Sunday, December 29, 2013

Lessons In Running In The Rain

I awake on a Sunday, what has come to be my favorite day of the week. I let myself sleep in, knowing my body needs the rest, despite my mind which is delighted with the prospect of getting so many things done, things I want to do. It is a gray, December day. I take Wally for a walk aware of some light rain drops every now and then. Realizing that it is likely to come down in greater quantities soon, I have the thought that I should go running now. But, it is not the order of events that feels good. I want to have tea and do some writing first, start laundry, meditate, and then go running. So, of course, by that time, it is pouring. 

I get dressed in my running gear and step out into the lobby of my building working up the courage to join in the rain. There is no wavering in the fact that I will go, but just that initial self-motivated push that I am waiting for. I stand there and think about discipline and concentration and that this practice of running, like the practice of meditation, is the ability to stay and do it no matter what. To run even if it it would be easier to stay in a cozy, clean, warm apartment. To stay on a meditation cushion, allowing the anxious thoughts to be there, even if it would be easier to get up and get busy doing things. A neighbor comes by and comments on the fact that I am about to go running. He talks about his own intentions to get going on some training for an event and then encourages me. That push was handed to me like a gift that I am only realizing now as I write this. These are one of those subtle and beautiful acts of help we often receive and fail to appreciate. I step outside and go.

I enter the trails in the woods and quickly see that it is going to be a messy run. In the first minute, I feel the sensation of cold water seeping into the mesh fabric of my sneakers. I think to myself, "already!" But, then I say, "ah, this is what cold water on my feet feels like" and I run on feeling the sensation and that it is really okay. It is actually fun. I then find myself navigating through the rocks and puddles and mud. I discover that running on the rocks, which I would usually avoid, is the best option. It is this deceptive thing where you might think that the smoother part is safer, but it is hard to see what muddy parts are slippery. In fact, sometimes you need to stay on the rocky path for a while to find your way to a more secure footing on solid ground. I get through the trail and enter the road, at this point, fully drenched. My pants are sticking to my legs and I feel the cold water against my thighs. But, I am delighted. I am still navigating puddles and cars against narrow shoulders. There is an elegance to it all. It is not about plowing through like in one of those warrior races that are now in fashion, where you dive into mud and climb through muck to get to the end. It's about making decisions of which puddle to go around or through. When to jump and when to just feel the messiness. There is grace in the mud. I am now running on the smooth open, curving road, feeling strong and wild with freedom. I am reminded that we can do anything if we commit ourselves and we won't melt. It is simply experience and sensation when we don't label it as good or bad. Most of all, it is the courage to stay that moves us.

I run toward home and see a hubcap on the side of the road. It is on the forest side and sitting in leaves. I run passed it, but as I run on, I think no one will see it, so I turn back and prop it up against a street sign, hoping it gives the owner a chance to claim it. I am sure it was my experience of opening through the run that allowed everything in me to expand. The world becomes larger than just me. Thank goodness!

I write this because whether you run in the pouring rain or not, I am sure you, too, have an experience of staying with something, of concentrating, even as forces outside and in attempt to pull you away. When the timing is right and we have enough of whatever it is to be able to experience what is there and not back away, we discover some other kind of freedom and joy and aliveness that is worth it all. Do you have a memory of such an experience? I would be honored to hear it in the comments below. Reflecting on it, reliving it in words brings the feeling back and reminds us what really matters, what makes us feel inspired in this life. We can help each other stay with ourselves and in doing so, we are able to arrive for others. What a beautiful thing.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Season of Light and Darkness

This is what I am most aware of as Christmas winds down and the last of the series of holidays lies just before us. This time of the year holds both light and darkness. It puts a spotlight on love and joy, rightfully giving them the recognition that is often overlooked in the frenetic energy of our "ordinary" days. What a gift that we have a moment in the year where we take the time to celebrate love and show it in coming together, in giving and receiving, in song and bright lights, in speaking to the fantastic minds of children. This is the light. 

Simultaneously, it is also the darkest time of the year. The sun makes its short, radiant appearances as though it is visiting family and has done it long enough to know to only stay a short while. She comes and goes quickly and I feel grateful for her appearances. I soak her in on the train, always sitting on the side where I can feel her light drenching me gracefully through the window. I realize that I look for the empty seat with the most glow as if some part of me is subconsciously desperate to absorb whatever bright rays I can. Besides the literal darkness, it appears in other forms. We can feel losses we haven't felt in a while. I was driving home on Christmas Eve imagining, for the first time since he died 13 years ago, driving to the cemetery where my dad's ashes are kept. Wanting to touch his stone and walk the grounds. Wanting to go on Christmas Day. The urge came on suddenly. Why? I cannot say for sure. Or, we can, at this time, feel some kind of emptiness or disconnection and long for something unknown or unclear to ourselves. The feelings that accompany it can be raw. This is the darkness waiting for the light to find an opening.

This is what I have learned, especially in the winter season. The light and the dark will exist together. I can breathe them in and out and feel my feet on the ground, delving down into the dark, cool earth like tree roots and I can feel the length of my spine extending upward to the light. In the space between, I can recognize them and hold them both and breathe knowing it's not about having one over the other. In doing so, I have found new meaning for this time of the year. I take greater joy in the holiday lights as they decorate the dark sky. I buy, wrap, and give gifts knowing that what feels unfulfilling in the process is that I can't wrap what I'd truly like to give, so no gift feels good enough. I now understand what that is about and can feel the frustration, let it go and truly enjoy giving what I can. Giving like this feels good. I get to experience the joy of receiving and allowing myself to take in the gift, in any form, of another. It is a practice, too, to know when I am receiving and to take in the time, care, and thought of the other. Each gift is perfect. The ride of personalities and relationships and their dynamics, which play out like the most well rehearsed show on stage, is there to revel in, too. When I remember that I am not threatened by what gets said or done by those around me, I can humbly appreciate who I am with and let them be who they are. I can smile and observe my family and friends as if looking at them from outside into warm lit windows of a house. All of our imperfections allowed to be just as they are. And then, to know when I need to be quiet and come back inside, slow down and take some personal space to absorb all that goes on is the gift to myself.

Whether it is the light or the darkness that is prevailing at any hour this season, we can stay with what is and come home to ourselves again and again, in our bodies and minds. There is a safe haven there when we remember our innate beauty, that we are lovable and enough just as we are. Inside there is always a glowing light.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Pausing In A Parking Lot

On Sunday afternoon, I had gotten in my car in the parking lot of a shopping center. I had left my dog in the car for the short time I was in the store and when I closed my door, a woman approached my car clearly wanting my attention. I rolled down my window expecting her to say something judgmental about my leaving a dog in the car or, more benignly, she possibly needed directions. She immediately started talking rapidly in that run on, apologetic way, stating her case as to why she needed money. It is a story I've heard countless times on subways...that she lost her job and has kids to feed and how awful it was to have to ask, but that she didn't know what else to do. There was no pause in her words and there was no pause in my reactions. I opened my wallet, took out a bill, and handed it to her. In my nervousness, I wished her luck and regretted the poor choice in words. Luck had nothing to do with it, nor did it capture what I did wish for her. As she walked away, I saw tears had been flowing down the sides of her cheek, hidden from the front by the big, dark sunglasses. I drove on surprised by the interaction. I get asked for money often in NYC, but I've never had it happen quite this way, in a shopping center in NJ where I live. 

I went to meditation a few hours later where the moment kept returning to me while I practiced pausing and not reacting. I realized how quickly my knee-jerk reactions set in at that moment. The assumptions, the fear, the unasked questions, the quick decision to give or not give money. I couldn't get the sight of her tears out of my mind. In those tears, I saw the person that I couldn't at first glance see. I wondered if they were tears of shame, the thought of which makes my heart ache. I wish I had asked her more, inquired of her suffering, showed true compassion, no matter what her story. Pausing in that moment and offering a listening, empathic presence would have cost me nothing, but may have given her something much more than the money I gave. After that wish came down over me, I also recognized the vulnerable position I was in at that moment. I did not know who she was, what she wanted, and I was constricted within my car. Just this week, a couple's car was hijacked at a nearby, upscale mall and the man was shot dead. It was an unusual crime in the area. We never know what could happen and so my knee-jerk reactions may not be so off, but I have greater trust in good than in bad. In retrospect, I am aware that this woman and I shared a common feeling in that parking lot. Our experiences might have looked different, but we were both afraid. 

