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Having Borderline Personality Disorder sucks a lot. The struggle and pain of it all is so intense sometimes.

But I’m also discovering the gifts of highly sensitive emotional people.

  • We are naturally empathetic and compassionate
  • We are able to have deep and authentic relationships
  • Our joy is contagious and can be found in the simplest of things
  • We can’t ignore the pain and injustice we see around us
  • We make great artists and storytellers.

I’m glad I’m still myself with BPD and that having intense emotions isn’t inherently a bad thing. Emotions are signals that help us understand what is important to us, what we need in each moment, and how we relate to the world around us. I’m grateful for my emotions, even the sometimes really painful ones, because of who they make me.

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I don’t usually do much for Lent other than think about what I should/could/would do. But this year there’s something stirring deep down. A need for silence.

My brain works in a furious rush sometimes, and most of my life is filled with incredible life-giving moments, but sometimes the energy of those moments keeps me up at night because I just. can’t. shut. off.

My brain and my soul need a break. And I need to practice quiet.

I told someone yesterday that in grade nine a science teacher asked me to stop putting my hand up to answer questions so that other students would be more likely to participate. In grade twelve a teacher told me I take up too much verbal space.

Ya, I’m long-winded. And I’m sensitive about it. Nearly every time we leave a social gathering I ask Kathryn if I talked too much. It’s only just occurred to me in the last few months that I don’t need to (and don’t even benefit from) this compulsive desire to share and record every thought that comes swirling through my mind.

Kathryn’s highest love language is acts of service, and in my desire to love her well, I sometimes need to remind myself at bedtime that it is an act of service not to tell her every thought I have had all through the live long day. And then I have to tell myself it’s an act of service not to tell her I’m doing an act of service. The woman needs some sleep.

So, because of these heart stirrings, and because of a desire to deepen my internal peace, for the next forty days I plan to spend twenty minutes a day practicing external and internal quiet. I will sit quietly and focus on my breath and as thoughts come through my mind I will picture them as leaves on a river floating by, appreciated but not needing to be captured, and I will gently return to my breath.

Silence.

A recent conversation with a friend led me to describe a technique Kathryn and I use regularly when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It is especially helpful when I experience the kind of panic that leads to racing thoughts and quick shallow breathing.

Often this feeling will race out of my body in frantic movements. I might rush from room to room with no purpose, fling pillows and blankets around on the bed, squeeze my eyes and fists and chest as tight as I can, hold my breath until I am desperate for air and start hyperventilating, or flail about in other unpredictable ways. Sometimes I’ve even acted in destructive or intimidating ways because of the rushing surge of panic that flows through me, and of course, this leads to greater problems in the long run.

This is, quite logically, distressing for Kathryn to witness. One time when feeling this way, I stood out on the balcony of our old apartment during a massive storm and let the wind and rain and thunder swirl and panic with me. The image of the wind blowing through the open door behind me and swirling around Kathryn too helped me understand just how this chaos spreads from me to her.

The chaos flows through us both.

She gets overwhelmed by a rushing desire to help me calm down, to ‘fix’ what I’m feeling.  And so she offers solutions – try ice, cold water, let’s go for a drive, just sit for a second, put lotion on your skin, play piano – on and on. She lists mindfulness skills that often help but seem useless to me in these moments. All she wants is to help us both settle, to prevent further escalation, and to begin the process of problem solving the source of the emotion. The real trouble, though, is that in these most frantic moments I seem to lack the ability to grab hold of a coping skill and stay focused. And her hurried attempts to help me calm only heighten my sense of anxiety. As I watch her begin to feel the chaos, guilt only increases my panic further.

And then about six months ago, she came up with a new idea seemingly out of nowhere. “Blow up a balloon.” That’s all she said and then she started doing it herself, imitating the kind of inhale and exhale one would use to inflate a large balloon. She has told me to take deep breaths many times before with little improvement to the sense of panic or my breathing, but somehow this clicked.

Just blow up balloons.

