I came in last. And it was great.

I ran a 10 km road race this weekend, and I finished dead last. And it was great.

I wasn’t expecting to win. When I registered, I figured that like in the many festive road races I’d run before, I’d simply blend in with the pack, my physical mediocrity invisible among the bell curve of humanity. It’d be a great reason to get some good runs in early in the season, and I’d start the summer off in better-than-normal-for-me shape. This one would be even better because it was passing through my neighborhood, even traveling along my normal loop at certain points, so it was surely convenient.

Showing up at the starting line to pick up my number, I learned that there were just 60 of us, nearly all of whom were wearing such technical gear that it was obvious that I was out of my league. Incredulous that things could be this bad, I laughed it off, but within about two minutes of the crack of the starting pistol, I could see that the my fellow 59 runners and I were parting company.

This put me immediately in an interesting psychological state. Because I really, really hate being last. I hate simply being bad. As a child, if things didn’t come really easily to me, I’d quit. Ballet, softball, guitar, honors math. So I excelled at everything I did, because I only did the things at which I excelled. Carol Dweck calls this fixed mindset, in which we believe that our character and talent are static and determined early in life. Clearly it’s less preferable to growth mindset, a viewpoint that thrives on challenge and sees it “not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities,” (as written in Maria Popova’s excellent summary of Dweck’s research.)

Being bad at something, especially sports in a group, has in the past awakened a deep sense of shame, and sure enough, shame planted itself on my shoulder for a good view of the unfolding events about 500 meters into the run. Lately, I’ve also started noticing that when I’m ashamed, I lash out with blame. That was there too. Blaming the organizers for doing such a pitiful marketing job, blaming the other runners for being so gifted, even blaming the receding glaciers for leaving the landscape so hilly. This very short animated video of  Brené Brown’s wisdom on blame sums up how blame is simply another attempt at escaping an uncomfortable emotion.

It would have been normal to quit, but I guess all these years of listening to people like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Pema Chodron have had some effect. They’re always saying stuff like “mindfulness is simply the moment-to-moment paying attention to what’s happening  without judgement” and even more simply: “Don’t bite the hook.” And by that I have understood that when an uncomfortable feeling shows up, there can be some value in not trying to turn it off, and instead just observe yourself feeling it. Easier said than done. But at some point during Kilometer 1 of this humiliation, it struck me that this could be an opportunity for some major not biting of the hook. I could allow the anger, blame and shame to rage on the inside, while my legs slowly carried me along.

The kilometers passed, and I fell further and further behind. Every several hundred yards, there was a volunteer stationed to cheer people on and make sure we didn’t lose track of the trail. Each such encounter was a renewed opportunity for embarrassment, and I imagined that they were all in communication with each other about this pear-shaped, middle-aged, out-of-shape lady who was wasting their Saturday evening. I apologized to each of them for being so slow and thanked them for waiting, grateful for the ones who didn’t jump in their car and dash off seconds after I passed.

Eventually, my thoughts turned to dropping out, and I started formulating a plan about how I would take off my number and hand it to one of the officials at the next check-in. The problem was, I lived near the finish line, and I’d still have to run the entire way home anyway. I found myself thinking that I’d run just a little bit more, and hit a rather long stretch during which I was on my own.

I was still feeling pretty crappy but noticed that other thoughts started showing up. “Nothing changes if nothing changes,” I watched myself think. Dropping out would simply reinforce that I was a quitter. Then I thought that while it might feel terrible to finish last, it would definitely feel worse not to finish at all. At the top of a hill I started thinking about what kind of message would I be sending to my daughter if I dropped out, and what a gift it might be to show her, just once, that it was ok to be bad at things. I thought about my son and how, because of the way society is rigged for people without his cognitive and physical disabilities, he often comes in last in life. I suddenly appreciated his grace and dignity in the face of constant messages of not being good enough. Could this experience give me insight into his experience?

I thought about the people who weren’t running but had wanted to. Maybe there was someone who would see me shuffle by and think, “If she can, I can.” And finally, I started questioning my projections on the volunteers. Why did I assume that they were bored and impatient for me to finish? Maybe they deserved better.

There was a water break at around Kilometer 6. I was out in the middle of the woods with two teenage girls who made me feel like this was the most fun they’d had in weeks, confirming my theory that projections are some powerful magic. I asked them if they’d ever been last. Yes, they said. Any tips? Well, one of them said, you’re doing way better than the people who didn’t sign up. And at that moment, I knew I’d finish.

All of a sudden, I was at Kilometer 8, then 9. For the last 100 meters, I was cheered on by everyone who had volunteered at the registration and the starting and finish line; it felt like there were more people than had run in the entire race. I expected it to be the stake in the coffin of humiliation, but some knot has loosened, and it was actually great. One of the shy teenage boys who I’d seen out volunteering on the course even came up to me and said that he thought I worked really hard. Not sure it was meant as a compliment, but I took it as such. I think it was.

And suddenly…I was done. I looked down at the medal that someone has slipped around my neck at some point and realized that nowhere on it did it say that I’d finished last (by a lot). Maybe it was the endorphins or the dehydration, but I took this selfie and realizedIMG_6455 that the only thing I felt was great. Simply watching the shame and the blame unfold without reacting had released some deep behavioral patterns and habitual thoughts, like touching a soap bubble with my finger.

So this is what coming in last feels like. My legs are sore, but my spirit is soaring. I can live with this.

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Surprise, surprise

Where to begin? Life has not lent itself well to blogging lately. Too much living and not enough time to write about it. Maybe that’s the way it should be.

