Sunday, December 3, 2017

Why Not Me Too?

The conversation went like this. My friend, Louise, had called me the day before my last day of work in my office. She wanted to see how I was doing with this change, with leaving the office building that was the home to my practice for 15 years. I expressed my relief at not commuting, of simplifying my life, how I felt sad to leave my long-time clients, but that I was ready. Then the words just came out. I said how relieved I was to not have to pass the security guard anymore, how I dreaded leaving every night. And then the tears came, taking me by surprise, letting out how long I had held this privately, how long I had held a much larger societal issue deep in my body and consciousness. 

Louise held me and the conversation with love, sensitivity, compassion and support. She said the words I did not know I needed to hear. I explained how in the recent weeks there had been the “me too” movement on social media and though almost all the women I knew were saying “me too” I did not feel I had the right to say it. Intellectually I knew how ridiculous it was to feel as though I could not join the movement, and yet I simply couldn't write the words. I had never been raped or badly harassed. I have mostly worked for myself or with other strong, respectful women and thought I had no significant experiences to claim a man’s “wrongdoing” though I knew it was everywhere. And here I was dreading leaving my building for the too close of a hug and kiss that was demanded of me every night I was there. Me, in my friendly demeanor, my warm smile and easy laugh, my welcoming eyes unable to say, “no.” Feeling like I led him on because I said early on that I appreciated him or how nice it was to hear I was missed. It was nice…at first. And then it was taken too far for me to stop it. What started as a simple hug became a hug and a kiss as he would take my head is his long hands and kiss me on the lips, which I puckered tight. I hated it and could not find the power to fix it. The week before I was to close my city practice for good he asked when I was finished working. Confused by the question, I said that the next week was my last. He clarified that he wanted to know when I was finished that night because he wanted “to come up to my office and kiss and hold me.” Shocked and fearful I did say “no,” but I laughed, too, to make it all a joke. He must have seen my nervousness and with some astonishment asked if I was afraid of him. I gathered that he did not mean to frighten me as I backed away and brushed off his questions with lightness, a lightness I did not, in truth, feel. Oddly, I then felt concerned that I either offended or embarrassed him even as I was scared about how I would get out of my office that night. Would he actually show up? I didn’t think so, but I didn't want to be naive either. We all hear awful stories. 

I felt shame as I shared all these words with Louise. The truth was I was afraid of hurting this man who greeted me so warmly at the front desk, a man who when he said he loved me I didn’t doubt he did. I did not want to disappoint him. And when I said that last word to Louise on the phone, I knew it was the word that was underneath a very old feeling. Never wanting to disappoint my father, always wanting to be the one that made him smile and feel at ease when it seemed everyone else knew just how to set him off. I was his joy, never causing trouble, and I loved being just that. And so when the words came from him in my teenage years, “why don’t you just put on a little lipstick” so I would look pretty going out to dinner, my insides started to turn and ask what does this mean? Starting much younger than that, I can easily recall feeling deeply embarrassed at his overtly playful flirting with women in front of us as if it were lighthearted entertainment. If we could bring ourselves to say we were embarrassed it was brushed off with humor. This is just a “normal healthy man,” right? I wasn’t old enough to have these thoughts, but what if I were that woman he was flirting with and I smiled and laughed because I didn’t know how not to?

I know now that from a very young age I witnessed that behavior and started wrestling with it. I have been wrestling my whole life. It led me to struggle with my muscular body, my athleticism which never could feel feminine enough. At around 16, I helped my father work at his restaurant one night in the city. He was short staffed and I worked the counter. It was him, me, the short order cook and the dishwasher. It was near closing time and two men had come in, one with a black eye. I knew it was trouble. I took their order and they kept calling me back over with a wink. I finally whispered to my dad that I didn’t want to help them anymore and he took over. He asked if there was a problem. They didn’t want him to serve them, obviously not knowing he was my father. The short order cook took out a large knife down low in case it was needed. I was scared. I felt somewhat responsible in my pale green, sleeveless dress and silver strands of necklaces, a dress I am sure my dad felt proud to see me in. Then in my early twenties I was being cat called as I waked through the streets of NYC, I finally stopped wearing dresses and skirts or anything particularly revealing. It wasn’t until I bought a gown for my wedding and felt beautiful that I took some of it back and started to wonder. Until then, I didn’t realize that there was another way until I had met men who were sensitive and respectful and didn’t use their strength to overpower me and make me feel like an object. It wasn’t what I had known.  