I don’t have to solve the current problem that is leading to the panic. I don’t have to convince myself to feel differently. I don’t have to focus on relaxing muscles or consciously slowing my breath. I just have to blow up balloons. I just have to imagine a balloon in my hand, and try to blow it up. My initial attempts are usually meagre at best, hurried little puffs that would do little to inflate a balloon. But then I take a deeper breath in, and blow again… and then again… and again.

And if I start to turn back to the panic, we just say it again. “Blow up a balloon.” I tell Kathryn the colour. I imagine the shape and how it would feel against my fingers, my lips. I get to the point that my inhaled breath is massive, deep into my belly, and my exhale is long, slow and forced through pursed lips. I feel my chest rising and falling with my breath, and as if by magic, my body and mind begin to calm too.

Calm.

As these balloons get bigger, I relax my breath – the sense of hurry leaves, and I find I am now casually blowing up balloons, no longer as if in a race. The tension in my muscles reduces, my movements slow down, the storm in my mind begins to clear and usually at this point I become much more able to focus on those coping skills and problem solving skills that will actually help whatever situation is causing the sense of panic.

As I told my friend Rob all of this, I realized why the skill works so well. Blowing up balloons is such a simple concept – it’s so easy to connect to it, regardless of a person’s emotional state of mind. And it’s a visual activity, our minds can picture it even when we are just pretending. It doesn’t take patience or a great deal of focus (which is lacking in these moments of panic), and anyone who is being triggered by someone else’s panic can model it, helping themselves stay calm in the process.

Anyone can use it as a skill.

About a week later, Rob, who is a nurse, told me that he pulled over at the scene of a car accident and one of the drivers was in a state of shock and panic. He took charge of the scene, pointed at her and said “Blow up balloons with me!” and demonstrated what he meant. They did this together for several minutes as he assessed her injuries and they waited for the ambulance to arrive on the scene. And somehow, incredibly, it helped.

There is magic in our breath. Grab ahold of yours in a moment of panic. Just blow up balloons.

Note: These Mindfulness Moments are short reflective exercises that encourage us to pause in our day and notice our self and our surroundings with practiced attention. All of these ideas are ones I’ve learned along the way in my study of mindfulness, and many more are available at length if you just do a little digging. These are just examples. I recommend moving slowly through each step. There is no need for hurry here.

Nicola's Rock Pile

(Photo credit: Nicola Gladwell)

  • Sit or stand comfortably.
  • Beginning with your forehead, scan each part of your body by drawing all of your attention to that place.
  • Notice each sensation you are experiencing one at a time, and release any tension found present in your body.
  • Notice any signals your body may be trying to give you – are you thirsty or feeling stiff, for example?
  • Focus all of your attention to your present moment, letting go of thoughts and distractions, bringing yourself repeatedly back (without judgement) to the sensations you are experiencing.
  • Stay in this moment, breathing calmly, for as long as you are comfortable.
  • Take this sense of awareness with you as you continue your day.

Note: These Mindfulness Moments are short reflective exercises that encourage us to pause in our day and notice our self and our surroundings with practiced attention. All of these ideas are ones I’ve learned along the way in my study of mindfulness, and many more are available at length if you just do a little digging. These are just examples. I recommend moving slowly through each step. There is no need for hurry here.

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I share this mindfulness moment with you, acknowledging my own need to come back to the most basic rhythm that sustains life. We are constantly defining ourselves by what we do, what we say, how we think, how we feel. For at least this small moment, let there be no need for anything else, but to just be.

  • Breathe in.
  • Breathe out.
  • Repeat.

Note: These Mindfulness Moments are short reflective exercises that encourage us to pause in our day and notice our self and our surroundings with practiced attention. All of these ideas are ones I’ve learned along the way in my study of mindfulness, and many more are available at length if you just do a little digging. These are just examples. I recommend moving slowly through each step. There is no need for hurry here.

