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.