Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Right Conditions

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 18, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pit Bulls with Babies and Maine

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

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

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

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

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

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