Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Consumption


I grew up in a family of shoppers. My grandmother's home was filled with items large and small: gemstone rings, TV-offer-only Cuisinarts, Coca-Cola collectibles, random flea market tchotchkes, fake flower arrangements, trinkety Walgreens finds, candies and family heirlooms and little kleenex packages and all the items sold on 2am infomercials.

Her favorite quote from my childhood: "Paw-Paw makes the money and Ma-Maw spends it!"

I think she found shopping relaxing, or perhaps elating. My guess was it grew out of her childhood of poverty and her experience of the depression. She was a cupboards-jammed-full kind of woman... finding a sense of stability and assuaging her many anxieties in the process of possession.

What is interesting, however, is the way her behavior then passed to my mother - another shopper at heart. Like my grandmother, my mother (I think) has integrated shopping into her modes of communication and introspection.

We were a greeting card family - a care-package bunch; my mother, I suspect, sometimes uses trips to the store as a form of meditation or solitude... and she communicates her love, in part, through things that resonate, for her, with the frequency of the intended recipient.

I find that much of my understanding and meaning-making when it comes to family, parenting, home-life is linked to a lifetime of shopping. I enjoy window shopping, gift-shopping, grocery-shopping, card-shopping, bath-and-body/decor/artwork/furniture/music, books, and more-shopping. I spend hours on errands that should only take minutes, and I find myself fighting the urge to buy my daughter something on every trip. So that she will know I am thinking of her. That I love her. That she is important to me.

Even though my relationship to consumption of goods has changed in the last few years, I still find myself drawn to the act of buying... of selecting and owning and carrying things... as an emotional touchstone. I go to the store when I'm sad. I sometimes equate my sense of self with the things I possess. I wish to believe (if I am honest with myself) my love can be communicated with a thing - because I so often fail to adequately communicate my heart through my words and deeds.

Consumption is a funny thing when you begin to really notice it... a sort of integrated and inescapable thread that runs through infinite aspects of our daily lives. It's so ingrained in our culture - in our senses of self.

Food, clothing, cars, homes, media, technology, electricity, gas - necessities and luxuries and everything in between. It is such a wide spectrum along which we tread, sometimes it's hard to know whether we are filling a need that is real or one that is an illusion.

As I seek to become more aware of my relationship to consumption and to consider the legacy I will pass on to my daughter, I have started to seek out what might best be described as a sense of insatiable hunger. It is the empty aching longing of the hungry ghost... and when I am awake to it, I notice it showing up in many areas of my life. Today I realized that every time I am a hungry ghost, I begin to consume.

This translates to eating cookies when I am not hungry, plodding mindlessly through Facebook when I am lonely, buying Starbucks when I am directionless, searching real estate listings when I am restless, driving my car when I am emotionally stuck, watching TV when I am resisting, and looking for clothes my daughter does not need when I am missing her.

It is no mistake, I think, the definition of consumption includes both the act of consuming and the state of being consumed. It may be impossible to consume without, on some level, being consumed by the thing you are consuming. The hungry ghost is suffering personified. It is the self of attachment and longing and mindless consumption driven by illusory goals.

The Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta (founder of Buddhism) said:

Peace comes from within.
Do not seek it without.

Of course, sometimes the simplest of notions is the hardest to put into action. But I am trying. Striving to consume mindfully and consider my legacy and confront the ghost within so I may replace her with a sense of peace.

May you be alert to your needs and your desires - and strive to discern the difference between the two.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Repetition


Back in May, I heard a story on NPR about a monk who had completed 1,000 days of walking meditation in order to reach the next level of enlightenment. This practice is called Sennichi Kaihogyo and takes place around Mount Hiei. It is unclear from poking around if the monks who undertake this practice primarily walk, run, or both... but the end result is the participant has essentially transversed a distance equal to the circumference of the Earth at the end of the 1000th day.

At the time I caught the broadcast, I had been thinking a lot about art, Buddhism, commitment, and forms of dedication... or rather, the ways in which we imbue meaning or purpose to action via consistent commitment/dedicated focus.

There is something powerful about renewed intention toward some aim or purpose. I'm not sure it even matters what it is we turn our attention toward (so long as it is not harmful or maleficent)... so long as we choose - again and again - to put our energy toward some form of expression.

Pressfield, I think would support this theory, as do the sometimes surprising pop culture or social phenoms sometimes thrust into success or rewarded with support, such as Matt Harding or Marina Abramović. And, of course, you find this sort of repetition of focus or activity via many world religions and spiritual philosophies.

I think, perhaps, we transcend the day-to-day when we shift something from the realm of mundane routine and elevate it into something extraordinary... simply by committing to repetition.

To dance in a silly way once or twice is one thing... to do it an infinite number of times in an infinite number of places suddenly transforms its meaning and purpose. Same with sitting in a chair, or taking a photo each day (think Smoke or check out this blog), or writing a daily blog entry, or asking the same question to hundreds of people.