This speaks to my last post on trust, again. If I had relied on trust in that moment, I might have been able to act from my "higher" self. Trust in what? Trust in knowing that no one can really hurt me if I come from an honest, loving, heartfelt place. It is a trust in myself, in love, and in goodness. From here I can have a conversation, create an opening, let someone know that he/she is seen and matters.

I will keep practicing pausing and staying without reacting because I aspire to live from this place of love, free from fear, open and full because I need nothing more. Christmas week is upon us. Gifts will be given; kids will be excited. As I give and receive, I will remember this woman whose story I don't know, though the very words she used I've heard before. I will give thanks for the abundance that I am surrounded with and wish the same abundance be felt by anyone who asks for it, even if the asking is for small change through a rolled down window in a parking lot.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Love and Letting Go

There have been countless songs about it and I continually come across beautifully expressed lines from wise teachers on the subject. It is this notion that true love requires us to allow the object of our love to be free. It is a profound truth. And yet, it is not what we instinctively do. It is as though we are hardwired to hang on for dear life to anything or anyone we love or connect with. I rub up against it with people when I start wanting more from someone than the conditions are ripe for. I rub up against it with my dog, whose inevitably short life span I began fretting over from the moment he came home at 10 weeks old. Or, when I look at my kids running to school with their backpacks, which are half the size of their 6 year old bodies, swinging on their shoulders and I beg that this time doesn't go any faster. I rub up against it when I fear that I won't be able to continue getting by financially with my work that I love. I rub up against it in writing this blog, in wanting it to be something people respond to. It is all the same thing, though it might not seem like it at first. It has a distinct appearance. Though others might not notice it, I sense the difference in me. My mood gets slightly hardened as if I am bracing against the wind, my mind busy, my voice tougher, my vision narrower, my smile selective, my eye contact with others limited. And, it happens in subtle ways throughout the day. It is amazing really. Its persistence is commendable. So much so that I now understand why I should treat this part of me nicely, but that's for later.

To let what is important to me be free is to recognize its beauty, to know its value, to respect its fullness and its own time frame. But, to do that requires trust. When I have the fear of letting go of some tightness around something or someone, even slightly, as if taking a knot out of my shoelace and not undoing it completely, but making it loose enough that if I kept walking it would come undone -- when I can do that and have a mere drop of grace to say the word "trust," a  calm seeps through me, like a pleasant shot of relief through my veins. I ask myself, "can I trust here and let go instead?" If I can ask the question, then I am already at the place of responding, "yes, I can."  Not only can I, but there is further relief in knowing that there is nothing else to do. I just need enough courage to ask the question. If I place loving in this world as what matters most to me, then I must bow down and trust. Though I am not religious, I feel like I know what devout people get down on their knees for, why people might open their arms, palms up to the sky, and shout out some praise. It's a two way street, too. I trust in love and in loving I find trust. A double opening and a knowing that in this realm there is no where hard to fall. There are endless billowy cushions on which to land.

And so, there are days when I lose trust and just need to get by, however unpleasant. And, there are days when I remember to ask the question that brings the slightest opening, a sliver of light that lets the river flow again. That ebb and flow is how it goes; it is the path. In order to remember to ask for trust, I keep practicing and the roots of it get deeper and the wind shakes my branches less violently. I stay longer with an ease in my face, a softness in my eyes, an openness in my chest and arms and I smile more, letting it all in.  So, with the holidays approaching, too, I remind myself that there is no better time to love and let what I love be free. I can give myself permission to enjoy people as they are, the hectic nature of these two weeks as joyful in and of themselves with whatever they entail. What feels overwhelming, I can set free, which is what it needs to be anyway, and then remarkably the things get done (if they are of that sort) or the feeling releases, or the relationship surprisingly shifts without my doing something. I can control less, keep my heart open, and trust. From that place, I have nothing to lose and the birds can fly from the birdhouse in my heart and I know they are free to return without my beckoning call.

Monday, December 9, 2013

You Are More Than An “It”

When it comes to your body, how do you regard yourself? I am often reflecting on the value of handling ourselves with kindness and responding to our inner voices with a gentle, benevolent attitude, but there is a place where the very words we choose and the attitude we take has an impact that might not be so readily apparent. We were born here on earth in the form of a physical body. And yet, we talk about our body as if “it” does something to us, or “it” fails us, or “it” hurts. We bring "it" to a doctor hoping to get "it" fixed as we would a car to a mechanic, but the problem is that we don’t actually work that way. I have been witnessing people’s physical struggles and am realizing that I can play a greater part in relaying a whole picture of what I’ve learned about health and why it matters. I hope this post will not only give insight into what I do in my work, which centers around health -- physical, emotional and mental health, but will also open the door to ways of seeing, questioning, and being with the amazing reality that we exist here in a physical form and how we might want to go about it.

I remember when my father was in the hospital struggling with lung cancer, there were times where some count was low. It might have been platelets, or white blood cells, or potassium and one deficiency would cause another reaction or failure. It was the first time I got an unshakable understanding that our body works as a whole system and depends on all of its parts functioning together. And, if I think about why he had lung cancer and what was behind his habit of smoking, the emotional and mental come blaring to the forefront. In other cases, I have seen how untended to stress and tension, built up over long periods of time, culminated in tense abdominal and pelvic floor muscles that then wreaked havoc on the digestive system and a potential physical collapse throughout the body. The lesson I’ve learned in witnessing physical struggle is that to maintain good health, we need to be mindful on many levels and we need to stop regarding our bodies as if they do something to us.

We do not get better, improve, feel good by addressing the physical, the mental or emotional as separate and unrelated. And, we need to remind ourselves that our thoughts and emotions play just as large a role in how we feel physically as do our lungs or big toes. When we approach ourselves with that understanding, if we have pain in our back, we don’t say, “I don’t know what’s wrong with it; I want it to go away” rather we say, “I’m feeling pain in my back and I’m not sure what I need to feel better; I wonder what the pain is trying to say and what I need.” The difference is greater than the words alone might suggest. When we regard ourselves with this kind of inquiry and care, we are paying attention; we are taking responsibility; we are being kind; we are listening. From this space, real lasting change happens. The alternative wants a quick fix, a pill, a procedure, an answer. There’s no learning, growth, or true healing in that approach and more likely than not, the issue will return. This sense of separation shows itself in our attitudes about exercising or eating well.  They feel like something we “should” do for our body. But, if we could listen to why it might be hard to make a change in nutrition or physical activity, we might learn more about what is really in the way and have a greater possibility for change. Again, as I am often coming back to, when we look at fear, it becomes less scary.

In my own life, I remember being transformed when I went to a skilled physical therapist who specializes in Feldenkrais Method work. I went in for back pain. I was chronically sore and tight and finally in exasperation that I was not improving I said, “I am working so hard to get better!”  In response, he said, “maybe you don’t need to work hard, maybe you need to do less.” I have not forgotten those words. Something shifted in me in hearing them. I started to let go of controlling how I’d get better and in doing so, I softened, physically and mentally. It spilled over into all areas of my life. I recognized how hard I had been working in all ways. Partly it had to do with his touch and direction, partly it had to do with his words, partly it had to do with our relating.  The process changed me over time and even beyond the time I worked with him. That is what true healing looks like and it is not something to be rushed or even attained. Healing is growing and we have a choice to keep growing throughout our life.

Knowing that we have the amazing capacity to transform ourselves and that maintaining good health requires a multi-layered approach is the reason why I do the work I do, in all the forms I do it. I teach meditation; I use touch to help people let go; I guide people to see what they do in posture and movement; I inquire about feelings in the body and where they are stored so they can be acknowledged and transformed in that process; I ask people to stay with themselves just as they are and not run from what appears to be uncomfortable; I make visible what is well; I listen; and I am solid in my presence and in the trust of that relationship alone there is healing. It is not always obvious; it is not necessarily a quick fix, though it could be. The healing is in the process.

