Sunday, December 21, 2014

A for Effort?

I can't remember my parents ever saying it, but somehow I managed to grow up taking in the notion that if I work hard, I'll succeed. So, I always worked hard. I remember for the longest time it seemed I couldn't make the Honor Roll, which implied that you were smart, but I always made the Headmaster's List, which implied that you worked really hard. Eventually, I made both and surprised myself, assuming it was all the effort that got me that scroll of paper and a handshake in front of the school. There's nothing wrong with the idea that to make something great happen, we need to apply great effort. It certainly did bring me places in my life. But in my adult years, I have learned that there is another way to look at this and it threatens a deeply rooted way of being. If I keep digging, a part of me that fears the tree might fall. What I have been reconfiguring is that when I really want or need something these days in work, in social life, with family, it is not by trying hard that will make the thing come to fruition. Of course, that is not what it feels like. It feels like I must do something. It has a kind of panic to it, that if I don't take an action, not only will I not get what I need, but I will fall endlessly backwards down a rabbit hole. So how do I, or any of us, have a goal, or desire, or need and not think we need to make it happen? It is as though we are suddenly lost with our jobs taken away. We are asked, with all its discomfort, to sit still and wait.

What I lacked in my younger years was a spiritual life, that word that makes some people get squirmy, often for good reason. It makes me squirmy sometimes, too, if I forget what I mean by it. I equate it with being present or aware, acting mindfully, remembering our interconnectedness, being grateful (allowing for surprise and wonder as Brother David Steindel-Rast speaks of), letting go, and trusting. A spiritual life requires a particular kind of effort, but not the kind I used most of my life. From a spiritual place, when I am wanting something, I need to clarify and make known my wish, or goal, and make space for the thing to arrive, all the while being fully present to and grateful for what is right here (and this is the real key, which I'll get  to). It requires trusting what I can't see happening. It can raise my fears because it asks me to let go of thinking I control all the moving parts. We don't. But then we might ask, as I often do, "so what then does make things happen?"

If I have a clear intention of what I want, being sure it is coming from a genuine place in my whole being, not just from my intellect, and if I get the ball rolling, which doesn't take much if the intention is coming from a true place, then, the most important part is resting in a deep presence to the life right before me. I know that when I am walking down the street and seeing and appreciating all the things that there are to take in, I am truly alive. When I am truly alive, I attract the things I need. It is not effortful. It is the spirit of Christmas all the time. Receiving, giving, and joy flow easily. The colors, the sounds, the sensations, the fact that I can walk and breathe easily are all such amazing gifts to tap into in each moment. We can receive them and give back in our appreciation. It does not take much.

I needed to remember this again lately. Thank goodness for friends and teachers. I had been too caught up in responsibilities and busyness that I thought I had to make things happen and it was taking my joy away. In response to what I said about the future, my friend slowly and poignantly said, "I know you know that's not how it works." It was like cold water on my face. I awoke. I needed to hear it again. After I left my visit, I was walking toward Washington Square Park and I noticed this dog on a leash walking toward me. I was admiring the beauty of this animal and had a huge smile on my face. I hadn't noticed the owner, but when we were about to pass, I looked at his face, too, and saw that he had a huge smile in reaction to my smiling at his dog. In that split second of recognition, I said, "what a beauty!" I meant it for the dog, but it came out in the same moment that I noticed his smile and I thought to myself, there were two beauties! His showed in his presence. He noticed that I was enjoying his dog long before I was aware of him. His smile was appreciating my smile. What a beautiful thing! It was another great reminder of how I aspire to live. I went on with a lightness about my day and my future. Joy at this very life before me filled me again. I have spent my days since remembering to do things from my heart, to be present, and to trust. In these busy holiday times, or whenever there seems like there is more on my plate than I can possibly swallow, this is what I aspire to come back to. This is what will actually makes things happen. It is not about doing or results. It is against most of what we are taught as kids in this country. May we all remember to stop doing and start enjoying from our open hearts. The things that need to happen will happen. That doesn't mean we won't be busy or that there is no effort, but that our intentions are clear and our hearts are soft to appreciate, to receive, and to give. For some of us, and you know who you are, if there was an adult Life Honor Roll or Headmaster's List, we might be better rewarded for learning how not to be on it. That would be deserving of a handshake, or rather a hug. 

Happy holidays to all of my readers. I am so grateful to be received by you.

Friday, December 5, 2014

What We Do

It is time to confirm what I predicted might happen in my last post. Plans, wishes, and dreams don't always go according to plan. Last night, I realized that the big birthday soon approaching is not going to turn out as I had positioned it to. I awoke this morning to the disappointment stage of having had a desire unmet and of having to let it go, but then, a seemingly insignificant and great thing happened next. It was 7:15 am. I was driving to pick up my kids for our usual Thursday morning breakfast before school, feeling a bit glum, when I found myself at a stop light in the middle of town. I looked out and saw the window washer of the town's shops doing his job. He always looks like he is fully entertained and engaged. He had his usual getup on of sunglasses, black gloves, hat, and an array of ropes, chains, and many other things hanging thickly from his waist. Another man suddenly turned the corner and flew by him in that frantic, morning, "oh my gosh, the train's at the station" run. Just as  quickly, the window washer took a wide, low to the ground stance, with his arms outstretched to the sides, head turning from right to left as if ready to take an action on whatever else might come flying by. He was a momentary referee of the sidewalk. Then he burst out in laughter and resumed his work without a pause. Out of my gloom, I burst into laughter, too. I couldn't hear him from my sealed car two lanes over. He didn't know if anyone was watching. He didn't care. He was just having fun in his day of work. But, I did know he was there and I saw his fun and it made my morning. I kept laughing as I drove on. I wanted to thank him. He had no idea that he helped me. Now that is a beautiful thing! 

We often have no idea what our impact is on people, animals, nature, the world at large. Something as simple as my smile, or a gesture, or expression might change someone's day and I might never know. When I realize this, I am reminded that every moment matters. Every gesture has the possibility of goodness in it. It makes me as ask, why hold back what we can so freely give? Why be frugal with our love, our playfulness, our excitement, our joy? Why hold our sadness and pain inside and let it dampen our experience when there is the possibility of using it to make a connection instead? In so many ways, we can give another the chance to respond and be in touch with the same vulnerable human life force we all share. In all of this, the importance of laughter is huge. One day in the car this fall, my son said, "mommy, you have a very loud laugh." I do and I do a lot of it. We must laugh at what we go through, otherwise, it is all just too heavy.

I know as long as I keep experiencing life like I did watching this window washer and as long as I keep learning to share myself, despite fear, my birthdays will always be something to celebrate, plans or no plans. This is a beautiful life we have. Let us all have clear windows to see through so we can laugh, and cry, and marvel, and be guided by the knowledge that we have an impact on all things in ways we won't ever know. We can choose to be generous every day.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Birthdays and Holidays

I have one of those "big" birthdays approaching and the holidays are here. Both bring up plans, expectations, wishes for things to go a certain way. It is hard not to feel doomed! When those words come together in one cookie jar, I should know some food fights are about to commence. So I've got my head in the jar and I'm looking at it, thinking about it, feeling it, and being curious about what needs to happen to prevent this pending internal mess. How do we have desires for things to go as we envision them and not run into trouble when they don't? Do we stop making plans? Do we not wish for things? Do we let life happen to us and go with the flow, never committing ourselves to something or someone?

If I take the holidays, for example, I cling to an idyllic picture that everyone will be happy to be together and grateful. The day will be punctuated by meaningful moments and deep connection. More likely, the holidays look like this...someone is horrifically angry or upset or shut down, for reasons, we may or may not know. Someone falls sick. You or your guests get stuck in traffic and arrive feeling tense and annoyed. The person cooking is so uptight and anxious you would think that if the turkey or tofurkey doesn't turn out right or on time, the cook might not live. Someone insists on being taken back to the train immediately. There is a perfectionist in the house creating a floor of eggshells with which we all need to find our way upon as the table gets set just the right way and the lighting dimmed at just the right level. The cheesecake someone painstakingly made just fell on the ground and becomes the launching pad for a huge family blow up. A snowstorm halts everyone's travel plans. Someone says the wrong thing, to the wrong person, at the wrong moment. Yes, the holidays are all of that and so why do we make plans, have wishes and expectations? We do it because we are human. We wish for good. We want things to turn out well. We know how we would like to be on the day and how great all of it could be...if only everything and everyone would be on the same page as us.

