Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Why Practice? The Darkness Always Falls

This morning we had a contractor scheduled to come to our house to take a look at a couple of leaks that we have been putting off dealing with. Up until he arrived at 11:30, I was working on the outline to a possible presentation I will be giving on hope and mindfulness. Though I tend not to use the word “hope” very much, I was curious about the subject and so I spent the morning hours exploring ideas around it and how it relates to mindfulness and Buddhism. I wanted to find what rings true or not about my experience with hope. I was on a roll and felt inspired as I worked. I found relevant quotations from teachers. It was starting to feel like a fascinating subject when the doorbell rang. The contractor had arrived. I put the computer aside and invited him in. He took a look at the bathroom and, more or less, said the pipes are very old and likely shot. They are leaking into the concrete and though we could patch it, ultimately, the whole bathroom needs to be gutted. This means plumbers, electricians, permits, inspections, a non-functioning bathroom for 3 weeks (and our only full-bathroom) and the worst part...money. 

I have two vulnerable spots. Well, probably more, but two that I know well. Places where I can go dark most easily. Finances have always been one of them. When difficulties like this arise, I can’t imagine how it will work out; I feel alone with it, though I am not; I see no possibility; I can’t reason or think logically. Basically, I go to a despairing place. After the contractor left, I watched myself sink into that hole. It was dark. Was this the same woman writing on hope 30 minutes earlier? So much for all those words, right?

Not really, because this is what I found next. Mike and I went to the woods to go do our usual Sunday ritual. I went running on the trails, as I do. It wasn’t a mindful run by any means (no being in the moment feeling the ground underneath me, experiencing the trees, etc.). But, as I ran, I did watch my emotions gradually shift. Endorphins were being released, energy expelled, thoughts worked out, and by the time I met up with Mike, I was much more like myself. I was still overwhelmed, don’t get me wrong, but not despairing and not dark. In the past, that might have taken me out for days, not just the despair itself, but then the shame about being in despair (which was even worse!).

I share this to remind us of two things. 1) We say it often in mindfulness and meditation, all things change. Our emotions which feel so strong, so permanent, do shift. This is what we are asked to observe again and again when we meditate…not to attach to our thoughts and feelings, not to push them away, but to experience them with kindness and compassion and let them move on. We can trust that they do. Circumstances change, people change, our bodies change, minute by minute. 2) This one, I can’t emphasize enough. It is so easy to think that what we are after in our meditation and mindfulness practice is to get to a place where we don’t get so dark, where we don’t feel things as hard as I felt them this morning for an hour. But it is not true, we will always hit these lows, these bumps, these places that feel impossible. That is a given. It is life. This is good news. It helps us stay humble and it connects us to our common humanity. And when we haven’t had any bumps in a while, it is easy to think, we moved passed them, until something rears its head and we find ourselves knocked down again. A sickness, a job loss, a divorce. But there is a difference between practicing a mindful life and not practicing and it is a significant one. What we are doing when we practice is training ourselves for these moments. Because even when, in the thick of them, it feels as though all that wisdom is gone, what we find is that we move through the mud more quickly and it doesn’t scar us. This work we do in meditation, work that can seem so subtle like…“I’m just sitting here and watching my busy mind,” is actually much deeper than that. The training is underground working and will help you when you need it. Not help you always feel peaceful, but help you find your way back to what peace is. So keep sitting. Hope is at work when we do. 



"In practicing meditation, we're not trying to live up to some ideal -- quite the opposite. We're just being with our experience, whatever it is. If our experience is that sometimes we have some kind of perspective and sometimes we have none, then that's our experience. If sometimes we can approach what scares us and sometimes we can't, then that's our experience. 'This very moment is the perfect teacher, and it is always with us' is really a most profound instruction...Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives."  --Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Monday, September 2, 2019

