Sunday, October 16, 2016

Nothing Wrong In This Moment

My two-week struggle with a sinus infection came to an end. I was leading my group mindfulness class and we were doing a reflective exercise where we check in with ourselves and ask how we are doing. We wait for the word to arise that captures what is present. Initially I couldn't come up with anything until I realized that the words that arose surprised me in their simplicity. No wonder I couldn't find them. I was calm and peaceful. Nothing was wrong. I had no cough, no sciatic pain, nothing commanding my attention in busyness, necessity, or alarm. The following night my kids got home from school and the ease continued. My son got to his piano lesson; both my kids got their homework done early; I had no orders to bark out for the fifteenth time; I had plenty of time to make dinner after work; I even got the windows and screens cleaned. Still, I felt a low hum of anxiety in my being. I found myself repeatedly saying, "nothing is wrong Jean; you can simply enjoy this moment." Of course, that was my mind speaking, but my body was still braced and needed more time.  

This is the irony of happiness. Oftentimes when we have it, we miss it or don't have permission to have it. We miss it because our nervous system is accustomed to that one mode, or we assume the other shoe will drop, or we are already onto what we want next, or we feel guilty for being at ease. This is big one for many busy people...I can't possibly take this easy moment! I mean really...not EVERYTHING is okay...I've got the HUGE problem of not knowing how I'll survive when I need to stop working, for instance. Shouldn't I concern myself with that if everything else is just fine for the moment? It's an equally humorous and sad thing we do, though I generally find it is better to laugh. "It's only ice cream, ma'am," as the young man working at the neighborhood ice cream shop said to a flustered customer the other week. It has been my mantra since. There are so many times I can say to myself..."it's only ice cream, Jean." I can kindly laugh at myself and feel my feet back on the ground and my thoughts back in some kind of perspective.

Putting major world and societal problems aside, truthfully, in most moments everything usually is okay. Even if I have matters to figure out, too much on my plate, logistics to maneuver, pain or loss surfacing, if I were to check in with the actual moment, I can usually say I am safe. I am okay for right now. And right now is what we have. So we keep practicing and reminding ourselves that all is well. That is enlightenment. Every moment we catch ourselves, we are enlightened. We don't need to sit for hours, wear a brown, red or yellow robe. We can just remember that it is only ice cream when it is only ice cream and enjoy the ice cream if we are actually eating it. We can set as our intention to enjoy each moment. All of that comes from our minds and when we follow our breath the intention moves into our body. We can reset ourselves as we would restart a computer and let our nervous system be refreshed with each inhale and exhale. Our tech support are those around us also practicing. They bolster our practice and inspire us to continue. If you don't have this support around you, find a group or reach out for help in locating one. 

Take a moment, just a moment. Ask...right now, am I safe? Right now, are my essential needs met? Right now, can I see something beautiful...anything. Right now can I feel my inhale and exhale and follow along? If you can say yes, give yourself permission to close your eyes for two minutes and just breathe. Hear the sounds around you just as sounds and let yourself simply be. Nothing to figure out, to plan, fix or do. This moment is enough.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

It Had To Hurt

Five summers ago I had a taste of freedom unlike I had ever experienced before. It came most vividly floating in the stillness of a pond in a part of Maine I had been fortunate to visit by the grace of friends. The pond was still and quiet. I was by myself and desperately trying to get used to my newly divorced aloneness that often felt more like excruciating loneliness. I eased myself into the pond and felt shocked each time the water touched my lips. The sting of the salt water I had always known was not there. Surprised and delighted at the freshness of this experience, I swam like I had grown fins. Without the fear of being bit, stung, run over by a boat, or by a wave, I felt joyful in the true sense of the word. I would swim far out and float in complete peace. With my ears submerged, hearing only my own breath, seeing the blue sky, clouds and tops of pine trees, I felt young, healthy, and so very alive. This was a whole new kind of freedom. The next two summers I would go back and the feeling was right there returning with me. It would find me on different ponds, on mountains, sitting on large boulders overlooking some magnificent landscape. I longed to return to it each year.  

