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.