Inner Life

Every summer when we go to Maine, I have my kids take an electronics break. They get screen time for the whole 10+ hours it takes to get there, but once we arrive, everything goes away. In place of screens, it has become a tradition that they pick out a new puzzle to do in their downtime at the house where we stay. Over the years, the puzzles have gotten more complex and much bigger. We now do 1,000 piece puzzles and have 6 days to get it done. From the get go, my daughter seemed to have advanced puzzling skills. She can quickly tell whether the shape of one piece will fit with another by a simple glance and the shake of her head at me. I am more like the sous-chef of puzzles. I help find all the end pieces, the ones with the flat edges and I hand them over to her. Then, I start grouping by color. Every time we start the puzzle, I have the same experience. It seems completely overwhelming. How we could possibly get these pieces, which all look the same with only slight deviations, to form a whole picture. There is a part of me that wants to give up before we even start. But then I remember my job. Just gather the frame of the picture and start grouping large sections of color. I start to see what might work, one piece at a time. When I find myself getting stuck, when no pieces have come together in a while, I move to a different color. When I come back, something magical happens, and I find the pieces start to fit again. In those moments, I cheer myself on and say out loud, “go mommy!” The kids chuckle (or roll their eyes) at my self-enthusiasm.





I never did puzzles growing up. I see now, with my adult eyes, they are the perfect metaphor for the unending process of “growing up.” Unlike a puzzle, we don’t have the box cover that shows us what the whole picture will eventually look like. Instead we just get to take steps and maybe we have a vision. We find that some pieces start to come together. Sometimes we are convinced we found the piece that will work and then realize it doesn’t actually fit. It happens in schools we choose, marriages, careers, places we live, all relationships, our spiritual life, etc. Everything is an unfolding and a discovering of what fits and what does not. What moves us in the direction we want to go and what does not. At almost 45, I can start to see a blurry picture, but I can’t know the final version. When I am 70, 80 or 90 will it come into clearers focus? Maybe. What I do know is that taking time to reflect on what the whole picture looks like so far is a worthwhile practice. It can tell us a great deal about ourselves, our inclinations, our habits of judgement, our tendencies toward something. Only then can we ask ourselves if we want to repeat a certain thing, yet again. Only then can we see how much we have gone through and how it shapes who we are and what decisions we are making now. Only then can we appreciate ourselves and everything outside ourselves which has made us who we are — all of our experiences, the ones that felt good and the ones that were challenging. We can be grateful for them all, for the qualities, insights, gifts we now have. It also reminds us to enjoy the process, to not be in a hurry to see the picture. Like a puzzles, we don’t get to take it with us anyway. It gets dismantled when we leave. How often do we take the time to simply reflect, recall, appreciate, and process — not so that we can rehash old stuff, but so that we can see the larger picture, the evolution of our beautiful life?

I think it is no coincidence that this post starts with the removal of electronics to bring us to piecing together a puzzle, a whole picture. How can we have time to be with ourselves, truly be  with ourselves: reflecting, ruminating, imagining, constructing the pieces if we are always glued to a screen, to a constant influx of readily available news which, in the past, would have come in much more slowly, if at all. How do we have an inner life, as Sebastian Smee so articulately expressed in his 2018 essay, Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age. If we don’t diligently reserve time for our inner lives, make that conscious choice, we can get lost in the pieces and miss savoring it all. This is what we could call Right Effort (Right Diligence) on the Noble Eightfold Path or could easily fall into the category of Mindful Consumption, the 5th Mindfulness Training. How are we doing this life and what are we consuming that waters wholesome or unwholesome seeds? 

When we went away, I got in touch with seeing wholesome and unwholesome seeds in me when I, too, disconnected from my phone, from social media. It felt like a relief. I knew I was watering wholesome seeds because it felt spacious. Having that experience was important information for me to pay attention to. To do things like write, meditate, walk without a purpose or direction, to dream is to have an inner life. What I know is that if I do these things with my phone on me, or with the feeling that I should check my email, or capture a picture, I am not really connecting with myself. There is a part of me that is still attached, still being driven by the endorphins that get released every time I open my email when it dings, click a “like,” check the weather, etc. 

What I am finding is that to keep this going now that I am home and back to my busy life requires making a deep commitment to myself to be clear what it is I want and, like going on a diet, not to lose weight, but to get in a groove that feels right once it becomes a way of life. I’ve been listening to a number of Tim Ferriss’ podcast interviews with very accomplished entrepreneurs. What I am learning from them is the clarity they have around what they do, how much they do, what they don’t do, and their schedules. Whether it is about watching TV, checking emails, posting on social media, not being on any social media, reading, journaling, sleeping, limiting the number of engagements they say “yes” to, they are clear on what matters to them. It is inspiring and I do think they are on to something. It feels challenging to change these habits. Anxiety arises about being out of touch, of people leaving, of not doing enough, of not being enough — the usual players come in the arena. I also know that once I get in the routine, those feeling will diminish which will bring the whole fallacy to light…the notion that I “need” to be in the know, to be connected in that particular way. I am working on what that schedule looks like…when I allow myself to be online and when I don’t and to practice Right Effort and Mindful Consumption. There is joy in this as I feel excited to return to this other way of being in the world before I let phones and the internet control it. 