What we as therapists, healers, teachers can do is create a space for this kind of attention and guide clients with compassion, presence, and hopefully with a new perspective. The most important information and discovery comes from the client herself. We have wisdom built in. Sometimes we just need to remember where the key to the door that holds it is. When we stop regarding our bodies as things we are in, we have opened that door and we begin living with deeper insight, more compassion and understanding. A whole new world awaits there. Life is no longer happening to us. We are living fully and suddenly self-care has a new and more significant meaning.

  • Regard your whole self with kindness.
  • Give compassionate attention to what your body is saying and be willing to ask and listen.
  • Remember when your mind is busy with thoughts and feelings to come down into your body and tend to how they feel on a physical level. From there, you may find clarity.
  • Get support from a person or a group you trust. It is not a luxury as it pays itself off in much greater and lasting ways over time.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What Is True

It is December and the woods I run through are down to their bare bones. Missing the vibrant lushness of the greens canopying over the trails and filling the negative spaces, I‘ve been running and feeling a chill of loneliness out there. That was the case until the other day when I looked out at the open spaces between trunks and branches, which extended as far as my eye could see. It occurred to me that the trees didn’t leave me. They may be bare, but they are very alive. It was me, in fact, that had abandoned them by thinking I was now alone in the woods. Instead of feeling emptiness, I could feel full of what is there. These solid trunks and flexible branches are as present as ever doing their internal work of resting. Just because they are not adorned in their finest doesn’t mean I should stop seeing them. Just as when I am not at my finest, I should not abandon myself. We are all worth more than that.

It is so easy to forget what we do have, to abandon what is in front of us in the desire for something else. We do it with people and objects and we do it with ourselves. In those moments of longing for something, someone, some situation, or ourselves to be different, if we can pause long enough to stay with what is here, just as it is, we might recognize, as I did in the woods, that this place is enough and maybe even has gifts that we were too closed to see before. We still might need something more, but we are seeing clearly and there is more possibility in that.

I once read, in one of his many books, Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh express the importance of asking, “is it true?” For a long while, I had it written on my desk so I could see it often. I have since learned through another practice to ask, “what else is true here?” The leaves may be gone, but am I really alone in the woods? I may be at this Thanksgiving table with my newly shaped family and feeling out of place, but am I really? Am I not fully embraced by this beautiful group before me? That question of “what else is true” recognizes that there is something I’m sensing that is real for me (and important to embrace), but that there is likely more to it that allows for a fuller experience. In seeing from this more complete existence, I can get a greater perspective and choose where my thoughts take me. I might need to make a change, ask for something, stand up for myself, call for help, but it comes from a more open place, which in turn makes me better able to receive.

What I’ve learned in and out of the woods this fall is that I can stay close to what I love though it might temporarily take a different form. By taking that moment to pause, step back, and see, I get closer to what is true and it usually brings me closer to what I love.

Monday, November 25, 2013

What Thanksgiving Really Looks Like

More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving has always made sense to me. Having as its main purpose a gathering around a meal and being thankful with no gifts exchanged, no baskets of candy to make, no specific person to celebrate, no imaginary figure to create stories around, just a meal together and gratefulness sounds like a perfect holiday. theory, this is my kind of holiday. But, we all know the reality is slightly different than our ideals. There's the challenge of who, what, where and, my gosh, if you're doing the entertaining, there's the drama over the home being ready, the food getting made, the last minute running out to crowded stores for one missing ingredient, and there's inevitably someone who gets sick. Or, if you're the guest, there's the tension you feel at the house you're visiting as they've been stressed all morning getting ready, or there's the wondering how long you'll stay, or the traffic, or the struggle of getting your own kids dressed and out the door. And, of course, there are the kids you see that are not your own that you wish would be disciplined the way you think they should be. There are the adults who don't get along. There are the snide comments, unwanted advice (also known as criticism), passive aggressive behavior or full out flying of hurtful words or maybe even a flying pie. One recent year, my niece calmly came into the dining room where all of us had sat down and when I asked if everything was okay in the kitchen, hearing the usual  shouting from behind the door, she replied, "oh, there's just a small fire in there." When the day is done, even if it went without flying pies and fires, and you've eaten too much, you wonder what happened to the thankful part, where was its place in the day? Something was missing.

My holiday this year has its own endearing bizarreness. If I were to tell you, you'd likely nod in agreement. There's nothing typical about it and I can't picture it actually playing out. Yet, it will happen and we will all survive, probably laughing in some moments and maybe squirming through others. This is what I've come to accept...all of this craziness is part of the holiday. There's no point resisting it, in fact, I might do better to welcome it. And here's my bigger thought about it... I can shrink into a small self as I think about what needs of mine might not get met or I can be the person I admire and show up and share my voice simply by reflecting the ideal of the day. What if throughout the day, I notice all of the gifts to myself. I can take in the sun or the snow or the sound of the rain. I can taste the food I eat and not just get it down. I can say an internal thanks for whoever cooked the food and for everything that made it possible to be on the plate in front of me. I can look around the room and see others' smiles in conversations I am not a part of. I can see my kids' excitement at the fact that this group of people they love has come together. They don't care about our quirks and flaws. I can walk slowly and enjoy the in-between moments of going from here to there. I can remember that we are all people doing the best we can and that we all want to feel good. It is up to me to recognize the gifts, regardless of the drama around me. It doesn't take much. One person in a group who takes a moment to share something heartfelt can change the whole feeling, even if briefly. That takes courage. I hope I can find it. I don't know, yet, what I can pull off on this particular Thanksgiving that might remind me of what matters or that might resonate with others, but I will try. What else is there to do? It is my favorite holiday and if I want it to be all that, I know that I need to show up for it. And, if I manage to show up the way I want to and I still need to cry in the end out of the exhaustion and strength it took, or if I didn't manage to do what I wished I could, but the intention was there, I will still give a deep bow to myself in gratitude, ending the day on its main note, in thanks.

Friday, November 22, 2013


At night, after a day of work, I stand on the corner of 32nd Street and 7th Avenue waiting for the light to change so I can make my way to Penn Station. There is a tall building just to the north and slightly west that is either being constructed or has been gutted. It grabs my attention every night as I pause there on that busy corner. All we see from the street, several blocks away, are the empty, open floors lit by single, bare light bulbs on every level, evenly distributed in clean rows. It is a shell of a building rising up into the night sky. There is something about its minimalist simplicity, its raw openness, its bare bones of hard concrete and no facade that is quite beautiful. I look up at it and don't want it to change. It doesn't need anything more. It doesn't need to be filled or closed up. I've wondered what it is about its presence that draws me in so much. Maybe it is how it embodies openness and space within a defined structure, offering permission to wonder, imagine, create.  In its simplicity there is room to breathe. Maybe it reminds me in its emptiness that there is much to be experienced in not filling every moment. There is much to appreciate in ourselves, just as we are, not needing to be anything more. There is an unshakable beauty when we expose ourselves and know we are also solid, grounded, protected by something. For as long as it remains in this state, I will enjoy how this structure of concrete and light bulbs can evoke this kind of grace at the end of a long day, standing there in a bright night, or rain, or wind, or maybe even snow. But, even once they close it up and fill it in with things and people and dramas of everyday human life, I can still recall the structure and feel the spaciousness, wonder and simplicity that is underneath it all. And when I need to,  I can recall that sense in me, too, that underneath all that goes on in me, is a place that is simple, open, spacious and has room to breathe and wonder.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Who Is Talking To You?

Ten years ago, I was on a meditation retreat with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh at his monastery in California. I remember listening to a question and answer session with his monks and nuns. I can't recall the questions or the answers. What left its imprint on my whole being was the sound of their voices as they humbly, articulately and slowly answered each question. I sat in that room and it struck me that it wasn't just one nun here or there who sounded angelic, but all of the ones I heard speak. It's the kind of voice you hear that you want to keep listening to. Their tone radiated a gentleness, kindness and clarity. It was without any force or ego. I can still hear them. In that moment of being there, I remember wanting that, wanting to be able to hear myself in that same way and wanting it to be genuine.

