April 12, 2013

Choose Self-Compassion. ~ Lea Seigen Shinraku

We have the opportunity to revise and retell the myth.

Are you familiar with the Greek myth of Sisyphus? Here’s the short version: A mortal angers the gods and is condemned to eternally push a boulder uphill every day, only to have the boulder roll downhill every night.

Sound familiar?

I see this myth as a reflection of how we sometimes relate to aspects of our lives that we don’t like. For example, maybe there’s a co-worker or a family member with whom you have a hard time, or maybe you have a long commute to work each day and you dread facing the traffic.

Or maybe you wish you didn’t feel discouraged, and you criticize yourself for feeling that way. It can be difficult to accept the way things are if people, situations or our own reactions don’t match up with our stories about how life is supposed to look and feel.

For many people, the tendency is to push through inconvenient feelings.

But often we end up right back where we started—at the bottom of the hill beside our boulder (our co-worker/loved one, our commute, our own feelings). And usually, we just start pushing again.

A while ago I started to wonder about Sisyphus. Wasn’t there some other way? Just because the gods condemned him to pushing the boulder up the hill, did that mean that he had to be miserable forever? That seemed to be what the myth was teaching, but I just didn’t buy it.

Yes, it’s not easy to push a boulder uphill every day for eternity. However, I also know that no matter what our circumstances, we always have a choice about how we relate to what’s happening.

Sisyphus, according to the myth, can’t change the fact that he’ll be rolling that boulder uphill every day, forever. So what if he accepted this—not in defeat and resignation—but because it’s the self-compassionate, pragmatic thing to do?

And what if in accepting it, he realized that he could form a different kind of relationship with the boulder? What if he got to know that boulder and discovered that it was his favorite thing about being alive because it was what he knew most intimately? What if he befriended it and named it Patricia?

I’m not kidding, but I am being playful, because that’s the whole point. When life seems impossible or discouraging to us, beauty, pleasure and humor are needed more than ever, and they are available in every moment, in the creative spark that lives in each of us.

Here’s my retelling of a well-known Zen koan that speaks to this:

A woman traveling across a field encounters a tiger in the tall grass. She runs, and the tiger chases her. She reaches a precipice, grabs the long root of a vine and swings herself over the edge. The tiger sniffs from above. Trembling, she looks down. Far below, another tiger is waiting to eat her. Only the vine keeps her alive.

Two mice, one white and one black, start to gnaw at the vine. The woman sees a ripe wild strawberry nearby. Holding the vine with one hand, she picks the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tastes!

Whatever happens in any moment, we get to engage with it, alchemize it and redeem it by finding what it has to offer, rather than just focusing on what it seems to be taking away.

It’s up to us: Are we going to complain and freak out while the mice gnaw at the vine or are we going to grab the strawberry? Or are we going to do something else entirely—maybe sing our favorite song?

We always have a choice. And in that choice is power.

I wanted something concrete to help me and my clients remember that we always have a choice about how we relate to our experience. So, I decided to make a miniature Patricia.

Photo: Lea Seigen Shinraku

I told one of my best friends about it, and he wanted to make one, too. We got together one afternoon and created a spontaneous ritual. We each selected a chunk of manzanita. As we held our chunks, we imagined that we were infusing the wood in our hands with all the stuff that we believed was wrong about our inner and outer circumstances.

Then we sawed, sanded, smoothed and shaped our pieces of wood into small, boulder-like forms. As I did this, I had the sense that after infusing the wood with all of those shadowy qualities of existence, I was then accepting and caring for them. I found beauty in the grain, color and smoothness of the piece, just as it was. I saw doing this as a practice of honoring all parts of my experience.

Three years later, Patricia sits in my office, reminding me that whenever we notice that we’re in a Sisyphus state of mind, we have the opportunity to revise and retell the myth. When we wake up to the alchemy of self-compassion, we can stop focusing on what we are powerless to change, and we see more clearly the beauty and possibility in this moment. Right here. Boulder and all.

As an experiment, see if you can allow for the possibility that maybe no one is to blame for things not being the way you think they should be. Maybe “the way things are” is actually an opportunity to wake up to your own power and creativity.


Lea is a therapist, healer, writer, artist and long-time meditator who loves hiking the hills of San Francisco. For many years, she worked on the 29th floor of a downtown office building, editing financial research, certain that there was something else she was supposed to be doing with her life. Awakening and cultivating self-compassion helped her find her true calling. She loves helping people live with greater ease and joy by transforming self-limiting beliefs and ending the wars they fight with themselves. Find out more about Lea and request a complimentary consultation at leaseigenshinraku.com, and connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

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Assistant Ed: Stephanie V./Kate Bartolotta

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