I have been thinking about it a lot - this magic and miracle of repetition - and I think it may come down to this. These long-form processes of dedication (be they artistic, personal, spiritual, or whathaveyou) place us along two simultaneous paths of understanding.

1. Everything is special. Distilling experience to the level of recognizing it moment to moment often enables a perspective cognizant of how miraculous life is. All the time. Nothing is ever the same... and there is deep and magnificent, awe-inspiring grandeur in the singularity of experience we enjoy each second. I think this becomes more noticeable when we seek to capture it in some form... pin it down so we can record it and look at it and hold it up to the light.

Meanwhile...

2. Nothing is special. There is something profoundly simple in everything we might choose to do. All action carries as little and as much import as any other. Walking around a mountain is simply walking around a mountain - whether one chooses to do that one time or a thousand times. And once we move something from a space of unique to a space of routine, it offers the opportunity to better understand how our attachments define our perception of our actions. Particularly in the context of ego and the all-too-common pitfall of comparing our lives to the lives of others... or deciding we can't do something because it is too hard/too much/too big/etc.

There is beauty in seeing something again and again - and through repetition we are aware both of how singularly special everything is, and also how it is all one thing. How the lines of distinction we attach to name, form, substance... the ways in which we categorize or differentiate the things of our lives... how really it's all illusion.

There is no separation. No beginning. No end. It just is. And in that paradox, that circle of never-ending-never-beginning-always-ending-always-beginning, there is a kind of freedom and knowing one might glimpse. A moment of being defined as always/never/divine/mundane in which all things are... well, they just are.

That's my guess, at least. I'll let you know if my perspective changes should I ever walk across a mountain for a thousand days.

May you find renewal in repetition of all kinds. May your dedication (in whatever form it takes) bring you peace.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Practice


One of the lovely things about Buddhism – and really just about any major faith – lies in the challenge of bringing the foundation of your faith or spiritual philosophy into your living on a daily basis.

Though a measure of forgiveness or patience is not built into all spiritual roads, Buddhism definitely seems to encourage the practice of letting go of one's shortcomings... even as you attempt to expose each and every one of them so you may know yourself better.

I like this idea of practice. I am in love with the notion of concentrated and nearly continuous effort toward the betterment of oneself. To be courageous in the response to one's darknesses and failures. To be persistent in honestly assessing where you might be at any given moment. To hold a mirror up during times of tension or pain... and know you are still responsible for your piece of the human equation.

I am not always mindful... but in my spaces of mindfulness, I am forever surprised by the infinite number of opportunities I receive to practice the ideals I wish to embody. Compassion. Patience. Honesty. Trust. Peace. And in a full circle sort of way, how many chances I get to remember them when I fall short of my goals.

Today I received a parking ticket. My daughter had been pokey, and I knew we were running late. I had relaxed a bit on our departure time, imagining no one would come down our little side street. I had refused to carry her when she said she was too tired to walk (despite running around just minutes prior in the theatre), and she had thrown a fit—flopping down and lying prone in the middle of the sidewalk, refusing to move.

We turned the corner to see a woman nearing our car, and we both started running. My daughter's little legs suddenly recharged with energy after her insistence she could walk no further. (I had alerted her to the danger of tickets if we did not return on time, and instinctively she seemed to understand how important it was to get to our vehicle quickly.)

"We're here! We're here!" I called frantically as we ran up. We were less than 30 feet away and rapidly closed in, just as the woman stuck the ticket in a bright orange envelope and handed it to me.

I told my daughter to stand on the sidewalk as I took the ticket and attempted to look the woman in the eyes as honestly and openly as I could. "You're late," she said. "This expired at 1:21." She handed me the ticket.

"I have a four-year old," I said trying very hard to make it a statement of fact and not an emotional backlash.

And then she walked away. An older gentleman who had been standing about 15 feet away from us approached as she left and asked if we had still gotten the ticket. I told him yes. "I can't believe that," he said, shaking his head. "One minute earlier and you'd have been fine."

I got in the car and tried very hard not to be angry. My daughter immediately blamed herself and started getting upset as I tried not to cry. I didn't want her to feel guilty or responsible; life is such a complex tangle of factors it's ridiculous to isolate any one person or event as being solely responsible for anything. I told her everything was ok... assured her it was not her fault... and we rode home together feeling upset and sad and worrying after each other.

Although there were flickers here and there, I was able to keep my reactive hatred and retributive hostility in check until I got home and opened the envelope. $50.00. We were less than 10 min late.

That's when the real anger kicked in. Remembered slights and all the unhappy baggage of my childhood years exploded open the emotional doors... and for about half an hour, I struggled to keep those feelings in check. To remember my promises to myself as to what kind of person I wish to be... what kinds of feelings/thoughts/actions I wish to put into the world.

