Seeing with ‘soft eyes’
This week I got an email from a reader, Emily, who spoke about the transformation she’s experiencing in ‘seeing her eating disorder with self compassion, with kind eyes’ – not an easy thing to do.
Any place where we feel stuck, reactive, or compulsive can bring up shame, self loathing, or criticism.
But underneath overdoing, underdoing or any kind of compulsive ‘doing’ with food lies something tender: places where we felt shamed, overwhelmed, scared, hurt, or neglected – and all the myriad coping strategies that we erected in an attempt to keep ourselves safe, to care for our pain, and to manage the emotional turmoil that arose as a result.
Fostering compassion and safety with art and story
Sometimes it can feel impossible – or difficult – to access this tenderness towards ourselves and our human frailties. I often find that this tenderness arises in surprising ways, and often when we’re not ‘working’ directly on the food.
In fact, I encourage folks not to spend so much time or effort working on the food. In my experience, as we begin to access a greater sense of compassion, and as we have a safe, loving container to ‘hold’ the stored feelings under the food – like fear, anger, grief, or shame – the feelings flow and unfold, the compulsive behaviors begin to fall away, and our natural leadership, competence and confidence arises.
There are many ways to foster compassion and create safety. One of my favorites is through art and story.
Making art, watching movies or TV shows that move you, listening to music, dancing, singing, creating, playing, moving the body physically, and even lovemaking can be ways to both access your inner wellspring of compassion and to move the stuck feelings that live in the body and nervous system.
In today’s post, I share how this process has unfolded for me through an art project. I hope it inspires you as you find your own ways of creating, discovering, and unfolding into your ‘soft eyes,’ into the vulnerable parts of your being.
When Our Fears ‘Bless and Keep’ Us
This year I’ve been creating what I call “The Book of Love.”
The title is a nod to a Peter Gabriel song (I’ve loved Peter Gabriel’s music since high school) and to the book’s contents – a blank book that I’ve filled with poems, bird feathers, leaves, buds, shoots, seeds and other offerings from the animals and foliage around my home, quotes, cards, photos, images, and art – anything, really, that moves and speaks to me and asks to be enfolded into its pages.
I began making the book this winter in a whim of inspiration while watching one of my favorite TV shows, Call the Midwife. In case you haven’t seen it, Call the Midwife is a BBC historical drama that takes place in one of the poorest parts of London in the 50s and 60s, where nuns and midwives deliver and care for the babies, children, women and families of the neighborhood.
It is an understatement to say that I love the show and its compassion, humor, and keen embrace of the human experience.
In one episode, a nun quotes Hildegard of Bingen, a mystic from the 12th century – “God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God. You shine so finely it surpasses understanding” – that left me crying on my couch, stunned.
I realized I wanted to write it down, and that I wanted to read it regularly.
So I decided to create a book.
When grief comes calling
The quote, and my book, were timely for me. Historically, the winter time is often the hardest time of the year for me, as I often experience some winter depression.
But there was something different about this year – perhaps it was the changing seasons of my teenage children leaving home, or the scandals and #metoo movement that touched some of the scars underneath my own relationship with food, or a low thyroid that needed rest – that led to a more pronounced pain and fatigue.
With the depression, grief had come to visit. It asked, and asked, and then asked again for my care and attention. It asked for me to enter it fully. And it asked for me to trust where it was taking me.
In this landscape of sorrow, sadness and loss, The Book of Love became my way of singing my grief song.
Falling into beauty
So I gathered quotes. I put in a holiday card I got from a dear cousin who has suffered tremendously from schizophrenia. I put in a note my Dad sent along with a check for a child’s birthday gift. I put in a shopping list my mom left on the counter the last time she visited. For whatever reason the sight of that list – ziploc baggies, sponges, kitchen scrubby – things I am often out of when she comes to visit, and things she often picks up for me – leaves my belly soft and tender.
I put in something I had written to my college magazine about struggling with depression and loneliness as an undergrad.
I put in snippets from favorite novels.
As I filled my book’s pages, I felt something moving and shifting inside: an expanding awareness and heightened insight into my own being, like shining a light in a dark room. If you’d asked me, before making this book, I’d have told you that I’d entered this room many times before, and that I knew its landscape well.
I thought I’d entered this room enough – at least enough to metabolize the major griefs of my life so far. I thought that the particular shape, mystery and landscape of my grief were sufficiently known to me.
But these past few months, I’ve come to know its contours and contents with a new intimacy. It was like learning the landscape of a lover’s body – where you learn and love its particulars, what makes this body, this body; how it likes to be held, or touched, or not; and what makes this heart, this heart.
And like a lover, I fell. I fell hard into beauty.
Touching the body of pain with reverence
All of a sudden I could see: all the ways I have felt so particularly – of this specific thing, of that – and unparticularly – afraid; how deeply I felt that I had to do everything right without any help; the rigidity that arose from this fear; all the ways I thought I should’ve known better; all the ways I blamed myself; all the ways I withdrew from fear of criticism, or shame; all the ways I have been afraid to trust; all the ways I have held myself back or believed that I had to do or be more.
Wave after wave, my eyes were opened. I saw and saw and saw. I was astounded again and again in wonderment – “Oh my goodness! Do you see this? And this?” – touching the body of my pain with tenderness, reverence, and awe.
So many soft spots.
Fear will ‘bless and keep you’
Meditation teacher Tara Brach says that when we directly touch our suffering and sadness, our natural response is compassion. Something in us cracks open – and this ‘something’ holds us in a warm embrace. You feel a tenderness – kind eyes – towards your own being.
It is tender, poignant, malleable, soft.
It is astoundingly beautiful.
Here’s another quote from “The Book of Love,” courtesy of poet William Stafford: “What you fear will not go away; it will take you into yourself and bless you and keep you.”
Before this winter, if you would’ve asked me if fear or grief could bless and keep you, I don’t think I would’ve agreed. But I came to experience this blessing for myself. And through it, my pain – or rather, how I see my pain – has changed.
The deeper story
When people share their food stories with me, I feel the tenderness that lies underneath the food. I see the beauty, courage and strength. I invite them to trust the deeper story – the one that is writ underneath the bingeing, the diets, the obsession with food. I invite them to trust their soft spots.
I think we can trust the way the soul guides us into this deeper story. The journey may arise through some uncomfortable messengers – grief, fear, anger, sadness are common ones – and also through art, through telling our story, and through listening to another’s story and seeing ourselves in it.
No matter what form it takes, when we touch our wounds directly, when we dress and tend to them like something precious – something beloved – we come to a new intimacy and understanding. We realize that they are not what we think they are – and that neither are we.
Perhaps this is the doorway to forgiveness.
I don’t know where my book and the grief will ultimately lead me, for the end has not been written. But I do trust that they are leading me somewhere. Like a river, I yield to the movement of the waves, to the current, to the ebb and flow, to the up and down, to the intimacy, the heartache, and to the shore.
As a friend of mine said, “I trust where you’re being led. I trust Her.”
I’ll end this note with one last quote from my book.
This is from Kate Braestrup – a writer, chaplain, and community minister who, when suddenly widowed with four small children, fulfilled her husband’s dream of becoming a minister, eventually serving the game wardens of Maine: “You can trust human beings with grief….Walk fearlessly into the house of mourning, for grief is just love squaring up to its oldest enemy. And after all these mortal human years, love is up to the challenge.”
To your deeper story, and to the love that is up to the challenge,