These experiences changed me gradually. Repeatedly throughout my adult life this confusion came and went. It showed itself in the men who expressed interest in me because I was so pleasant, so easy to be with, so calming, so easy to make laugh. My nervous smile couldn’t come off my face. It seemed as though I had “available” written on my open heart. I felt responsible and ashamed when the experiences went too far. Confused and awkward and still not wanting to disappoint.

Louise reminded me that we are all victims of this. The men, too. The confusion, the overstepping, the passed on behaviors and the challenge to change it are here for us all. She said what I needed to hear, “you can still love them.” Because I do. I actually do care for and appreciate that security guard. He has a beautiful spirit. This is where the complexity lies. My love for my dad is huge. He absolutely did not mean to cause harm. He thought he was being charming. In many ways, he was. I am sure he made many women feel good about themselves. He certainly me feel good about myself. A dapper, handsome man from an American-Italian culture where adoring and flattering women was just what a man did. It is not that I think flirting or flattering someone is wrong. It is healthy and human. I love being adored. I do laugh easily. I do have an open heart. I just want it to be respected, as I believe most women do. I want men to not assume we like being looked up and down, or that we enjoy having their arm put around us, or kissed just because we smiled and laughed with them. I care for many of the men who didn’t realize what they were doing or, if they did, were suffering so much that they couldn’t choose another way. And my confusion over what is appropriate affection and what is not and how I can respond is not just mine. It belongs to our culture, to our society, to our families. It is a conversation that needs to be kept alive. As I hear the almost daily reporting of sexual harassment among public figures I am affirmed and relieved. Finally. This has been long overdue. Let’s have this conversation. Let’s look at this messy, complicated, painful place in all of us. I have made my share of regretful choices, stepped over boundaries, and caused pain that I continue to have to forgive myself for.

I still can’t write the words, “me too.” Louise says that’s okay. Her permission gives me permission. Permission to let this take its time in me and in society. My life experiences have demonstrated how different men and women are. We can find our differences and celebrate them. Let’s keep moving humanity forward. It is hard work, but what else is there to do. I will have these conversations with my kids. I will keep being aware of the errors I make in parenting, in responding to life in ways that are unconsciously sexist. I know I make them. In having the conversation with Louise, I got support I didn't know I needed. She generously offered to show up on my last evening to see me out the door on my terms. In talking with her, I was able to bring the whole story to my fiance who I was holding back from because I felt ashamed. Mike met me at the office that last night, too, to support me leaving on my terms. It opened communication between us, which is what we must all do. I do believe we will get to a place where we are not threatened by the other sex. We are painfully on our way. It takes courage to look at ourselves, to be honest with ourselves, and to see the suffering we all share. This takes true strength and genuine power. This takes a “real man” and a “real woman.” We need to be willing to look at our pain, our shame, our regrets and we need to forgive and begin again. I am on my way. I forgive myself for my own confusion and lack of clarity. I forgive the men who didn't know they were making me uncomfortable. I forgive the ones who did, too.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Labyrinth

Seeing growth in ourselves isn’t always obvious. I find that it is usually in retrospect that I can see where I was and what has changed so profoundly. Sometimes it takes an outside object, a physical place, a person, words that I return to and, in placing myself next to them, I see that I am not the same. I see, hear, feel, sense them in a different way. It is like a marker. I think of a child marking her height on a wall and returning to it sometime later and is surprised and delighted at seeing that she has surpassed that mark by an inch. We don’t necessarily see or feel it happening in the moment. When we do find ourselves awakened to this other place we get the opportunity to take in what has happened. These are the moments where we can feel awed by life. I had one of these experiences recently discovering it among evergreen bushes that led me to the center. 

