Tuesday, December 1, 2015

'Tis The Season

December has arrived. It is a time of the year with many beautiful intentions of joy, peace, light, giving and receiving. Each year I seek ways to keep the season meaningful despite the onslaught of consumerism and over-consumption that lures us into high expectations and perfections. Whether it is an idea of merrily buying gifts with hot chocolates in hand, or decorating our homes with smiles and joy in our hearts, or celebrating in festivities with energy and lightness in spirit, we are instead met with impossible wishes to fulfill, debt, pressure, physical and emotional exhaustion, and strands of broken lights or burnt cookies. Still, the marketing of the season is a powerful force to contend with and not that easy to ignore. Who doesn't want to fill that picture of joy and gratitude, even if unrealistic? In response, I've decided that throughout the month of December I will consciously receive everyday for the entire month. I am going to be specific and make note of everything that is given to me throughout the day, on each day, until the New Year. Everything from the sunlight coming in the window in the morning, to the train being on-time, to my children starting the day without any grumpiness, to my dog greeting me like I am the best thing on earth, to the feel of my partner's arms around me, to the blue sky, food in the refrigerator...you get the point. I am going to receive like an over-indulged child on Christmas...except that everyday will be Christmas. I am going to be as full as Santa's sled!

If anyone wants to join me in this, I welcome your company. I am going to acknowledge each offering by consciously naming it and saying thanks with a pause and a breath. "This is here, thank you." I will also acknowledge everything that made that thing possible; it didn't get there by itself. I'll report back to you and let you know how it goes. Let me know if you will join me by writing your name in the comments or sending me a message. If you are wondering about the giving part...I trust that when we genuinely receive what is before us, we naturally give in response, much like focusing on the exhale and trusting the inhale will happen on its own.  

Wishing you all peace, light, and the recognition of abundance through the season. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Rock Stars And Blessings

On a recent fall weekend, I had my yearly dose of "I want to be a rock star." Of course, it is not just any rock star I want to be. There is one artist who I listen to with so much awe and admiration that when I see her live, it is hard not to wish I was her. It is ridiculous to want to be another person. I know that. What do I know of how she goes about her life, of what she is like in her relationships, of how she moves in the world. But her talent, her apparent ease in her skin, her comfort on stage as she plays her many guitars and sings with a range that belongs to birds and possibly angels (angels who have had experiences)...that part I do wish I could manifest. But setting aside that wish, I witnessed her at Radio City Music Hall this fall and was inspired by what she gave and she gave a lot. Though I had heard it before, that night she sang a line that went straight to my heart, causing me to lean over to my boyfriend and repeat it. I can still hear her sing it..."do I make myself a blessing to everyone I meet?" What a beautiful notion...do I make myself a blessing to everyone I meet? Why not, I asked myself? What better thing is there to do? I thought I would go home and write the words down somewhere I could see them daily and remind myself that I could make that choice each day...multiple times a day, for surely I will forget. I didn't write it down yet, but I am writing this blog post.

The following week, I was at the dentist's office about to receive an injection of Novocain. The dentist was on my right and his assistant, an older woman, whose age I couldn't define, was on my left. Just as he was about to inject the needle into my gum, I felt the warmth of the assistant's hand cover mine and her other hand she placed on my shoulder, gently massaging me. It was the most unexpected and comforting distraction. This is clearly not in her job description. When the injection was done, (twice), she lifted her hands and the doctor left the room to let the numbness set in. I thanked her for her kindness and while I waited, I learned some things about her. It turns out she is a widowed 82 year old who works there twice a week, volunteers with a therapy dog another day, and offers her time to yet another charitable cause a fourth day. She has no intention of sitting around, but all of being of service. I thought of the song and knew I was in the presence of someone who is most likely a blessing to everyone she meets. She knows what I keep reminding myself of...that there is something greater at work and something larger to tap into than our daily, insistent need to have the to do's done, the unknown settled, the issues fixed, the fears placated. She can recognize the angels in children (as she called my daughter) and she can willingly and freely offer comfort from possible suffering by the simple touch of her hand. She does it because she can. It is inspiring and it reminds me that I don't want to be a rock star; I want to be that. I want to lay down my fear and give myself like that. And, I know it is fear that keeps me from being a blessing to everyone I meet. When I am fearful that I won't make ends meet and find myself in the hustle to make it happen, I end up too stressed to see around me, to take in the stranger by my side on the train, to enjoy what is right here. When I am consumed with how I am doing, or how I appear, or what I need, I lose those connections. Fear causes us all to contract, to narrow our vision, to retract what we have to offer. It arises when we think we aren't enough, or that we don't have a enough, or that we are unsafe, whether it is in our careers, in relationships, in whatever with think success is. In that pulling in, we lose sight and touch with the beauty we already posses, with the tools we intrinsically have. It is hard to give or receive from that place. 