You can try it on for yourself...what would it look like to reserve more time for your inner life in your daily life? It might not have to do with your phone or social media. What would you do, or not do, to have more space for yourself? You can start with asking what brings you some anxiety, or often feels urgent, or has some dependency associated with it? If there is something there, then maybe this is a place that needs watering or a place that needs to stop being watered. What, if any, commitment would you like to make? It can’t be half hearted, but it also can’t be so rigid it brings suffering. Right Effort should be joyful. It should feel good to commit.  It will take some time for me to figure out what my boundaries are, what I want to put in place, what I want to eliminate. I am starting by writing it out and then…I am going to get myself a puzzle.





Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Big Jump: a reflection on fear

This is a version of the talk I gave at Sunday Night Meditation 8/25/19. It is also recorded and can be found on my website.


Every summer we go to Acadia National Park in Maine. There is a place on one of the ponds where we swim where you can, illegally, jump from the surrounding mountain. There is a lower ledge and a much higher ledge which I estimate to be about 20 feet high. I would see people jumping from the other side of the pond and I would be both awed and excited as I watched. When my kids came for the first time and witnessed it, they thought it was crazy and exciting, too. My son asked if he could do it. At the time, I said, “absolutely not.” The following year, I found the way to that spot, going a little bit off the beaten path. I stood at the top alone taking it in. It was so peaceful, beautiful, and thrilling. I took my husband and kids there the next day. I gave my kids permission to jump from the lower rock which was probably 6 feet up. My son was nervous, but he did it, as did I. That was exhilarating enough for me. My son asked if he could do the big jump the next year and I said, “maybe,” which I find is always the good parent answer to put something off. The next year arrived and a week ago we were, again, at that place on the mountain, at the pond. My son jumped a few times from the lower rock until he asked the dreaded question, could he do the big jump? I sighed and we climbed to the top and stood there. I looked at him and said, “James, if I said yes, if I gave you my permission and wasn’t in your way, would you really do it?" I could see how nervous he was as he kept looking down at the water and shifting his weight back and forth. His response was a quiet, shaky, “ahhh…I don’t know.” So I gave him permission, secretly hoping he would skip it. Just then a family arrived. They turned out to be locals, which you could tell from the ease at which the kids climbed to the high ledge. The girl, who, turned out to be 12 also, got up there, took three purposeful steps and jumped. No apparent fear, just confidence. After that, James said definitively he wanted to do it. Of course he did. Now, my hair was getting grayer by the second. The aspect to this jump that made it frightening was that at the top you were on a slant to begin with, so you already felt like you were falling, unstable, and the water below looked so very far away. But besides that, you had to clear the lower ledge which you couldn’t see from up there, which meant you had to propel yourself far enough away from the cliff. I asked the family, who were now down below, for any tips. The father was happy to offer this, he said, “once you decide to do it, just don’t hesitate.” I looked at James. He nodded. So we stood there for a while as James wrestled with himself. Realizing we could be in this place all night, feeling tired from a full day with a cold coming on, I finally said, “okay, how about I count down?” He agreed. I started at 10 and slowly made my way down to 1 going slower and slower, at his request, which was fine by me. I had no idea if when I said 1, if he would actually go. To my surprise he did. In a second it was over. That was enough for the day. We all rooted him on. The father kindly sent me the burst of pictures he took of him jumping from down below. I had the video from up above. I had to color my hair when I got home. I could tell James was so pleased with himself that night.

It gives me goose bumps when I tell this story. Watching someone do something they want to do, but are also terrified to do it is inspiring. When we have these moments in life when we are faced with an opportunity that we know will give us something in return — we might not even know what it is it will give us, just something we need, we become willing to look fear in the eyes. We say, “yes” despite the fear, and we don’t hesitate. This is a moment of feeling fully alive. It doesn’t need to be a physical feat. It can emotional, relational, creative, spiritual, but it is some calling that scares us and enlivens us just by the prospect of it being there. 

