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When I was a child I started the habit of picking the cuticles around my fingers. My mother used to ask me to stop; she could hear the picking as we sat on the couch in the basement and watched TV. Try as I might, the picking continued, despite her desire for me to refrain.

My dad bet me $100 to stop. And I did, twice. But that still didn’t keep me me from starting again.

My ex-partner used to say to me, pointing to the side of my thumb that was all chewed up, “Just let this part of you right here be”.  And I tried, and succeeded, many times. My current partner has often asked me, “Why are you picking?” which he follows with “What does support from me look like?”.

It  is hard to do something that is painful to yourself and others, and not be able to stop. At least when I was overeating, apart from the food stolen from my roommate’s side of the kitchen cupboards, I was only hurting myself. But the picking is felt by people who are sitting close to me, in vibrations and jarring movements, as well as through the actual sound of my fingers clicking and rubbing against each other.

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I used to hope the writing would lead me to stop, and certainly when I write my fingers are occupied and thus I can’t pick.  Still I have written with chewed up and bleeding fingers. (I have even given massages to people with gnawed and aching fingers. Imagine giving massages to help alleviate tension and stress in other people’s bodies while your hands wear the marks of your own unending struggle.)

There were times when I stopped long enough for the skin around my fingers to fully heal. But I always started up again.  Why do I keep doing it? I’m still not sure. But it happens without my conscious choosing. There is an automatic impulse that leads the fingers on one hand to lash out against the fingers of the other. Actually sometimes it is the fingers on the same hand that tore each other apart.

I used to think I was the only one who did it, but in recent years I’ve learned that many people, pick their fingers, chew their nails and lead themselves down bleeding paths of pain at their own hands.

It is an incredible mystery and a misery. It feels awful, looks awful and tastes awful. It is also embarrassing when others see it.

What is it that leads so many of us down this painful path of self-mutilation?

Why would anyone hurt themselves like this?

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During the one month retreat, I watched as my fingers relaxed and were once again able to let go of this lifelong habit. Each night after getting into bed, I applied a balm of calendula-infused olive oil around each cuticle. (I have learned that this is a way to keep them soft and smooth so that I’m not tempted during the day by hangnails or other stray bits of skin that are easy targets for picking.)

Because I was practicing continuous mindfulness, I was also able to notice more immediately when my fingers started to pick. I saw that each time it happened, I was listening to a dharma talk, and something about what they were saying triggered a feeling in me of discomfort and fear.

I imagine that as a child, when fear or discomfort arose, I learned to use this “finger play” to comfort myself, strange as that may sound. As an adult, I unconsciously turn to it whenever I feel the same feelings.

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It has been over a month since I’ve been home from retreat, and my hands are looking beautiful and whole. I am using the same calendula balm every night.  When I notice fear or anxiety arising in  my mind and heart, I offer myself compassion. This calms me and helps me to forego the  need to pick.

My fingers still seek to pick, however there is often a slightly different energy. They tend to smooth and caress the edges of my nails (which grow incredibly quick thanks to the olive oil balm).

At times like now, when my fingers are all healed, I feel so proud of my hands, so appreciative of their grace and beauty. They are such an important part of this life, offer me so much inspiration and expression, not to mention the ability to take care of myself and those I love daily.

When I meditate, my hands rest in the center of my lap, one of the quietest parts of my body. Mindfulness is here, and notices them resting, resting. No movement, no impulse to rise up against each other.

What a miracle!!

P.S.  I share this post today with some trepidation. It is a vulnerable place to acknowledge. I also know that this resting place is just that. As the Buddha taught, everything arises and passes away. This calm will change, and with it, will come the desire to console myself with picking again.

P.P.S.  I just noticed my left middle finger move to pick the cuticle on the left index finger beside it. Practicing mindfulness, I open to the feelings of fear and nervousness about sending out this post and allow them to be here, knowing they too will pass. I also practice non-identifying, meaning that I don’t take them personally. Like everything else, fear arises and passes.

Instead of judgement and self-criticism, I also offer myself compassion. May I be free from suffering. I hold this suffering with compassion.

For those of you reading who have experienced this or are still experiencing it, I encourage you to learn mindfulness meditation, and other skills for practicing kindness and self-compassion. May you be free from suffering. I hold your suffering with compassion.

May all beings be free from suffering. I hold their suffering with compassion.