I could stop having desires and making plans. I could stop having expectations from friends and family. But, I know if I do I would be shutting myself down so I could avoid disappointment and suffering. I would be losing opportunities that open me up and that bring me closer to what my heart is longing for. Instead, I will make plans for my birthday and I will have hopes for the holidays, but I will kindly remind myself to do it with an openness for what else may arise that I might not expect. I think of my meditation teacher saying, "and this, too." Whatever else may arise, I can say, "I can open to this, too" and retain an inner peace that can't be shaken. It means I can feel joy, or excitement, or warmth and I can equally feel disappointed, sad, or anxious. I can be open to all of those experiences and handle them with a gentle touch. No judgement, just love. From this place, I am more likely to give love in a tense situation or to bring out the good in a person who is too upset to find it in his/herself. When a person says or does something that gets under my skin, I can stop my spinning mind on what he has done and turn the focus to the painful sensation I am having in response and take care of that instead. I step away from blame and into my own experience. From that compassionate place, I can find some space and may even be able to silently offer peace to the person who I am struggling with.

No matter what arises or how things turn out in my plans in life, I can take care of myself with kindness, acknowledge the joy or difficulty with love and compassion, and adjust, tend to, or accept what is here. It could be everything does turn out the way I wanted it to (or very close to it) and that is something to be grateful for and to truly enjoy. If it doesn't, there is likely something in the new arrangement that bears some fruit in the form of a new insight, understanding, or maybe the wisdom to say, I'll never do that again! It is all an opportunity to learn more about myself and my reactions. What else is there to do in life than to have these experiences and grow? In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, "this is it." This moment right here is the one to enjoy, perfectly messy or perfectly perfect as it is. There is no better place to be.

To all of those also planning and wishing these days, I send my support to the longing in you that inspires it. It is of great value. I also send courage to encounter whatever comes your way with curiosity and softness to the experience. And, may we all remember to be grateful for this life right here.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Stepping Up

This post is inspired by the news of beloved Buddhist Teacher and Peace Activist Thich Nhat Hanh's ill health.

I got on the subway one night this week to start my journey home after a long day. I sat down and didn't take out my phone. I didn't have my headphones on or something to read in my hands. I just sat there and looked at the face across from me. The man on the other side had dark skin, high, chiseled cheek bones, and deeply set eyes that seemed profoundly worn with experience. There was something gentle, melancholy, and humbly knowing about his manner. We looked in each other's eyes in a way that we rarely do in New York City. It is as if we broke an unspoken rule about how long you can make eye contact with a stranger. His face had too much depth to ignore. Realizing I couldn't go on staring, I took my chances and offered a small smile. He returned it. I then looked at all the faces across from me and I heard myself saying to my ailing meditation teacher, "this moment, and this moment, and this moment," as I shifted my gaze from face to face. Sitting there, tired from the day, I felt my own hands. Though they were fatigued from touching other people all day, my right hand held my left and felt its softness as if caressing someone else. I felt my own tenderness. I knew in that moment that Thich Nhat Hanh would always be with me even when he passes on. His teachings have left their imprint. I am not someone who has a guru. I don't declare any one person "my teacher." But, as his precious life lies in limbo these days, I recognize how much of his life touched mine, of how much he taught me. Sitting on the subway, I see and feel differently because of him. 

The night I learned of Thich Nhat Hanh's condition, I laid in bed and surprised myself as I watched fear arise. It was not as though I knew him personally or that I had more than a handful of opportunities to be in his presence, but suddenly, I was feeling the possibility of a significant loss. Losing a parent feels like this. It is the fear of being cut off and disconnected from some source. The image arises of floating out into space, unattached, just drifting. As I get older and as each elder passes on, I am increasingly aware of a stepping up that needs to happen, a shifting role that I must play. It is true for all of us if we are aware and can muster enough courage to acknowledge the shift. As older family members, teachers, mentors move on, there is a growing up, a responsibility, an ownership that we are silently being given. The controls are being handed over and we face the often scary realization that we do, in fact, have the skills to handle them. 

As I get increasingly separated from those who have been my guides, I am being asked to trust myself, to humbly lean into my own groundedness, strength, and experience. It is as though the universe is asking me to stay calm as a step suddenly appears at my feet. I must take it. The step requires a willingness to accept the place that needs to be filled, whether it is for our children, our students, our clients, our siblings, our co-workers, our community. We start to truly embody the life these teachers showed us we can have. They are no longer teachings separate from us. We embody these teachings when we choose to pause before we lash out, when we choose to be generous, when we recognize that we don't have to win the point, when we stop blaming. It happens when we make conscious decisions about what we do and what we refrain from doing, what we say, how we listen, and what we consume. We embody the teachings when we catch ourselves putting ourselves down in all kinds of small and large ways and choose to treat ourselves with compassion and kindness instead.

Though I have much more life to experience, I see that it would be easy for me to believe that I am still the young one with things to learn and therefore never own what I know and the position I am increasingly being given. The "promotion" is unspoken. There is no award given, no congratulations to receive, no outward recognition. No one says you are ready to be here. I will keep going forward with the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh ingrained in me, and those of my parents, and all the teachers that have come in so many forms. They can't be taken from me. And, I will keep learning. This week, I gained the understanding that I am not getting cut off. If I look deeply, I can see that I am getting more connected. Instead of me holding on though, I am ready to hold, even when my doubts arise and I start to tremble.

With these words, I send my strength, my smile, my presence to Thich Nhat Hanh as he works to recover and to all the elders who have taught us how to live well. I can also offer a smile and a bow of support to myself and all of those around me as we take the next steps of embodying, in an even greater way, what we have learned.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Destination Unknown

Ever have one of those days wondering why you were in Iowa when you were headed for Paris? Some days, weeks, months, years don't go as we expect them to. In fact, they go in a whole new direction as if we lost the controls of the plane we are flying and end up somewhere we had no desire to be. Last Friday was to be my first Halloween with the kids in years when I could have the whole day to attend the school festivities and take them out at night. I was ready for the day, but first I had a simple follow-up doctor's appointment in the morning. It turned into an uncomfortable office procedure that took a twist...it was Halloween after all. The doctor with his disconcertingly calm demeanor informed me that there was a "complication." Those are never words you want to hear from someone in a white lab coat. I survived the ordeal trembling and was sent off with a particular kind of pain that would make life challenging for the coming days. Without warning, my plane had changed its course. I was in Iowa.

Though we know better, our unconscious mind seems to get tricked into thinking that if we line our ducks up the right way, they will float smoothly along with the current. You might say, as I do myself, "well of course I know that's not true!" But if I really "know" it, why do I still get stumped when things change course? Part of me refuses to accept what reality inevitably shows us again and again. We are very clearly not in control. Planes and trains get cancelled; the school nurse calls; something grows where it shouldn't; tires pop; our relationship unravels; funding falls through; someone we love dies. Good things also happen. Planes and trains are on-time; a job presents itself that is just what we need; some unforeseen person appears in our life that fills a particular void; we don't get sick; babies are born. Life works out, but often not on our time schedule or in the manner we choose. What we get is what we get and then it is all about what we make of it. Where the plane lands is not our business to dictate. We go for the ride and when we touch ground, we adjust. We might kick and scream at first, or we might feel joy coursing through us like caffeine, but either way, in that process of arriving and finding the earth underneath our feet, we learn something new about ourselves or the situation. We change. But, since few of us like to be out of control, what enables us to trust in the process and, in doing so, make the whole rocky business gentler for ourselves? We tend to resist it the way my dog stops in his tracks and pulls back on the leash once he realizes we are going into the vet's office. With each experience, I am steadily getting used to this deal we are given. I understand that the more I learn to let go, the kinder I am being with myself and others. It is the best thing I can do on this unsettling path. The gentler my approach, the more appreciative of this life I can be because I am no longer insisting it be anything other than what it is. The trick is in finding softness in the midst of upset.

This particular Halloween Friday, I didn't end up where I had wanted, but I discovered what I needed. One of the gifts of being here in a body is that when something goes out of whack in the form of sickness or injury we are forced to stop. My life was feeling hectic, rushed, and overloaded with responsibility and weight. I always know something is off when I start wishing my train rides are longer so I could have more time to stop and catch up with myself. I wanted to find a pause button. Then I got one. Not the kind I would choose, but I got one. I showed up through the Halloween festivities for my kids, but then cancelled my plans to go away for the weekend and laid on the couch for most of it, the only position I could comfortably be in. But, there are gifts to being in this unexpected destination. I was physically and emotionally vulnerable and I knew it. I was not going to be the strong one or the caretaker for a while. I had to surrender. In the giving in, a softness that I could not find running around came over me. Through this gentler lens, I could look at my life with kindness and realize I wanted something different. I do not want to rush anymore and I want to approach everything with a lighter, more tender touch. Just saying that feels good. I pick up my tea and feel the warmth of the cup in my hands and appreciate that simple act. Savoring a warm cup of tea dropped off by a dear friend, I feel grateful in receiving and very blessed. After lying down for much longer than I am accustomed to, I went for a slow walk on a windy, cool, fall morning. I stepped outside and felt the wind against my skin, heard the sound of the trees swaying, felt the chaos of leaves blowing everywhere, and took in the the abundance of colors as I approached the woods. Everything felt fresh, vivid, and alive in a whole new way. I walked slowly, softly. This is the way I want to live. This was where the doctor's visit took me. Thank goodness, though I would not have said that at the moment shaking in his office. No, in that moment, I was sure I would never be okay again. But, I was okay. I am more than okay. I was made tender. Intriguingly, after this weekend, new opportunities presented themselves in my life. The next step in my work and teaching started unfolding. I could think it was unrelated, but I know better. I believe when we start paying attention to what matters most, the things we need emerge.

