzu

The Dalai Lama is quoted for having said, “Being aware of a single shortcoming within yourself is far more useful than being aware of a thousand in someone else.” One of my shortcomings is not giving enough help to others. My excuse is I haven’t found as much opportunity to help others as much as I would like. Rather, I should say, not enough opportunity to extend my help has fallen conveniently into my lap, and so they’ve gone unfound. Part of my spiritual journey is to be mindful about this shortcoming, and to more actively seek out opportunities to give help, in the face of feeling unsure of myself, feeling awkward, fearing rejection, and recognizing that all the things that hold me back are the result of my own ego.

I am grateful, though, that this weekend one of those opportunities fell into my lap, and I lept at the chance to offer my help. As much as my ego wants to write all about how amazing I am, I will just say by getting involved in something and offering my help, I was inundated with a tremendous amount of energy, excitement and enthusiasm. This Sunday night, I am left feeling an overwhelming sense of contentment for having been able to quietly give of myself.