Undoubtedly, fear has its place, too, it can keep us from danger and from acting recklessly. What I keep learning is that as long as we know fear is at work in any given moment, we can make a choice to still be open within the fear. I can remind myself that, in this very moment, I am safe. I am healthy. I am clothed and fed and have shelter. I am loved. In this moment I can breathe in and out. I am alive. Again and again I can be present to what is right here and say, "and this moment...and this moment...and this moment"...meeting each one.

I want to be a rock star. It's a different kind than my dream life might conjure. It is not accompanied by lights and outward applause. To be this kind of rock star is to have the intention of giving fearlessly everyday and to handle fear with kindness when it does arise, as I know it will. I want to tend to it with tenderness as soon as I recognize its face and be able to keep an open heart. From there, I can meet the eyes of another in the only moment we truly have...this one right now. What greater talent is there to cultivate than this? I think I'll keep practicing and maybe I'll take out my guitar and try that again, too. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Between Here and There

When I was entering my junior year of high school I got the bold idea in my head that I could get on with my dancing career, the thing I really wanted to be pursuing, if I could just finish high school faster. So I did. I spoke with the school and, though it wasn't common, they allowed me to take junior and senior English and whatever other requirements were needed. I forwent a lunch period and worked like bee that year. What strikes me now, like an unanticipated gong ringing right next to my ear, is the realization that whatever energy found its way in my body that year, it has never left. It is humbling to admit. From 17 on, there has always been some urgency and sense of too much on my plate, along with a deep passion and dedication to get to something I love. It has all required so much effort, organization, and determination. While much has come of that will and drive, what I see now is what I missed in all that hustle. This isn't particular to my life. It happens everywhere...this sense of trying to get somewhere so much so that we miss what we have, what we have accomplished, what is right here in the present moment. We lose the ability to pause and be content with the in-between, with the path from here to there. We neglect to celebrate and rest in where we are and where we have been.

I was sitting at my iPad one night this week looking up the details on my friend's upcoming performance when I decided to do a search under my name and "dance." It has been 7 years since I performed and I was curious if Google had anything to say anymore. What my eyes spotted first after all the massage and meditation was a search title with a clip of a review from Eva Yaa Asantewaa in The Village Voice that read "solo specialist Jean Vitrano presented a trio of works at Joyce Soho. Although a petite woman, she dances like a cast of thousands...In each piece, she soon unleashed coiled energy, virtually washing herself with the space, wearing it, consuming it. At rare, momentary stops, her strong, supple body seemed to resonate. Always restless, sometimes reckless, Vitrano is nevertheless controlled and clear as she sculpts movements in these demanding pieces." I read the lines, closed my iPad, and felt tears wanting to surface from deep in the ocean. My boyfriend was there in the kitchen preparing dinner and in that moment, with his back toward me, when he casually asked "what else was going on" I couldn't bring myself to tell him the world I had momentarily visited. I couldn't read to him those lines that were once used to describe me. It would of sounded like I was tooting my own horn. He didn't know me back then. So I said nothing, unfortunately depriving him of a whole, rich part of me. There was more than one sentiment needing to be expressed in those tears that never did get shed that night, but the one that brings me comfort now is the realization that I can, in this moment, take in those words of that dance critic who so eloquently captured what I felt when I moved. I can honor what I did in all those years of urgent, passionate striving. I can now say, "wow, I did that!" People said so at the time, but I was holding on so tightly to the runaway horse that I couldn't really pause and smile at myself for what I had accomplished. Instead there was a fear that if I did, I might fall off, so I just kept going. But, isn't this true of so many of us? What if I couldn't make another good dance? What if I never received more funding or attention from presenters? What if I lose my job, my health, my family? We can keep running with these fears driving us onward. Or, maybe we can decide to go forward differently.

Where all this reflection brings me is to a really beautiful place. I am still striving and probably always will. That is not a problem. I am, again, in the in-between place of seeing the goals I am moving toward, watching all the parts slowly coming together like a puzzle or tectonic plates shifting the shape of the earth underneath me. But the difference in my 40's, is that now, I want to slow down and enjoy the path. I want to enjoy what is coming together before it is together. I want to be right here soaking it in. There is so much breath in that. This place right now has all the happiness I need. I will read this post again to remind me when I lose it, as I surely will from time to time, but something has shifted and I feel lighter, more joyful, more content to savor where I have been, where I am, and where I am heading. I invite you, too, to look at your life with same sense of awe and celebration. Without a doubt, we are all deserving of that gift from ourselves...not just once, but every day. There is so much power, gratitude and giving energy that comes from that ability. When we do this, we understand, in a deeper way, that the path between here and there is just where we want to be. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Laughing & Crying & Learning Equanimity

My morning was a typical one. I had gotten the kids off to camp with its usual frenzy of "let's go, let's go, we gotta go" going on, sprinted up hills in the woods, packed my breakfast and lunch for the day and showered. But toward the end of my getting out the door for work, feeling the stress of the morning rush, I started to simultaneously laugh and cry. They both wanted to happen with equal strength, so much so, that neither one had its way. Instead, what emanated from me was the strange sound of both. There I was, looking in the mirror as I put on my minimal make-up, repeatedly checking my phone to see when I needed to stop everything and bolt out the door to the train, while these expressions came out. Tears were at the edge of my eyes ready to jump, when suddenly a smile would find its way on my face with a stunted chuckle of incomplete laughter. All I knew was that the intensity of the anxiety I was feeling was absurd and yet I had to make a train and couldn't stop. It was a most bizarre physical display of stress. The part of me that knew the morning rush was too much for any one person wanted to laugh. She knew the pace at which I was moving was beyond unreasonable; the athleticism alone in multi-tasking was at once heroic and comical. Yet, the part of me that couldn't take this level of going anymore wanted to shut the whole thing down and cry. It didn't matter. I didn't have time to do either one. Instead I got myself to the train. The day went on and I was fine.