In the spring before the fourth summer of this routine, much to my disbelief, I met someone. My loneliness turned an abrupt corner and suddenly I had company in a way that was more steady and complete than I had known since being married. That summer and again this year, I took him to this magical land that I had fallen in love with. It was this summer, where floating in the fresh water, I was aware that something was different in me. I felt the water suspend my body in its same pristine beauty. The water had not changed, but that distinct sense of freedom was absent. I still loved being there more than anywhere else. I still cherished the landscape and being able to swim, climb, walk, and sit in the middle, on the edges, banks, and precipices of it. Now I walked and swam among it all with a comfortable familiarity and contentment. I knew the place and I had the security of a partner by my side. I thought about what I felt like before and how that newly liberated sense coincided with a great deal of pain. Back then, I drove those 10 hours to get there, explored a new land through solitary bike rides, kayak trips, hikes and meals in new places. I would get lost and find my way. I cried more tears in those years than I thought possible. My friend back home would gently encourage me to enjoy the solitude, that it was a gift even with the loneliness attached. He wanted me to see that this was a unique time of my life. Though I heard what he was saying, I had too much fear swirling around in me saying that I would always be alone to be able to fully embrace it. This summer, as I floated and felt the absence of that fierce, fresh feeling of freedom and the absence of that struggle and fear, I could recognize that the pain of that particular time allowed me that freedom. I could not have gotten there any other way. It had to hurt. I can look back now and feel so grateful for that time alone, for how it pushed me, for how I grew, for the risks it asked me to take and the courage I had to find. 

Throughout our lives, we see that there is no part of growth, of maturing, of life that doesn't have pain and pleasure very often entwined. If we look closely, we see that we gain something while we lose something else. We have a child and lose a parent. We get the job we want and suddenly we are working more hours than we thought possible. We have the performance we dreamed of and then we have the let down that inevitably follows. The difficulty with this configuration is that it often keeps us forever thinking there is something more we need in order to be happy. It is like a dog chasing its own tail. There is a great teaching in this when we can recognize the illusion and accept that this right here is exactly how it is supposed to be. I can see these past few years now with clarity and equanimity. I have a greater understanding that we can choose to enjoy life's fluctuating rhythms without getting caught in the falsehood that our happiness is something other than where we are. It is all worth experiencing. Even the necessity and the feeling of urgency for our situation to change is something we can befriend and take action on, while knowing that there is no place we arrive at that is devoid of some wanting. I do believe, we can learn to float suspended in fluctuating waters, confident that no wave will overtake us and the salty sting does not have to be there. This can happen if we trust in all our experiences as being of value. We still strive toward our goals, toward what makes us more of ourselves, toward what enlivens us and connects us, but we enjoy the path that gets us there even when it is so frightening it feels wrong. 

Through the pain of loss and loneliness, I was propelled into experiences that awoke an inner freedom and the power of independence. Paradoxically, it is what opened the space for the person I was looking for to enter. With his arrival, that particular kind of freedom that comes with solitude faded like a cloud, but I gained a love that is solid like a mountain and companionship that I can rest in. I will always have that deeply embedded sense of aliveness to recall. I know it now in a way I couldn't have before everything fell apart. I am sure I will again experience that freedom of those first three summers in Maine and maybe it won't be alongside pain, but either way, I will know it well, like a long lost friend returning and I will savor it for however long it lasts. This freedom is for all of us to have and to return to. Once we experience it, it can't be taken away. 

This summer in Maine, the man I love asked me to marry him. Both of us, independent of each other, went through deep waters to get to that place. Thank goodness for that. We both feel blessed for where it brought us. Though the details are different, this is really everyone's story. We struggle and we grow and if we are paying attention, more and more, we learn to enjoy, or at the very least, accept the whole path. We can choose to say "yes" to our experience of everything. I happily said, "yes" to him. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Finding Enough

It is the end of a relaxing Memorial Day weekend where my responsibilities were low and my time happily spent with someone I love. We went on slow walks in the woods with its luscious green everywhere and the smell of wild roses filling the air. We spent time at the shore, napping on the beach, walking the boardwalk, eating at one of our favorite cafes. We rented a movie, ate lots fruit, had coffee together and laughed. I did some packing and some light running. It rained only at night and we managed to avoid all traffic heading south. It was perfect. Despite all of that, there is a voice that pipes up, slightly panicky, childlike and pleading..."I don't want it to end, yet" it gently moans, afraid of sounding ungrateful, but unable to restrain the sentiment. Then I realize that this is the material of time, desire, and fear that gently plagues so many of us.

Of course it is not enough! This is a never-ending, lifelong practice.... letting myself be full and relaxing into the notion that I have enough without fear that I will be devoid of it soon. How do we strengthen this ability in ourselves to relax into what is here and to be content? I've been working on this one. To be able to say those very words to myself..."right now I am content" is a profound act. The problem is that we often don't feel it, not because the conditions aren't sufficient, but because we simply don't pause and literally say it to ourselves. I do believe that often it is that simple...making a statement that identifies the goodness and feel how full we are from it and letting it be enough. "Right now, I am content and filled." Instead we express joy at something, but follow it up immediately with what could be better, or what else is not good, or ask when or how we can have more. It is that sense of "not enough" at work. I understand it and have compassion for what seems like our human nature... to keep wanting more. Unfortunately, it has the power of taking away from our experience and enjoyment of this life just as it is, of being alive and happy in the only moment we truly have. When we can recognize this incessant need for more, we can press pause and remember that we can choose fullness. Instead of just passing through our enjoyment, like watching a landscape through a train window and never grasping on to something, we can be filled with each thing we pass as short or long-lived as it is. We simply say, "I am content; my cup has been filled today; what a gift." The practice, at the end of the day, of writing down, or reciting aloud a list of all the things that were fulfilling...from the simplest (no traffic, the sight of fox, the blooming of peonies in the backyard) to the largest, and recognizing the feeling each thing brings (connection, peace of mind, rest, love, joy, comfort, inspiration, support, etc.) can strengthen their impact on us. It takes what is good and shines a light on it, making it brighter within ourselves. It might sound hokey, but sometimes hokey works.