Fast forward 10 years. No, I still don't have that angelic voice, but I have learned where it comes from and it has made all of the difference. I have come to understand now that when I am having a difficult moment or day that something in me is giving me a hard time. It's rarely obvious at first. It has a way of masking itself quite ingeniously. It seems, at first glance, to be some general sense of unease or discontent, nothing too specific. Sometimes the mask takes its appearance as anger or frustration and comes out in blame or the expression of irritation. Or, it may come out in despair or a sense of hopelessness over a situation. No matter what shape or form it takes, what is true is that I have believed it and have forgotten to gently ask who is under there. The instant I remember to ask, I am the monk or nun in my memory. The voice that does the asking is already kinder, softer, more compassionate. That voice speaks to me differently. She wants to know what is going on. She wants to hear what I am longing for, what I am needing. She wants to say "of course, that's what you're feeling." It is not the voice I grew up knowing, the voice that believed the masks were real, sending me on a wave of criticism and blame, usually toward myself. This new voice has more space, greater capacity to hold tenderly and to love. She literally sounds different.

Meditation instruction typically says that when thoughts arise, we should "observe" them without getting lost in them. What I have experienced in practicing meditation is that we have the potential to create the space, an almost palpable distance, between a thought or emotion and our reaction. That alone is significant and valuable. But, I think in this culture, there is another necessary step. It is not to practice simply observing and detaching, but observing and kindly regarding whatever is there. By that I mean literally saying an internal "hello, I see you are there and I welcome a space for you." The more we speak to ourselves with this kind of tenderness, the more we recognize those moments of judging, condemning or being hard on ourselves.

There is another way to be with ourselves and though I don't always get it immediately, I find it more quickly now and the sticky, difficult places that arise fade faster. They have much less strength. The trick is in remembering, remembering that I can speak in many voices, but there is a specific one that I can choose and she makes the world a different place, the world inside me and out. Maybe someday, I will hear, in my external voice, what I heard on that retreat long ago and what I know is possible. In the meantime, I will keep checking in to see who is talking to me and choose to listen to the one who speaks with kindness. That voice is beautiful. I wish for all people to learn to speak to themselves with a gentle tenderness. Imagine what the world would be like. What a beautiful sound it would make.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Next Big Craze

I want to start a new health craze. I want it to take off the way kale has made it onto covers of books or the way Pilates became a household name. This new craze is... breathing. No, I'm not joking and yes, I know you could argue that yoga has been around a long time and has already taken off. But, this would be simpler. No classes needed. No money spent. The instructions are already built in. We'd simply need to push the activate button. Like toggling a switch on your phone to "on." My personal guarantee, like you might see on an infomercial, is that it will improve everything from tension, to ailments, to productivity, to world peace. And, it's free. No purchase required.

Let me tell you where all of this is coming from. I've been hearing some internal criticism for writing weekly blog posts and not yet talking much about the body. I'm realizing it might seem odd since most of my life's focus evolves around how we are in our bodies. Partly, I take it for granted. I don't know how to be other than in my body. I've also been blessed with an extremely healthy one. But, in my work and in all my relations, I see a fair amount of physical struggle. So I thought about what I could write. I could write about how we need to shift our thinking away from our bodies being like cars that we need to bring to the mechanic to get fixed. I could write about how we need to stop thinking of our bodies as separate from everything else that goes on in our minds, hearts, emotions. I could write about why when something goes "wrong" in our bodies, we could stop looking for some immediate medical quick fix and instead ask some deeper questions and open our awareness. Instead, I'll tell you what struck me tonight as I walked on 32nd Street toward Penn Station.  

I got out of the subway and walked with a crowd. It was earlier than my usual time going home and there were more people everywhere. I wanted to practice being in a crowd, needing to be at the station to make a train departure, and doing it without that subtle, but underlying tensing up, shrinking in, or putting on of some armor. I wanted to enjoy the walk. I sensed that the one place in me that felt crowded was around my shoulder blades, chest, and heart. In that moment, I took a very conscious, full breath. I felt a sudden sense of room around my heart and length through my entire spine. I felt tall and powerfully alive. This power isn't a kind of aggressive power, but a feeling of fullness and a knowing that there's nothing to protect or armor against. It is an understanding that I have everything I need in that very moment of breathing into all of me. I can actually let go, do less, ease up. And, even better, I can keep doing it. I can stay in that amazing space and open myself to take in the energy of the city, the beauty of the buildings and the lights, the way the fabric of the flags waves in elegant ripples in the wind, the eyes of people passing. In that moment, I am free and no matter how much I open myself, nothing can be taken from me, but rather by opening up, I can have even more. The fact that I can do this whenever I want is so exciting. It makes me want to make an infomercial.  

After I consciously breathed, I walked on and thought, my gosh, there is so much we can do for ourselves, to help ourselves feel good in our bodies. And, this one is easier than pie. I'm not sure what is easy about making pie, but any way you slice it, breathing life into ourselves is ours to do anytime we want. No one else can do it for us. Why do I think this simple act of conscious breathing can make such a difference? In order to do it, we need to slow down our thoughts, we need to pause and not react, we need to pay attention. Imagine if we all did those things. If we, in that moment when we are being asked to do one more thing on top of an already enormous list of things to do, if in that moment when our child is pushing our limits, in that moment when too many people are pulling out of Trader Joe's parking lot too fast, in that moment in a relationship where a disconnect is happening, if we paused and took a conscious, softening breath. Yes, the world would be a different place. Charitable acts are beautiful and important, but I think the greatest charitable act we can do is on this much simpler level. If we can tend to how we are in ourselves, so many problems would be eliminated from the start. If we slow down and breathe, we can see how we speak to ourselves, to our kids, our employees, our co-workers, our friends. We can react less and be gentler, kinder, more grateful. We can sense when we're taxing our bodies and make a different choice. We can recognize that we are actually feeling really anxious, sad or lonely and tend to that place before it morphs into some physical ailment, which it will if it's neglected over time. We can also take in the moments of joy, ease, beauty and let ourselves be full of gratefulness. We can donate our time and money to good causes, but the greatest cause might be right in our own homes. We should start there. Our very first home, is in our body. It is no one's responsibility, but ours to make it a warm place to live. Let's make this the next big craze.

Friday, November 8, 2013

What Mindfulness Really Looks Like

I know you've seen it. A picture of the back of someone meditating before some kind of amazing landscape like mountains against a cloudless sky or some pristine, glass-like body of water where the blues look unreal in their intensity and the greens look so alive they might come out of your computer screen. It's the kind of picture that makes you tense as you look at it, feeling incapable of living up to the calm that it portrays. It's the kind of picture that you might think has absolutely nothing to do with your real live mindful life.

Here's what mindfulness really looks like. I'm in Maine and decide the night before that I want to awake at 5:00 am and drive the 30 minutes to a trail in Acadia National Park to see the sunrise, which is due to occur at 6:57 am. I figure I'll get there and watch and meditate, just like one of those pictures. Imagine that!  I decided that I'd leave at 6:00 am and have enough time to get there and walk the short trail that leads out to the cliffs over the water. I've never actually gotten up specifically to see a sunrise before and feel excited. The morning comes and I'm 10 minutes behind schedule, but I have my tea in my travel cup and I'm on my way. I soon realize that this trail will take me longer to drive to than I had expected. I make one wrong turn on the island and now I'm officially late. Yes, late for the sunrise on my vacation. I get to the trail with my tea in hand, too late to open the trunk and get my gloves, and quickly start making my way, missing the fork that takes me directly to the cliff. Instead, I'm on the long loop and am now climbing cliffs to get to the side where the sun can actually be seen. I look at the time on my phone and it is 6:55. I pick up my pace, tea still in hand, climbing big boulders. No one else is around and I feel ridiculous rushing up the cliffs, stumbling over tree roots in my not quite awakened state, being late for a sunrise. I let out a laugh knowing no one will hear me. I eventually get there. It is 7:05. The sun has crested over the horizon. I missed it. I laugh realizing that one can't be late for a sunrise; it does not wait. I sit down on the edge of a rock high up over the water. My hands are chilly and I wish I had taken the extra second to grab my gloves. I'm not about to close my eyes and meditate. Instead, I stare out at the golden sun reflecting on the ripples of the water and watch the ducks far below. I see a fishing boat circling and wonder what it is up to. I hear a sound out in the water and see a hump of something. Too big to be a dolphin, too small to be a whale? I stare intensely hoping to see it again. I sit there taking in the beauty and wonder why I'd try to "meditate" in a place like that. There's no need. I'm there and I'm present, feeling slightly anxious from the rushing, slightly cold, awed by the beauty, inspired by the sounds. I think of all of those pictures of meditators in lotus positions in places like this and I suddenly feel relieved. This is what mindfulness also looks like...a woman stumbling toward the sunrise, late and anxious and laughing with her tea in her hand.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Saying Yes