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  • As you are walking, take notice of your breath.
  • Relax your breathing to a natural pace. Focus on letting your breathing shape the rhythm of your steps.
  • Count the number of steps you take during each exhale.
  • As you are comfortable, extend the length of your exhale by one step. Maintain a natural inhale.
  • After a few steps, try to lengthen your exhale by another step.  Continue this process until your exhale is 3-4 steps longer than your inhale.
  • Continue your focused breathing as you notice the various sensory stimuli around you (sights, sounds, smells, what your skin can feel, even the taste in your mouth).

Note: These Mindfulness Moments are short reflective exercises that encourage us to pause in our day and notice our self and our surroundings with practiced attention. All of these ideas are ones I’ve learned along the way in my study of mindfulness, and many more are available at length if you just do a little digging. These are just examples. I recommend moving slowly through each step. There is no need for hurry here.

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  • Begin by standing or sitting comfortably, with both feet on the ground.
  • Breathe deeply and focus your attention on your feet pressing against the ground below you.
  • Slowly rock your feet against the ground, feeling your weight shift from your heels, to the ball of your foot, and to your toes.
  • Imagine you are a tree with roots that go deep into the earth, as you notice the strength of your connection to the ground.
  • Feel steady and tall as you connect your whole being to the earth through your feet. Feel yourself rising from the roots that balance you. Feel these roots connecting you with all Life that also stands on this same earth.
  • Take this steadiness with you as you face today’s challenges and joys.

“Unfortunately, in seeing ourselves as we truly are, not all that we see is beautiful and attractive. This is undoubtedly part of the reason we flee silence. We do not want to be confronted with our hypocrisy, our phoniness. We see how false and fragile is the false self we project. We have to go through this painful experience to come to our true self. It is a harrowing journey, a death to self–the false self–and no one wants to die. But it is the only path to life, to freedom, to peace, to true love. And it begins with silence. We cannot give ourselves in love if we do not know and possess ourselves. This is the great value of silence. It is the pathway to all we truly want.” – M. Basil Pennington, A Place Apart

Well, that’s it.  Vacation is over.  It was so incredibly good.  Far beyond what I could have hoped for in a vacation.  So I take a deep breath and I close my eyes to sleep tonight unsure of what tomorrow brings, which is, I suppose, true about any day.  I end vacation tired and satisfied.

We’ve had a dishwasher while here in Saint John (and have enjoyed making full use of it, despite some pangs of guilt).  Candice found the following passage in Miracle of  Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. It seems so appropriate in light of the pending return to a life with more daily responsibilities than I am use to carrying.  It reminds me that I must learn, again and again, to live present in each moment. It would be so easy to look back at vacation and wish for these days again, because they have been so enjoyable.  For that matter, it would be so easy to look back at my time at SSU, or at home with family, or my childhood and long to be there again.  At the same time, it is so easy to worry about coming changes, the future, my “life plan”, where the heck I’m going and on what road.  But all of that distracts me from the opportunity that is here and now.  The opportunity to learn, grow, develop, enjoy, breathe, digest.

This is a long quote, but well worth reading.  Especially if you, like me, have a lot of dishes to wash.

Thirty years ago, when I was still a novice at Tu Hieu Pagoda, washing the dishes was hardly a pleasant task. During the Season of Retreat when all the monks returned to the monastery, two novices had to do all the cooking and wash the dishes for sometimes well over one hundred monks. There was no soap. We had only ashes, rice husks, and coconut husks, and that was all. Cleaning such a high stack of bowls was a chore, especially during the winter when the water was freezing cold. Then you had to heat up a big pot of water before you could do any scrubbing. Nowadays one stands in a kitchen equipped with liquid soap, special scrubpads, and even running hot water which makes it all the more agreeable. It is easier to enjoy washing the dishes now. Anyone can wash them in a hurry, then sit down and enjoy a cup of tea afterwards. I can see a machine for washing clothes, although I wash my own things out by hand, but a dishwashing machine is going just a little too far!

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.

In the United States, I have a close friend named Jim Forest. When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone else. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.” Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?” I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way—to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the “responsibility” to him for an entire week.

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future —and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

 – Thich Nhat Hanh, Miracle of Mindfulness

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