A number of years ago I decided to change the way I related to people. I had a job where I came into contact with a lot of people looking for refuge, for answers, for comfort. Feeling inadequate, and more than a little bit of an imposter in my role as retreat manager at a Buddhist retreat center, I wondered how I could offer folks something of what they were looking for. How could I help people to feel relaxed, to release whatever stressful life they just drove from – how could I help folks feel at home? And how could I disarm my own tendency toward being uptight, controlling and stressed by contagion, in contact with so many uncomfortable souls?
What would Auntie Rosemary do?
Auntie Rosemary is the person from my childhood who comes to mind when I tap into what it means to be nurtured, unconditionally loved and accepted. Visits to Auntie Rosemary’s crowded kitchen – with its groaning, bursting-at-the-seams cupboards; packed from wall to wall with humanity; sweet biscuits and cups of tea covering the kitchen table – were one of the consistent highlights of my childhood. Children and grown-ups sat together and the grown-ups talked about the crops, the rain, the neighbors, the cousins. And I felt a part of something bigger and more embracing than I felt anywhere else. I felt at home, and I felt loved.
So, what did Auntie Rosemary say? She said, “Love” a lot. She used Love as a proper noun, a term of endearment, a name for everyone. “Love, do you want a biscuit?” “What did you do to your knee, Love?” “We’ll see you next week, Love.” I loved being her Love. She embodied acceptance and nurturing. And, many years later, that’s what I wanted other people to feel.
As I allowed myself to be vulnerable, to use a term of endearment with people I barely knew, to recognize “Love” wherever I saw him or her, I felt love. I felt warmth, acceptance and nurturing.
So, I faked it until I made it, and I tentatively started using “Love” when I connected with people. First I felt sort of silly – who am I to pretend to embody acceptance and nurturing? But then a funny thing happened – I started to feel it. As I allowed myself to be vulnerable, to use a term of endearment with people I barely knew, to recognize “Love” wherever I saw him or her, I felt love. I felt warmth, acceptance and nurturing. I started to slide into what came so naturally to Auntie Rosemary. And it felt like coming home.
So I decided to try this with other beloved mentors. When someone I worked with made a mistake or took too long, I thought, “What would Susan say?” Susan is a dear woman who has been in my adult life for many years, as a constant companion, colleague and friend. And nothing in the workplace fazes her – it’s more important to love the person than to highlight the behavior. “I can see you tried really hard,” “But that’s OK, we’re all in this together,” “What do you need from me right now, dear?” This is what Susan says. And so I try her words on, and find that I, too, am more concerned for the person than any behavior they might have done.
Also, “What would Chris say?” Chris is a very generous soul. When money is involved, he goes to great pains to avoid any shame over misunderstandings, and he also allows his natural generosity to express itself. Just like Susan, the person is more important than the money. I keep my natural tendency for uptight fiscal responsibility and control in check, and I allow love, not money, to guide the conversation.
She reminds me that eating and drinking and laughing with good friends is something worth prioritizing. She reminds me that life is not all about work, and that sometimes cheeky conversation is a great way to blow off steam.
And finally, “What would Gloria say?” She’d say, “Let’s go and get a drink and a good meal!” “Come and spend time with me” “Let’s let our hair down.” And so my inner Gloria comes out every now and then when I’m taking myself too seriously. She reminds me that eating and drinking and laughing with good friends is something worth prioritizing. She reminds me that life is not all about work, and that sometimes cheeky conversation is a great way to blow off steam.
In MSC we work at nurturing our relationship with a compassionate friend as a way to tap into how it feels to be soothed so that we can do for ourselves what loved ones do for us. First, our friend is outside of us, relating to us as the second person. Then the friend is inside of us, as an inner voice that remembers to contribute in times of need. Finally, the compassionate friend is us – we have embodied all that we hope to be for ourselves. And then, just like Auntie Rosemary’s kitchen, we are home.