The Garrison Institute, a contemplative retreat center located along the Hudson in New York, in what was once a seminary, has on its grounds a labyrinth. I stayed at the Institute for the first time in 2012 and visited again two weeks ago for another retreat. This time, it was part of our practice to walk the labyrinth. Shortly into the walk, I realized that everything was different. When I was there five years ago, the bushes that constituted the shape of the labyrinth were small, individually shaped, round, evergreen bushes. They came up to my shins and, if I were impatient, could easily step over them and get out of the maze-like garden. The experience of the labyrinth didn’t strike me much at the time. This many years later, the bushes are now a continuous wall, flowing into each other and rising up to the level of my thighs. They have grown and everything about the experience felt new. As I walked and sensed this dramatic shift that had happened, I realized that I, too, had changed. Everything about me was also different. Five years ago, my life felt in turmoil. I struggled with the major changes and turns my life had taken. While I knew at the time that it was necessary to go through whatever it was that was turning my life upside down, it was painful and seemingly long. And yet, here I was in October 2017 experiencing the same place from a very different inner place. The labyrinth that ultimately brings us to the center, even when at times it feels like it is doing the opposite, showed me that I had truly arrived at the center. It is not a straight course. It often does not do what we think it will, or take the time we expect it will, and doubt is inevitable along the way. But in the end, we get to see the whole picture of where we started and ended and how we got there. Along with the evergreens, I got to see how I grew and changed. It was subtle and profound. 

Though I am in the center now and enjoy being here in this more stable, grounded place, I know there will be other labyrinths I will be asked to navigate again. I have more understanding in me now, more experience, and I know my resilience in a way I did not before. Maybe it won’t be so unbearable next time. Even if it is though, at some point in time, I will have another perspective of it. It will be another marker of how I changed, yet again. No doubt, I will find center again. I can rest in that. Life is uncertain. As the saying goes…that is the only thing that is certain. Embracing that understanding brings me much relief. I know not to panic. I know everything changes. I let go and remind myself to keep at that work of letting go more. It is endless work. In doing that, I can love more as fear gradually takes a backseat. Bring on the change. I trust that it will bring me where I need to go. 

Epilogue
I feel the need to add that though it is in bad form to get out of the labyrinth by stepping over the bushes, sometimes, you need to do what you need to do. The day I had the realization of how much change had gone on, I didn’t know how long the labyrinth would take. I ran out of time and had to get back to my group. I did the awful thing and climbed out. It felt strange and wrong to cut it short and clumsily make my way out…but even that is part of life. Sometimes it is just sloppy. The beauty is that we get to forgive and try again.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What Makes A Moment Good

This past week, in preparation for one of my mindfulness groups, I tried an exercise I was planning on sharing. It was a straightforward task of reflecting on the summer and writing down all of what felt good in it. My list was bigger than I expected, which is often the case, and is one of the gifts of the exercise…we get to see how much goodness is there. This time, there was something that caught me by surprise even more than the size of my list.

As I started reflecting, one of the most readily available moments that came to me was actually a moment that harbored some struggle. We were on our week long vacation to Maine, a trip that I am eager to get to every year. We had three days left. The kids were at day camp on the island and Mike went for a rock climbing lesson for half the day. I was looking forward to having a time of solitude…the only one on the trip. I decided to take a walk on a trail on the opposite side of the pond from which I usually walk. For years I had seen people jumping from what seemed like a high cliff off the mountain into the pond. From that distance, it seemed like a formidable jump, but clearly had to be safe enough for people to do repeatedly. I thought I'd scout it out for all of us to possibly return to later in the day. When I climbed up to where it was off of the path, I felt a sense of satisfaction at being in this spot I had always marveled at from a distance. The rock on which I stood was sloped downward. To see where I would land if I jumped, I had to slowly inch my way down the rock face until I could see the water below me. This was no small jump. Simply standing there on that slant made me uneasy, so I crouched down into a squat to be closer to the earth — to literally find the ground beneath me. The people I had seen jumping did it so easily, or so it looked from my vantage point on the other side of the pond. On this side, I could feel that it took much more than the eye could visibly see. Courage, adrenaline, fearlessness. I didn't know that I could muster any of this or if I even wanted to. But, in this moment, I wasn't here to decide. This was just a scouting trip, so I sat down, instead, on the steep slant and lightly pondered the jump. I was alone there in the quiet of this stunning, morning landscape and as I let my mind move on from the prospect of jumping or not, what came was much harder. I realized how much of that trip, including this very morning was fraught with the sense that it was going too fast, that I wasn’t feeling rested or at ease yet on my vacation and that it wasn’t enough. I was struggling inside. This was followed by the voices of judgement that said, “you’re not being very present; you're not taking this in. How can you be unhappy and complain on vacation, in this beauty?” As I listened more, I realized that the week away, as it was, really wasn't “enough,” that my body and mind were telling me I needed more rest, more of a break from all that I had done over the year. I let that information just sit. There was nothing to do, but just feel the feeling and let it be. I didn’t have to fix it. I didn’t have to deny it, change it, or convince myself otherwise. I could simply feel the need making itself loud. And then I sat and meditated before heading back. 