I stopped myself from wishing comeuppance or even karmic payback. I resisted the urge to post something on Facebook wherein I could pour some venom or release some spite back into the ether in the hopes it would somehow make me feel better. And finally, I even stopped crying. Stopped thinking of it as something done to me or the universe treating me unfairly and instead decided to write this.

Which hopefully aligns with those values I mentioned earlier. Compassion. Patience. Honesty. Trust. Peace.

It is easy to love my daughter for being so empathic and caring so much about me. Easy to love the random stranger who came up and tried to make me feel better by commiserating about Mayor Daley's parking meter decisions. Easy to love my husband who listened to me sob on the phone and tried to calm me down.

What takes practice, today at least, is loving the woman who gave me the ticket. The upstairs neighbor who walks heavily through her apartment in high-heeled boots. The grocery store patron who looked at my daughter with disdain. The landlord who has not fixed the lock on the front door. The driver who nearly sideswiped us.

But if I am to remain true to my goals, to my spiritual focus, and ultimately to my self, then I must love them all. Love myself when I fail. And then try again.

May you remain open to your opportunities. May you remain patient in your practice - especially with yourself.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Awakening


I don't know about you, but sometimes I self-destruct a little bit. Make bad choices, go into a downward emotional spiral, bury my head or body or heart or all of the above in some metaphorical sand and stand - not in a state of stuckness but more in an act of undoing - eyes shut, ears covered, head down.

Thankfully, there is always a point at which I reemerge into the world. Sync up a bit more with the authentic present and begin to interact/breathe/live in a way that is more genuine and less clouded with gunk.

Gunk, I think, is the unnecessary stuff we carry with us that has nothing to do with the present and everything to do with an attachment to some emotion, some pattern, some expectation, some script with which we are determined not to part. It's the illusion we allow to overtake reality... the shadow that engulfs and distorts things as they are. We become hungry ghosts: eating ourselves up in a flurry of mistaken and misdirected believing, thinking, saying, doing.

My last post was April 7. And it was about tension. Which is pretty funny. And I could say I stopped writing because I was in Too Much Light... or because we were all getting sick or because school and job searching and whatnot got too busy. But none of that would be true.

I stopped writing. I stopped meditating. I stopped hanging out with people. I stopped connecting to my family. I stopped reading. I stopped being patient. I stopped having faith. I stopped liking myself. I stopped trusting others.

And from an outside perspective (certainly to anyone attuned to such things), it sounds like textbook depression. But this felt different somehow. Not just the chemical roller-coaster of hormones or the genetic squish of generational institutionalization. This was more active than the slack-fingered cling of hopelessness; darker than the shadowed stagnancy of sadness.

It was a form of running away. And I am grateful for all the little "ah ha" moments that led to enough clarity to stop.

So. I am awake now. This week has been a process of blinking in the sun and remembering to be still. To be silent (sometimes literally enforced by my body in an act of gentle determination). To be present. To be honest, and patient, and calm, and compassionate, and - perhaps more than anything else - tenacious.

Someday this Japanese proverb will be tattooed on my skin:

Fall seven times.
Stand up eight.


It's the greatest act of courage we can muster, I think. To push past failure, and weakness, and cruelty, and stupidity, and error, and thoughtlessness, and pride, and envy, and all those myriad and inescapable puddles of human-ness... to rise again and persevere.

Wake up. Forgive. Find peace. Move again.

May you awaken in ways that make you feel more alive and more present. May you display tenacious courage and unshakable peace, even in moments of seeming failure.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Tension


Driving in the car today, my daughter piped up from the back, "It's a beautiful day today, isn't it?" And I wasn't quite sure if she was serious. She hasn't yet mastered the art or subtlety of sarcasm, hyperbole, or facetiousness; thus, she tends to be a pretty sincere communicator. So I sort of already knew the answer but still asked, "You really think it's pretty today?"

"Yes," she said emphatically. "There are so many colors and trees. I like the houses and all the flowers. They look so pretty." And, for the umpteenth time since her birth my very own little Buddha offered a new nugget of wisdom in her usual disarming way.

All I had seen was the rain; all I had felt was the rush of squeezing in yet another chore before naptime and worrying about the lack of water or juice for the longish ride home. My worldview consisted of the cold, the grey, the damp, the rush, the stressed out, the mud and wet and messysplatteredsplashyhurrying.

It was not until she described her view that I saw the bright yellow buds lining the road and the multicolored tulips standing at attention to eagerly drink up the day's light spring shower. I noticed how all the grass had turned bright green and how beautiful the stately red brick of neighborhood historic homes looked when contrasted against the slate blue sky.

Sometimes it is easy to forget how much control I have over my experience. How one small adjustment in my thinking or perception can significantly alter my entire worldview... rippling through emotions, physical sensations, and all manner of head-locked living to create a new space from which to see the world.

Unfortunately, as soon as I put her down for her nap, I went right back into my stressed-out, travel-readying, pre-worrying mindset. And just as I began typing this entry, I noted a choking weight of tension across my shoulders and neck... and a nasty little twinge in the center of my back.