I am going to try and remember that in the hiccups that happen in a day, a week, a life, there is likely a richer place we can uncover in ourselves whether we wanted to go that way or not. I am going to keep letting the controls go, especially when I think I need to hold on tighter, make more of a plan, get busier, or start trying to fix something. Those are all signs to loosen my grip. If, in the moment, I simply can't let go, I know I will land somewhere in spite of myself. It just might be a rougher landing and that's okay, too. 

What has been most inspiring to me in recent weeks is a deeper understanding that when I hold on too tightly to some idea of how things should be, I am unknowingly choosing to limit what is possible. I am being cheap with myself. I have settled for some notion that one thing is enough, rather than seeing how much I could have. When I make my sole purpose to love, to be kind, to be compassionate, to share myself and open to what is right here without having my defenses up, I can have everything. That everything comes in each interaction with all living things. It comes in each moment of deep presence with life. The way a small object feels in my hand, the way it feels to smile, the sound of leaves rustling, the feel of a hug. Rather than go on a narrow course to arrive at one thing, I can choose to think bigger and have it all. I can say to myself in those moments of struggling, "have it all, Jean." It's my new mantra. May you have it all, too. Our planes are going to keep changing course and when they do, we can let go, trust, and remember that when love is at the core of our intention, we can have more than we might have been striving for. We might land somewhere miraculous.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Heartbreak

I have had more weddings to attend in the space of the last three years than I have ever had in my adult life. Ironically, they happened in the three years following my divorce. In poor grammatical form, it is hard not say, "what's up with that?" Four of the five weddings were of friends 40 years and older. They are different experiences than the 20 something family weddings I remember as a child. No "Celebration Time" was playing as I cringed and tried to hide my eyes from some distant relative approaching me with his/her arms extended ready to swing my silent, but screaming body out onto the dance floor. They would be coming at me with wide eyes and their head shaking "yes," as eagerly as mine was shaking "no" with a terrified, unwanted smile on my face. It makes me want to take a deep breath just typing that as I pinch myself and remember I am no longer in that banquet hall. These recent weddings have had a very different energy. There is a gravity to them that, unstated, says, "we have had life experiences and we know what this moment really means." I take in the couple who are bravely making this vow, despite and maybe because of all that they know, and I feel in myself a deeper belief in marriage than I have ever had. Whether they stay together or not, I believe that these couples know what they are saying yes to. I believe they have learned about themselves and about what it is to love and be loved in a way that only difficulty or pain, which comes with experience, can teach us. I believe they have known heartbreak and acceptance.

But, this post is not about weddings, or finding the love of our life. It is about anything we set our heart upon and the heartbreak that must come from that. I felt heartbreak in my early twenties when I auditioned for the company that I thought fit me like a glove and was cut. I remember walking in the rain from the studio on 19th Street and Broadway to the subway and a stranger telling me that the tie to my raincoat was trailing on the ground. I was numb with disappointment. I felt heartbreak when I learned my dad had lung cancer. I knew what it meant and was so very angry at what was clearly being taken away from me. In a rare act, I took something and threw it across the room and broke into raging tears. I felt immense heartbreak when I knew my marriage could no longer contain who we had grown into. I have experienced heartbreak in numerous other ways, as we all have. I now understand that to know love, or success, or fulfillment is to also know heartbreak. We must experience them both, though of course, we don't want to. We can read the word heartbreak and think, "yeh, that's a hard time," but when you are in middle of it, it is so much more than "hard." It feels impossible to live through and is as if no one around can understand the depth of our suffering. But, we do live through it. We might fall into despair first, but eventually, we grab onto some strand of light where we start to pull ourselves out of that dark hole. It often comes in some subtle gesture someone makes, or just the right words coming from a friend, or the accumulation of time and distance. As impossible as it seems, eventually, we are back on some path toward something we love. The difference is that something in us is changed and, because of that, the next love we move towards has greater potential to thrive. What heartbreak ultimately continues to teach me is how to love myself, which is the only way to heal the wound. It comes in the form of tenderness, of not blaming, and of not crucifying myself for my own suffering. I know that the next relationship, or dream, or passion I embark on is going to be richer for the heartbreak I have had and for the love of myself I have gained.

Standing in these rooms full of people witnessing a wedding, I am aware of a truth we cannot really know when we are young, the truth that we will always have unmet desires and needs. We will not obtain what we think we need to be eternally happy. This is good news. Really it is. I was never promised that I would get what I wanted, but that I can find ways to love what is here, and in doing that, I get what I need. The Rolling Stones were right-on with those lyrics. To see what I do have and not belittle it because a part of me is still longing is where we learn what love is. Though I continue, at times, to mess this up, I am learning that I can create an opening where I consciously make note of what I do have, while also being curious about what I am longing for. I can work on embracing them both and staying present to these truths. I can sit with what this person (or job, or path) so generously gives me and feel those parts that are full. I can also ask what in me is still crying out for something and create some space for that longing to be there. In defining the missing piece and not doing anything but making room for it, something shifts. A weight gets lifted, or an answer arises clarifying what it needs to be full. When we react too quickly, we never get to see what could emerge. The answer often has more possibility and subtlety than we thought. Most recently, when another heartbreak took its seat in my body, I was reminded that this is a practice that I will never perfect, but is one that I can actively work with. I know that there is nothing greater to do than that -- just keep practicing.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Falling In The Woods

I have been running in the woods a few times a week for the past few years. Miraculously, though I have taken some serious trips that sent me flying ahead of my feet, I never took a fall. Alas, the fateful day arrived. I was running along a rocky incline when out of the corner of my eye I saw a dark animal running toward me in the distance. I glanced over and when I turned my head back, I tripped on a rock and landed on my hands and knees. I was stunned, saying to myself, "I can't believe it, I actually fell this time! I actually went down!" I stood quickly, knowing I was okay, but still on alert for the possible dog coming after me. On impulse, I instantly started running again, feeling a deep burning in my hand, convinced that there must be blood or that it was on its way. But, there wasn't any; there was simply the imprint of rocks in my hand. As I kept going, I turned on my meditation mind, which said, "okay, this is what a burning hand feels like. It is not bad or good. It is just a sensation." If you are rolling your eyes at me right now, I don't blame you. It sounds too detached to be real. Honestly though, being curious like that stopped my mind from spinning in all the ways it could and instead brought me into the present, which wasn't all that bad. But then, an even greater thing happened. My hurting hand, which had also been cold from the fall air, touched the warmth of my torso and felt relieved, so I purposely put my hand on my warm ribcage as I ran for a few minutes. I realized that I had what I needed to heal myself in that very moment. All of this might sound insignificant, but if I think about what I used to do in response to these situations, I am aware that a critical shift happened somewhere along the way.

Not that long ago, I might have fallen like that and my immediate response would have been to get angry at myself for falling, or at the owner of the off-leash dog for scaring me, or I would have jumped to frustration about how this inconvenience was getting in the way of my run, or my day. In all of that anger, I certainly would not have recognized how the touch of my own body could feel good to the part of me that was hurting. When you drop a plate or a glass and it shatters into a million pieces, what attitude do you take? Do you get annoyed or do you have compassion as you would with a friend who dropped it? Finding that tender way of being with myself did not come on its own. I wasn't raised talking to myself with kindness over hardships. It is a voice that developed over recent years and one that requires practice. The practice of loving-kindness meditation is intended to find this voice, a place inside that wishes ourselves and others well. It is a practice I find myself doing when I am running late and feeling stressed. Instead of getting angry at myself for being behind, as I used to do, I now say, "wow, this is a hard feeling; it is a difficult place to have to be; may I have ease." It is so very different and powerful.

What I now understand is that the tone I take and the words I say to myself can bring me further down the path of love, connection, and openness, or further down the path of anger, blame, and hatred (often self-hatred). We can actually choose what route we want to take and its impact is far reaching. When I take care of myself, when I can feel empathy for myself, I am much more inclined to have empathy for others. The great news is that I am with myself 24 hours a day. There is that much time to practice. 