This might sound bewildering. You might, understandably, be thinking… “this was what you remembered as a good moment? A struggle and a realization that your vacation wasn’t enough?” Yes, and it was perfect. As I recall it now, I feel the peacefulness and sheer beauty of the place that morning on that rock. I sense the spaciousness I felt at listening to what my heart and body had to say. I was able to arrive at compassion for myself and replaced judgement. That moment now resonates in me as one where I was truly present. It might not have been full of joy, in fact, I felt tears, but it was full of awareness, listening, love and I was surrounded by natural beauty. It goes to show me that moments of goodness aren't always warm and fuzzy. They aren't always happy or easy. Moments of goodness are moments when we are connected to what is really alive in us and we have permission to just be there. 

In the end, I did not jump from the high place when we returned that day. There was a lower rock that we climbed down to. It was more like 6 feet from the water, which was plenty high for me. My body and mind didn’t need a challenge or an adventure this trip. Instead, I needed that moment of realization on that rock that has since helped shape my fall. I am being much more aware of preserving my down time, of letting myself rest, of putting kind boundaries around my work. For all of that awareness, I am grateful.

 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Reclaiming The Body’s Wisdom In Exercise

The first half of my adult life was spent engrossed in the realm of the physical. As a choreographer and dancer in the contemporary NYC dance world, I lived and breathed in the world of movement. To my very core, I was a mover. What I and others asked of me was repetitive and often relentless. I dove in with passion, hurling my body from standing to the floor, jumping endlessly, lifting other bodies and being lifted. When the aesthetics of the choreography called for it, my back would arch and curve in extremes, my ribs would jut front and back and to the sides and my frame would be asked to hold weight equal to or more than my own. It didn’t occur to me at the time just how much demand I was putting on my body. People thought I lifted weights because my arms were cut and toned and I would laugh at the prospect, having never lifted a weight in my life. Gradually, the dancing lifestyle started to wear on me emotionally and all I wanted was time to walk in the woods. 

As I faded out of the scene, I needed something to replace that physical emptiness. After all, I was a mover and there was no taking that out of me. What did I do? I started running. It was the closest I could get to the adrenaline rush that dance had given me. It wasn’t artistic, but it was continuous, demanding movement. When I started, every few minutes, I would stop and do something else, like battements (kicks) in all directions, jumps in first and second position, chassĂ©s, or other dance-like moves to mix it up. Just running didn’t make sense to me. Then over time, I began simply running and lost that natural inclination to vary what I did. When I went through my divorce, my running was at an all time high. I ran hard and escaped in it. There was a fire inside that I had to let out. It felt great. And then I met Mike, a local personal trainer, now my fiancĂ©. It all changed again.

I would see Mike as I ran in the woods. He would be walking his dog, Sam, or he would be doing Thai Chi-like movements by the river’s edge. Then I noticed that he worked at the personal training gym across from my apartment, Longevity Personal Fitness. One night, walking my dog by the gym’s tall glass windows, I saw him doing something on the ground inside and I felt the spark of something warmly familiar. The gym floor had little equipment. It reminded me of a dance studio with its clear, gray floor of open space. No one else was around. I gathered this guy wasn’t a typical trainer and that he moved in some form. When we finally did introduce ourselves passing in the woods one day, I was excited. But this isn’t a love story post; I already wrote that one. This is one about returning to movement and rest, getting stronger and feeling whole, doing less in better form, and remembering the loving-kindness that needs to be in everything we do.