A week prior, I was on vacation enjoying waking up every morning doing meditation and yoga on the deck of the cabin I rented overlooking Acadia National Park. I am sure it looked like a picture out of a yoga journal or some spiritual retreat center catalog....the kind you see in stock photos and know to add a grain of salt (or maybe a tablespoon). On the day before we left, I cried. I dreaded coming back to the busyness of my everyday life. But I did. I came back to a week where, in addition to the usual array of work and children, I was also leading two meditations as part of a spiritual project in town. Those two mornings felt great with large groups of people turning up to be guided into meditation for an hour. How could it be that I could be the person guiding people and the person having a seemingly deranged laugh/cry meltdown while rushing out the door two days before? 

This is a mindful life...believe it or not. It looks like that at times. It does not look like a stock photo we can order for a meditation flyer. It is sloppy, uncomfortable, and disturbing as much as it is peaceful and grounded. It is what in Buddhism is known as The Four Noble Truths. What years of suffering (as we all have in varying degrees in life -- The First Noble Truth) and finding my way, with the help of many teachers (looking deeply at our suffering: The Second Noble Truth), has shown me is that what makes a life a mindful one is our ability to see our strong reactions to whatever arises without believing the messy part is all of us, without putting ourselves down when we see it, and our acceptance of all of it (there is a way to end suffering: The Third Noble Truth). We gradually get it. Sometimes it is like a light bulb going off or it may be slower, more like brown rice cooking (The Fourth Noble Truth: the path). We step back and observe without reacting to what we see as if it is the whole truth, nothing but the truth so help me...even if it feels like it is. The acceptance of what comes knocking at our door...the joy, the suffering, and everything in between, is what separates a mindful life from one driven by our ever changing feelings spurred on by an ever changing life. It is not being detached. It is being present. There was a time that I would put myself down over that apparent contradiction of rushing, feeling tremendous anxiety and being able to drop down into the breath, the present moment and to be able to share that understanding. But something in very recent years has shifted. What I thought I needed to be and what is more real, more loving, more kind, compassionate and joyful has made itself known. The teachers and leaders we see who inspire us are no different than us. They experience anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, joy, peace, excitement, wonder, contentment just the same. What makes them inspiring is the part we can't see...that they have all of those feelings and sensations and they embrace all the parts equally...that is learning to view all things with equanimity (one of the Four Brahma Viharas). The stuff of life doesn't change with a monk's robe, a title, a published book, a following. It is a good thing to remember...to keep in check that a mindful life is not a picture. Or if it is, all we need to do is step inside the frame and we are there. What a relief.

What I happily learned in my returning weeks home is that I do not need to be any different than I am. I can love the part of me that runs around like the Tasmanian Devil filling water bottles, washing the dishes, feeding the dog, drying my hair all in the same moment and the part of me that can be still like a Bodhisattva. Since I started writing this entry, I have had more anxiety ridden moments trying to figure out how to get everything done and everyone where they need to be as school starts, business picks up, doctors appointments get handled, and a kids' birthday planned, along with laundry, meals, dog walks, etc. But, in the midst of all of that, something stops me somehow and I get a moment to simply sit in Washington Square Park. I look up at the wind moving through the leaves in the trees on a hot day with the returning NYU students navigating their way on overcrowded sidewalks. As I sit there, I take in the anxiety of the morning rush still simmering inside, the peace that also exists in me, and so much joy. It is all beautifully there to enjoy...one sensation after another and all of which make us alive. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Wrapped Around My Finger

Last fall, a woman was referred to me through a colleague I hadn't seen in a long time. It was one of those introductions that happen where, in the moment just after you meet, you say to yourself, "what was that all about?" Her energy was bubbling and elegant and she looked 20 years younger than her age. While she is of the air, I am clearly of the earth. Our styles were so very different that I felt odd next to her, like a bull in a china shop. I was fascinated by what our purpose was in this meeting. I gathered that she was talented in many ways, but it was her artistry as a jeweler and her passion to help people connect that was coming through most clearly. As could be expected, the conversation quickly went off track from its original purpose of showing her my office space. That clearly was not what was meant to be here. Before I knew it, I was telling her that I was in search of a life-partner and struggling with the process. She looked down at her hands and she pulled off a thin, gold ring. She asked to see my hands so I held them out. She placed the first ring back on her finger and took off another one that looked the same. She told me it was her signature love knot and that I should wear it on my left hand. She explained that because I was someone who gave out a lot, I should wear it on my receiving hand, not my doing hand. I was stunned at the generosity of this woman whom I had just met. Here she was handing me a delicate, handmade, gold ring and was more or less promising me that I would meet someone. I had no sense that she was expecting something in return. 