Facing fear is the subject of tonight’s talk. Most of us aren’t deciding to jump from high heights, but all of us will always have fear to face. Learning how to face it is what we do in here, what we do when we practice coming into stillness, when we let ourselves be silent, and we face ourselves. When we face ourselves, if we are doing it honestly, we come up against fear because we start to see what it is we do to avoid it…how we push away what makes us uncomfortable, how we protect ourselves with judgements and defenses, how we shut down, how we distract ourselves with busyness, worries, habits. This work of coming into stillness and awareness and staying takes courage. It might not sound as exciting as jumping from a cliff, but it is just as impactful. The fear of not being enough, the fear of being alone, the fear of being dependent, the fear of letting go, and the largest letting go, death…all of these lie waiting for us and not to pounce on us (they are not a threat), but lie waiting to be cared for. That is what our fears are really wanting. When we can look at them with the curiosity that only comes when we can slow down and breathe and give a little space, when we are not reactive…and when we can give the voice of fear some room to be heard, the panic subsides. We just need to listen and say, “I hear you” and offer compassion. That alone shifts everything. But, most of the time we are afraid to even go there because we think if we really visit the fear we won’t survive; it will consume us. But that is not what happens when we can truly listen and not react. That is what we are practicing in here when we don’t react to every feeling, sensation, and thought that arises.

We will sit in silence now and I invite you to work with the practice of noticing when you get pulled away. Can you get to the bottom of a fear that might be there. Of course, not every thought has a fear, but many do. Can you acknowledge it…”I know you are there; I hear how hard this is. I don’t want us to suffer either.” Can you be on its side. Then return to your breathing having made this space. Nothing more to do. You can do it multiple times if you find you are pulled away again. Practice not reacting, giving space, and offering compassion. Practice taking the big jump.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Camp, Not War

This week we dropped our kids off at sleep-away camp for the first time. My 11 year old daughter had been asking to go for a couple of years and so we decided to give her the opportunity. If we were giving it to her, why not send her twin brother, too. It could be good for him, we thought. On a perfect summer Tuesday we arrived in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania to start their adventure. After an extensive, mandatory head lice check, we separated ourselves. I brought my daughter to her cabin and my son went with his other mother to his cabin. 

My daughter's cabin was one of the typical ones we saw on the tour back on that cold, rainy day in the spring. It held about 10 beds. The other girls were also arriving for their first day and were trickling in, unpacking, and quietly saying hello. It was what I expected. My daughter and I waited for less than 10 minutes for her large body-sized duffle bag to be dropped off by one of the staff. The driver of the golf cart bag service turned out to be the owner and director of the camp who impressed me by not being above it all to hand deliver kids’ bags to their cabins. I took this level of engagement as a good sign. Once the monstrous bag was on the bed, or rather, on the 5” plastic layer of foam, I put my hand on it at which point, my daughter met my eyes with a not-messing-around look and said sternly, “I've got it mom.” To this I said, “ooookay…I think I’ll go see how your brother is doing.”

I headed the across the lawn to the boys section. B9 was his cabin. I walked in to a large space housing about 18 cots. Boys were already unpacked and settled in. They laid and sat on their beds and stared at my son and my co-parent who were just about done unpacking. It was quiet, except for their stares which were loudly intimidating. How could a room full of middle-school-aged boys feel so awful. It did. My son with his baseball hat on, kept his head down and kept to the task of unpacking diligently, as if he were on assignment, as if he were in the military. When I got home and relayed the story to my husband, he reminded me that we sent him to camp, not to Iraq to fight. I wasn’t sure in that moment, standing in the cabin, awkward and not knowing what to do. Clearly, these boys were not new here and had already been staying at camp. For how long, I did not know. One of them blurted out the “rules.” “We just like to keep to ourselves and not bother each other,” he said. He was looking at me. Really? “Are you looking at me, kid?”…I thought of saying later. One boy, on a top bunk, offered my son a starburst, which he quickly accepted as if it were a lifeline. I felt so desperately grateful for that tiny gesture of welcoming. 

He was all unpacked. There was nothing for me to do, except that I saw he had left the bathmat in his bag. The bathmat was suggested as a nice thing to send along to put next to their cots. I did a quick glance around and didn’t see any next to the other cots, but in that deeply uncomfortable moment, and out of the intense need to make my son feel comfortable, (I know he likes soft things), I quietly asked if he wanted to put it down.  He didn’t think too much about the question, but shrugged quickly and, as fast as he could, put it down. Did I inadvertently put a big “L” on his forehead. It was too late. It was done. Ugh. And yet, I was still glad he had something soft to land on. 