I fell in the woods and, in the falling, I gained clarity in the powerful nature of loving-kindness and how it opens the door to healing in ourselves and others. It motivates me to keep practicing. I welcome us all to ask how we speak to ourselves when the going gets rough in the daily happenings of life? Is it possible to find a gentle, loving voice to respond to the ongoing challenges we face in any given day? It could be when we are struggling with how our clothes fit, or when we snap at our child in exasperation, or when we feel exhausted from staying up too late, or when we feel stressed because we can't pay a bill, or anything else that might arise. If we can't find that tender voice in those moments, can we respond lovingly to the voice that says we can't? The important part is that we begin somewhere. Over time, it will add up and we will be the person we never thought we could be.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Stuck In The Rain

I was having one of those mornings where my anxiety was high. I was running around the apartment trying to get myself and the kids ready for the day. My repetitive requests to the kids to brush their teeth, put their dishes in the sink, their snacks in their backpacks, to make their beds, and to stop playing sounded like a broken record mixed with a kitchen in a fast paced restaurant. In my early twenties, I waited on tables in my father's NYC restaurant. It was a tiny, busy place where we would call out the order to the short order cook in the corner. I never got used to the fact that you did not have to be polite and say please, or make eye contact. I had to adjust to not getting a response but to assume the request was received; it always was. Unlike that experience, in my home, requests get called out, but often I never know if anyone is taking action on them, or if they've been heard at all. Nothing was new about any of this on this particular day, but I had a busier work load all week and was nervous about teaching a new class in the afternoon. On top of this usual, morning rush, it was pouring rain.

As I stood by the door with my dog, trying to get the courage to dash the few blocks to get the car to pick up the kids, I felt dread. This day was going to be hard, I could tell. I took a deep breath and entered the downpour. I came back for my kids, one of which still did not have his sneakers on, despite my request that they be ready to go. He had nothing left to do but that one thing! I even saw him nod that he received the order! What on earth was he doing? Sigh. But, gosh I love his sensitive soul so much.

We arrive at the school and I decide I am going to do something easier for me and drop them off as opposed to parking the car and walking them in. I made sure they crossed the street safely, kissed them, and sent them on their way. As I got back in my wet dog smelling car, I notice in front of my car was a woman standing in the rain with an umbrella, pleading with her son to get out of the trunk of her SUV. I see her son mouthing the words "no," arms crossed, defiant. I can see, from her body language, the mom is getting more and more frustrated. It is pouring rain, her son won't get out and my gosh, she has a baby strapped on her chest. Without giving it a second thought, I opened my door and approached the scene. I asked if she wanted help. She looked at me as if my offer was as useless as a screen with holes in it. I ignored her defeated look and looked at the boy instead. I said, "do you not want to go to school?" He shook his head. I nodded in empathy. I asked what grade he was in. "2nd," he said.  I said, "oh wow, my kids are in second, too, who do you have?" Then he corrected himself with his mom's help. He was really in first grade. I asked if he had any friends from the previous year in his class and he shook his head. His mom informed me that they had just moved from Brooklyn (as has everyone else around here). I said, "oh" in that drawn out way when you suddenly have a deeper understanding. I asked if there was anything at all in the school day that he liked and named some subjects. He said, "no." I said, "wow, that is hard." Stumped as to what to say next, I stumbled something else out of my mouth and the next thing I knew, the boy was sliding out of the trunk onto the wet street." The mother thanked me and continued on with her son. I turned to go back to my car and called out asking his name. He told me and I said, I'd remember it. I rarely remember names, but I remember his. It all happened as quickly as a flash flood. I drove away thinking of this woman having just moved from Brooklyn with an adjusting 5 year old and a baby. Of course she would be getting frustrated in that moment standing in the pouring rain with an infant on her front. Who wouldn't! I felt flooded with compassion and then realized there was something magical about what had happened there. Suddenly, I was in a great mood. My morning felt hard, but when I saw someone else struggling, unbeknownst to me, I came right out of myself. I had a much greater purpose before me than to lament about my rushed, bull-horned morning, soaked shoes, wet dog smelling car, and nervousness about my class.

I drove on and thought about the boy, about how stuck he was in that moment. His feelings had a grip on him and he was caught in reaction to them and to his mom. I knew what this felt like. Something needed to interrupt the process going on inside him and that was all I did. I didn't say or do anything magical. I simply identified with his pain and broke the undertow he was caught in and it was done. Sometimes I wish someone would interrupt my thought and feeling processes and help me reboot again. What I was reminded of on this day is that we can do that for each other. It is made possible when our senses are open enough to see, hear, and feel what is present around us and when we have the trust in ourselves that we might have a gift to share in that moment, even if we don't know what it will look like. Our presence alone is often enough.

Between my own difficult start to the day and watching this other mother's, I wondered what it would be like if raising children was not an isolated act, but where we could depend on the community to help when we are at our wits end. What would it take, especially living in the suburbs, to create that sense of support? Could that moment I had with the mother and son, if performed in much greater numbers, be all it takes to make a difference? I'd be happy to do more. Of course, it won't always be appropriate to step in, but my eyes and heart can be open to give and receive when the circumstances do seem right.

I went on with my day feeling connected to my clients and at ease and in flow with my class. At one point, I looked out the small window that graces my underground office and saw that the sun was shining. My predictions on the day had been all wrong. It turned around thanks to that boy. He doesn't know, but we helped each other that morning.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Stopping and Finding Amma in Starbucks

It was early Sunday morning. I had spent the night at my sister's and on the way home, I decided to stop in a coffee shop to get something for the road. It was a beautiful September day. The sun was out in a perfectly blue sky; it was just the right temperature, and it was, technically, a day off.  I arrived at the coffee shop feeling this sense of urgency to get home and pressure to get things done. It didn't feel like a day off. I had a list of to do's anxiously waiting to get crossed off. With my coffee in hand, I looked toward the door and saw the sunlight streaming in through the glass, forming squares of light on the dark, wood floors. They are the kind of spots that dogs like to lie in. Seeing the light, I realized I could sit down at a table and do my morning writing there and not rush out. I thought of the book I had just read about the importance of taking a time to rest in the week, to carve out a day or half a day to not "do." I read the book and agreed passionately with the author's championing for rest and yet, there I was, struggling with being able to do it. What does it take it take to put everything on pause? All of the suggestions might sound good in a book, but in a full and complicated life, how do we actually do it? Somehow it came to me that day in a Starbucks in New Jersey, a confluence of factors that changed the course of my day. This was how it happened...

I did sit down. I took out my journal and watched people come in and out. An older gentleman did what seemed like his routine. He got his drink and sat down on a couch seat, propping his legs up on the ottoman. He took out his newspaper and pulled out the comics. They still print comics, I thought to myself. And this man is reading them? How great is that. I came back to myself and my journal and this uncomfortable sense that I started the day with, and then I said, "Jean, you are okay; everything is okay." Yes, I thought. I registered it in my body. It is true. I am okay. Nothing is wrong. This is a morning to enjoy, just as I am. And yes, I have many responsibilities to take care of, but they are endless. I would like to cross some off with that specific sense of satisfaction that comes with putting a line through words, but there will be more words to add. It won't stop, but I can. I am my own boss, literally and figuratively. I am the wizard behind the curtain, the one with access to the switches. If I could just flip the right one!

I didn't realize at the time, but as I had this conversation in my head, my vision was opening up to what was around me. I was flipping the right switch. I watched another man in his 70's come over to the sofa seats, negotiating with the sunlight, and contemplating where to sit so that it wouldn't be in his eyes. I had the urge to help, though he needed none. He sat in one seat, which I knew wouldn't be right. I watched his expression and movements as if observing a rare animal making a decision. He moved. As he carefully transferred his coffee from one side table to another, I saw his hands were shaking. I saw his vulnerability and my whole self started to soften. I saw the boy he once was, the young, confident and strong man he turned into, and now the older, more fragile man he had to become. I was filled with tenderness and compassion for this stranger's whole life. I sat there and took in the man with his routine, reading the comics, and this man, with his trembling hands wanting to be comfortable, and me, trying to give myself permission to stop, and a woman who asked if she could have the coupons from the man's newspaper before she walked out the door with her young child. I felt all of our vulnerable, human selves making our ways through this life. I wanted to cry at the raw beauty of it all. I could breathe again. What happened in that moment was the critical shift. I moved from feeling separate and somehow "wrong" in my life to letting go and opening up to what is right here. Before me was this gift of people, with whom I did not interact, but whose simple presence allowed me to touch a higher place inside. 