That night I rode the train home and looked at the ring with gratitude, awe and delight at the unusual encounter, and then...confusion. If I wore a gold ring on my left ring finger wouldn't it look like I was married? How would I possibly meet someone that way? For a week I wore it with greater and greater bewilderment. I soon started changing hands, sometimes wearing it on my right out of fear and sometimes on my left. I felt silly at my bafflement, but it wouldn't go away. Though I was afraid of sounding ungrateful, I did finally text her and expressed my perplexed feeling. Her simple text back said that I should wear the ring on whichever hand felt right in the moment. If I felt like giving, put it on my right and receiving, on my left. So that's what I did and I wore it consistently.

This post isn't about whether I met the man of my dreams. Sorry to leave you hanging. This is what I ultimately learned after several months with this ring...I stopped being so concerned about what it would mean to others. Appearing married or not did not matter. Instead, I found myself genuinely asking what I needed in the moment I was putting it on. In the moments I felt needing of love, support, help, energy I would place it on my left. That part was clear. It felt like I was taking care of myself and that alone was a welcomed reminder. What became far more interesting over time was what it meant to wear the ring on my right. I realized that there were many times I felt needing of something, but the "right" action still felt like to wear it on my giving hand. Thinking about it now, I am often "needing" something, but I know it isn't necessarily getting the something that quenches the need. It is often in giving that I am truly fed. Of course, I don't mean giving from a place of emptiness, or from a desire to be "good," or martyr-like, or giving ultimately to get something back. It is not goal oriented in that way. I know now that when I start thinking in some contracted way about my life -- trying to figure out details, or wondering how things will work out, or what needs to be done, or whether I  am enough (to myself or anyone else), I have gone under, like a turtle going inside its shell and seeing only itself. In that place, I have stopped seeing and taking part in an exchange of giving and receiving. Now, when I move the ring to my giving hand, it is the simplest reminder to open up, to look around, to see the eyes of the people around me on the train, on line, in the store. I am asked to awaken, to be present and to see the depth of life around me and to appreciate this very life as it is. In that very basic act, I give -- it comes in the form of acknowledging another, in the simple meeting of eyes or a smile, in genuinely listening to someone, in taking in the beauty of the red sky at sunset. I understand that "giving" is all of that. When we are present, we naturally give.

This ring still alternates hands. In case you are wondering, yes, I did meet the man I was looking for. How could I not? I had a ring on my finger showing me the way and he was literally around the corner. My understanding of wanting, needing, giving, and receiving will never be the same. I know now that when I am open and in the moment, there is no separation between them. In her own form, this radiant woman, who visited me in my office, had this understanding and she passed it on in a ring.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Love Walking Backwards

Staring out the train window, I watch an image from the morning play itself out, its imprint forever left in my heart. I kiss my daughter goodbye as she takes her lunch bag and runs toward school. My son, who I no longer have permission to kiss in public, takes his bag and quickly backs away from me with a big, sheepish smile on his face that says, "no way you're going to kiss me!" I laugh and stand there with our dog by my side as my boy starts walking slowly backwards toward school not taking his eyes off of me. He usually runs in full force leaving my "goodbye" trailing behind him, the words left lingering in the sky, as if unable to keep up with his pace. Not today. He walked slowly backwards keeping his eyes on me as I stood there wondering if he would really go the whole length of the school's driveway like that. People passed him by in both directions and I just stood there in the distance meeting his eyes with my own. He finally stopped when he could go no further, at which time the bell rang. He raised his hand in a slow gesture of goodbye, turned, and ran to find his class line. I stood there, my heart in awe. In awe at the way we heal. In awe at the complexity of relationships and the power of love. 

The night before, my son and I hit one of those all time lows. A power struggle moment where frustration, anger, resistance, and pain come down like an avalanche. Quick reactions fire like a gun out of control. Bullets fly without the space of a breath before the trigger is pulled. The moment passes leaving destruction in its wake. In the aftermath, with my son in his room, myself stunned in the living room, and my daughter terrified at what she is not used to witnessing, I think to myself in shame, "and you taught a mindfulness class today?" How can this happen? I comfort my daughter and apologize for my actions and for frightening her. Then, I know I need to comfort myself before I can return to my son. We both need to let the embers cool. I reach out for help, knowing that if I don't, the old ghost of self-loathing will soon take over. Nothing good comes from that place...for anyone. On the phone, my co-parent reminds me that it is okay if our children see us lose it. It is okay if they lose it, too. It is a part of life. Though it feels awful, I do know we will heal from the moment. A mindful life does have this suffering in it. Just like forest fires cause regeneration and growth, these moments of rupture can do the same. I am told that studies show that relationships that have rupture and repair are healthier than those that have no rupture. In each experience I learn about love. It is tougher than I think. It can handle arrows. 