Lost as easily as it was gained. There's a lesson right there.

Thich Nhat Hanh, one of my favorite Buddhists, said: "People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle."

Tension is the result of ignoring those miracles. It's akin to burying our heads in the dirt and letting elements of beauty, hope, comfort, or inspiration - abundant and ever-present in multiple areas of our lives - remain consciously unnoticed. And it is a miracle to remember to be present and open to such amazement and awe... to see the yellow buds of trees instead of the oppressive cold of rain.

Possessing that sort of mindset - the one that finds happiness and refuses to cultivate worry - is a form of enlightenment. When we see it in young children, I think we are more apt to call it innocence. But it's no less miraculous stamped with a different label; it's still Buddha-nature just the same.

May you notice something beautiful today. May your tension leave as easily as it entered.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Parenting


There's nothing like becoming a parent to smack you out of your status quo mindset bordering on reverie and force a state of attention as everything you knew becomes something else and your worldview must, of necessity, shift.

Or at least, that's how it has felt to me. Some days, it's a great thing to be reckoned with in this manner. It's wonderful and humbling and challenging to peel away layers I thought set in stone and find I am capable of becoming a new person. Capable of initiating and mastering intense levels of adaptation and reinvention.

Of course, some days it feels raw and naked and painful too. Like undergoing interrogation with a halogen bulb millimeters from your skin, searching every inch of your inner and outer being for telltale spots of decay.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the balance between self as individual and self as parent. Of course, in the process of separating and naming them, I am displaying my attachments and therein lies part of the difficulty. But that's where I am...

I find the things I want to do or don't want to do as an individual sometimes conflict with the things I feel I ought to do or ought not to do as a parent. What is best for my daughter sometimes requires a certain level of transformation or letting go in terms of who I am or what I choose to do.

And I have realized lately this is the conundrum of all parents. It's one of the core cruxes of choosing to build a family and enter a lifestyle different from whatever was prior. Everyone hits this wall (perhaps repeatedly), and everyone makes some form of decision somewhere along the spectrum of change nothing to change everything.

Change nothing and you create as situation wherein your child becomes the parent, or has to raise-love-nuture him/herself, or misses out on the shaky but formidable lessons inherent in "responsibility," "obligation," "duty," and "sacrifice."

Change everything and you create a situation wherein the parent is a martyr... refusing moments of joy or self-focus in lieu of a mountain of shoulds. The child senses regret, remorse, or - perhaps worst - resentment and lives with a sense of guilt in the wake of their caregiver's inner and outer dissonance.

Oddly enough, all of this musing comes in the wake of noticing my recent reluctance to "be better" about making friends with other parents so my daughter can have playdates and get-togethers with kids her age. It also comes on the heels of a decision about this year's birthday and whether or not to throw any kind of party, who to invite, what to do, and when to do it. And, at the forefront this week, what kind of treat to bring in to preschool. Cookies? Cupcakes? Ice Cream Cone Cupcakes?

I am an introvert by nature, and this new level of engagement with a world that is both my own and not my own feels foreign and overwhelming at times. I struggle to find an anchor of authenticity in the role of mother I am forever in the process of defining. Meanwhile, I step forward and try on new aspects of self in an effort to engage in right action connected to the life of myself, my daughter, and my family.

What is truthful? What is compassionate? What is comfortable? What is acceptable? What is needed? What is loving? What is good parenting? What is enough, good enough, or not enough?

It's stupid and important at the same time - this sense of seeking in the unfamiliar territory of mommyhood - simultaneously frivolous and ripe with opportunity. Not just for my own evolution, but also for the work that becomes the backbone of my daughter's life... the choices that help to shape her childhood, young adulthood, and potential eventual mothering.

Buddha said, "He is able who thinks he is able." Buddha didn't talk about mothers very often, but maybe he should have. This quote could just as easily speak to a mountain of mothers poised on the edge of expectation and guilt and all manner of striving:

She is able who thinks she is able.

And then, Buddha might have added something about patience and forgiveness and throw in a reminder about compassion and how it starts with oneself. Maybe something about how cultivation of compassion is anchored in the core of the self... and then spreads outward like dancing seeds of milkweed onto an open ocean of waiting earth.

Maybe. Hard to say and thankfully there are some modern female Buddhists who fill in that area quite wonderfully and help the rough or lost or naked days feel much, much better.

So... I'm off to make cupcakes. I think they'll have sprinkles. And chocolate frosting. That's something my daughter and I wholeheartedly agree on.

May you find balance within the many roles of your life. May you always remember you are able.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Intimacy


I figured out the source of the intense cravings of the last few weeks relatively quickly. Shortly after writing about it, I had a little ah ha moment, sat with it for several days, and then conceded the truth of it, clear and unavoidable because it carried with it a familiar feeling of inescapable pressure in my chest. Truth sometimes sits on me - very heavily - until I acknowledge it.