Running this morning, I came upon a deer on my path. I slowed to a walk and eventually stopped as he did. He was not afraid of me. In that moment, I realized that in sensing his fearlessness, my fear rose. The beginning of so many relationships goes this way, whether it is an intimate relationship, a career development where we are receiving a "go ahead," a "yes" to a new artistic endeavor, or a sudden liberating insight about ourselves. When we finally meet someone who is not afraid to be there with us, when the new path is the very thing we have wanted, there is a tremble that occurs that can either cause us to push away or invites us to draw out the courage to keep moving closer. Sometimes we, knowingly or unknowingly, sabotage ourselves because that is the best we can do in that moment. That place needs to be respected, too, out of its goodness of self-protection. Though, eventually, there comes a time when we find the ground underneath us and though we may be trembling, we know it is solid and we tenderly take another step toward the deer that decided to bravely share the path with us. This morning, I saw that deer, felt my reaction, saw how it relates to other places in my life and I asked myself, so how do I find that place again? How do I tap into that inner-knowing that allows me to feel shaky while trusting the solid ground and continuing to move in this new direction? What allows me to not build up armor in self-protection, which has the allusion of confidence, or recoil into a small shell that limits what I am truly capable of? What enables all of us to be real, tender, vulnerable, and courageous?

I close my eyes and ask the question again. Only one word emerges, "love" and, at first, I don't know why. So I close my eyes again and stay with the feeling of fear and the word "love." A second sense emerges that knows that as long as I keep staying present with each new challenge and not meet it with strength, but with softness, with honesty, with true presence to the person, the group, the subject and be willing to not know how he/she, they or it will respond, I can do no wrong. That is true strength. I don't know how my classes will go, how my clients will receive me, how a relationship will evolve, how my parenting will be, but I trust that if I come from love in each moment, I will be safe and where I need to be. There is no danger because no one or thing can take love from me. When I live from that place, coming from love means respecting all of life by listening and speaking with care, by knowing when I am receiving and being in touch with gratefulness, by recognizing moments of judgment and asking myself what it is really about, by being present to people, places and experiences, and by remembering again and again what really matters. If I stay close to these values, then I am coming from love. Nothing bad can come from that place. There is an open-heartedness to it. It is as if I could say, "here is my exposed heart; I trust that even if death should come, what is in my heart cannot be touched." What amazing freedom there is in that. Imagine if we could all practice trusting in that way. It would be a practice though, not something to attain. I will keep practicing and the next time the deer, the event, the person meets me with a "yes," I hope I can meet it on an equally resounding affirmative note.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Wanting What You Can't Have

This month, I did something I never did before. I decided I wanted to eat better and be less dependent on coffee so I went on a detox. Don’t worry, this blog post is not about dieting. The most difficult part was letting go of my daily intake of something yummy that involved chocolate. Well, on one of the 21 days, I had one of those experiences that strikes you the way the low lying sun hits your eyes suddenly turning a street corner on an October morning. I was walking to the subway after a long day and passed a storefront that had a delicious, sweet smell wafting from its open door. In that tempting moment, I took in the aroma and then said something that surprised even me. I said, “what if I could enjoy the smell as much as I would enjoy taking a bite of the actual food; can’t the smell be filling and enough in and of itself?” Now before you roll your eyes and click to close this page, I ask that you stick with me the way I stuck with the diet for 21 days. 

Desire. It emerges over all kinds of things and some of its appearances are more crazy-making than others. This past week, it emerged for me in a mild form when I visited my favorite place in Maine. I got there and enjoyed it so much that I was left wanting to move there. I wanted it, more of it. I wanted to “have” it, as if it could fill something in me. The hardest desire for me has been over a person. Have you ever wanted a person that you could not have? It could happen for all kinds of reasons. The person might not be available. Though you connect on many levels, the person might ultimately not be the right one for you. The person might be your husband/wife who is temporarily or seemingly permanently unavailable. The person might be a friend or family member who is far away. In whatever form, when it happens, it leaves you deeply longing. It could even go on painfully for years. For those of you who have ever been here, you know what a hard place it is. For those of you who haven’t, I don’t wish it upon you. Yet, that particular, unfulfilled longing holds open a door of profound insight when we’re willing to walk through. There is no end to desire. But, in the wanting, there is something essentially beautiful. 

I remember saying, in exasperation, about the person I was longing for, “but, I can’t have you!” It was a painful, constant refrain that had to instantly call forth a bigger question, “what is it to ‘have’ something at all?” When we eat things, we want to “have” them. That is why we have the expression, “I just wanted to eat him (or her or it) up.” But, I can savor an experience without “eating it” or  “having it.” When I eat a pint of Hagen Daz chocolate ice cream, I am not full at the end. In some way, as much as I enjoyed it, I never get the experience of actually having “had” it. (Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d still do it.) We don’t ever own anything anyway, even if we eat it! It comes through us and the craving begins again. If it is an object we can buy, we think we have it, but we eventually come to our life’s end and we don’t get to take the thing with us. Money is another big one, causing us to think if we would just have more, we’d be okay. And sometimes it’s power or status where we can stumble into the quicksand. So, what do we do with an insatiable desire that arises again and again? How can we work with this human experience of wanting so that it doesn’t keep us from missing our life, what we already have, what is right here? Certainly, it’s not about getting rid of it. The answer I’m learning over and over again is to stay with the actual experience. It is what I write about in every blog post. It is what I keep returning to. 

What does longing feel like? Not the thoughts that come with the longing, but the actual feeling of longing. Can I feel the constriction in my chest, as if rubber bands were getting tighter across my sternum, drawing the two side of my chest together? Can I feel the ache as it pulls on my heart as if connected from a rope to something outside of me? Can I experience the sensation and not add on the thoughts and judgments about it? If we didn’t have longing, we would never be happy because we wouldn’t know the joy of receiving. Take it even further and we can see that we can’t really “have” a person, a food, a landscape, anything that we desire. All we really have is our experience. The experiences of longing, receiving, wanting, enjoying, fearing, loving, struggling are amazing in and of themselves. No one is greater than another. 

It seems like a tall task to ask of myself to be able to view things with such equanimity. But, I have realized that it is a practice, like any other. I can practice with the simple things first like savoring food when I eat it, with enjoying my morning shower and the fact that water flows from my faucets simply by the turn of a knob, when I take in the beauty of someone who smiles at me, or the fact that my train was on time. When I savor these daily moments, I am strengthening my ability to stay present to the bigger, more challenging ones, the ones that pull at my heart, as if it is bound to be taken right from my body. This does not mean I won’t ever complain or cry or get upset. Of course I will, but with a greater understanding.