Equally important, we recognize the part of us that grasps, like hands reaching out for more. To that part, we can use our words of kindness. "I see my fear that I won't have this feeling again, this space, this time, this love, this pleasure. May I take comfort in that fact that it will come around again, because all things change, and may I be filled by what is unknown, in front of me, this week." From here, I can be that very thing that Brother David Steindle-Rast so beautifully teaches...I can grateful and therefore, joyful. In this place, I can rest. I can find peace of mind in the transitions between things.

I'll keep practicing. Wishing all of you a sense of fullness, gratitude, and joy this week.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Losing, Continuing, and Staying Whole

In my early twenties when I lived in the city and did a lot of walking, I would longingly see what I called "good dogs" on leash and every rare once in a while I would sneak a pet as they went by me. It was not the smartest thing to do, but in my deep wish to have a dog, I couldn't help myself. Eventually we moved out of the city and after some convincing, we got a dog in the winter of 2004. We named him Wally and very soon after he was home, I began fretting over the fact that a dog's life expectancy is not very long and how painful it would be to lose him. My partner would say incredulously, "Jean, he's only a couple months old!" We would laugh and carry on. Inwardly, I was already feeling suffering mixed in with immense joy.

Though we may want it to be an exaggeration, when Buddhists say "all life is suffering," they are not joking around. Even so, suffering does not negate joy. Suffering and joy co-exist. While joy requires little work to accept, suffering is a hard reality that we can choose to acknowledge and gradually come to accept. Even if we choose not to look at it, there comes a time when that truth comes knocking with such force, the door falls down and we have no choice but to face it. I would say the notion that all life is suffering comes knocking throughout the day if we look around and see the wilting flower, the homeless person scratching his legs desperately in Penn Station, the fact that each year my skin has more sun marks than the previous one. In being present to the reality that all things change, our ability to notice beauty is made even greater. I can be struck by the bright red flash of a cardinal against the bare trees awaiting their spring leaves. I can enjoy the flowers lovingly arranged in the window boxes on 9th Street. I can see the lines on people's faces on the subway and appreciate the unknown stories behind them. Suffering punctuates beauty and beauty punctuates suffering.

11 years after we returned home with Wally, that fateful day I fretted over arrived unexpectedly and part of my heart was taken away. Repeatedly, in the hours and days following his passing I heard the words, "all life is suffering." I was trying to make peace with what had just happened by remembering what is at the base of the teachings I have been practicing for close to 20 years....everything changes and we will have to let go of all that is dear to us. 

Though I am still digesting it, the loss of Wally has been unlike any other loss in my life. It is not fraught with complexity. He was a tremendous joy taken away, yet, with no exaggeration, I cherished him every single day he was alive. I am left behind with no regrets, no bad feelings, no sense of something being "not fair." He was one of the greatest blessings of my lifetime, even if I have to endure the pain of his absence now. And yet, unlike others losses, this one is teaching me something new. I am learning that when I let go of something, willingly or not, I really am not saying goodbye at all. I am continuing in a new relationship with it; it has simply changed forms. To say goodbye has an implication that the subject at hand is no longer there and that I need to "move on." I don't feel that with Wally. He lives in me every day. I can feel his greeting at the door when I come home; I can hear him breathing next to me in my arms at night; I can feel the softness and warmth of his body on my lap; I can hear his paws on the ground; I can see the affection in his eyes; I can see him play in the woods; I can hear my own voice talking to him as I did and still do. Surprisingly, in having this new experience, it has unexpectedly reshaped all my past losses.

Wally has helped me to see that past relationships, no matter how or why they changed, actually have no end, and in their continuation, my regrets and struggles of the past no longer have a grip on me. These past relationships still live in me by having impacted me, changed me, caused me to grow. I can choose to recognize their continued presence and in doing so am in deeper touch with this other significant teaching I've been hearing for years...that there is no beginning and no end. I can feel the gifts that past relationships gave to me. These connections, no matter how long or short, made me feel special, loved, cared for, appreciated, beautiful, or they helped me value myself more by what was not given...sometimes the absence of something can be a gift. The beauty of it all is that what I give and get now is that much more full because of what came before. All of it continues and so there is no regret. I am, in essence, still in all of these relationships, making wiser choices.