My hesitance in writing about it stemmed from a sense of shame, or maybe embarrassment (which, let's face it, is shame with a different tilt of the head)... so then I sat with that for several more days. Why the fear? Why the assignation of negative names/thoughts/feelings? What exists between thinking and saying (in this case writing) to generate such distress?

I'm still not sure of the why, but I'm tired of carrying the what around like an elephant - because my guess is, for those who really know me, it's not like any grand sort of epiphany. More like, "Yeah... I kind of already knew that about you."

Intimacy. The craving is intimacy. More specifically... my willingness to be vulnerable, to be open and completely present in an undefended way with those around me. Because, as I came to see in my chewing and mulling and waiting, I hold myself back from everyone. I stay separate on a fundamental level - more observer than participant in the shared human interactions of my life.

This is especially true of my relationships with those closest to me: my husband, my daughter, my family, my friends. I am there but not there. Present but not available. With them but apart. Loving but not risking. Not really.

I am a brave person in a lot of ways. There are areas of my life within which I am fearless, empowered, and willful. But when it comes to letting people in, I fail - over and over.

I act like a wallflower and then blame everyone else for leaving me isolated and alone... and in the grandest moments of my self-deception, I scan my life for escape hatches and new routes of promise - knowingly pinning my discontent upon external sources to avoid looking at the only one who really has control over my experience: me.

Today I sat in the park and watched my beautiful little girl play with a boy she had just met in the sandbox. She of princess pink and tomboy strength - of shy charm and trumpeting love. She clearly liked him, and kept glancing at me to be sure I saw her courage and friendliness and open, whole-hearted being.

I felt such love for her. She is my hero and my teacher and a constant reminder of how to choose joy. Her humor surprises me, her tenderness delights me, and her tenacious bravery inspires me. She and my husband are the two most important people in my world, and neither of them knows how much I love them because I fail to make it clear - and I choose to pull away when I should move toward.

This is a big one - this act of hiding. It shows up in career, motherhood, marriage, family, friendship, creative freedom... all manner of places. My experience of life, I have come to notice this week, can be defined largely by processes of retreat and avoidance. This is not a legacy I wish to pass along to my daughter, nor has it been a particularly positive fact in a space of mindful attention and intentional practice.

Buddha said, "Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment." Which is sort of a nice way of saying, "Stop your whining and do something about it." Either way, the message is the same.

May you love and be loved without fear. May you embrace the opportunity of the present moment.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Enlightenment


I had always thought of enlightenment as some sort of terminal goal... something you worked toward all your life and finally reached in later years. Mine was a glowy, far-off, romanticized notion viewed in soft focus with cherry blossoms and soft music and a gentle breeze smelling slightly of spring.

My notion of enlightenment was much like my early notions of love - untested and based largely on assumption and inference... more fluff than substance and more driven by attachments and wants than a penchant for reality or an acceptance of the non-easy.

Today I had a sort of ah ha moment... which was to realize enlightenment is just that: the myriad epiphanies we come to in the often rough-and-tumble experience of our daily living.

From this viewpoint, enlightenment is less of an endpoint or destination, and more of a process or journey. More slow build than fast bang, and typically characterized by fits and starts. We move forward on a wave of understanding... then move backward in the wake of habits, attachments, or emotions masquerading as fear.

What struck me today was how I cannot tell I was lacking in understanding in some area until I get into a new mindspace and suddenly see a much larger picture. I suppose it's a bit like the old adage about knowing you're in love when you get there. I spent years thinking my "in-love" meter was broken - then actually found the sort of love that includes loving someone beyond being "in love"... and finally had that ah ha moment everyone had been talking about.

As my spiritual and personal growth continues to evolve, I keep wondering how much more my understanding will expand in another year of living - another month, another week, another hour, another moment. It's sort of stunning sometimes how much change we can pack into even one second of our existence.

The other thing I realized today was nearly all of my sparks of enlightenment - that sense of being in a new place and knowing things in a new way - are directly linked to a person who (either intentionally or no) served as my teacher.

The young soldier who spoke of his decision to return to duty despite his misgivings about the war. The friend whose hand I held one day in class, who responded to my pained ignorance with incredible gentleness and grace. The monk whose book changed the path of my life 20 years prior to my decision to consciously embark.

My husband, my daughter, my friends, my family, my community, and all the people categorized as stranger who are separate only because I name them as so. I have been stunned lately by how many opportunities we are given - all the time - to evolve. To grow. To change and become better. Better versions of our selves.

I share all of this because I think maybe a lot of people make some of the same assumptions or have some of the same habits I do. Namely, we beat ourselves up for not being "good enough," or not moving "fast enough." Meanwhile, we look far ahead at our notion of where we need to get to, and feel it is so distant, there's no point in even trying to reach it.

Guatama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, said: “There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth...not going all the way, and not starting.”

I would add a third: not realizing you are already on it.