I find I am content. Satisfied. Friendly toward myself even. And that doesn’t make for great subject matter or inspiration.

I spent last week on a meditation retreat, cupped gently in the hands of the verdant rolling hills of New York’s Hudson Valley and two skillful and nurturing teachers, the lovely Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli, and surrounded by a community of new friends and fellow travellers.

Stepping so far away from my day-to-day, away from not only work and family, but also my smart phone and computer, my patterns and habits, from TV and even reading, that I felt like I had taken a blow torch to some mental and emotional cob webs, set them alight, watched them burn and maybe even let them go. Yes, Shiva the Destroyer—and Durga’s consort—was in the house.

While the inner machinations of my own mental process is fascinating to me, I doubt it will be to you, so I won’t bore you. But one surprising thing did come up that I wanted to share.

It is this: this label, this story that “I am a parent of a child with special needs” is … changing. Feeling less precious, less necessary.

In the moments of stillness and silence of the retreat, when I expected it to appear like a gale force wind, it was merely a quiet breeze.

How strange. Surely, after these last couple of years, there could be nothing else worthy of my ruminations? But not only were there plenty of other thoughts to watch—most notably my profound and continuous striving to be someone other than who I am—I found that it just didn’t come up much.

By the end of the week, when I came out of silence to my first intimate conversation about what I had seen, I noticed that I didn’t even bring it up. It simply wasn’t part of the story. After years of demanding that there’s got to be more to life than this…I find that there is.

I don’t know how I feel about the possibility of letting go of this identity, or if I’m even ready to. It has been a liberator and a jailor, a lightening rod and a scape goat, a shield and a veil, a pulpit and a gallows. That’s a lot to let go of.

And “letting go” is too active a verb to describe what’s happening. I’m not doing anything. It’s doing itself. It’s letting go of me. Or maybe not letting go, just melting, melding, or pulsating between itself and something else.

Just this! Just this!

In an unusual moment of stillness between the last bite of dinner and the itchiness to get up from the table, I wished my family a Happy Solstice and asked if anyone had a poem, song or blessing to add. (I’ve been thinking about how to add more spirit to the everyday, though usually don’t remember it at the actual moment in the chaos. For some reason, this time I did.)

My seven-year-old daughter, who is an old soul and so easily slips between the sacred and the material world, sprang to the bookcase, pulled down Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s “Everyday Blessings,” flipped to the following page and read aloud:

“First we braid grasses and play tug of war,
then we take turns singing and keeping a kick-ball in the air.
I kick the ball and they sing, they kick and I sing.
Time is forgotten, the hours fly.
People passing by point at me and laugh:
“Why are you acting like such a fool?”
I nod my head and don’t answer.
I could say something, but why?
Do you want to know what’s in my heart?
From the beginning of time: just this! just this!
— Ryokan, 18th century Japanese Zen master

Whatever your traditions or your calendar, whether the tilt of the world’s axis where you are is bringing you closer to light or darkness, may the next few days bring you a peaceful moment to linger and savor. Just this, just this, indeed.

A few minutes in the hospital lobby

I arrived a little earlier than expected at our local pediatric hospital last Friday. I have spent plenty of hours there with my son, both inpatient and outpatient, or visiting friends whose children are also patients, providing plenty of opportunities for a lot of suffering.

On this day though, I’m here in a more neutral role, as a student participating in a fellowship on developmental disability. Relishing the few extra minutes and the chance to get centered before a day of lectures, I grab a private seat in the lobby to slip in a few minutes of meditation.

I’m a pretty straightforward vipassana meditation gal, usually just “gentling myself” (thank you, Jon Kabat-Zinn, for this tender phrase) myself toward awareness, moment-by-moment, on purpose, using sounds as my anchor. But on this day, with a delightful kinetic lobby sculpture clanging away, along with the murmurs of pacing parents on cell phones updating friends and family on about another long and probably sleepless night, sound is too challenging a focal point.

Leaning into the palpable emotions that surround me, I make a quick adjustment to instead try out a few minutes of tonglen meditation. Tibetan for “sending and receiving,” tonglen meditation is one in which one breathes in the pain of others and breathes out the means of their relief. Setting my handy iPhone timer, I close my eyes, put my feet on the floor, and welcome whatever pain shows up. In this place, there is plenty to be found.

On each inhalation, I draw on my own experience of my past suffering in this very space, and breathe in hot and sharp pain — not just my own but what I imagine the children, healers, the administrators and the other parents, might be feeling right at this moment. On each exhalation, I breathe out a cool relief.

I don’t know if this really helps anyone but myself. I hope that on some level this intention manifests itself as some peace in the world, some real and specific release from pain, but I can’t be sure. I do know that in being willing to open myself up to the suffering of others, I open myself up to all emotions, even good ones, peeling away the layers that create a barrier between me and the rest of humanity.

Breathing in pain, I breathe out comfort.

Breathing in fear, I breathe out ease.

Breathing in anger, I breathe out openness.

Breathing in impatience, I breathe out patience.

Breathing in impulsivity, I breathe out steadiness.

Breathing in pride, I breathe out humility.

Breathing in resignation, I breathe out perseverance.

Breathing in isolation, I breathe out connection.

Breathing in confusion, I breathe out clarity.

Breathing in despair, I breathe out strength.

Breathing in pain, I breathe out love.

May all children be free from suffering and harm.

May all families be free from suffering and harm.

May all staff be free from suffering and harm.

May all beings, including you and I, be free from suffering and harm.