The Kindest Choice

What happens when we begin again?

Posted Feb 25, 2013

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The hardest thing I have ever had to do is to let go of what has happened and begin again. Whether it was the fear that my body experienced when deeply injured or the grief that came from seeing the way my actions or inactions caused harm to someone else or the forgiveness of the harm that has come to me or the searing experience of the death of someone I loved, being willing to meet what has happened and find a way to live with it and move on has not been easy. I want to cling to my rage or my embarrassment or my grief. It is what I know. To let that go is to experience without reservation the awful the truth of what has happened and the realization of the uncertainty that lies beneath it. Beginning again has long seemed to me to be very difficult work.

Over the years I have learned that there is another way to think about beginning again - a way that, while it may be difficult, is rich in possibilities. Frank Ostaseski, founder of the The Metta Institute, describes beginning again as “the kindest choice”. Is that possible? Is beginning again kind? Where would the kindness come from? To whom are we being kind? Ourselves? Someone else?

The kindness arises from compassion, first for ourselves and then for others. To begin again is to accept the imperfection of being me and of the life I live. No matter how much I learn or grow or work on self-improvement I cannot guarantee that everything or even most things I do will be skillful or particularly sensible or wise or that life will be fair or I can avoid getting hurt. I cannot guarantee that I will be happy and never experience fear and rage and grief. I try. We all try.

Every day in one way or another we do our best with what we have and with what we know and with the opportunities we encounter to make our lives whole and safe. But life happens anyway. We cannot stop it. And so we try harder and then we measure - and this is something we all do, measure ourselves. There is never a single case on record anywhere in which we could not do what we have done “better”. We can learn from our mistakes but we cannot measure ourselves to safety.

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In our measuring and our quest for self-improvement we often show ourselves little mercy. We put our energy into becoming who we believe we should be. We believe we can keep ourselves “safe” if we only try harder. We often don’t examine where our ideas come from or who we truly are. That’s harsh.

To begin again is to let go of the idea that we can change what has already happened, no matter how little we might like it. To be willing to begin again is to accept the truth of our intention to do our best and of our imperfection and to stop berating ourselves. To begin again is to start fresh and be willing to discover. That’s kind.

In our ordinary day-to-day encounters, our work, our families and our friendships, we have countless opportunities to practice beginning again with ourselves and with others. We can start fresh every day in the little encounters and then when the big events that shape our lives happen, we will know how to let go and begin again.

In each moment with another we have the opportunity to let go of our story about who we think the person opposite us is, our judgments and our measurements, of them and of ourselves. We can assume that we truly don’t know what any of us can and cannot do and we can be willing to learn.

 When we do this we encounter opportunities for connection we may well have missed. In that connection we give both of us the chance to discover something new about ourselves. We grow.

This is not to say that if the person with whom we are engaging is hurtful or dangerous to us we let them hurt us. We have a responsibility to both of us to protect ourselves. But even here, once we are sure of our protection, we can begin again.

Nice theory. How about practice? What can we do to begin again in our day-to-day, ordinary moments with ourselves and with others? Here are four ways to start:

First, we intentionally choose to be kind to ourselves and to the person we are with. We remind ourselves that we are all doing our best, however that may look, and we hold open a gentle inviting space for both of us.

Second, we rest. Yes, we are all busy and running from one place to the next and our lives are full and we don’t get enough sleep and everybody wants something from us and, and, and. We have little time to rest. A long, quiet day or a nap would be great, but we can’t take a nap before every meeting. However, we can pause, take a few minutes or a few breaths, and rest. This little rest gives us a chance to make space in our hearts and to unhook ourselves from our expectations and judgments.

Third, we come home to our bodies. We spend a lot of time in our minds, not noticing what our bodies know. The usual instruction for focusing on the body is to pay attention to the breath. I find it effective and sometimes funny to take time to notice a part of my body I might not ordinarily pay attention to. Maybe my foot, or my mouth, or my elbow. What is this part of my body doing? Is it moving? Is it still? Is it warm? Is it cold? If I can feel that part of myself, I am more able to come home to rest in my own body. If I am rested and at home in my body, my ability to start fresh increases.

Fourth, we look again. This is an exercise taught me by my friend Ruth Richards. We often don’t see what’s in front of us. We look at familiar things and register only a fraction of the information about them. By taking a few moments to intentionally examine something we know well, looking for things we never saw before, we teach ourselves to let go of what we think we know. We really see what is there. When we apply this same idea to noticing things about ourselves and the people we are with, we make wonderful new discoveries.

If we understand the kindest thing we can do for ourselves is begin again, we can more readily open our hearts and let go. The more we practice this, the more possibilities we find.

About the Author

Alison Bonds Shapiro, M.B.A., works with stroke survivors and their families, and is the author of Healing into Possibility: the Transformational Lessons of a Stroke.

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