Mike understood that I was a runner. He didn’t try to talk me out of it. After we got together, he offered to “train” me, a phrase my ears found and still find funny. In all my years of dance training, I didn’t think of it as training. I just thought of it as movement and learning. But I would listen to Mike and slowly adapted my ears to accept this new language. He helped me get back to a perspective on exercise that I intrinsically knew, but had gotten away from. And when my back finally gave out, I had no choice but to rethink what I had been doing. I started listening better and changing the way I approached being in this body. I became more physically mindful as I recognized that all of the messages Mike was sending me about how I approached my body resonate with all of my life’s work as a Mindfulness Facilitator and years of work as a Massage Therapist and Bodyworker. Here was what came from my “training”with Mike…

Stop When It Feels Good
This was the first revelation Mike made explicit to me. Though I had years of training in Feldenkrais Method work, which is a system of learning through movement based on doing only what feels good, not going to the end range of your movement, stopping if there is pain, etc., when it came to staying “in shape,” I often went hard. Truthfully, I often pushed myself in all areas of my life past the point of what actually felt good. Whether it was organizing a closet or staying up to do one more thing, I knew how to keep going. There was a rush in that push that I was afraid to give up. The day Mike said it to me…“stop when it feels good”, though it challenged every ounce of my being, I knew he was right. My objections emerged like a monster out of the mud. “How will I know if I have done enough? What if I get lazy? I’m going to get fat if I do that.” Fear, fear and more fear. The answer to all of these objections was simple… trust in feeling good and let that be enough. In my world, this touches on the practice of loving-kindness and gratitude. When we treat ourselves with tenderness, with kindness, we awaken to the world we ultimately want to live in. In this worldview, we come from a place of goodness and gratitude and we start with ourselves. From there, we have a greater capacity to receive, to give, to feel full and to be happy. If we are always pushing, striving, we never feel satisfied (and lose a sense of gratitude). It is like filling a tub with a leak in the drain. I re-learned the value of stopping when it feels good in exercising and enjoying the goodness.

Rest & Recover
When I danced, I had it ingrained in me that if I didn’t keep dancing at least 6 days a week, my ability would diminish, or I would get out of shape, or somehow off track. On the day I graduated high school, rather than go out and celebrate like the rest of my class, I went to dance class or rehearsal. Maybe it was passion, but maybe it was just fear. Fear that if I rested or took a day off, I’d fall apart or I’d miss something. It took me a long time to change this way of thinking. To not act on fear, but to acknowledge it gently. Now, I resonate more with the monks and nuns in my teacher's lineage who take a “lazy day” each week where they don’t have to do anything. Our body needs to rest and when we truly let it, without guilt, we refuel ourselves, not deplete ourselves. So when Mike says to me…watch what you do today…you did all of that yesterday, I take heed of his advice. And, if I did something well yesterday, I don’t need to repeat it today or even tomorrow. I can do something else. This is another form of loving-kindness practice — taking care of our bodies and respecting ourselves. Once again, we can trust that we will be better off for it.

Form Not Quantity
I used to run for 40 minutes, 5 times a week. That was on top of giving 12-15 massages, walking the dog, walking to the train, through the city and up multiple subway steps and taking care of twins. So when I started working with Mike and after a half hour and just 2 sets of a few reps of each task, I would say, “that’s it; that’s all I get!” He’d roll his eyes and walk away from me, giving me his usual wave of a hand in dismissal at my lack of understanding. He has trained me well. I still say it, just to get his reaction, but now I know…stop when I feel good and do what I am doing well. If the exercise I am doing isn't helping me to organize myself in my body (i.e. have good alignment), then it is not very helpful to me. Do less and do it better. This is what Mike has gotten me to see through the details and focus of his sessions. You can see it in the way he works…his attention does not waver from his clients who are likewise, deep in concentration for 30 minutes. In meditation, it doesn’t matter how long we sit, but that we do it and we apply as much focus to stay in the present as we can. These days, I go to the high school track and mix up my running, with squats, sprints, crawls, rolls, jumps, stairs, balances. It's only a matter of time before I’ll be adding dance moves back and making my kids cringe. It all takes under 25 minutes. I look and feel like an athlete and when I sprint up to the top of bleachers, I feel a bit like Rocky and I know I have done enough because I feel good. 

