Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Summer Shedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Aloneness and Loneliness

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 4, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Making Room

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

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

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

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