If that is not enough, there is even more I learned from staying in that painful process of longing for someone I could not have. The reason the desire existed was a good one. I had an experience of the person that made me feel alive, inspired, happy. Of course I wanted more! The gift comes in recognizing that because I know what that experience feels like means that I can recall the good feelings at any moment. Essentially, I already “have” it. I have the actual thing I have been longing for inside myself and it doesn’t get any more real than that. This does not mean I stop trying to have the physical experience, the actual thing or person, but I can rest and even enjoy the process and not wait until I “have” it. Eventually, we usually do get the thing or person or its equivalent in some form, though it may not be what/who we expected. In those moments of finally receiving what we want, if we have been practicing staying with our experience, we can truly soak in the fact that we are now receiving. We know how special it is because we know how to stay present. The longing and the desire are what help us to truly “have” in a more lasting way. This is genuine happiness. 
On my drive to Maine, after 25 days of not having dessert, I let myself enjoy a chocolate ice cream cone. I sat down and ate it and savored it in a whole new way.  It was even more delicious than I had remembered. I now know that when I do get to have the thing I wanted, if I had let myself long for it and not push the difficulty away, the person or thing can actually fill me, not in the way I thought it would, but in ways I could not have known possible. The feeling comes from within, not from an external source, and comes out in deep gratitude and lasting appreciation.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Fall, A Monk, and Fear

The acorns keep hitting my car as I drive, startling me or making me wince at, what sounds like, possible damage. The leaves now cover the trails I run on, making the rocks invisible to my feet finding their balance. The slightest chill in the air is already making its way right to my bones, like an e-z pass allows cars to slip right through a toll. Yet, the October sunsets have lit the skies ablaze in glorious streaks of pink and orange. Yellows, greens and reds are falling through the spaces in front and around me. As I walk the trails, the smell of crumpled leaves permeates the air, accompanied by that particular sound each footfall makes upon the fallen beauties. Migrating Starlings take over a section of the forest stopping me in my running tracks. Hundreds and hundreds of birds swooping from trees to the forest floor and back again, a tornado of wings flashing through the sky in improvised cannons. I stand in awe as other runners and bikers pass me by. This is my fall life outside the city. 

In the city, there is a brisk buzz of activity on the sidewalks, in the parks, cafes, restaurants and stores. The presence of the NYU students by my office building is thick with an energy of youthful academic and social busyness. I arrive in the city and step into pace with another world, realizing that I can apply the same walk there as I do in the woods. I look up at the architecture of the building or the shapes of the trees that have so gracefully grown, surrounded by concrete. They, too, are changing. I soak in the ivy that hugs the brownstones, happy for the vertical, green blanket for as long as it can last. As I leave my office building at night and step into the spacious street after having been in a small office for hours, I first savor the size of everything around me and the pleasant feeling of being a small part of something very big. It feels like freedom. I then look up at the building ahead of me to see the symmetry of two lamps lit in side-by-side windows in the very top floor. It must be that their order, amidst so many competing visuals, strikes a note of serenity in me. The warmth of those lamps feels like a secret. I wonder who else takes comfort in them or if the owners have any idea that the lamps are so appreciated by some stranger down below. I take in a deep breath of the now cooler air and head to the train to take me home feeling tired and full. I pull my jean jacket tighter across me, enjoying that fall feeling of a chill in the air and knowing, soon, I will look more like the Michelin Man in my coat. I walk from the subway to Penn Station and pass the homeless, who have moved and are now sitting on the grating that blows warm air. I am aware of the greater difficulty the falling temperatures will bring to them. This is my fall life in the city.

Along with these observations of the fall, a story from my past as an NYU student emerged from my bank of memories this week. It could be the way the fall brings out my dread of the cold and limited light, but whatever the reason, it arrived for me to share. It is a story that a captivating professor shared in an Eastern religious studies class I took at NYU one fall, years ago. He described a meeting he had with a monk who was visiting NYC. It was the dead of winter. The monk arrived at his office dressed only in his sleeveless robes and sandals. As the monk sat down, a drop of sweat slid down his brow. A simple story, but I never forgot it.

What if we could all discover that immense power of our minds and use it well?  Being mindful of our minds, we can change how we are physically and emotionally. To do it, though, requires an ability to stay with our experience. The more we do it, the easier it gets. This week, I was at a loss as to what I could write about next. How do you follow a blog post about mortality? I was stuck, inspiration-less. And when I asked “why,” I sensed fear. One part of my life where I was feeling anxious took over, making me contract into a small self that didn’t have permission to tap into those places of wonder and joy. So I stayed with that sense of fear and contraction, just letting it be and could then write. That is the training. I’m guessing the monk in Professor Carse’s office trained himself not only to feel when he contracts against something, but then actually opens to it.

What if I walked into the cold and opened like a Peony to sunlight or Night Blooming Jasmine to the moon? It wouldn’t make it any more cold, but it might make my experience more alive, more full, more present. And, maybe that fullness will actually produce warmth; okay not sweat exactly, but warmth. Why not? Throughout the day, we confront fear. Fear is at the bottom of everything. Rather than just experiencing what is happening and tending to that current moment experience, it is deeply and protectively rooted in us to tense up against it. Fear comes up in simple interactions or the looking away from another to avoid an interaction. It comes with any moment that produces a strong unwanted feeling of boredom, pain, anxiety, restlessness, loneliness, despair. It even comes with joy in anticipation of it ending. If we get to the bottom of each difficult experience, we can surely find our friend, fear. And, friends we should certainly be. The training begins here.

If we make fear a friend, we know how to treat her. We can listen and offer support. We can stay and be fearful, knowing it won’t kill us. We can say, “I’m fearful right now that I will be rejected. I’m fearful that I won’t know what to say. I’m fearful that I won’t be received. I’m fearful that I won’t get what I need. Or, ultimately, I am fearful that I will die.” Whatever it is, if we stay there and not add on self-judgments or blame someone or something outside ourselves, the feeling can live and change on its own time, like a wave builds and dissolves. We don’t have to push others away or defend ourselves or beat ourselves up. Our concentrated ability to be aware of what we think, feel and do and to stay with it is a gift.

Of course, it doesn’t always feel so straightforward. Last Sunday night, I was leading the weekly meditation group and realized that the fruits of my practice don’t necessarily come in the actual moment of practice. In fact, most of the time they don’t. The fruits make themselves known later, in the moments of recognizing what I am feeling and not running from what I see. Even if I do react too quickly, I am soon to realize it and take a next slower step with less self-recrimination. When I sometimes wonder why I commit myself to sitting every Sunday night or at other times during the week, I can remember the sleeveless monk walking the city streets in winter and be inspired. For others, it may be a different practice, art, work or spiritual path,  that reminds us of what we are capable of and how to stay present in this life that is always full and waiting for us to receive it. In the city or in the woods, I'll step into the fall today and invite myself to keep noticing. Maybe someday I can walk the city streets, sleeveless in winter, and still be warm.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Profound Beauty

Though this entry is couched in a very personal story, I hope it resonates in a more universal way. And, though this one won't make you laugh, I write it with much joy, as I hope you can hear. It is actually from this deeper reflecting that I am able to laugh as much as I do...

For whatever reason, when we hit that troubled age in childhood, where our physical awkwardness strikes, like many kids, I began to look in the mirror and struggle with the image looking back at me. A voice took over at that time which, unfortunately, did not pass when it should have. Instead of saying “you’re ugly” and then eventually saying, “huh, I’m not so bad looking,” only the first expression echoed.  Then, one day, in my late 20’s I was looking at childhood pictures and started to cry as I saw the beautiful girl I was and could never appreciate. I asked myself, “what was I thinking? What was I seeing?” I then felt a deep loss. What a shame it was to have experienced myself that way for so long, that my perception was so off kilter and how, on some level, it kept me from being all I could be. But, with that awakening, there was healing and a new path. At the risk of sounding cliché, over the years, I have come to truly appreciate who I am, from the inside out. I now look in the mirror at night and actually like what I see. I often smile at the reflection staring back at me in appreciation and gratitude. What a difference. But, what is it I am really seeing that I didn’t see before?

The other day, I was at work washing my hands for the hundredth time between clients when I looked in the mirror and had one of those reoccurring moments of recognizing that my body, as much as I like it now, is going to keep changing and not in the ways I necessarily want it to. My skin is going to wrinkle and increasingly show the marks of age. My muscles won’t be so tight or look so toned. At some point soon, I will be one of the middle aged women walking down the street. At another point further off, if I am so blessed, I will be the older woman walking down the street. With those realizations comes the very human fear of becoming invisible, unrecognized, insignificant, of fading away (And, this fading away is our ultimate fear, isn’t it?). Then comes the fight, a digging in of my heels and a voice in me that says, “no, I don’t want that!” But, as soon as that voice let itself be heard, another wiser voice gently asked again, “Jean, what is beauty? How does it show in a person? Can what I see so easily now in myself truly disappear?”