I knew they wanted us to leave quickly and to not prolong the goodbyes. I suggested we step outside so we could get some space from the stares of the boys. We walked onto the porch of the cabin and I could tell he didn’t want to make much eye contact. I knew he would lose it. I was holding myself together, not wanting to leave him there. This felt ALL wrong. We hugged and walked away. We spoke with a lead counselor and asked her to check in on him. I couldn’t help but tell her it was the wrong cabin for him, being so large and with no new kids. She promised there were a couple of new campers still to arrive in that cabin and that she would check in now. It didn’t make me feel any better. I got to the car and cried. 

I’ve been replaying how I would have liked to handle the whole thing. I wish, when I walked in that boys’ cabin, I could have stepped up. I could have asked them what their favorite activity was there so far. I could have asked where they were all from. I could have connected in some way, opening the door for my son to enter or at least have a laugh. I also wished I brought Mike to walk in there with his formidable appearance and let him set the tone. But, I didn’t do either of those things and instead have been left to deal with how gut wrenching it is to see and feel vulnerability. How painful it was to watch my son hold himself together and put on his armor. It is not his nature. All I wanted to do was to protect him. My daughter was born with armor already on. I am not worried about her in the same way (that’s another blog post). “Jean, he’s not going to war.” I hear Mike saying it, again. “Right. It’s camp,” I say to myself. My son has to hold himself together and I hate that he does. But, we all have to learn it...how to stand up, guard ourselves, and take the next step. And yet, I love his openness, his innocence. He was one of two kids who cried in Social Studies this year when they learned about more about the Holocaust. He feels things deeply; he has a compassionate, big heart. Thank goodness. May that never change. It is not their being away that is hard for me. Divorced parents get used to having to let their kids go each week. It is this “toughening up” that I struggle with witnessing. I don’t want him to “toughen up.” And so, it has become clearer to me this week that it is my job to keep teaching him that though he will need to protect himself and hold it together at times and be uncomfortable, he can also stay vulnerable, kind, and open and be brave in that. I am proud of my son because he stayed and had the courage to do so. I do hope he has a great time, but even if he doesn’t, we will all have learned from the experience. 


On the drive home along a country road, we had to stop while a wild turkey family crossed the road. One after another about 12 fluffy chicks walked and fluttered across in a line with the occasional adult in between. Just when you thought they were all across a couple more came out of the grasses trying to keep up. It is an amazing thing we are put up to here on earth. To survive and make the most of this short time we have is worth all our effort and diligence to do well. If we are so lucky, we are led when we are young and then we become the leaders. My sweet boy will be a leader someday and this experience, no matter how it turns out, will help him do his job well. In that, I trust, and it brings me some comfort as I anxiously wait for his return. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Pressure

The last performance I gave as a solo dancer/choreographer was in 2008. Leading up to it, I didn’t know it would be my last though there was a growing sense that I was just about there. It was a shared evening and I had 20 minutes to present the work I co-created with Mollie O’Brien (excerpt here). I remember being in the balcony of Judson Church waiting to go on. Through my career the growing anxiety of that pre-performance moment had reached a level that was just about unbearable. That same night, a fellow artist and friend was working on a project where he would photograph the performer’s face just before he/she went onstage and immediately afterward. It would be shown as an exhibit at a later date. This was the night he would take my picture. While I did love performing the piece that night, the love of it no longer balanced out the pre-performance stress I felt. It was then that I said to myself, “this just isn’t worth it anymore.” The before and after photograph was hard to look at later. All I could see was stress in my eyes on either end. Rather it was all I could feel, followed by a deep shame and sadness about having the feeling. Others probably couldn’t see it at all that night. Regrettably, there was so much more dancing/choreographing that could have been done. Yes, I had two babies at home at the time and life was more complicated, but I was just reaching a greater level of maturity in my dancing. I cut my career short because of the pressure I felt. To top off this night, there was a performance artist in the audience who I did not know. After the performance was over she went onto the dance floor and pressed a button on a recording device she had strapped onto her chest. The device had recorded bits of sound from everyone’s piece and she re-enacted her interpretation of each person’s work. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling at the time, but it clearly had a negative vibration. I didn’t know if she was commenting on the pieces, criticizing, or what her intention was. People were just milling about as she did her uninvited, improvisational rendition. Artistically, it was an interesting “happening,” but now I can say it felt disrespectful to have someone mimicking the work I just so vulnerably put out there. 

