Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Birthdays and Holidays

I have one of those "big" birthdays approaching and the holidays are here. Both bring up plans, expectations, wishes for things to go a certain way. It is hard not to feel doomed! When those words come together in one cookie jar, I should know some food fights are about to commence. So I've got my head in the jar and I'm looking at it, thinking about it, feeling it, and being curious about what needs to happen to prevent this pending internal mess. How do we have desires for things to go as we envision them and not run into trouble when they don't? Do we stop making plans? Do we not wish for things? Do we let life happen to us and go with the flow, never committing ourselves to something or someone?

If I take the holidays, for example, I cling to an idyllic picture that everyone will be happy to be together and grateful. The day will be punctuated by meaningful moments and deep connection. More likely, the holidays look like this...someone is horrifically angry or upset or shut down, for reasons, we may or may not know. Someone falls sick. You or your guests get stuck in traffic and arrive feeling tense and annoyed. The person cooking is so uptight and anxious you would think that if the turkey or tofurkey doesn't turn out right or on time, the cook might not live. Someone insists on being taken back to the train immediately. There is a perfectionist in the house creating a floor of eggshells with which we all need to find our way upon as the table gets set just the right way and the lighting dimmed at just the right level. The cheesecake someone painstakingly made just fell on the ground and becomes the launching pad for a huge family blow up. A snowstorm halts everyone's travel plans. Someone says the wrong thing, to the wrong person, at the wrong moment. Yes, the holidays are all of that and so why do we make plans, have wishes and expectations? We do it because we are human. We wish for good. We want things to turn out well. We know how we would like to be on the day and how great all of it could be...if only everything and everyone would be on the same page as us.

I could stop having desires and making plans. I could stop having expectations from friends and family. But, I know if I do I would be shutting myself down so I could avoid disappointment and suffering. I would be losing opportunities that open me up and that bring me closer to what my heart is longing for. Instead, I will make plans for my birthday and I will have hopes for the holidays, but I will kindly remind myself to do it with an openness for what else may arise that I might not expect. I think of my meditation teacher saying, "and this, too." Whatever else may arise, I can say, "I can open to this, too" and retain an inner peace that can't be shaken. It means I can feel joy, or excitement, or warmth and I can equally feel disappointed, sad, or anxious. I can be open to all of those experiences and handle them with a gentle touch. No judgement, just love. From this place, I am more likely to give love in a tense situation or to bring out the good in a person who is too upset to find it in his/herself. When a person says or does something that gets under my skin, I can stop my spinning mind on what he has done and turn the focus to the painful sensation I am having in response and take care of that instead. I step away from blame and into my own experience. From that compassionate place, I can find some space and may even be able to silently offer peace to the person who I am struggling with.

No matter what arises or how things turn out in my plans in life, I can take care of myself with kindness, acknowledge the joy or difficulty with love and compassion, and adjust, tend to, or accept what is here. It could be everything does turn out the way I wanted it to (or very close to it) and that is something to be grateful for and to truly enjoy. If it doesn't, there is likely something in the new arrangement that bears some fruit in the form of a new insight, understanding, or maybe the wisdom to say, I'll never do that again! It is all an opportunity to learn more about myself and my reactions. What else is there to do in life than to have these experiences and grow? In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, "this is it." This moment right here is the one to enjoy, perfectly messy or perfectly perfect as it is. There is no better place to be.

To all of those also planning and wishing these days, I send my support to the longing in you that inspires it. It is of great value. I also send courage to encounter whatever comes your way with curiosity and softness to the experience. And, may we all remember to be grateful for this life right here.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Stepping Up

This post is inspired by the news of beloved Buddhist Teacher and Peace Activist Thich Nhat Hanh's ill health.