There is a higher place within that lives far above the concerns of appearance and age, and ultimately of the fears of our mortality. Remembering this calms me like a gentle wave washing the sand from my feet at the edge of the shore. That voice tenderly reminds me to concern myself with growing in presence, kindness, compassion, wonder. There my true beauty lies and reveals itself. This radiating presence can’t be ignored or overlooked. This place knows of something greater; it recognizes my part connected to a much larger place in the world that goes way beyond this particular life. This place isn’t concerned with what I look like or do, but with a certain aliveness, what I emanate and how I relate to myself, to other people, animals and things. It is a rich existence. It is what truly matters to me and why the practices of mindfulness, beyond the word’s current trendy use, are at the center of my life. I can only fade away if I resign my gift of taking in this life with gratitude and joy and stop seeing the beauty that is everywhere.  I share the questions with you…what is important to you, knowing you are changing every day? In what ways can you see yourself in a greater form, one that doesn’t fall apart at the thought of this unstoppable change? And, if the thoughts produce fear or discomfort, is there a way to find tenderness, compassion and love in the search for yourself and for what matters to you? Something no one else and no physical body can take away. It is a serenely powerful place.

So when these fears of aging arise in me again, as they will surely do, I can remember this deeper place of understanding and breathe easily again, at whatever age I find myself. And for right now, when I remember to tap into it, I will savor my current state. I will enjoy my limber and agile body, my skin, my ability to run and feel sexy, my ability to hold too much in my head at once and respond with clarity. I can also experience the changes as they gradually come along with that ever-growing sparkle that youth can’t possibly know. And, when it is time to let go of my spot on earth to make room for another, I’ll be taking that inner beauty with me as I take my last breath. And, my body, in all its outer beauty, can rest after all the tremendous joy it gave me.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Opening The Door: Inspiration Lost and Gained

On a recent evening, as I stepped out into the night to walk my dog, I felt some unwanted feeling in me. It was as if an unexpected visitor arrived, a visitor who had nowhere else to go and the simple fact of her presence gave me no option but to invite her in. So, I opened the door further to make way and, as I did, I felt a wave wash over me, a wave devoid of inspiration. I stood there chilled by the sudden coolness of the fall evening and asked what this temporary lack of aliveness was about. Quickly, a list unrolled, like a scroll with all of the reasons why this deadened sense was before me. The way in old cartoons, there would be a god-like character with a scroll of names that inevitably didn’t have the one sought for. And then, the list dropped and it came to me, a moment of clarity. The way sunlight finds its way through tree branches onto a creek and in just one spot illuminates the way to the rocks on the bottom. A patch of clarity surrounded by, what appears to be, darkness all around. I realized that to be inspired, I needed to stop and slow down, feel this absence, and just “be” again. To take in the simple. To walk slowly. To listen without doing. To see without trying to gain. To simply be.

We can’t be inspired all of the time. The word and the feeling couldn’t exist if we were! Isn’t that great to know? It’s a relief, as if I can say, “oh good, I can be uninspired right now and not worry about it.” Sometimes it shows itself in the slightest of forms. It might wear a mask of boredom, lethargy, drudgery. In those moments, I can remember that nothing is wrong, rather, there is a generous opening that makes itself continually available if I do the first step. The first step is to acknowledge and allow the need for inspiration, that particular longing, with kindness. I can literally say, “oh, this is what it feels like to be uninspired.” From here, I can recognize that the world is not against me in this feeling. It is not being done to me. In fact, I can remember to soften to the world and let it take me in, just as I am, so that I can take it in, in all it’s beauty, as it is. There is, actually, benevolence here, a force that wants me to do well, that wants us all to thrive. We all want to survive, flourish, and be happy, and we all depend on each other and the earth we’re a part of, whether we recognize it or not. When I’m on the subway, walking down a busy street, or simply passing by one person, I can take in the person/people with a soft approach, defenses down, not trying to understand or gain or give or fix or do.  Physically, I can walk with a more gentle step on the earth, my gait not pounding down. I can see the blue sky or the way the clouds form and shift. I can hear the sound the dried leaves make as they land from their descent. Life becomes easier, gentler and bigger. Then, from this place, I can unlock the door and find inspiration standing there to be invited in again. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Adding A Hill to A Hill and Remembering Tenderness

There has been a resounding theme this week. People are pretty darned stressed.  Whether it’s work, illness, relationship issues, or just too much on one’s plate and having the feeling of “losing it.” I listen and watch and I feel my own challenges and there’s one thing I keep coming back to. Tenderness toward oneself. How can we be tender towards ourselves and not jump to the next thing that ultimately boomerangs right back to us in the feeling of anger, frustration, depression, and despair?

The other week, I was running in the woods and half way through my run, there is a long, gravel, uphill path. On this day, as I started the ascent, I saw two men clearly working out. They had found two logs and set them up on the hill as stumps to jump on and off of or something to that effect. As I ran by, using all my stamina to simply get me up the hill, I passed them and said, “what, the hill is not enough?” We all laughed as I kept going out to the smooth, paved road that would begin my descent home. I ran on and thought about the ways we sometimes make things harder for ourselves. For these guys, it was intentional. Though there was already a hill there, they wanted to add more challenge. I think we often do that very thing, but unintentionally and it doesn’t feel very good. If we dealt with the first challenge, the hill, and truly took in what we had before us with compassion and support, then we wouldn’t have the additional challenge, a stump, to also deal with. The stump comes in the form of self-judgment (for not being good enough, getting it right, etc.) or blaming (if only the other person, thing was different) and it feels like anger, depression, despair. When we add that stump on top of the hill, we have two challenges and it usually snowballs as we add on more.

But, there is another way. It’s taken me a long while to understand this one and I still forget at times, but the more I practice, the more easily it returns and it has to do with tenderness, compassion, and staying with myself. Whenever I hear myself spinning about how I am not good enough or spinning about something someone said or did, I stop now and go right to the feeling. What am I feeling? And once I find the right word that describes it, I stay with it and say, “yes, of course I am feeling that” and I feel a gentleness come over me that knows that the only thing to do is to feel that discomfort, pain, loss, sadness, and be tender. If I stay there, no snowball effect happens. I don’t add on layers, the way you would add stumps to jump over on a hill. What action comes next comes naturally and comes from a kinder, more grounded place.

I wish for us all to be able to stop and feel where we are before we react and add on more layers. Answers come more easily then. Answers about what to do, how to do it and if there is no answer yet, the ability to wait with the unknown, trusting that it will reveal itself. It takes practice, but once we get it, life’s stresses take a different tone. They’re still difficult, but they don’t last as long and don’t take as big a toll on ourselves and others. And even greater, we begin to laugh more. I’m serious. Sounds like a leap to go from stress to laughter, but it happens. It makes sense, really. If you think about being kind to yourself, anger then dissipates, frustration lessens and our vision opens to what is around us. When we slow down and take ourselves in, we ultimately take in the sights and sounds around us in a new way.  It’s an openness, a softness to all experience. Joy naturally arises from that place.

As I see the difficulties people are facing and my own, I send us all wishes for presence, the ability to slow down and feel and to stay with ourselves tenderly.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Falling Into Love

My last completed solo started with me in a spotlight raising a tissue to my eye in slow motion. In time, I let it go billowing to the floor, as I fell backwards running, the light opening up to take me on a journey that lasted for a non-stop, high paced 20 minutes. I made that dance after one of those losses in life that we all have to go through at some point. Sometimes the loss happens sooner than we expect or are prepared for, but we all share in that common experience of losing one of the closest people to us. In retrospect, there were many gifts in that loss, gifts that could only be understood in time, gifts that can’t be comprehended in the actual moment of losing. But, sometimes, even these seemingly big life losses don’t prepare us for the one loss that actually disrupts everything. The one that takes the ground underneath us and seems to keep us falling for a period that is unfathomably long. A fall we can’t imagine being able to recover from. But, we do. And, when it happens life can no longer be what it was. We are changed in a way that we know we can’t go back to our old way of being. The difference in this experience (and it may not be a life lost, it could be a relationship ended, a career closed, a dead end met) is in knowing that despite anything that happens in this short period we get to be on earth, nothing can take from us our ability to love. It is untouchable. Our capacity to be generous, kind, playful, joyful, warm, wondrous can’t be taken by anyone or anything. It is almost superhero like in its power. It is a profound understanding and one I wouldn’t trade any loss for.