When I think about why Wally's passing was so enlightening, I recognize that the difference with Wally is that I deeply sensed his time here was significantly limited from the start. In holding that, I mourned his eventual loss all along, but I didn't grasp because I knew I couldn't change it. The relationships that ended in my life that were full of grasping were the ones that left me with immense struggle when they were over. I am now inclined to view all things I love as limited in time, which of course everything is. If I can remember to do that with more of an experiential understanding, rather than an intellectual one, I won't grasp and the suffering will be gentler. It will still be painful, but it won't rip me open. I will still be whole. This is the other difference between past losses and Wally' wholeness is intact after Wally. What a wonderful gift to gain this understanding out of his continuation. With gratitude to you, my good dog. You continue to give to me. I'll happily see you around everywhere. For now, with care, I'll have to go back to sneaking a pet every once in a while with the good dogs that pass me.

Friday, January 29, 2016

No Wasted Life

My son came out of his room one recent night afraid of dying. In his expression of fear said one of those lines that make your eyes widen incredulously at the profound thoughts of a child. With tears flowing, he said, "I'm afraid of wasting my life." I repeated the words back to him at a slower pace so that he could hear himself and so that I could take in what he was grappling with at eight years old. After expressing awe at the complexity of what he was feeling, what I wanted to say was, "we all struggle with this, James." I then thought of saying, "if we are going to trouble ourselves with fears, this one might actually be a good one to have!" Of course, I didn't say that to him, but I did fumble over some words about why it is so valuable to follow our passions, to do what we are called to do and how this calling may change throughout our lifetime. I then dropped into kid friendly material and listened to how he felt he could waste his life and assured him that he wouldn't. I said that knowing who he already is...what I've seen him value in the short, eight years of his big life...that it would be impossible. 

I awoke in the morning with the conversation rising in my mind with the morning light. Of course, as kids do, he awoke in the morning with fresh thoughts and ready for a new day at school. On the train ride to the city, as I stared out the window at the flickering images of sun sparkling on the passing suburban to urban snow covered landscape, I felt my son's urgency as bright as the sun on snow. I thought about how throughout our lives we confront our mortality and seek the path that brings us meaning and how what defines our life as meaningful changes. I felt my own longing for my journey to be purposeful and how that intention can get caught. Sometimes we are on a path but still find ourselves feeling stuck and knowing there is something even more true for us to arrive at. This is a good thing. We are actually fully alive when we experience this place, as unpleasant as it can feel in the moment.

My son shared his frustration at not wanting to spend time learning what he knew he would never use later on. When we know that there is a greater way of utilizing our life, of doing what we are meant to do, we can rightfully feel impatient and a deep urgency to make a change. Often we arrive at a place where we can feel the potential, but can't yet know how to shift into gear and see it realized. But the key word is "yet." My child, just like my smaller self, can't grasp that some things we have to go through to keep arriving at the next greater place. And "keep arriving" is what it is, because if what we are after is deep and meaningful, we really don't ever arrive. We just keep taking the next shuffle, stride, or leap to the subsequent higher place. Along the way, it helps to know that the distance covered depends on many conditions, a great number of which are out of our control. When we are in the shuffling phase, it can feel like inertia and, yet, something is still happening if we pay attention. If I could say something more to my son, in a language he could understand, it would be just keep paying attention and to trust in himself and in forces larger than himself because things don't happen by our will alone. Something gradually manifests if we treat that inertia, boredom, frustration, or fear we feel with an open heart and with kindness that is curious about its own self. We can check in with how something feels in the body to hear its deeper truth; we can ask questions and practice patience as we wait for the answers to surface. If we can remember to stay open to the heart's longing that flows steadily underneath the stuck place, we can hear what the next best action is. 

My son's fears echo what so many of us experience throughout our lifetimes. I won't burden him with the truth that this is one he will revisit many times. What I can hope for is that he finds an easier relationship to it each time it knocks at the door. The fear of death can help us feel the deep urgency to want to live fully. If we meet the fear and really look at it, we can be liberated from it and live with true freedom, the kind no one can take away. We all need to be reminded in those moments of panic, restlessness, frustration, or longing that there is nothing greater to do than to keep paying attention, being kind, and curious. And maybe, we can take comfort in remembering what we learned in grade school and what my son has yet to learn...that energy is neither created nor destroyed. What we put out in our lives got its inertia or beginnings from somewhere, gets repeatedly transformed, and goes out somewhere. The form might look different, but it is never wasted and it certainly never dies. It is what we do with our energy while we have it that matters and if we care to continually ask the question of what is meaningful at every age, we are on a very good path.