We can often see vulnerability easily in children, in older people, and in animals. When we look deeply enough, we can see it in those people who look strong, confident, and powerful. They too, drop things, get food stuck in their teeth, trip on sidewalks, get startled, and shake inside. You can see it in the way they adjust their clothes or fix their hair. As "together" as they may appear, they are in fragile, impermanent bodies, too, and have the need to be loved just as much as the person whose vulnerabilities so easily show. I sat there and thought, wow, what else is there to do, but be gentle with each other, support each other, and share our warmth. I suddenly understood the guru, Amma, the woman who goes around and heals people with hugs. What a job! What better thing is there to do than to stay in that tender place with all people, to say my job is to give warm, heartfelt embraces. My actual job comes very close to it, but even if it didn't, why not have that as my purpose in life? In each moment, I can soften, open to humanity, and welcome people with my eyes and my presence. Words are not even necessary. I can do my part in saying, "you are okay; you are loved," and in doing that see that I, too, am okay and am loved.

I finished writing and as I headed toward my car, I thought, this is what stopping does. It reconnects us to what matters. We can keep crossing things off our lists, but in the end, we don't get to take the finished things or the list with us. In the end, it is this moment that matters. There will always be things to do. So how do we stop? What I learned today, sitting in Starbucks, is that it took a number of factors. It took remembering the wise words of Wayne Muller's book on rest and my good sense to check the book out of the library in the first place. It took being able to physically stop and to stay with the discomfort of feeling like I should keep going. One part of myself overrode that place that anxiously keeps me going. I owe that ability to meditation, which teaches me to stay, despite the Sirens calling out. All of these factors enabled me to look around with a soft lens and, in doing so, I could choose to see myself and others with tenderness. I can see the trembling hearts we all have and take comfort in knowing we are not alone. When I recognize that, I know from a deeper place that the things on my never-ending list can wait.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Right Conditions

"In everyday life, we tend to believe that happiness is only possible in the future. We're always looking for the 'right' conditions that we don't yet have to make us happy."  
-- Thich Nhat Hanh

I awoke one morning this week, randomly took one of Thich Nhat Hanh's books off the shelf, and sat down to these words before I began my meditation. I had heard them many times before, but on this day, they rang true with a new intensity. As much as I practice staying present, I realized that I am often staying present to feelings of longing. There is that deeply rooted belief that if only I had ______, I'd be okay. My intellectual understanding that this isn't true, that one desire will replace another, has no authority. Some part of me insists. She says, "but, no! This one is real." Almost in a plea, she continues, "seriously, if I just could have this, I could deal with all the other wants and difficulties that come up much better." I ran, packed my lunch, and left for work wondering how to resolve this. Before I left, I quickly photocopied this one paragraph out of the book. It would be my contemplation for the day.

Thich Nhat Hanh continues, "so we wait and hope for that magical moment -- always sometime in the future -- when everything will be as we want it to be." Ugh. Sadly, I admit it. I do feel happy in my life, but yes, I do keep waiting for that one thing that will make everything complete. For me, it is a life partner, the person that I will be coupled with to go through the challenges and joys of this life. As a friend recently empathized with me, "I know the feeling of 'wrongness' of being a relational person without a partner." It does feel deeply "wrong" for me. Of course, there are others things we could hold up our happiness for. It could be money, beauty, power, fame. "If only" has no end. Knowing that these desires, varied as they may be among us, exist universally does not make me feel any better. On this morning, though, I had to ask myself "am I missing parts of my life because I am wrapped up in waiting for some wanted piece?" How will that feel to know, when I am dying, that I spent so much time wanting for some future happiness? I can see myself in the future, an old and wiser woman compassionately looking upon my present day self and wishing for her to be at ease and enjoy each day just as it is.

"Hold on!" Another voice pipes up. If we didn't have desires, we wouldn't do anything. People wouldn't exist if we didn't want other people! How would babies get made? Great art wouldn't be created. Important inventions wouldn't come about. I could go on and on, but there is no need. I take a deep breath and settle down. I remind myself...the question is not how do we get rid of desires. The question is how can we be happy right now with our wants and needs, and the often relentless demand that we get what we want now. Just writing that, I feel relief. I can have my painful longing for a life partner; I could even want him RIGHT NOW, but I can still find happiness in this moment. Maybe I can even enjoy that I am alive to experience the sensation of longing or sadness, or whatever it might be. What a gift! I can also feel my dog's soft, curly, hair against my leg. The sound of cicadas coming through my windows on a beautiful, August night. The smiles and affection I received from my children over a Facetime call. The intimate time spent with clients and friends this week. The fresh vegetables I've been able to eat. I am okay. I can be with happiness right now, even if everything is not as I want it to be. I can put this contemplation to rest for the night and awake to a new, wonderful day, with my desires, experiencing happiness all along the way.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Help

We are on vacation on Mount Desert Island and I decide to take my kids for a small hike on one of Acadia National Park's stunning trails. I had gone on this trail last summer and was looking forward to sharing the views with them. I knew they would enjoy climbing some of the large rocks on the way up and they would have an amazing perspective of Long Pond from up high on the mountain. The trail does a loop and should have brought us back to the parking lot where we began. As we headed down, my kids were still having fun, but they were starting to slip on the rocks and pine needles and were getting tired. When I realized that we were now down almost at the level of the pond that just a short while ago we were seeing from high above, I knew we had missed some turn. What happened next could be out of a movie. 

Just as it was becoming clear that we had gone the wrong way, I saw a woman reading on a large boulder on the cliff at the edge of the pond. She turned when she heard us. I asked if she knew these trails and she quickly stood to help. She said that her husband was taking a swim down below and that he had a map in his bag. She offered to get it. I watched this beautiful woman nimbly disappear down the side of this rock and then reappear with a map in hand. We tried to figure out where we had gone wrong and it was clear was that we would have to go back the way we came, which inwardly produced a feeling of dread. Just then, her husband appeared. With his tanned, muscular body and glistening hair, he was equally as fit and handsome as she was fit and beautiful. He swiftly climbed up this boulder as if it was as easy as riding an escalator. He smiled and quickly assessed the situation and said, "we are parked at the end of the pond there. It wouldn't take long to walk there and we could drive you back." I hesitated and felt I couldn't accept this generous help. I didn't want to put them out of their way. The man saw my hesitation and said that yesterday he got very lost on the carriage roads and someone drove him back to his hotel. He clearly understood my feeling and wanted to assure me that it was okay. If I was alone, I would have found my way back. But for my kids sake, I gratefully accepted the offer. He asked if I could take a picture of the two of them, which made me happy to do.

We started our group hike on the trail back to where their car was parked and my kids chatted away with them. In the short walk, I learned that the husband was finishing medical school and would soon begin his residency somewhere and that she was a lawyer wanting a change. They were searching for where they wanted to live to start a family. In the meantime they were on their vacation here for the first time and loving it. We talked about rock climbing and kayaking. They drove us around the mountain, for what felt like a long time, to where our car was parked. From the back seat, I could see the man's smile light up in delight as my daughter, who becomes excited and outgoing in situations like these, told a story about camp in her sweet little voice. I felt the need to give back something on the way, so I offered tips of places I had learned from insiders on the island that they might enjoy. They were grateful. I thanked them and wished them well on their life paths.

As we got back in our car, Ella exclaimed, "so that's why you should have a map, Mommy!" Her almost 7 year old wisdom scolding me for my relaxed unpreparedness. (Of course, I think to myself, but if we did, we would have missed all of that!). I laughed and we all enjoyed the ride home and the adventure we had. I could have left the experience at that. Just a minor adventure on vacation. But, I think when we do that, when we don't reflect on our experiences in a greater way, we miss half the richness of what goes on. We lose an opportunity to appreciate. This is what I got from those two hours...

There I was, with my kids, in the woods of Acadia, wondering what to do next and this angelic couple appeared. It was as if they were there, in that moment, to help us and maybe there was something in it for them. It was truly a gift. The moment asked of me to be humble and to stretch to accept help, to be taken care of. In doing so, I was reminded that accepting help is a generous act. Generous to myself, the receiver, and generous to the one who offers it in letting the person in. In accepting a ride, I allowed this couple the opportunity to reciprocate the gift they had received from a stranger the day before. I could tell that it made them feel good. This is what gives life meaning. These exchanges and experiences of giving and receiving with people, and animals, and all living things is what we get to take with us. It is why we take the risk of loss, and sometimes rejection, to engage with others in large and small intimate ways. Even greater, when we can outwardly ask for help in situations where we may be deeply suffering, we are surrendering control and allowing vulnerability to bring us somewhere new, or to make a deeper connection with someone, or something, or possibly with ourselves. That is a courageous and admirable act, though it might not feel like it in the moment.  

As the couple drove off, a part of me wished that I had exchanged names and contact information. Somehow they felt like a part of my life in that brief 20 minutes. I wanted to hear, over time, how their young lives would unfold. And yet, there was a part of me that knew that what we shared was complete and enough. They are a part of my life, as everyone else is on this earth. I can send them good wishes on their paths and know that our lives entwined for a moment in time. How beautiful that is! What a gift to be received in taking the "wrong" path, and in taking another's extended hand. What a relief to recognize that life doesn't get better than these moments. There is nothing else we need to do, but make ourselves available to them.




Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pit Bulls with Babies and Maine

I am on vacation in Maine and beginning that slow process of unwinding. I feel the need to read my own blog post Permission Slips to remember that I am, in fact, allowed to take a break. I am recognizing that I could use some practice at "not doing." Suddenly the phrase I often find myself saying at home, "I am so busy," has a stale, overused quality to it. I don't want those words to be my "mantra" anymore. I am here to practice doing less and hopefully to return home with a new mantra, or at least an openness to the arrival of one.

When we arrived here, I felt overwhelmed at being alone with two children and a car packed full of stuff, staying on a part of Mt. Desert Island I was not yet familiar with. I had the image of a mother bird with her baby birds looking up at her chirping. What was the plan? Where was the food? How do I get where I need to go? What do we do next? So many innocent and excited questions being asked by my kids, but I had too many myself to have patience to continually answer theirs. I desperately wanted another adult around that could help make a decision. My first night in Bass Harbor was hardly a night of vacation excitement. I had driven 10 hours the day before. I was exhausted and anxious. I went to sleep hoping for a better outlook in the morning. I had the day mapped out in my head and wanted it to be fun and adventurous for my kids. My wishes were granted and the day was just that. But still, I had not calmed down. I could feel the tension in my body had not shifted.

The next day, I got the kids off to their new vacation camp in the morning and had much of the day to myself. I was now reoriented with the roads of this big island and went for a run in one of my favorite spots. I jogged immersed in the beauty of fragrant pine, with views of water and trees all around, as the soundtrack of flowing creeks and birds played. I ran, but was still disconnected from the place and wondered what it would take to help me arrive on vacation. I was still in doing mode. I then stretched and meditated on some rocks along Northeast Harbor and as I sat there, I felt the unease with being at ease. I kept going and drove to the pond I love to swim in. Surprisingly for this time of year, I found myself there alone. I slowly eased into the fresh water and floated out in the silence of my breathing. As I left the pond, I understood that unplugging does not happen instantly. Just because I had been physically removed from my life at home, I wasn't removed from the way I am in that life, from all that I felt over the past few months. This was going to take some time. I am here in my favorite place and this letting go of busyness would be a process. This is why I gave myself, for the first time ever, two whole weeks. I would need all of that time, especially after the weeks leading up to this vacation.

Shortly before I left for Maine, my beloved dog Wally made the unfortunate mistake of running out of his house up to a dog that was being walked on the sidewalk directly in front. What ensued landed Wally in emergency surgery to repair the wound to his neck. Part of me hesitates to say that the other dog was a pit bull so as not to perpetuate a negative image of the breed. I have known very gentle pit bulls and never before had a negative sense of them. And yet, they are known for their attacks on animals and people and for their ability to bite and not let go. In Wally's case, it took someone's brave hand prying open the dog's jaw and a third set of hands pulling Wally out, and the skilled work of a veterinarian to save his life. We were all left traumatized and in the days following I, recognized what I felt in other situations, but never knew was likely a mild form of post-traumatic stress. That day, a dog rescuing friend of mine posted a Facebook picture of a baby and a pit bull puppy sleeping together. The image kept returning to me as I thought about not wanting to label the breed  as being one way or another and yet, it was a pit bull that had my dog by the neck. I thought about the different traits we all have passed on to us. We do not get to choose many of the characteristics that make us up, but we do have an incredible ability to learn, to grow, and to nurture the traits we do want. We may even be able to counteract some of the ones we wish weren't passed onto us. Like a pit bull puppy can be nurtured to be gentle and to not use the killer instinct that has been passed on in him, we can self-nurture and practice being gentler, kinder and more loving to ourselves. I can soften my own "killer" instincts of doing too much and of not letting go. I can sit with an anxious feeling or the sense that whatever I am feeling is "too much" of this, that  or another thing, and not lose myself. Or, if I do, I can recognize when I've come out of it. I can get myself on vacation and begin again and the leave the pit bull behind.

I am here in Maine remembering the art of resting, of feeling spaciousness with no guilt, of having permission to be enough just as I am. I can go for a run and get lost and enjoy the fact that I saw a part of the island I would not have if I didn't venture further out of the area I knew. There is no rush to get back. Nowhere better to be. Nowhere else to arrive other than here in this moment. I can swim out to the rock in the pond and climb out and lay in the sun shivering until the sun warms me up, all along reminding myself that there is no rush. This is it.

Before I left, I took Wayne Muller's book Sabbath, Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest out from the library. I did not know at the time how much I would need the help of his words to give myself a break. My own wisdom, the wisdom that planned this vacation in the winter and the one that wrote Permission Slips, was not enough. We sometimes need that outside help to remember. It is our nature to forget. It is good to seek help. I am here in Maine remembering and, of course, I want everyone to remember, to share in this. Whether on vacation or not, we can create more space, more quiet, more quality time to wonder, to relax, to let go. It is not a luxury. May we all find rest in our days and not belittle our need for it. We can unclench our jaws and stop reacting from some fearful, protective, pressure-filled place and let live. Maybe we can even lessen the strength of that fighting, anxious, reactive gene that gets passed on and nurture the development of ones that make us enjoy getting lost on an island.



Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Summer Shedding

Lately, I've been noticing a certain type of tree is shedding its bark. Large pieces of curled wood lie all around these trees as if they are too hot to possibly keep so many layers on. The tree sheds its skin the way an animal sheds its fur, or the way we shed our winter layers at the first signs of spring warmth. When I pick up one of the fallen pieces of bark, I can feel the paper I write on. Suddenly the preciousness of trees and of our use of paper becomes more real. This post is not about saving trees, though I could certainly write one. I walked by one of these peeling trees in front of the train station on the way to run in the woods. As I began picking up my pace, I wondered if, like the animals and trees, I, too, should be shedding something in the summer months. Is that what we are all meant to be doing right now, shedding something?

I ran on with the question and wondered, if I could, what would I want to shed? There is so much I am grateful for right now in my life and I do not have much in the way of habits or glaring behaviors I want to be rid of. But, there is something that feels like it is weighing me down. There are some losses and a deep sadness around them that I cannot seem to shake. I am not one to push away grieving. I know better than to say that grieving has a time table it adheres to. But, I do wonder what would happen if in dealing with loss, I would at some point say, "I am going to lovingly shed this layer of loss and begin in a new skin." Could it be that simple? Can we drop from our beings those difficult places that feel as though they are lingering too long simply by deciding we want to? It certainly sounds exciting and liberating, but there has to be another piece or it would be all too simple and, possibly, superficial. Shedding anything, self-defeating habits, unhealthy relationships, destructive behaviors, limiting beliefs requires more than my brain saying I will change. My heart has to be on board, too.

If I imagine shedding the losses I have had, what lies before me is an empty, open road. It is quiet and I don't know where it goes. That not knowing produces some fear which, in some ways, makes holding on to the loss feel easier. The loss, at least, is familiar. I know what it is and what it does. Whenever we shed anything, we are exposing ourselves to something new. We are raw. Of course, it is not comfortable. Of course, there is fear. At some point though, we can decide to befriend the fear and go on the open road. There are other challenges to face on that road, but at least there are more possibilities. Staying with loss, an unhealthy behavior, or relationship, or habit keeps us comfortably stuck. When we are ready we can, with a trembling heart, let go. But, there remains the unsettled, imploring part that desperately wants to know what helps us to be ready? Two words emerge from this inner inquiry, words which were strangers in my childhood home. As is the nature of strangers, they take some warming up to. They are hope and faith.

A year ago, I launched into a search for an understanding of what enables us to hope. I read different takes on the subject from poets, artists, and spiritual teachers. I struggled to come to some meaning that resonated with me. What was strikingly clear is that to have faith and to hope is to let go of control. Hmmm...thanks anyway, I think I'll keep my loss, at least part of me wants to say. But, what if I was willing to be with the fear and try on some faith and hope? Wouldn't the potential of what could happen by letting go of the loss be worth the risk of not being in control?

When I accept what is, whether or not I want it that way, I am yielding to the flow and not colliding into things I cannot change. Brother David Steindl-Rast describes having hope as being "open to possibility." Yielding to and accepting what has gone on, I can soften to what is now before me. I can be in this new place, with this new skin I am now in. From here, there is possibility as long as I don't get swallowed in some fear that the hole that was left behind will not be filled. The way I know to do that is to hear the gentle words said by Thich Nhat Hanh. "Hello my fear, I know you are there. I will take good care of you." For me, taking care of my fear, means holding a space for it. Placing it softly in the palm of my hand and knowing it is a part of me, but not all of me. The rest of me is alive and laughs (a lot) and smiles and runs and is free. We can all do this. When we are mindful and willing to look and listen and stay, we can all remember hope and the "openness to possibility" and from there let go and be with what emerges next, fear and all. To do that is to have faith that ultimately we are coming from a whole, good, and loving place and we will be filled.