I thought this experience was behind me, the experience of being overtaken by pressure (internal and/or external) and the need to live up to my or other’s expectations. But of course, the things that challenge us stay with us (or return) until we have learned what is needed to be learned. I am still learning (thankfully). 

What do we do with this pressure we feel in life? We don’t need to be performers to feel it. Why is it so hard to relax or be at ease with who we are, what we do, what we give? The pervasive sense that I am not enough, should be doing something more, or something other than what I am, lingers like cheap perfume. This pressure seems to be part our current human condition. The speed at which we live in modern day society most likely exacerbates it. It creates a nagging, incessant fear that we are missing something, forgetting something, should be “more,” whatever “more” may be. I am guessing this is what was felt at the time of the Industrial Revolution.

I keep taking the plunge to intimately be with the fear that underlies these feelings of anxiety, pressure, a sense of unworthiness, or the inability to relax. It comes in different forms depending on the day. What arises in my investigation is fear of being judged, criticized, evaluated. The feelings I had in my dancing days returned again recently when one of my meditations was published on a popular meditation app and suddenly it was getting reviewed with comments and stars. Opinions given in the form of criticism, ratings, reviews dominate, suffocate, snuff the life out of creativity. Of course they do. Must we have thick skin to survive? Must we harden ourselves to not feel the impact of other’s approval and disapproval? And, if we do, how does this armor impact our creativity, our spirit? We are of the nature to look for approval. We do it as children and we do it as adults.  We want to feel loved and appreciated. We want to be wanted. We want to feel permission from another to be who we are. It’s as if we can’t get away from it from childhood to old age. 

Maybe we aren’t meant to get away from it. Maybe instead we are meant to embrace this need and let it soften us. Maybe we can feel it so painfully that finally we understand why we would want to move away from judging ourselves and others. We can be humbled by it. Maybe the change actually happens then. We can choose to feel the fear behind our needs, our criticisms, and judgement and tend to it as a friend. We can learn what it truly means to love. These experiences have been my teachers. My opinions and judgements have nothing to do with your work, your art, your beauty, your worth, or mine. Of course they don’t! They are shaped by countless things I can’t even name. Things I don’t even know because they were passed on from generations before me, from my society and culture, from my experiences. They are simply perceptions that are ever changing, shifting, being shaped like clay. They are not the truth. They are not love. Wouldn’t I rather spend my energy bringing more of my authentic self out, inspiring others, caring for others, and enjoying all of it, rather than evaluating, comparing, judging? Wouldn’t I rather be free? 

When I try on this imagined, free self, what I feel is relief, spaciousness, a letting go of what holds me down. I feel joyful and open. This is where the work lies. The place to start is simple. When we recognize that our judging and comparing mind is present and get enough distance to name it, we are on the path to freedom. By stepping back and seeing the perception for what it is and not believe the voice inside that thinks she “knows” what is true, we are not ruled by it. To notice our attachment to our perceptions and to let go is to have Right View (and therefore move towards Right Speech, Right Action, Right Mindfulness, etc.). For me, all I need to do is imagine myself getting rated with stars, getting comments from strangers who don’t even know me, having assumptions made of me or what I do...if I remember what this feels like...that’s  all I need to stop myself in the act and to choose to be kind, generous, and curious instead. What a different person that is...the curious vs the critical.

I don’t want to be armored or have thick skin. Do you? How about we hold a staff meeting? You can do this with me. It is time to say thank you. Thank you to my custom built, self-tailored armor for your years of generous service. I gratefully bow to you for protecting me when I needed it. You have been a bodyguard like no other. And now, you have my blessing to retire. You can rest your well-worn metal and take an extended vacation. I assure you that I will be just fine. I know you need to hear some kind of action plan before you go. My plan is... “right here.” I have the present moment now. The present moment is my protection and she is always there. Whenever I am fearful, I can return to her. I trust in that. In the present moment, more often than not, everything is okay. I can return to my breath and to being right here and know that all things change. This is enough now. I promise I will be fine. You can go...thank you.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Speed Bumps