Feeling Whole
When we think of ourselves as separate individuals and forget our inter-connection with everyone and everything around us, we end up suffering and we perpetuate suffering in society, in the environment, in the world. We cannot exist alone. Everything we do, eat, wear, depends on countless others all over the world and the choices we make effect countless others. This same understanding applies to our body. When we think of our body as an “it” with separate parts, we misunderstand how the body functions. We are not separate, independent parts. Each organ, bone, muscle, tissue, fluid depends on another and when we come out of homeostasis, the whole thing starts to collapse. It may happen slowly over time, but eventually we break down. We need to think of movement in the same way. When I only ran, I wasn't using all of me. I was moving in one plane and strengthening only the muscles that helped me run. It wasn't making me strong in a holistic way. Mike gives me movement that utilizes all of me…it brings me back to dancing where all the aspects of me were asked to function together. I appreciate that he doesn’t want to strengthen my hamstrings one day and my pecs the next. In fact, I believe he doesn’t even know how to think that way. He has me move in all planes and in all dimensions from the floor to standing. He helps me remember to move from a place of connection, not disconnection. Herein lies our true strength. When we remember our connectedness, we are whole.

I know this is not a love story post, but I knew I had found the right person when I saw that the way Mike approached his work and his passion was aligned with everything that I knew about feeling good, whole and happy. We should all be so lucky to find people like this in our lives…whether a trainer, a partner, an employer, or a friend. We could all choose to ally ourselves with who and what resonates with our life’s values and helps us stay close to them. Our approach to our body and mind would do well to come from this place also. We can ask if the physical practices we do resonate with what we value. Does it bring balance, connectedness, and does it make us feels good? If it does, can we trust that it is enough? And when fear arises, as it will, we can do what we do in meditation and “invite it to tea,” hear it out, and then choose an action. The action might be different than our habit energy might otherwise have us do. There is so much freedom and power in that.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bittersweet Change

I stand in my New York City office taking in that at the end of next week, after 15 years of being here, I am leaving the place for good. I imagine taking the art off the walls, the curtains down, folding up my massage table, standing in an emptied space. I sense it in my chest, a concave, empty feeling and then sadness. It is the deep reckoning of the letting go that is at hand. I hold it in one hand, while in the other, I hold the nervous excitement of change, of possibility, of stepping into a new, welcomed and sought after place. I go back and forth between them.

I recall Robert the building manager with the raspy New York City voice of a chain-smoker showing me the room 15 years ago. On a whim, I stopped in his smoked filled office and asked if there were any spaces available. I had previously been renting one, then, two, then three days a week from a colleague, taking each additional day on a fearful leap of faith that I would get more clients. He looked at me the way he does with a pause as if he's making an inner assessment about whether to accommodate me and said, "actually, I have one that just became available; want to see it?" He led me up to the 5th floor and opened the door to an emptied, bright peach colored space with a worn beige carpet, an old air conditioner, and a window that faced a brick wall. I said, "I'll take it." The nervousness that accompanied me then is similar to what I feel now, but what has changed is my experience, my confidence, a greater trust that I can make this new arrangement work. I still sometimes forget as I embark on new things, but my experience has my back and I lean on her. This image of standing in an empty office in 2002, then just beginning, and standing in it now just ending, I am reminded that this is how it goes. This is how all change, how all beginnings feel...full of excitement, of nervousness, of doubt, of possibility and we jump or we don't. But, I know when we don't jump, we are apt to get resentful, angry, stuck, depressed, or continually longing and blaming. 