The next time I walk by the shedding tree, before the landscapers clean up the beautiful, fallen layers, I am going to pick a piece up and feel the texture of the bark in my hands and know it has been shed so the tree can be alive. We, too, can continue to shed what keeps us from being most alive and know that what we leave behind will be replaced as long as we have hope. Not hope in a better place to come, but hope that we will be open to the beauty of this life all around us and meet it with our own. In recognizing the beauty that is right here and in sharing what we have, we will be filled. I do have faith in that. Of course, like anything else that involves living more fully and in mindfulness, it takes practice. We can all be students. The alternative may be comfortable, but it holds us back from the expansiveness of this life. These trees I am seeing, they are tremendous. So are we.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Aloneness and Loneliness

The other morning I was doing my usual run alongside a wooded preserve. A river runs beside it and empties into a pond for a stretch and then narrows again returning to a river. This season I am seeing what I think is a cormorant in the pond. I am struck by cormorants whenever I see them because of their stunning ability, like loons, to swim under water for long stretches of time. They disappear and it becomes a guessing game about where they might pop up or when. Ducks and geese I always see in multiples, but cormorants, when I see them, stand apart and alone; there is something fiercely independent about them. On this morning, it was perched on a log resting in the pond with a couple of turtles. As I continued running contemplating this bird's apparent solitariness, a curve came in the road and my eye was drawn more to the grasses and trees. Then what caught my attention was a pair of mourning doves taking off in flight. Their muted brown bodies gliding softly away in perfect symmetry. Their togetherness stood out. On this particular morning, the juxtaposition of seeing the lone, fierce swimming bird immediately followed by the fair, gentler, coupled birds seemed like a perfect visual as I held the issues of aloneness and loneliness in myself.

In my hardest months of being newly on my own, I looked up the difference between being alone and being lonely. There are some beautifully expressed words on the subject. I won't be giving you those, but certainly if you Google the two words, you'll find them. The most immediate thing I can say without much thought is that loneliness is painful. Aloneness feels almost chosen and rings more peaceful and rather heroic to my ears. For some of us, we don't like either place and distract ourselves with work, food, the internet, alcohol, entertainment, drugs. It can work for a while and sometimes is just the right thing. Inevitably though, at some point, we do have to face our aloneness. Why not get some practice in now? We can build up our courage; develop some muscles. We can learn to love this life alone, when we need and want to be, without being separate.

I am someone who loves having a partner. I also love and very much need to have time to myself. For most people I know, particularly married folks with kids, they would love to be alone for a day, a half a day, even a couple of hours. If only they could have some of my aloneness they would be so happy! I love the spaciousness of not having to navigate the world with someone right next to me all of the time. I like to be able to feel, write, think, observe, and wonder without my energy being diverted and pulled. This is my aloneness I am appreciating. Aloneness is not a problem. Loneliness on the other hand is loaded. For me, loneliness is being alone with a suffocating, heavy layer of judgment on top. It is a judgment that somehow in being alone I am not okay. Something must be wrong with me. I am lacking. I could be doing exactly what I want to be doing and the moment I start to think that I shouldn't be alone, that no one else around me is alone, that I'll always be alone, well then, it is down hill from there. I slip down that mudslide and land in a mess. The tears start pouring down and mud is everywhere. It's not the prettiest sight you've seen, though it does have its own beauty of vulnerability, of surrendering. In that mudslide moment I've moved from being alone to lonely. From being okay and maybe even great to being all wrong. When I get some perspective, I see that suffering little girl sitting in the mud crying and I feel tremendous compassion. She lost herself. She lost sight of her beauty, and her joy, and her preciousness.

The next time I see that girl sitting in the mud pit crying, I am going to remember that she forgot who she is and I am going to take her by her hands and help her get up. I will wipe the mud from her face, tuck the hair behind her ears, look into her eyes, and remind her that there is a waterfall around the corner. All she needs to do is step in it. The mud will wash away and the wonder and joy will be hers to feel again. Alone or not does not really matter. What matters is our ability to be in touch with our own beauty. When we have that, we can see the beauty and connection around us. We can remember that to be alone is not to be separate. As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, when we look deeply, we know that everything is interconnected. Any move I make and the intentions behind my words and actions reverberate. It is impossible for them not to and in that way, we cannot be separate. How easy it is to forget this. It helps to have reminders from friends and strangers, from teachers, and from our practices. It is why a spiritual life, whatever we specifically choose to call it, is important. A spiritual life can simply be honoring love, seeing it in all things, bringing it out of others, sharing it. When we recognize our own precious, individual, beautiful life, we can see our place within everything else. It makes us able to see the cormorant that hasn't been there for the past three years. We can notice the mountain laurel that are now blooming in the forest. We can have interactions with strangers that make us no longer separate. How delighted I was the other day when I crossed paths with a man I had been exchanging waves with from afar for a year. The man plays frisbee with his black lab in the meadow as I run by from the road much higher up the hill. When we finally met face to face he suggested a path I might like to run on that is less rocky. Those are moments that happen when we know our own beauty and can share it. Loneliness doesn't fit in there. 

I am capable of being as strong and independent as a cormorant and as dependent and attached as a mourning dove. I might still be alone and still wanting a partner to do things with, but my joy is not shaken. As my friend reminded me, it cannot be taken.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Freedom

I had this thought about freedom last week and then realized what holiday was upon us. Perfect. I was running when this refrain came to me over a certain subject. I kept hearing myself say, “I don’t feel free.” When I caught the thought the way a child might catch a firefly, I took a good look. I remember, as a child, being disappointed that when a firefly was not alight, it looked like any “ordinary” beetle. As if anything could be ordinary! Fortunately my realization over the caught thought was not as disappointing. I asked myself what would it look like if I did feel free in that moment. After all, there I am running in the woods, a terrific act of freedom, choosing how long to go and which way to turn. There was no way around it, the only thing keeping me from feeling free was me.

After we have the basic freedoms we thankfully know in this country, the rest is what we create. My thoughts and feelings can imprison me or not. When I remember that, I know that no matter what anyone else says or does around me, an outside force cannot ultimately take my freedom away, but my thoughts around these things can. This seems so ordinary, but it is really profound. If we are given confines with which to live, as we all are to greater and lesser degrees, we can find freedom within them. When it doesn’t feel like it, it is because we have forgotten the bigger picture. We have identified with this body more than we should. Freedom doesn’t have a body. It is so much greater. Freedom is the ability to recognize our suffering and not be chained to it. Freedom is the ability to tap into that place inside that is naturally radiant. It is the ability to connect with joy to be alive that is not dependent on our conditions. It is to be able to see the sunset and smile. To see a child’s wonder and feel delighted. To sense the smoothness of a stone in our hand and enjoy the touch. To watch a puppy and feel joyful. To hear the rain dropping on leaves and feel peaceful. To make a connection with another human being and be appreciative. This is freedom.

Since this kind of freedom is not something someone gives us, it is our task to figure out how to cultivate it. One night this week, I was coming home from work on the train in the evening. A sinus infection had hit me like a ton of bricks and all I wanted was to be home. I got on the 9:50 train and expected to be able to spread out and not feel crowded in by another passenger on the seat next to me. It was a late train after all and usually there are plenty of empty seats. On this particular night I really “needed” the space to feel bad. Alas, I had forgotten that it is summertime and more people are commuting for fun, so sure enough a man sat next to me. I'm embarrassed to say that I felt instantly irritated. He did nothing wrong, of course. I hadn’t been coughing, but suddenly I started to. Now I really wished he wasn’t there. I was afraid he would get irritated and felt my defenses rise. After a few minutes, he reached in his brief case and pulled out two cough drops. One for himself and one for me. It wasn’t the kind of move that comes when someone is afraid of getting sick, when the person shrinks back away from you. This was  a simple gesture of kindness and was enough for me to shift my thinking. It woke me up to the fact that I don’t have to isolate, protect, or defend myself when I am not strong. This shift in thinking is freedom. It comes in unexpected moments like that and it comes when we pay attention and observe what it is we do. What thoughts am I believing? What feelings am I overly identifying with as if they are all of me? What habits have a hold on me, as if there is no other way? When I think there is something “wrong” with me or my life, I can pause the spinning in my mind and come back to myself unguarded and feel instead. I can say, “yes, this what I am feeling, and it is okay.” In other words, freedom is in living a mindful life. We can cultivate it if we choose. 