In his 7 year old body, my son seemed to know something of this. He would not let me kiss him, as he normally doesn't at school, but he also did not want to turn his back to me this day. He showed me his forgiveness, his apology, his love in those slow, backward steps. As the space increased between us, my heart was opening more. I blew him kisses and we both went on with our day, his heart in mine and mine in his. I am reminded that a mindful life also looks like this. Perfectly imperfect. Walking backwards, I can bow humbly, again and again, at the lessons I am here to learn. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Gift of a Horn Honking

I was running on this cold, gray, February morning using music to boost me along like engines on either side of my ears. I have been running over the past year without any music, but these winter days are asking more of me to get out there. I do what is requested and kindly feed the need until I am inspired enough to take them off. Today, this need was replaced when I heard a car honk its horn from behind me. I turned to look as it passed and saw the driver giving me a thumbs up. A huge smile instantly found its place on my face and I felt a surge of happiness and gratitude for his acknowledgement. I thought about what kind of a person it takes to do that. The driver saw me running and didn't just carry on with his business. He must have had a quick succession of thoughts that went along the lines of, "wow, a woman running even in this freezing cold" and the recognition of the will, the effort, the discipline, or whatever it was he thinks that it takes. Some part of him was saying, "right on!" That is a person who can't be self-absorbed. His world is larger than his concerns, problems, or tasks. Though I don't know him from Adam (whoever that is), I feel confident to say he takes in what is around him, feels it, and shares his positive response. What a beautiful thing.  

What I was left with by this simple gesture of encouragement by a stranger was the reminder that we can all offer that magic to people everyday if we take the time to look around, to wonder, and to be grateful and inspired by what we see. I ask myself, why not offer support abundantly? Why be stingy with love? What is the fear that gets in the way of my ability to give out? And, what gets in the way of my being able to receive? There are gifts all day long. My train was on time. That was a gift. I had my usual breakfast with my kids at the town diner and though my daughter spilled orange juice all over herself, my co-parent dropped off clothes on the way to work so we wouldn't be late for school. That was a gift. The news reporter stopped me with a camera on the train platform to ask my opinion on possible fare hikes. Her smile in the rush of the moment of the train arriving and her trying to get my answer was left imprinted in my head. That connection was a gift. We can take in these moments and be filled and we can fill others. I'm taking in the reminder by the driver honking his horn. It was a bell of mindfulness to wake me up. I ran on and felt the rush of this life, of the train flying by, of the snow starting to fall, of the artist sharing his music in my headphones, of my heart beating, and of how greatly I can affect the beating of another's. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Laugh With Me

I was told that Mercury just came out of retrograde. I really have no knowledgeable understanding about what that means, but I will concede that there has been a flurry of obstacles and scheduling messes lately, so why not blame it on a planet's backward movement. By far, the best cinematic scene from this period of time was this one...I was on a late train home from the city when it stopped moving and we were told to get off in Newark and wait for another train. No big deal...yet. It was a freezing, windy, February night. We were crowded like sardines in a stairwell waiting. The next train arrives and we all get on and soon this train, too, starts to falter. We are told at the next station that we should get off or take our chances to see if it makes it further. I have a few more stations to go. After a chorus of mumbling and cursing throughout the car, with the shared looks of "you're f#@!g kidding me, right" or "what are we supposed to do now" half the train gets off. I stay on because I can't picture how the alternative would turn out. In the middle of this, I get a recorded call from school announcing a delayed opening for the next day. Today was already declared a snow day, requiring major adjustments. It is now 10:00 pm. I think of who might be willing to get me at this hour and my awesome, young neighbor from my old block comes to mind. She's the one who will show up with her baseball cap on, in good spirits, willing to help. I quickly text her and she agrees to come get me at the next stop, bearing that we get there. We do, so I get off, not realizing in my fast effort to come up with a plan that I would probably get to my station if I just stay on. The station I get off at is deserted. No one gets off with me. The wind is blowing the snow off the roof top of the station and I am freezing. Not a soul is around with the darkness lit only by the station-lamps. I don't know on which side of the tracks my friend might arrive and I can't see the parking lot on the other side. As I stand there wondering why I got off and how crazy this scene feels, I look at the station and the icicles hanging off the roof and the shimmering sparkle of the icy snow blowing past the station lights and I think, "I have to take a video of this; it is too wildly beautiful." I take my phone out and it is dead. I laugh out loud at the moment I am in. Fortunately, it was too cold for unsavory characters to be out, so that fear quickly left like my steamy breath into the frigid, night air. There won't be a video to share and now I realize I'm waiting a bit too long, and I can't reach anyone. I climb up the stairs of the overpass, which turn out to be treacherously icy, to get to the other side of the station. I'm going slowly and I'm afraid she will leave if she has been sitting there long. To my warm relief, there is the minivan I recognize with its Obama sticker on the back. Thank goodness. I got in the car, grateful for my friend's presence and help, and laugh some more at the absurdity of how the first day of the week is going. The rest of the week continued in this fashion. Life is made up of these kinds of moments, days, weeks, for some, even years. It is what we do in them that is of interest to me. 

