Even bodhisattvas have breakdowns.

While I claim the identity of a bodhisattva, someone who takes on suffering in life as a choice to help others find freedom, but there are days when even I have breakdowns.

Like many people, sometimes I just can’t even.

I can’t be perfectly patient.

I can’t be in ten places at once.

I can’t be fully prepared.

I can’t be supremely compassionate and calm.

I can’t be all things to all people every moment of my life.

And even though my soul chose the bodhisattva identity, there are times where I’d like to opt out. I’d like to feel less responsible for people waking up to make things better in the world. I’d like to feel less struggle with a simultaneous responsibility to do something with it for the benefit of others. I’d like to have been born into the world with more resources and a better head-start in life. I’d like to feel more brave and bold like I used to be, before my own trauma when my eyes were really opened to the tremendous state of human suffering and how we are all struggling to find some air and room for ourselves.

I’d like to just be a human being and not a superhuman bodhisattva. And whether you choose that identity for yourself, Buddhist or not, maybe you can relate to that feeling of breakdown. When you put your face in your hands and shake your head. When you take a knee. When you want to give the burden on your shoulders to another person for a minute, even if it’s one you’ve chosen for yourself.

The beauty of breakdowns is that they lead to breakthroughs, if we can find a wider perspective.

So I do that. I give myself permission to take a moment and find that perspective. When we make space for ourselves, we allow the breakdown to be what is it for the moment. When we allow the breakdown, we generate the process of the breakthrough.

So for the moment, I just decide that I’m tired or overwhelmed or just don’t have it in me that day. I decide to give myself permission for taking on a big task and doing it to the best of my ability on any given day. I choose to say, “this is what I’ve got to give” instead of trying to pour from an empty cup. The moment of self-compassion and reality check leads to more clarity to move forward. That’s the breakthrough to the next moment of being more fully human, imperfectly.

I just hung up from coaching some new health coach students and we all talked about surrender. And surrender feels like freedom, they said. It’s not about pushing but it’s about allowing.

So we can apply the word surrender to this process. Surrendering to the stuff on our shoulders and giving ourselves a chance to rest. Seeing what we’ve taken on and whether it’s serving us. Selectively choosing what we keep for the next part of our path.

Bodhisattvas are often activists. And activism can kill or cure the very purpose or people we’re trying to serve. If we’ve reached the place where it’s the former more than the latter, choosing to have a breakdown helps us break through to our real, actual intentions to make the world a better place.

As this time of year rolls around and the pressure mounts to be in a million places and buy a million things, we can lose sight of the meaning of the holiday season.

A momentary breakdown may lead you back to why it’s meaningful for you.

Happy Holidays!

My mom and me.

“Will you send that to me? It’s one of the best pictures of me since I don’t remember when.” 

My mom said this today. This is us smiling. She came to visit me for the first time since I moved back home to New Jersey a year ago today. It’s one of two pictures we’ve taken together in almost a decade. It was a great day.

For most of my life, my mom and I had a very difficult relationship. I never understood why but she said today, “we are more alike than different, I think that’s why we butt heads.” She’s probably quite right. Our sensitivity and empathy run deep as does our impatience. It’s the Irish maybe. 

My father left her with my sister, who was a toddler about to turn 3 years old, and me when I was 3 months old. He left his wedding ring in the dresser during a business trip. My mom found it and called him out while home alone with us. Then he left for good. My mother never went to college. She didn’t have a safe or comfortable home life. She hauled us both in her car and got food stamps until she could figure out another plan. That is her version of the story. I’m sure my dad has his. I may never hear it because he’s been pretty M.I.A. except for a few years when he really was great.

My mom is the one who fought through her pain and confusion and grief to make peace with my decision to transition my gender identity in 2012. It’s taken us six years to be able to hang out and smile like this together. Six years and a lot of work and growth on both sides. During brunch today, I saw my mother as a completely new and different person for the first time in my 40 years on this planet. It felt like time stopped.

This post is a short version of the long story of my mom and me.

This picture exposes the tenacious love and compassion we have for ourselves and each other. All I am I learned from this woman. I’m the mirror that reflects her. She’s so afraid of life but she’s a warrior. She’s the inspiration for all I do in my own life, leaving nothing unexplored and being brave beyond all limits. She conquered a big fear coming to visit me today. I’m fearless from her example.

This is my mom and I’m who I am because she’s who she is. Perfectly her.

Each Moment is the Perfect Teacher

"Each moment is the perfect teacher." I read this sentence from Pema Chodron, so I'll just put that out there. It's not mine, but it inspires me in every moment. A lot of people think happiness, gratitude and easy living come by running from pain and discomfort. If they are struggling, they will change jobs, situations, relationships and believe the change will bring the relief and the life experiences they want to have.

They also think it will make them the person they want to be.

I learned years ago that this isn't the case. In fact, running and changing situations and exiting when we are uncomfortable only begets more pain, frustration and suffering. Many years ago, I stopped jumping from lily pad to person to thing to thing whenever I felt uncomfortable or challenged. It's true that I do change my circumstances from day to day, but now it's because what I'm experiencing isn't aligned with my deepest values of love, honesty, compassion, respect and mutual appreciation. I think there's a difference between leaving when those values aren't there and leaving because you choose not to create and share those values. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. Which is why I look to what people do and not what they say they are doing, or what they say they will do---at some point in the future. Because our future begins with what we do now. And our ability to see that, clearly.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. -Aristotle

Each moment is the perfect teacher to see if I am running from something because I'm afraid or running toward the thing that brings me closer to my truest self, even when all I see are the ways I need to grow. Each moment is the perfect teacher to show me, and it allows me to hear, words I use, the way I speak, the ways I behave. And each moment allows me to decide if I'm practicing what I expect from myself in that very moment or pretending it will magically happen someday when "things change".

Pema also says that people can spend their whole lives on a meditation cushion or in a yoga pose and never really live out their yoga. Or practice compassion, for themselves or others. Or really feel their fear. She said people can go through the motions of achieving enlightenment in very convincing ways, to themselves and others, and still be trapped in their habitual patterns of fear and ego. We all need to try and fail. But I've known many people who try and fail and quit, not seeing that success (in this case, enlightenment) comes from endless attempts at trying and failing.

I learned a long time ago not confuse people who are "doing" with people who are "being".

At this point in my pursuit of living as a bodhisattva (spiritual warrior), I have found a happy middle place. Definitely somewhere between knowing and being present with my fear and ego and not giving into it, too much. Somewhere between hearing myself say what I want and seeing myself either doing it or not doing it every moment of my life. Because that's where the work is. That's when it happens.

Having listened to and read Pema's teaching for the past 12 years and knowing many good, good people who can echo back those values to me, I feel closer and closer to being the person I want to be. And each moment is the perfect teacher, to show me where my work continues.