On a recent day, I was walking on the street where I live which has a sharp turn at the end of it and continues on past a school. As is often the case in many towns here in New Jersey people tend to drive too fast through towns and residential streets. Everyone is in a hurry. I had just passed the turn when I saw a car speeding toward me. I made the hand motion to slow down. What happened instead is the driver sped up, screeching his tires as he went around the bend. My suggestion caused a reaction in him that delivered the opposite result of what I had wanted. It caused me to think about the usefulness (or not) of my gesture, but also what we do when we get a reaction from someone that pushes our buttons, or we hear challenging feedback from a teacher or mentor, or comments on our work. I clearly pushed his buttons causing defensiveness in him, anger, and a reaction that went along the lines of “I’ll show you...” So I tried on an alternative scenario where the driver saw my gesture as a reminder that he could slow down driving by a school, on a residential street. What if instead of “screw you” he responded with “oh, right I see I’m driving fast here, maybe it would be safer if I slowed down. Or maybe it would bring that person peace of mind. I can do that.” Sounds idealistic or as my husband would say, I “live on Sesame Street.”  But when I really sit with it, I recognize that the reason this inner questioning doesn’t happen is because to do that would be to admit to behavior that we might possibly change. For many of us, to do this opens up a door of self-berating thinking, a sense of I must be wrong, bad, not enough, etc. To avoid that unpleasantness, it is far easier to just say “screw you.” But, what if we could take in someone’s response to us and not beat ourselves up over it, but rather look deeply and see instead if there is something to learn from it. Maybe there is something about ourselves to know, to change, to move towards, or maybe we look deeply and see it’s not about me at all and I don’t need to react. Either way the moment of looking and not habitually reacting could be of use, arduous as it may feel. It’s not the easy route. 

Of course, this is easy to see in looking at someone else’s life, but then came my turn that same night. Just before I went to sleep, I learned that one of my meditations got published on the Insight Timer, a well known meditation app. I submitted 5 meditations and it took 6 months for the first one to get approved. At first, I was just delighted. Then, I noticed there were comments and stars. Oh no. I winced while I opened them. While the comments are largely good so far with thousands of people listening to it, I did get feedback that some listeners didn’t like that I shared my website at the very end. When I made the meditations I didn’t know I was going to share them on the Insight Timer where your profile gives all that information. I simply wanted people to be able to know where the meditation was coming from if it was downloaded and passed around. Once I saw the comments, my mind kept going to that feedback, not to all the positive responses I received. It’s fascinating really, how we do this. And so here is where I can look deeply. I understand their feedback and would change the recording if I could, but I can’t and even the ones that are pending I can’t change or it will take another year before they get approved, if they even get approved. I can take their suggestions, make changes going forward, and relate to their sense of marketing bombardment that we all feel at times. I can feel the pain of my own self-critic acting up and tend to her with loving-kindness, seeing where that self-criticism comes from and what it needs. Finally, I can celebrate the fact that the meditation got approved at all and that people are benefitting from my effort to bring more presence and spaciousness to our everyday life. Sounds easy, but it is truly hard to do. I've been working on it.

I invite you this week to see what is underneath any strong reactions you may find yourself having in response to another’s suggestion, feedback, gesture, or really to anything. If you find yourself reacting negatively to it, you might see if it comes down to your own voice that says “I’m not good enough, I’m wrong, I’m flawed,” etc. It is surprising how often that is the case. Can you tend to that place with kindness and grow from there. It is not easy, but the fruits of this effort benefit not just you, but all beings as we start to find the space to choose a different reaction than our habitual one. Though it can sound cliche and not what we want to hear, our growth lies in our difficulties if we are willing to do the work of looking. 