May you notice teachers all around you. May you celebrate each moment of enlightenment and trust - even in the darkest moments - you are on the road to truth.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cravings


I have been craving something for several weeks now. It buzzes around me like an insistent gnat... bumping against me often enough to ensure I remain attuned to its presence. I have no idea how to sate it. And... because I am somewhat lost, I find I am turning to my habitual form of response for such unidentified longings: food.

So unfolds several weeks of craving-induced picking - a spectrum of nibbling to over-eating most often geared toward the categories of junk and sugar.

Trader Joe's sweet and salty mix; graham crackers with whip cream spray-can blasted in lovely swirl patterns; banana-oatmeal-coconut-chocolate chip bars with a nod toward health in my experiment to reduce the butter and sugar by substituting apple sauce and maple syrup; dark chocolate candy bars with caramel and sea salt; mounding bowls of popcorn prepared stove-top in a pool of salt-infused extra-virgin olive oil; snap pea crisps; corn chips and homemade guacamole; a handful of my daughter's "all-colors" goldfish snacks; and finally... chocolate chip cookies - in all their buttery, sugary, risque glory.

It was the cookies that finally did it. I opened the mason jar full of chocolate chips and caught a whiff of what smelled like a strange and unnatural (e.g., non-food) scent. Can chocolate chips go bad? I wondered. Shrugging, I dumped them in, cooked all the batter, and sampled my efforts.

They tasted funny. They didn't make me feel any more satisfied. I wondered if I had done something wrong or missed a step or used something funky and past-its-prime.

My husband came home and made a beeline for the container full of goodies. "Oooo! What's this? Are these for us?" "Yup," I answered. He excitedly ate one and grinned and maybe even wiggled a little bit. "They don't taste funny to you?" I asked. "Nooooooooo. They taste really good."

When we moved downstate and re-fashioned our lives into a wholly new state, one of the things my husband and I agreed to do was eat out less often, choose healthier foods, and change our eating patterns so they might include less "fake" food.

With concerted effort, we've actually done a pretty good job. We went from eating out nearly every night of the week to once a week on average (twice if we're being really naughty). We buy whole foods and organic as often as possible; I cook three meals a day most days; and we try not to buy junk food or super fatty/sugary dessert items to reduce temptation and help Ari set food habits heavier on fruit and vegetables than chips and soda.

And while we do indulge in the occasional gelato or sticky rice with mango, for the most part, we are careful in our "treat" consumption. So it's been incredibly fascinating to become more alert to my cravings for unnatural foods - and to wander through some musings on what it all really means.

What am I really craving? I thought it was sugar, salt, and fat (and all manner of man-made concoctions based on processes of refinement and chemical tomfoolery) - but lately I've noticed, just as I had years ago with smoking, that whenever I do indulge the seeming ache for such foods, I wind up feeling worse. The aftermath of such eating is more yuck than yum... and the craving persists, unsatisfied and unmet.

So I have decided to meditate upon my actions and try to pinpoint the message I am sending myself. Clearly, some form of misinterpretation is present. Something is lost in translation... and so I must move toward a clearer form of communication - seek out a process of understanding untied to my habits and long-time associations.

In the meantime, I still feel a strong urge to stuff a cookie into my mouth whenever I walk past them in the kitchen. But so far, remembering how it feels to eat said cookie has enabled me to maintain mountain mind and stand fast. Wandering mind is always close behind though... waiting for the chance to dart through and race after the sugary illusion of comfort.

May you separate your habits from your true desires. May you find satisfaction in all you do.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Pace


I sprained my foot over the weekend and finally got to the doctor today. She wants me to get an x-ray and follow up with a specialist; and there is a part of me that feels very impatient about that.

The foot, the ankle, and the calf have begun to hurt more today, which has led me to think about rest, and relaxation, and the push of my usual quick quick hurry hurry get more done now now now sort of mindset.

American society feeds on alacrity and expedience. There is cache in zoom and zip... thrill in speed and danger... and a bankable credibility in pushing slightly beyond one's limits. Or perhaps the nagging of time is more linked to my personality (Type A struggling to land more Type B) and an internal pressure I exert based on expectations and attachment to what might be most accurately qualified as shoulds.

My shoulds are like a prodding finger, jabbing me roughly in the back and wagging furiously at any sign of repose or cessation. They creep into my neck and shoulder muscles, strain my vocal chords as my heartbeat increases, and sometimes even result in clenched teeth and exasperated brow-furrowing - typically directed toward someone else who has chosen to no longer move at the breakneck pace my shoulds so ardently wish to demand.

The ankle injury (and its resultant hurtiness) has reminded me to slow down. It's my body's not-so-gentle way of taking charge and insisting upon a reduced pace... one that might actually allow for breathing, contemplation, or inescapably being in the present.

Each little twinge approximates the corrective rap of a Zen master - carrying a sharp reminder to practice patience and embrace a more realistic and mindful tempo.

Slow down. Sit still. Be.