Knowing that all losses coming forward, of which there will be many, won’t take this understanding from me, gives me humbled strength and courage. Everyday we have moments of losing, of struggling, of floundering, of fumbling and of forgetting our value.  But, even if we temporarily forget, we have the ability to recall. To recall this inner, unshakable understanding that love resides in us and that we can choose to handle any situation, any conversation, any interaction with kindness and genuine care, is an amazing gift. It is the one thing that we do get to take with us when we experience our own inevitable leaving. It is a pretty powerful thing to own. I often wonder if it is possible to arrive at this place in youth. Why not? If it can somehow be taught, experientially, early on, that love is all we really have, what a world this would be! It is beyond having good self-esteem or having good morals. It would involve learning a softness, a tenderness, toward oneself that knows the value of self-care, of compassion, of being able to remember what matters. I do think we can do that, at a young age, if it is reflected around us.

And so, on days when difficulties arise or, even simpler, in those commonplace, daily moments when we lose inspiration, motivation, meaning, self-worth, we can say to ourselves, “hey there, you’ve forgotten love, you’ve forgotten that no one or thing or situation has taken it from you. Go and love. Love yourself for your courage to feel and not run. Love the tree that manages to grow on that city corner. Love the ornate, cast iron grating on the door on 9th Street. Love the dog wagging its tail as it walks ahead of you, delighted to be outside. Love the person who looks you in your eyes as you pass and acknowledges the life in you. Love the person behind the counter who made it to work and helps you, though you know not what struggles she may be going through. Love because you can and that’s all there really is to do here.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

Downed Trees

Lately, there has been a tree down across the path in the woods where I run. Usually, when trees come down on these trails, I am amazed and grateful for the mysterious volunteers who come in and remove them. Each time I run by a newly cleared path, I say a little thanks for whoever took the time to tend to the woods. But, for some time now, the downed tree near the entrance to the trail has not been removed and I find myself saying thanks for that, too. That old, fallen beauty, which could be seen as an obstacle, has become something that enlivens me instead. Its place on my path has had the odd effect of allowing me to feel my agility, my youthfulness, my coordination. I run toward it, without slowing down, step up onto the trunk, and push off feeling that brief second of suspension and quiet in the air. A beautiful break in the rhythm of my footfall, the way composers insert a rest in a piece of music that makes what comes after even more poignant. I’ve come to like it there. But, what of the downed tree in my computer?

In recent weeks, I’ve had to tend to more technology issues than I am accustomed to. My profession doesn’t require me at a computer all day, so when problems arise I am more at a loss as to how to fix them. I can get easily frustrated thinking, "I have work to do in a limited amount of time and now I won’t get it done." Slight panic and fear arise, like water starting to boil in a teakettle. The whistling screech starts to build. The kind you want to turn off before it reaches its full volume. But, what if I could see the problem as just a tree down in my computer? What if the problem itself was part of the path and not something in the way? Instead of tending to what I had planned, I now I have this before me. What if I could just bend like branches do in the wind? The problem asks of me to pause, which I don’t always want to do. It asks of me to seek help, which I don’t always want to do. It asks of me to include it, which wasn’t part of my plan. As my first meditation teacher used to say, “this, too.” And “this, too,” is part of it. When I think of it this way, I don’t struggle so much. It might be annoying, but maybe it’s just what wants my attention first and can I trust in the necessity of that?

There is another, smaller downed tree further on in the trail. That one is more like a hiccup as I run over it. And then, there is the occasional huge fallen tree that requires me to stop and find may way around, under, or through it. Whatever the size, my latest strategy is to ask myself, “can I make this part of my path and not something in the way, not something separate?”  Self doubt, traffic, pain, the unexpected bill, a hard conversation with someone, not knowing the next step, being gripped by overwhelm, all of it is just part of my life. I might not like it, but I could have a kindness toward myself as I bend to meet it. It's a gentler way of being the world. Imagine if we could all practice dealing with whatever arises without trying to make it fit our plan and instead saying, "huh, I wasn't expecting this, but here it is, and I'll be tender with myself as I handle the step that is now before me."

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hitting Me Like Acorns

Yesterday, I was running and the signs of fall were hitting me like acorns dropping from trees. Hard and benign. Hard because, as much as I love the fall, it leads to winter, which I seem to have inherited a struggle with. Benign because the trees, which shed the acorns, have no bad intentions and are simply taking their natural and rather beautiful course of letting go and planting seeds. I felt the first signs of fall underfoot as I stepped on newly surrendered leaves and caught flashes of occasional color under and around me. As I continued to run out of the woods and onto the road, I saw, every now and then, a leaf falling. It was in that moment that I decided, “I need to make some fun of this.” And so, I've set a new challenge for myself that will remind me to enjoy the season and not miss it in my fear of the darkness, cold, and too many layers of claustrophobic clothes that follow it. The challenge is that I catch a leaf...even just one, sometime on one of my runs this fall. This is not such an easy feat. Not only will I look funny, swerving with my arms extended as if praying to a flighty god only I can see, but I’ll also have to remember to look at the oncoming cars and not scare the puzzled drivers and myself.  
That was my first enjoyable thought for autumn. Then, as I ran downhill alongside the meadow, I saw a black Mercedes coming in my direction. It had, what I thought was, a curious emblem on the grille of the car, so I watched it as we approached each other. When it was close enough, what I thought was some kind of sign, was really a big, yellow, maple leaf stuck to the grille from the pressure of the wind against it. I laughed out loud. There was something amusing about this shiny, black, expensive car curving along the winding road with a huge beautiful maple leaf sealed to its front. It came at me as if to say, "yes, fall is coming, enjoy me!" In fact, it was a sign. I ran home delighted with the energy of knowing I can keep searching for the fun in what is right here, right now. And right here, right now is the coming of fall and that is all.

I welcome hearing any thoughts or practices around the fall you may have. Oh, and since this is happening to me, if you drive and hear the occasional acorn hitting the roof of your car with that particular thud, or you see one fall in front of your car, just missing it as you drive, then too, you can smile or laugh at the profound nature of a season that’s about letting go, with its remarkably colorful exit, and pulling in to be able to flourish again.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Empty Studio

I began choreographing solos this way. The theme wasn’t there, the title was far from being known, the room was empty. The only grounding I had was in an inner voice that had something begging to be shared. In that I trusted. It would, inevitably, begin the journey of creating, leading me through moments of insight, clarity and excitement at what was emerging. At other times through mountains of struggle, where I would get stuck in the mud and often need some outside help to pull me through (or at least get me off the floor, where I’d inevitably end up lying, staring hopelessly at the ceiling). The help always arrived (though, it has taken me years to realize that and trust in that process now). The dance would be completed and the terror and thrill of performing it would send me on that slide of emotions that come after the applause, with the descent of post-performance vulnerability and emptiness. Like the strange quiet after a much anticipated storm and you’re left standing there exhausted, wondering what to do from there and what was all of that about anyway? We all have these moments, in different ways, don't we?

And so, I begin this blog.  Unclear, yet, as to what it is I am embarking on, with only the passion of putting down into words what insights and questions arise as I explore how to live with greater presence and ease, more compassion and kindness, and how to remember to tap into that renewable spring of wonder and inspiration. But, there are a couple of differences between what I used to do and entering this new, empty studio. One is that I have learned to be a little calmer with the “not knowing” process. Not knowing how something will go and actually enjoy not knowing or, at least, struggling to be okay with not knowing. The second is that while I will still deal with the aspect of vulnerability here (how can anything of value come without this?), I won’t be dealing with that post-performance day at the amusement park crash. In fact, this will be the opposite, an enjoyment of a continued process, with no big climaxes to recover from. It will, instead, hopefully, remind me what is important and echo the way I aspire to live. To stay in the process and not rush through it to some end or award that we ultimately don’t get to take with us anyway. And, I’ll get the gift of sharing the process with people who choose to participate in the dialogue. What a gift that is!  I hope you will join me on this journey if the content sparks a place in you that asks similar questions and I welcome you to share yours. I do believe, more and more as I get older, that to put into words or art or some form, the experiences that wake us up and enliven us, we strengthen our ability to tap into them more easily and more abundantly. Thank you for walking with me. Our first path in the woods will be coming soon.