Of the great spiritual teachers, writers, or healers (for lack of a better word) I know of who talk of suffering, the ones I trust the most have a common trait. They know how to laugh and when you meet them you smile because you can see in their smile an abundance of genuine joy. They might talk about suffering with great seriousness and yet, they have a great sense of humor. This is no coincidence. They know pain and so they can know joy.

When I was in college, I had to give what was called a senior colloquium to graduate. We had to present a thesis of sorts to four professors sitting around a long table. What mine was about doesn't matter so much, but the overall feeling had a gravity to it. The hour or more was supposed to have the feel of a conversation, but I remember not being interrupted very much. I can still feel the palpable stillness in the room after I finished my closing statement. I wasn't sure what it meant. The only comment that I remember was from a professor who had a voice and a look of an older Sean Connery. With his full white beard, in his tweed jacket, and that very particular voice he said something to the effect of, "well Jean, for someone who can take such a heavy stance, where does that smile of yours come from?" For years I thought it was just nervousness and sometimes it most definitely was. But, as I look at photos of myself throughout my childhood and even today, I hold the same smile and it does not feel like nerves setting it off. I can speak of suffering and stay with discomfort because I can also smile and laugh easily. Without seeing the joy and humor in moments like standing outside a freezing train station with a dead phone and a delayed school opening to start the next day, this life would feel like too much to bare on a regular basis, let alone the more significant issues that arise in sickness, divorce, financial insecurity, and war. In retrospect, I think my smile always held self-healing and, maybe even unknowingly, healing for others. And the great thing is now, I can actually cultivate it. We all can.

How do we laugh? How can we find our smile amidst so much daily stress that comes our way? I do better when I can see my life in its larger context, like a movie. Things are not happening to me. Things happen and I can look at my life as an observer and marvel at what is there. In moments like the ones that night, to be able to step back and change the stance from what feels like a personal affront ("NJ transit sucks"...I heard it around me as if the transit company was intending harm), to "wow, we are all in this together and what a mess it is," without blame, is what makes it go from hell to humor or at least to wonder. As I got off the train, I wanted to wish the conductor an easier day tomorrow. He still had the rest of the stalling train ride to get through. For me to get through, it took a kind of inner pause button to see beauty, even in the uncomfortable moment, and to want to take a picture. It's like pausing a movie to digest a scene. When we can be still for a moment, we have room to see, to remember what matters, to recognize that we are not alone in it all, and maybe even to laugh at the intensity of the moment instead of react in upset. I was exhausted and I did not like the way the night was going, but it was my life in that moment and I'd rather be there experiencing all of those sensations and emotions than not be alive to feel them at all. I might as well stay present to my tiredness, to my frustration, to my fear, to my anxiety and to touch my interconnectedness to everything around me. From that place, I can smile. My teacher would say, "and this, too." How can we welcome this, too. We might as well since we are here in it. With that acceptance, we start to see what there is to marvel at and enjoy right now. In the end, everything worked out that week. People showed up and helped. Everything got done. Gifts were given and received, as crazy as it all felt. 

I write about subjects like pain, struggle, loneliness, and sadness and if you've been around me, you also know I smile and laugh a lot. I love people who bring that out in me. As I write that, I feel inspired to bring it out in others more. As the week went on and more obstacles came my way, I definitely had moments of thinking I had to "get through" this week, which I never like to feel. But still, I "rolled with it," as one friend described it. In the rolling, I laughed much like I did as a kid rolling down the grassy hill in my backyard.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Remembering Love

I wrote a blog post two weeks ago and it has been sitting here as a draft for too long. It was hanging on to me like a bird not quite ready to fly. It held on so long it started to feel more like an albatross than a dove. I wasn't sure why, but maybe it was because I needed to have more of the experience I was writing of before it could really take flight. Or, maybe it waited because it is a good topic for Valentine's Day week. Either way, I am back again to share more humbling life experiences. One came in the form of feeling pain from a struggle in a significant relationship. The other came from going on a date, two very different experiences that required the same remedy. They are experiences of trusting in overall goodness and recalling the intention to love. These ways of seeing have such depth to them that they trump everything. They silence all my objections. They quietly reign over all other beliefs I may have.