I got on the subway one night this week to start my journey home after a long day. I sat down and didn't take out my phone. I didn't have my headphones on or something to read in my hands. I just sat there and looked at the face across from me. The man on the other side had dark skin, high, chiseled cheek bones, and deeply set eyes that seemed profoundly worn with experience. There was something gentle, melancholy, and humbly knowing about his manner. We looked in each other's eyes in a way that we rarely do in New York City. It is as if we broke an unspoken rule about how long you can make eye contact with a stranger. His face had too much depth to ignore. Realizing I couldn't go on staring, I took my chances and offered a small smile. He returned it. I then looked at all the faces across from me and I heard myself saying to my ailing meditation teacher, "this moment, and this moment, and this moment," as I shifted my gaze from face to face. Sitting there, tired from the day, I felt my own hands. Though they were fatigued from touching other people all day, my right hand held my left and felt its softness as if caressing someone else. I felt my own tenderness. I knew in that moment that Thich Nhat Hanh would always be with me even when he passes on. His teachings have left their imprint. I am not someone who has a guru. I don't declare any one person "my teacher." But, as his precious life lies in limbo these days, I recognize how much of his life touched mine, of how much he taught me. Sitting on the subway, I see and feel differently because of him. 

The night I learned of Thich Nhat Hanh's condition, I laid in bed and surprised myself as I watched fear arise. It was not as though I knew him personally or that I had more than a handful of opportunities to be in his presence, but suddenly, I was feeling the possibility of a significant loss. Losing a parent feels like this. It is the fear of being cut off and disconnected from some source. The image arises of floating out into space, unattached, just drifting. As I get older and as each elder passes on, I am increasingly aware of a stepping up that needs to happen, a shifting role that I must play. It is true for all of us if we are aware and can muster enough courage to acknowledge the shift. As older family members, teachers, mentors move on, there is a growing up, a responsibility, an ownership that we are silently being given. The controls are being handed over and we face the often scary realization that we do, in fact, have the skills to handle them. 

As I get increasingly separated from those who have been my guides, I am being asked to trust myself, to humbly lean into my own groundedness, strength, and experience. It is as though the universe is asking me to stay calm as a step suddenly appears at my feet. I must take it. The step requires a willingness to accept the place that needs to be filled, whether it is for our children, our students, our clients, our siblings, our co-workers, our community. We start to truly embody the life these teachers showed us we can have. They are no longer teachings separate from us. We embody these teachings when we choose to pause before we lash out, when we choose to be generous, when we recognize that we don't have to win the point, when we stop blaming. It happens when we make conscious decisions about what we do and what we refrain from doing, what we say, how we listen, and what we consume. We embody the teachings when we catch ourselves putting ourselves down in all kinds of small and large ways and choose to treat ourselves with compassion and kindness instead.

Though I have much more life to experience, I see that it would be easy for me to believe that I am still the young one with things to learn and therefore never own what I know and the position I am increasingly being given. The "promotion" is unspoken. There is no award given, no congratulations to receive, no outward recognition. No one says you are ready to be here. I will keep going forward with the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh ingrained in me, and those of my parents, and all the teachers that have come in so many forms. They can't be taken from me. And, I will keep learning. This week, I gained the understanding that I am not getting cut off. If I look deeply, I can see that I am getting more connected. Instead of me holding on though, I am ready to hold, even when my doubts arise and I start to tremble.

With these words, I send my strength, my smile, my presence to Thich Nhat Hanh as he works to recover and to all the elders who have taught us how to live well. I can also offer a smile and a bow of support to myself and all of those around me as we take the next steps of embodying, in an even greater way, what we have learned.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Destination Unknown

Ever have one of those days wondering why you were in Iowa when you were headed for Paris? Some days, weeks, months, years don't go as we expect them to. In fact, they go in a whole new direction as if we lost the controls of the plane we are flying and end up somewhere we had no desire to be. Last Friday was to be my first Halloween with the kids in years when I could have the whole day to attend the school festivities and take them out at night. I was ready for the day, but first I had a simple follow-up doctor's appointment in the morning. It turned into an uncomfortable office procedure that took a was Halloween after all. The doctor with his disconcertingly calm demeanor informed me that there was a "complication." Those are never words you want to hear from someone in a white lab coat. I survived the ordeal trembling and was sent off with a particular kind of pain that would make life challenging for the coming days. Without warning, my plane had changed its course. I was in Iowa.