I do jump. My gosh, I realize that every decade there seems to be a jump to take, a jump that has to be taken. A jump that proves worth taking as hard as it may seem at the time. Have you seen the short film Ten Meter Tower? The film captures ordinary people like you and me climbing the stairs of a 33 foot diving platform and watching their reactions at taking the terrifying plunge. All significant jumps feel like that. We can't always do it. The disappointed looks from the ones in the film who retreat instead says so much. I feel their agony. To do it is terrifying. To not do it is disappointing and haunting. To witness this process is beautiful.

To jump often requires, what feels like, a saying goodbye to who we were before so that we can step into some new way of being. We take the jump and we are changed. We are not person we were before we left the high dive platform. We are changed because we did it. It goes into the bank of experiences in our body and mind that informs every next decision, whether we are conscious of it or not. And the beautiful thing is that what went before brings us to this place and because of that it lives on. The people I worked with over the past 15 years-- some I saw once, some I saw weekly, year after year, all come with me. Those experiences, those relationships, those profound or mundane moments all created ripple effects. I jump, have new experiences, connect with new people, and the ripples from the splash get sent out.

Bittersweet. Change is often just that. On my last day, I will stand in that office and if tears come, I will let them. They will be tears of gratitude, of fear, of the universal challenge we humans face in knowing that all things change, again, and again. The tears won't be tears of an ending, but of an opening blessed by all my past experiences, for which I am very grateful.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Self-doubt & Other Uninvited Guests

Every Sunday night when I facilitate meditation, I get to the final bell that closes the evening and say the phrases that are often used in my teacher's tradition. There are four phrases put into two long sentences. I have said them hundreds of times. I don't have them written in front of me. I know them by heart...except when I don't. One evening, when I first started facilitating, the final words of the last phrase left my brain. It was as if they went out for a walk and hung a "be back in 5 minutes" sign on the window. It was no big deal, just uncomfortable in that awkward way when something takes you by surprise and there is an audience before you. I paused for what felt like an eternity, but probably consisted of a couple of seconds and made up some other words that worked just as well. That was years ago, but, it has never gone away. I experienced this blanking out twice prior in my performing career, which was much more frightening. I would be deeply involved in my movement and some part of my brain stepped out of my solo, made a commentary, and came back leaving me lost in space. I would improvise until there was some cue in the music that brought me back to where I should be. Inside I was panicked, but no one would have known it. I just kept moving. But, I knew and my mind wouldn't let me forget.

The simplified story of the Buddha's enlightenment was that on the famous night that he sat under the Bodhi tree, Mara (you can consider Mara a demon) appeared and threw all kinds of arrows at the Buddha to tempt him and bring him down. The arrows would be states of mind like desire, self-doubt, confusion, pain, fear, restlessness, remorse...any of the hardships we all face. But the Buddha stayed sitting there and invited Mara in. He took each arrow and looked deeply at what was there and transformed them as they came. He did this until there were no more  arrows and he was enlightened. More than any other spiritual story this one resonates the most with me. The demon is not some outside force, but our own mind working against itself. It is the judgmental, self-critical, doubting, desirous mind that we all get caught in. How the Buddha sat through this storm is what we practice when we meditate. We sit with whatever thoughts, feelings, sensations arise and don't push them away, or get swept up into them, rather we observe them with kindness and compassion and see what is truly there. We don't react, or we see when we do, and we transform it. 

Mara comes to visit me every Sunday night at that closing bell. He is such a regular that I know to smile when he appears. Mara says, "you are going to forget the line; I know you will." I reply, "hello Mara, I know you are there" and I go on with the phrase. I haven't forgotten it again, until just the other night. I heard the voice and suddenly my words were gone, sucked from me like a vacuum. I thought, "ugh, he got me!" Picture me stumbling backward, an arrow in me, but a smile on my face.

Two days later, I met with a friend in the meditation community over tea. I talked about that moment and in the sharing, he gave me what I needed...the permission to make the phrases my own. He allowed me to transform the arrow of self doubt that gets thrown at me every Sunday. I have come up with my own words. I have not memorized them yet and maybe even those lines will cause me to stumble from time to time, but the transformation has already happened. I am changed solely by owning the words in a new way. They come from me. In a more global way, this is the shift that I needed...to own what feels true to me.