Like most do, these deep thoughts came to me when I was running. My mind was fluctuating between a difficulty I was having in a relationship and of sensing my heart beating, hearing the sound of my sneakers on the pavement, feeling the sensations of a cold, gray, New Jersey day. The alternating mind states brought to light the trap I had fallen into. It happens when I am in a struggle with someone I care about. I can forget seeing what is positive and that love is the most important element. It is as if a tsunami suddenly washes away all the positive and leaves only destruction. In my insecurity, I can lose a sense of the person's genuine affection and deep regard of me because I am hurt. I might even construe the person's action(s) as intending harm. Running, I reminded myself that I could stop that train and get on board another one that asks what else is true about the person and his/her action and, more importantly, of the larger whole that we are a part of. In doing that, my heart opens a bit, enough to let light back in. It gives me the space to see and feel myself and the other person as vulnerable and human and therefore perfectly imperfect. I can sigh a breath of relief and remember that this one difficulty, situation, or pain is not the whole of it, (let alone even true). I can recall that my deepest desire is to love and care for that person and to want good things for him/her, for us. The same is likely true in return. It is not that there should be no fights or disagreements, but that ultimately we get back to what really matters and often it is a choice to do so.

To assume the goodness in another and in a relationship, and to remember love...I want to recall these intentions whenever I find myself in the rather hellish state of feeling hurt, angry or unloved by someone significant to me. I hurt so much because the person is significant. That is a beautiful thing. It doesn't mean I let someone walk over me or simply dismiss some hurtful action, but that I don't assume the worst. I can pause and comfort myself and then go back to that person and have a conversation that comes out of a place of care and the desire for deeper connection. In every moment, when we question someone's intention or find ourselves struggling with his/her actions or choices, we can assume goodness behind them, even if it comes out in odd or confusing ways. We don't have to like how it comes out and it might still hurt but we can tap into our deep wish for mutual love, happiness, and intimacy between us. We can rest in that and feel the tremendous freedom that comes with it. We are not bound by our pain. The great thing is that even when our past hurts get stirred again and if the person is no longer in our life, we can still recall the goodness and have the inner conversation. We can heal now.

The second experience, which was the reason for the delay in this post, involved going a date. That day, I was nervous and excited and anxiously curious about what the experience would be like. To calm my nerves, I kept reminding myself to allow goodness to be part of it, that ultimately I wish for good for this person and myself. The date went very well, which is wonderful news, but what happens next is a miniature flood of fears. What if this, what if that, what if the sky comes crashing down? Again, my busy mind found itself alternating between those anxious thoughts and recalling love and goodness. I could tell this was a man I liked. What matters most, though, is not that I get what I want, but that I wish goodness for him, for me, and for us. Whether that means we end up together or not, these beautiful intentions reign. Throughout the week, until our second date, I would find myself feeling anxious at times and so I kept recalling the higher road I could choose to take. And, it really is a choice.

I want to keep remembering to view the goodness in others as the primary lens through which I see and to keep, at the forefront, the intention to love. We can all choose to cultivate this ability, not just when we are suffering over a disconnection but even in easy times. The world needs this. We choose what we see. It is a powerful thing and it is what makes us free. With that, I am letting this one fly.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Be Hopeless...If That's What You Are

Warning, this post will unintentionally sound like it is romanticizing hopelessness. Whenever I read some wise words on a difficult state of being, it seems I so clearly identify with the path and the way through it that the actual struggle seems manageable or not so bad. I sympathize with the heroic nature of the struggle as I would with a character in a block buster drama or an action action adventure flick. It makes me think, "yes, that's how the struggle feels. I've been there and there is a way through; I am also wiser now and I will recall these teachings more quickly. Next time, I'll get through it like a true peaceful and brave warrior." In reading about it, it feels so easy to be removed from it because we usually are. There is some space between ourselves and the issue. The truth is that in the actual state, hopelessness, despair or depression feel awful. There is no space. I want to talk about hopelessness as it really is in the moment...dark. There is no film crew setting up a heroic scene, no book being written, no accolades being rendered. What we have is ourselves and a state of mind that can't see possibility. Sounds like an unsavory invitation, but would you stay with me in this darkness? Just for a few minutes?

I awoke one morning this week from a disturbing dream, starting my day on an "off" note. As the morning went on, I found myself sinking into increasing hopelessness. What it was about matters little. Hopelessness is a monster of an emotion that eats everything in its tracks. Still, I managed to get my reluctant body outside running, though I had as much desire to enter the cold as I had hope. Somewhere along the trails, I recognized my spinning mind finding all kinds of negative thoughts to reinforce my hopeless state because that is what it so cleverly knows how to do. This went on until suddenly there was another voice being piped in over a loudspeaker, as if making an announcement for everyone in the wintry woods to hear. I think even the deer stopped to listen. It said, "listen up! Everyone on board here...this is just what hopelessness feels like. Let it be! You don't need to add to it, fix it, find a reason for it, predict the future by it. Just feel hopeless." And then it was silent except for the crunching of the frozen leaves and earth underneath my sneakers. I did what I heard. I just felt hopeless. I ran and watched the negative thoughts run by me. And they did run by because they are faster than my physical body. Each time they would pass, I would say, "yup, that's hopelessness, too."  

Eventually, I was home, eating and showering and getting things done and, though I wasn't sparkling, I realized I was no longer hopeless. It came and went without me controlling it. I am convinced that it was because I allowed it to be that it was also allowed to leave. Of course, running helped, too.