Though we know better, our unconscious mind seems to get tricked into thinking that if we line our ducks up the right way, they will float smoothly along with the current. You might say, as I do myself, "well of course I know that's not true!" But if I really "know" it, why do I still get stumped when things change course? Part of me refuses to accept what reality inevitably shows us again and again. We are very clearly not in control. Planes and trains get cancelled; the school nurse calls; something grows where it shouldn't; tires pop; our relationship unravels; funding falls through; someone we love dies. Good things also happen. Planes and trains are on-time; a job presents itself that is just what we need; some unforeseen person appears in our life that fills a particular void; we don't get sick; babies are born. Life works out, but often not on our time schedule or in the manner we choose. What we get is what we get and then it is all about what we make of it. Where the plane lands is not our business to dictate. We go for the ride and when we touch ground, we adjust. We might kick and scream at first, or we might feel joy coursing through us like caffeine, but either way, in that process of arriving and finding the earth underneath our feet, we learn something new about ourselves or the situation. We change. But, since few of us like to be out of control, what enables us to trust in the process and, in doing so, make the whole rocky business gentler for ourselves? We tend to resist it the way my dog stops in his tracks and pulls back on the leash once he realizes we are going into the vet's office. With each experience, I am steadily getting used to this deal we are given. I understand that the more I learn to let go, the kinder I am being with myself and others. It is the best thing I can do on this unsettling path. The gentler my approach, the more appreciative of this life I can be because I am no longer insisting it be anything other than what it is. The trick is in finding softness in the midst of upset.

This particular Halloween Friday, I didn't end up where I had wanted, but I discovered what I needed. One of the gifts of being here in a body is that when something goes out of whack in the form of sickness or injury we are forced to stop. My life was feeling hectic, rushed, and overloaded with responsibility and weight. I always know something is off when I start wishing my train rides are longer so I could have more time to stop and catch up with myself. I wanted to find a pause button. Then I got one. Not the kind I would choose, but I got one. I showed up through the Halloween festivities for my kids, but then cancelled my plans to go away for the weekend and laid on the couch for most of it, the only position I could comfortably be in. But, there are gifts to being in this unexpected destination. I was physically and emotionally vulnerable and I knew it. I was not going to be the strong one or the caretaker for a while. I had to surrender. In the giving in, a softness that I could not find running around came over me. Through this gentler lens, I could look at my life with kindness and realize I wanted something different. I do not want to rush anymore and I want to approach everything with a lighter, more tender touch. Just saying that feels good. I pick up my tea and feel the warmth of the cup in my hands and appreciate that simple act. Savoring a warm cup of tea dropped off by a dear friend, I feel grateful in receiving and very blessed. After lying down for much longer than I am accustomed to, I went for a slow walk on a windy, cool, fall morning. I stepped outside and felt the wind against my skin, heard the sound of the trees swaying, felt the chaos of leaves blowing everywhere, and took in the the abundance of colors as I approached the woods. Everything felt fresh, vivid, and alive in a whole new way. I walked slowly, softly. This is the way I want to live. This was where the doctor's visit took me. Thank goodness, though I would not have said that at the moment shaking in his office. No, in that moment, I was sure I would never be okay again. But, I was okay. I am more than okay. I was made tender. Intriguingly, after this weekend, new opportunities presented themselves in my life. The next step in my work and teaching started unfolding. I could think it was unrelated, but I know better. I believe when we start paying attention to what matters most, the things we need emerge.

I am going to try and remember that in the hiccups that happen in a day, a week, a life, there is likely a richer place we can uncover in ourselves whether we wanted to go that way or not. I am going to keep letting the controls go, especially when I think I need to hold on tighter, make more of a plan, get busier, or start trying to fix something. Those are all signs to loosen my grip. If, in the moment, I simply can't let go, I know I will land somewhere in spite of myself. It just might be a rougher landing and that's okay, too. 

What has been most inspiring to me in recent weeks is a deeper understanding that when I hold on too tightly to some idea of how things should be, I am unknowingly choosing to limit what is possible. I am being cheap with myself. I have settled for some notion that one thing is enough, rather than seeing how much I could have. When I make my sole purpose to love, to be kind, to be compassionate, to share myself and open to what is right here without having my defenses up, I can have everything. That everything comes in each interaction with all living things. It comes in each moment of deep presence with life. The way a small object feels in my hand, the way it feels to smile, the sound of leaves rustling, the feel of a hug. Rather than go on a narrow course to arrive at one thing, I can choose to think bigger and have it all. I can say to myself in those moments of struggling, "have it all, Jean." It's my new mantra. May you have it all, too. Our planes are going to keep changing course and when they do, we can let go, trust, and remember that when love is at the core of our intention, we can have more than we might have been striving for. We might land somewhere miraculous.