My sinus infection forced me to stop, but it didn't get in the away of my freedom. What did was fear and shame. Fear of not being able to work and some shame that I got sick. Fear and shame are the biggest blockages we have in this life. All our suffering comes down to them. It is when we recognize them that we heal. The recognition stops us from reacting, retreating, taking things out on others and ourselves. It softens the blow we are feeling so it can't damage us. It's like a ball being thrown at a piece of china or a pillow. One will shatter, the other will receive and rebound. My initial reaction to the man sitting on the train with me was to be a hard wall. His giving me a cough drop softened me. Sometimes we need the help of others. Other times, we can call upon ourselves to see what is going on and to soften with compassion. The world then opens up and the confines around us dissolve. 

The most exciting thing about this path of a mindful life is that there is no end to discovering greater and greater freedom. I have this inspiring wish that when I die, I will be so free I will fly. In the meantime, I won’t cling to that thought or it might just take my freedom away!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Making Room

Have you ever had the experience of someone suggesting some way of looking at something or doing something that felt true or that it might be the "right" thing, but it felt hard, if not impossible, to do? I don't mean from unsolicited advice (often criticism), but when we are seeking something from someone we respect and trust. It is one of those moments where you comprehend the new way of thinking or doing, but you can barely hold onto it. It is as though there is too much resistance pushing back from all sides of your brain, but you have enough insight that you can't ignore it. I had one of those moments recently where someone suggested another way of thinking about something in my life and when I heard it, it was as though I was trying to squeeze something into a bookshelf that is full. You pry open a space as the books keep pushing back on either side, but you just need enough room to hold it open long enough for it to fit. This is a wonderful thing. This happens in so many ways throughout our lives in the form of new opportunities presented to us that feel too big, frightening, or foreign. It happens in new relationships when we come up against making room for another's way of doing things or thinking about things. Or, in older relationships when the boat has been rocked and we have to adjust our habitual behavior for this new place. It comes up when we find ourselves wanting something, but thinking we will never be able to have it. It could never happen for me. It comes up when we find ourselves struggling and someone makes a suggestion or observation that we meet with a big "no way!" Something about it chews at us, irritating our sense of comfort. In that "no way," if we are paying attention, there is often something significant. The "no way" gives it away. We must pay attention. We must, at least try to make room.

What I know in those moments is that there is an inner struggle going on that involves growing. My larger self knows it is a good sign, even if it doesn't feel good. Last week I talked about stretching connective tissue. This week it's stretching in another way, stretching to keep that space open on the bookshelf so something new can fit in. I am finding that much like I practice anything else in my life, this too, is a practice. The image of the bookshelf helps me. Every time I would return to the sticky subject in my mind, I would ask myself if I could hold open the space just enough to slide in this new information. Even if I could not ultimately get the book in, if all I could do was try to create space, there would, at least, be possibility. Some stretching feels really good. This tends not to and part of the practice is to compassionately let that discomfort be okay.

Sometimes the new information gets revealed and the resistance comes in the form of my not being able to keep it long enough for it to stick. It is as though I am holding a tiny, delicate creature in my hand that could be crushed easily if I hold it too tightly and it is so small and slippery it could slide through the cracks between my fingers if I held it too loosely. These are the times when I need to trust that if it gets away, the lesson will come back stronger, in a more graspable form the next time around. If I crush it, then it was not the time for it to permeate my way of thinking. Something about me is needing the message in a different form. Either way, the right time and form will come.

I know I will have many more opportunities in this life to feel that specific kind of resistance to something that I intuitively know holds some truth. The next time it comes around, I am going to say the thing I have learned from my beloved meditation teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. I am going to say, "hello! There you are again. Welcome. Please sit down to tea with me." Then I am going to listen. It could be, that in the listening, I might hear the sound of books sliding over on the bookshelf behind me.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Pain

For some people the title of this post alone might deter them from reading it. The word “pain” itself can cause a kind of “ugh” feeling in the body as one says it. Try this, say the word “pain” and see what it feels like in your body. Then, add a word before it like incredible pain, or amazing pain, or beautiful pain. Doesn’t that change the way it feels? I think this is a great thing to know and it might teach us something about pain that could ultimately help us.

For the past few weeks, I have been serving as a model bodywork client for a small supervision group. I knew going in that the work would be deeper than I am inclined to receive, but the practitioner is a friend of mine who knows my body well after years of massage work in my dancing days and her touch and knowledge is highly skilled. I knew I was in good hands. She wanted to work with the connective tissue affecting the curves in my spine and thought it would be a good challenge and investigation both for her work and for the colleagues/students watching. Last week, as I laid there and felt the sensation of the stretching tissue, one of the observers closest to me noticed I was smiling and gently asked if the work tickled. The question made me smile even more. The experience has me thinking a great deal about our responses to pain. It doesn’t matter whether it is physical or emotional pain, our strategies are often the same. We can get angry at it, avoid it, distract ourselves, make a joke of it, cower from it, shut down in reaction to it, get busy trying to fix it, or maybe even smile at it. What I have learned with physical pain and what I continue to learn with emotional pain is that there is a way to be with what is uncomfortable that can either close us off or opens us up.

The first time I remember feeling deep physical pain was in high school when I sprained my ankle rehearsing for a dance performance. The physical therapist at school instructed me to submerge my ankle in a bucket of ice water and stay for 5 minutes multiple times a day. The ankle hurt to walk on, but nothing hurt like that ice water did. It felt like something was in the bucket breaking my ankle. Everything in me tensed up as I sat next to the bobbing, crackling cubes ready to moan once the sensation hit. I survived those few ice age days and my ankle was better in no time. After massage school, with my hands still not strong enough for the amount of deep tissue work I was doing, I had to repeat this chilly procedure with my hands and wrists. It was here that I started to work with my reaction to the painful sensation and discovered that we have an amazing ability to cope if we train ourselves to. I didn’t know how to do it in high school, but I now believe that all the years of meditation since then have taught me how. Since pain is going to keep on coming in this life, why not have it as a goal to keep training?

Back to last week…there I was, lying on the table as an un-lotioned fist was making its way through my pectoral muscles, I could have scrunched up my face, tensed up my legs, arms and fists, pulled my back muscles in and away from the table. All of that would have braced me against what was happening, but it also would have made it worse by adding tension to something that was already hard. I’d be creating more work and more pain. Or, I could do what I did, which was to surrender to the sensation, to let go and give in, softening to the benevolent hand treating me. Tensing up would have made this voluntary treatment feel like abuse or at the very least, as though something was forcing its will on my tissue. Instead, it was as though I said, “yes, you are welcome here.” I also removed the idea that pain is “bad” and chose to feel the sensation without naming it as something. This is what this feels like and that’s all. In doing that, I could actually feel how amazing the sensation was. If I could have said it out loud, it would have sounded like, “wow, that’s incredible.” Now if I thought I was in danger or if I didn’t know what was happening, I might have to take an action, but I wasn’t in danger. I could feel what I was experiencing and stay with it. This ability to stay with what is happening and not feel the need for a distraction or something to do takes concentration, but the there is a gift in it. It’s the gift of knowing that inside, I am okay. The pain is not all of me. When I, for the first time, experienced one of those back spasms that lasts for days, the kind where the simplest action feels monumental, I found myself laughing even more than usual. It was a profound experience of “holy cow, this is incredible! We humans actually go through this!” Of course, laughing with a back spasm is excruciating, but it would have been worse not to. When I was upset, it wasn’t the pain, it was the fear that I wouldn’t be able to work. The fear required more attention than the physical issue at hand, but actually the technique is the same. The relief comes in simply feeling what I am feeling as sensation and not adding labels on top of it. I can breathe with whatever is there and, in feeling acceptance and self-compassion, something inevitably shifts. 

The other morning, I had a painful emotion welling up in me as I sat in meditation. It was one of those dark feelings triggered by past events, casting ominous clouds over the future. Quick sand. But, I sat there anyway and tapped into the part of me that could observe and sense. I felt the darkness reside in the front of my head and I let it be there. Slowly more room opened and I could see that this was only one part, other things were also true. I could breathe with those parts, too. Though I didn’t want the darkness there, I let it be and gradually it opened the curtains, letting more light in. We can choose to stay with the sensation and stop resisting it until there is a solution. If we resist it, there is no room for change to happen. Even if it were to happen, we might miss it because our energy is still tied up in what was.

When we can find the “wow” behind anything difficult, we are doing well. For me, this is something worth working on. How can I, in those moments of emotional discomfort, get enough distance to say, with a spirit of delight, “wow, that’s painful!” Don’t laugh. I’m not being ridiculous. Well, actually, please do laugh because that is exactly what I want to be able to do. Laugh with my pain, taking in the sensation with compassion and wonder as opposed to resisting it with wanting something else. I will get something else, just maybe not in that very moment. And some days, we just can’t find that wonder, laughter, or delight in what is happening and that’s okay, too. Everything keeps changing, despite ourselves. Yesterday I couldn’t laugh, but today I can. That alone is a wondrous thing. This is the way life is…beautifully painful. It is awesome, in the true sense of the word.