It only feels right to add that sometimes our initial response is “screw you” and that’s okay, too, if we are still willing to come back to it and see if there is anything more underneath that response. It is a maturing process really and we get to mature all through our lives if we are fortunate to let ourselves. There is no time when that “should” be finished. It is humbling for sure. The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths: suffering, looking into the creation of suffering, the cessation of suffering, the Noble Eightfold Path that ends suffering. To look at what causes us to react is to look at suffering and see what we do in the face of it. To mature is to go on the path and practice the tools of Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. We won’t get it right; we just keep moving down the path, getting clarity along the way when the conditions are right. And we don’t need to speed down the path either. We can enjoy the speed bumps along the way. I hope they add some to my street. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Skinny Pants

This past Sunday, as I began running through the woods, forgetting that it had rained two days before and would be thick with mud and fallen fall foliage, I found myself frustrated and then amused by my frustration. It’s just mud. Of course it would be there. I had been running in the reservation long enough to know that. The mud could not be my real frustration. But I kept having to stop so my vulnerable back wouldn’t get surprised by a sudden slip of my footing. I wasn’t appreciating the interruption in what felt hard enough...running. I used to enjoy it. Now I am trying to find a new way to move that would feel satisfying, but until I do, I carry on and get myself out there. I ended up at the pedestrian bridge in the reservation where I stopped and sat, dangling my legs off the rock wall looking over the river below. My eyes settled on one rock where leaves coming downstream had gotten stuck, one on top of the other. The water was pounding it steadily. I kept my eyes fixed waiting to see when the top leaf would get dislodged and start flowing downstream again. Other leaves would slip right on by on either side. What made those particular leaves stuck while others simply moved on? Some even went straight over the top of the rock, as if mocking the leaves they sailed over, enjoying the ride of strong current. I resolved that I would stay there meditating on the rock until one leaf got freed. I wanted that satisfaction. Time passed, I got cold and couldn’t wait any longer. As I made the long walk back through the woods to my car, I thought about mud and stuck places and recalled myself the day before. 

On Saturday I resolved that with my alone time, when the kids were not around and Mike was in a workshop all day, I would take the opportunity to find some winter clothes. It is the kind of thing I need to do alone and for good reason. I went to the mall determined to be patient and hopeful that it would be painless. I ventured into store after store trying to find clothes that fit my short, muscular legs. Clothes I could work in, that were comfortable and flattering. Two and half hours later, I went home with nothing. The style of the day is not just SKINNY. It is TRUE SKINNY, ULTRA SKINNY, SLIM, EXTRA SLIM, CURVY SKINNY. That’s the best one yet. I hate to tell them, but there is no such thing, at least not the designers’ idea of what curvy skinny is. I did go into the fitting room and made attempts on pants that did not say “skinny.” Finding I couldn’t get one pant leg over my calf, let alone the rest of my leg, I would pull it off saying a phrase of loving-kindness to myself. My time in fitting rooms can be very brief. I’d take a breath, pick myself up, and walk out ready to face another store. If I wanted to, I could attempt to put 2 pounds of muscle in a one pound bag (my nicer version of the phrase), but I don’t think it looks good. Nothing about it appeals to me, let alone the fact that it is flat out uncomfortable to be in all day. I left the mall defeated. 

Back at the ranch, Mike returned from his workshop, filled me in on his day and asked about mine at which point I burst into tears. I don’t not like my body. I just wish they made flattering clothes for it. Though I am so glad not to live in the 1950’s, I do think the clothing was spot on. You could be curvy or pencil thin and the clothes appreciated the body, rather than body trying to appreciate the clothes. Instead, today, I have to endure the self-shaming that inevitably comes when store after store insists that you have a different body. The worst part was that non of this was where I wanted to be spending my energy or time. So I added shame to shame just to make it worse. But maybe, feeling like I must be the only woman (because that’s what we usually think...no one else has this problem in this way), who likes her body and can’t find flattering clothes...maybe this is where I need to spend my time. On the way out of the mall, I passed what I refer to as a middle aged store where the clothing is comfortable and I am guessing made for curves. For a brief second, I contemplated going in it. Of course there is nothing wrong with the clothes in the store, it’s just my association with it. It was a crushing thought for me. I kept on walking. Though maybe, if I could have gotten my ego out of the way, I would have found something to wear.

The next day, as I walked back out of the woods enjoying the remaining leaves shimmering in gold, I thought...that’s my rock. I can be just like that leaf that slams against it and can’t get off easily. Someday I will get freed from it. The current will touch me in just the right way to loosen my attachment and I will sail smoothly down the river again. I might meet another rock of a different shape later on. I know better than to think otherwise, but this one will be behind me. Even if it doesn’t happen in this lifetime, I do know it will change. For now, I will stick to my Lucky Brand jeans for the winter and even though I just learned that they, too, stopped making the one style that fits me, I have enough. Mud, rocks, and skinny pants...my teachers on this path.