The arrows don't stop coming. As we become more aware of what we do, there may be fewer, but they don't ever stop. They come when a change presents itself in our career, when a challenge in our relationship rears its head, when our body stops functioning as we expect it to, when we are tempted by something, when we are asked to make a hard decision. In these moments Mara appears, often with a similar, personalized line, that gets under our skin and incites us with a reaction. Can we invite Mara in and have a conversation or do we build a wall and have the fight escalate?

The gift in all of this that we get a lifetime to work with this puzzle. We can ask ourselves, what are the arrows that get thrown at me? What causes me to stumble and doubt? Can I transform those lines that appear to have sharp edges, that appear real and true? The ones that revisit me uninvited. Can I transform them into flowers when they actually make contact with me? I remind myself often that this power lies within each of us. In my dear friend's house, there hangs a piece of calligraphy by our teacher Thich Nhat Hahn. It says simply, "the tears I shed yesterday have become rain."  We can transform suffering in whatever form it takes. When we act in spite of self-doubt, when we do keep moving, we are changed. We may feel the earth tremble beneath us, we may momentarily lose our place, but we stay in it, trusting that it will be worthwhile. It always is.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Nothing Wrong In This Moment

My two-week struggle with a sinus infection came to an end. I was leading my group mindfulness class and we were doing a reflective exercise where we check in with ourselves and ask how we are doing. We wait for the word to arise that captures what is present. Initially I couldn't come up with anything until I realized that the words that arose surprised me in their simplicity. No wonder I couldn't find them. I was calm and peaceful. Nothing was wrong. I had no cough, no sciatic pain, nothing commanding my attention in busyness, necessity, or alarm. The following night my kids got home from school and the ease continued. My son got to his piano lesson; both my kids got their homework done early; I had no orders to bark out for the fifteenth time; I had plenty of time to make dinner after work; I even got the windows and screens cleaned. Still, I felt a low hum of anxiety in my being. I found myself repeatedly saying, "nothing is wrong Jean; you can simply enjoy this moment." Of course, that was my mind speaking, but my body was still braced and needed more time.  

This is the irony of happiness. Oftentimes when we have it, we miss it or don't have permission to have it. We miss it because our nervous system is accustomed to that one mode, or we assume the other shoe will drop, or we are already onto what we want next, or we feel guilty for being at ease. This is big one for many busy people...I can't possibly take this easy moment! I mean really...not EVERYTHING is okay...I've got the HUGE problem of not knowing how I'll survive when I need to stop working, for instance. Shouldn't I concern myself with that if everything else is just fine for the moment? It's an equally humorous and sad thing we do, though I generally find it is better to laugh. "It's only ice cream, ma'am," as the young man working at the neighborhood ice cream shop said to a flustered customer the other week. It has been my mantra since. There are so many times I can say to myself..."it's only ice cream, Jean." I can kindly laugh at myself and feel my feet back on the ground and my thoughts back in some kind of perspective.

Putting major world and societal problems aside, truthfully, in most moments everything usually is okay. Even if I have matters to figure out, too much on my plate, logistics to maneuver, pain or loss surfacing, if I were to check in with the actual moment, I can usually say I am safe. I am okay for right now. And right now is what we have. So we keep practicing and reminding ourselves that all is well. That is enlightenment. Every moment we catch ourselves, we are enlightened. We don't need to sit for hours, wear a brown, red or yellow robe. We can just remember that it is only ice cream when it is only ice cream and enjoy the ice cream if we are actually eating it. We can set as our intention to enjoy each moment. All of that comes from our minds and when we follow our breath the intention moves into our body. We can reset ourselves as we would restart a computer and let our nervous system be refreshed with each inhale and exhale. Our tech support are those around us also practicing. They bolster our practice and inspire us to continue. If you don't have this support around you, find a group or reach out for help in locating one. 

Take a moment, just a moment. Ask...right now, am I safe? Right now, are my essential needs met? Right now, can I see something beautiful...anything. Right now can I feel my inhale and exhale and follow along? If you can say yes, give yourself permission to close your eyes for two minutes and just breathe. Hear the sounds around you just as sounds and let yourself simply be. Nothing to figure out, to plan, fix or do. This moment is enough.