May you hear your body's subtle and insistent messages. May you move through your day with patience and purpose.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Gifts (Part II)


So as I was thinking about gifts, gift-giving, and an awareness of abundance last week, my husband made a comment one night about gifts we, as individuals, bring with us or cultivate during our lives.

It's a concept I had encountered many times before, but had never thought about in quite the way he put it. He said he was thinking about people who are born into money... specifically, the ones who seem to squander it or do nothing of meaning or purpose with it. The folks born with a silver spoon who never give anything of meaning back and therefore just move through life like bloated and entitled blemishes upon the body of humanity.

We loathe those people, generally. We see in them a selfishness and lack of compassion both startling and disheartening... and they tend to carry after them legacies of infamy, ill-repute, or at least deep sighs and shaking heads.

The point he made is that we are all born with gifts: things we do really well or seem to excel at in a way that sets us apart from those around us. Everyone has something like this. Maybe it's artistic, maybe it's organizational, or interpersonal, or physical... whatever. You've got some prowess and ability that is unique to you and undeniably special.

(Pressfield touches on this in The War of Art; he links it to God and the divine... but I think it's less important where it comes from and more important that you notice your strengths/blessings with honesty and gratitude.)

My husband (who has been navigating his own path of self-identity, career, and life-purpose) said he realized refusing to make use of one's gift, or find ways to share it with others in some fashion, was akin to being a myopic, avaricious rich kid who was blessed with unasked-for rewards and consumed them all without ever looking up to see who else might benefit from such wealth.

And when he told me this, I chewed on it for days... all weekend, in fact. I thought about seeing Ani DiFranco in concert and being blown away by her talent and hit with this indelible sense of "this woman is doing what she was put on this earth to do." And then I thought about the people I've met - teachers, counselors, artists, doctors, psychics, engineers, ministers - who called forth in me that same recognition... and awe... and envy.

It was not until very recently the envy started fading. An unflinching awareness of the ways in which I hold myself back has served to erase those displaced emotions. My joy remains my responsibility. My willingness to embrace the talents I possess - to see them as a compassionate response and fortunate opportunity - directly impacts my experience within the world and my level of happiness, peace, and personal fulfillment.

I have been better, lately, about sharing my gifts and utilizing my strengths in a mindful and compassionate manner. And - bit by bit - I am creating cracks in the self-imposed barriers I see between myself and the realization of various inner callings. I notice a greater sense of connection to those around me, and I feel more comfortable in my day-to-day being.

I think Buddha probably summed it up best: "Meditate. Live purely. Be quiet. Do your work with mastery. Like the moon, come out from behind the clouds! Shine."

May you discover and celebrate your singular talents. May your gifts bring you - and those around you - closer to something wonderful.

*Special thanks to Melinda Evans for taking this photo - from the booth! - during Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. You rock, girl!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Gifts (Part I)


I was driving home from my daughter's daycare today with the windows down and the cool air blowing from our vents, marveling at the glory of sunshine and birdsong and peeking green everywhere.

Such gifts! Sunshine and driving and daughter singing songs and neighborhood I love and warmth on my arms and breezy heads of hair and the intoxicating scent of spring all around. Powerful stuff.

I had been in a conversation earlier with another mother and one of the room teachers about houses and possessions and the habit of wanting more. It was nice to realize I don't want more house, more space, or more things. I don't covet bigger/better... I have noticed I don't take care of stuff so well and it makes more sense given my focus, priorities, inclinations, and level of patience to keep things on the smaller side. Less is more.

This is not to say I don't covet other things... I certainly do. I am future-focused and slow to let go and crave control in areas of my life best left easily adrift. My wanting has become less materially-aimed... but it is still there: The aching of emptiness blind to abundance.

Which was the lesson staring me in the face today, patiently waiting to be acknowledged as I reveled in the happy of spring and consciously made an effort not to allow my buzzing gratitude to be undone by thoughts of coming snow.

I am surrounded by abundance. At times miraculous, sometimes unexpected and unbidden, maybe even so simple as to be nearly unnoticed without mindful awareness... the process of living provides infinite opportunities to practice gratitude and choose joy.

This remains a difficult lesson to remember and embrace in times of depression, fear, anxiety, loneliness, crisis, etc. But today I realized it's all a matter of perspective in terms of how I weave the narrative of my experience, how I make meaning of the things I cannot control, of how I reconcile the things I do control... how I own my mistakes, accept misfortunes, and keep letting go so that I am less and less burdened in each moment.

Doing this with books, photos, papers, movies, clothing, furniture, etc., etc. etc. has been a trying yet rewarding process. Doing so with the less tangible aspects of my life is an ongoing experiment... to which I must continually recommit and doggedly reengage.

Here's my suspicion: The more tangibly and intangibly unencumbered I can become, the more aware I will become of the multitudinous gifts available to me in every moment - ready and waiting to be noticed.