If we find ourselves alone in this windowless, door-less, space of despair, what do we do? We often do what we think will stop the suffering, but tends to make it worse. We resist it by blaming ourselves or others for being here. We tell ourselves we will always be here, that we are more or less doomed to this place. We look for evidence from the past to explain why we got ourselves here, driving the nail deeper. And if we do seek help, we are often misguided and told why we shouldn't feel hopeless, which has a shaming effect in and of itself. What if instead, we felt the hopelessness and let it be? In doing that, we are taking care of our despair. In essence we can positively mother our pain and hold it. The thoughts that want to drive the blame inward can be cut short simply by saying, "all I need to do is feel hopeless and not think about it." We drop the thoughts around it and bring it into a bodily sensation. We create a space for it and tenderly hold it. In that process, I have found that it passes much more quickly and I am amazed, once again, that everything changes, even when we don't think it possibly can. It has no choice.

How do we learn to do this? We do some type of practice that teaches us to stay present with what is happening right now and to be less reactive. We do it when life feels good, when it feels neutral, and when we are suffering. The more we practice this kind of presence with ourselves and with others, the greater ability we have to tend to ourselves in these darkest moments that have no apparent redeeming scene about to take place. These temporary experiences are still as painful as ever, but they don't outstay their welcome.

No, there is no film crew setting up in our hopeless and depressed places. But maybe, if someone else brought in some lights, he/she could see the film playing out behind our darkness. Later on, it is true, we can see our lives as the movies they are and appreciate the courageous warrior that always emerges. But, there is no need to look for the film while it is being made. Instead, we simply need to live the scene out. When hopelessness strikes, as it may at different times throughout our lives, if we are living fully, we can hold it instead of run from it. It won't feel sexy. It isn't glamorous. It won't feel like a high spiritual road we are taking. It will feel awful. And then, it will change. Be hopeless, if that is what you are. I mean that in the kindest, most compassionate way possible. I send a bow to the courageous warrior in you, especially when you have no sense that this person resides inside.

Monday, January 5, 2015


When I lived in Florida, I remember waiting, as I often was, for my parents at their cafe so we could leave for the day. The largely outdoor restaurant was near the water so it was not uncommon for an egret to come walking by. I remember watching one move ever so slowly, placing each foot carefully down, eyes fixed. At just the right moment, it would dive its beak down in a pointed flash and capture its prey. If it missed, it didn't squawk around or stomp its webbed feet. It would simply resume its slow, calculated walking and try again. From my viewpoint, it seemed as though these birds were equipped with an extra dose of patience.

Patience. It is not a word I heard a lot of in my life, but the longer I am here, the more I am coming to see what a blessing it is to cultivate. If I had greater patience, I might not be so fearful. If I want something to happen or to pass in my life, I could remember patience and trust that what needs to happen will when the conditions are ripe. If I had greater patience, I might be at ease in my body as I wouldn't be clinging with tension in the desire to have something happen right now. I could soften in my musculature, loosen its grip around my bones, and surrender to time. With patience, I might actually receive more than I expected. By not striving so hard for some future happiness, we are inherently present to what is around us now. In the waiting, possibilities make themselves known as there is an openness to what may come. This is the recipe to receiving. If it is a truly important gift we want, we must be present and open to receive it first. When I look at patience this way, I enthusiastically think "yes, this is a quality I want to develop." I can keep calling upon that image of the egret and be reminded of what it looks like in living form.

What I do know is that to nurture patience, we have to start by noticing that we are clinging to something in the first place. Whether it is to an idea of how life should be, or to something or someone we want, a career move, a gaining of something, a pushing away of something. Once we notice what we are doing, the second step would be a deep bow of acknowledgment and of compassion to this longing place inside us. Without this loving presence with ourselves, we cannot genuinely go on. We can choose to be kind to our suffering and not brush it off as insignificant or give it tough love. Rather, we can hold the place of longing in our hands and breath in and out with a deep recognition of its value. It has something we need to know. From here, we can take the next step and have patience, knowing that our presence and compassion to the issue will allow for change. And change it will, because everything does. The practice I know that goes with developing patience is to be aware of my breathing. I can follow my inhale and exhale and stay put with whatever arises. This is having patience and we can nurture this ability by practicing it wherever we are. 

Of course, we won't always get it "right." Some days, we just need to stomp our feet and give that our full blessing. It is too bad our feet are not webbed like our feathered friends or we would make a nice clapping sound as we stomped. There is something calming about the word patience. It is not the kind of harsh parental heeding to be patient as we might have received as kids. When we can wish it for ourselves as adults, it has a positive mothering kindness to it. "May I have more patience for whatever arises." It seems like a warm wish to bestow on oneself. I am going to practice patience in 2015 and it could be that I will be at greater ease and my world will open up more than it already has. I can actually let go. Is there anything you could wish yourself patience with this New Year? I realize now that when I sat waiting outside that cafe as a teenager and watched the egrets go by, I actually did have patience. I was practicing even when I did not know it. Now, I can step it up to a new level where the issues seem more significant than waiting for parents. I wish us all greater patience this year. Gaining it could be our gift to the world.