Such a path of gratitude and awareness of plenty seems a more joyful type of existence. More loving. More awake. More conscious and intentional.

It is an aspiration upon which I gratefully cast my gaze.

May you notice the simplest of gifts today. May you find joy and fullness in your living.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Impermanence


My daughter began her day with her favorite blocks and two Boston Terrier stuffed dogs. She created an elaborate two-story house for the dogs - complete with staircase and turret - and proudly showed her efforts to me and my husband as soon as we arose.

She told me she wanted to leave it up, and I complied... warily watching her colt-like movements as she danced, kicked, and flitted around the building (already leaning precariously to one side).

And then the not-so-inevitable occurred. Around 1pm, she unintentionally smacked into the structure... and down it toppled. At which point she began sobbing, in earnest, with very large tears rolling down her pain-contorted cheeks.

I held her and rocked her and kissed her tears... and after a while she calmed down - and then let go and moved on to something else, leaving behind her woeful protestations and her fervent wish to have it all back the way it was before.

Mirror. Mirror. Mirror.

It's been startling to me lately how many things in life provide opportunity for reflection if I am aware enough to notice something is very politely staring me in the face and patiently waiting for the epiphany of recognition.

Impermanence had already been in my thoughts. A possible post for yesterday, the unfinished page sat waiting in queue when I logged in, and so the event of the blocks, the crash, and the aching sadness seemed all too apropos to ignore.

While my little bunny struggles with the unpredictability of toys and the loss of things we love, I have been watching her race ahead into developmental territory so much more aptly described as "little girl" than "toddler." She gallops into greater physical, mental, and emotional dexterity... and then crashes back past her theoretically current state to stand startled and upset within the supposedly abandoned land of "baby."

This wave-like motion behind and beyond her present age has been a great reminder of the cyclical and ceaseless process of growth and personal evolution. Even more surprising is to step back a bit and realize the tidal flow of identity, maturity, and stability hardly remains confined to children and adolescents.

My career process has been a rolling ebb and wane of decision-making, hesitation, redirection, self-efficacy, values clarification, trust, and all manner of psychosocial minutia... as has my growth in the areas of intimacy, self-concept, spirituality, and intellect.

And while the impermanence of life skips across our path infinitely (seasons, emotions, friendships, finances, beliefs, bodies, feelings...), we sometimes have the tendency to forget (or perhaps deny) a few very important things:

  • Life does not stand still; change unfolds before us in nearly all moments.
  • There is no forever. Sometimes this is wonderful. Sometimes this is painful.
  • We move back and forth across the spot we think we should be; every place we inhabit is.

I make the mistake of holding on too tightly sometimes, I think, to what I want instead of what is. And I get especially tense and clamped up when what is refuses to be still long enough for me to decide I want it.

Not so different, really, from sitting in the middle of the floor lamenting my disappeared building... insistent in my pain because my love feels greater than my loss - and neither were supposed to move without my approval.

I take a lesson from my daughter, who dives into her sadness with full-throated commitment and later emerges without looking back... pouncing on a new moment with present-focused gusto and a willingness to let go of the illusion of always.

May the ceaseless flow of your life bring you comfort and provide numerous opportunities to practice acceptance and release. May the folly of forever be met with humor and patience.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Rebirth


The achingly-awaited arrival of spring in our area has been an interesting lesson in patience and letting go. The warm weather has inched forward into March with a creeping steadiness, and today's undeniable warmth and sunniness actually made my heart quicken like a teenager attending her first unchaperoned co-ed party. Weird.

The tulips in front of our friends' building have begun to poke up through the ground, and the twitterpated activities of squirrels, birds, and college students reminds me why we get so giddy around this season: rebirth.

We get to slough off the old and emerge into a brighter and sweeter-smelling world with less clothing, greater promise, and the limitless possibility of longer daylight hours and the thrumming pulse of "now, now, now" surging through every living thing around us.

And why shouldn't we awaken from the quiet, cold resting of winter to pounce with readiness onto the earth unfolding and flowering before us? There's something inherently natural in our lust to rush forward and crash upon the world.

Yet, the irony of spring also lies in our attachment to its fairytale-like magic. The thrill of rejuvenation and rebirth feels palpable and intoxicating... and so it is somewhat humbling to remember it is less connected to the sun or the season than to our willingness to embrace such feelings of awake and alive.

I noticed in myself today an incredible sense of yes. Of now and possibility and I will. And then I realized I could have accessed those feelings - that sense of promise and power - at any time. Why not awaken to such an alert sense in February? Why not imagine myself capable of all changes I might wish to make in a landscape of snow and ice and barren branches?

Prince Gautama Siddharta (the founder of Buddhism) said:

"In the sky; there is no distinction between east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true."

So it is with Winter. Spring. Autumn. Summer. We attach meaning and myth to the rhythms of our world... and while we are impacted by the natural living of the planet we inhabit, we are also capable of so much more.

May you spring forward with a sense of energy and renewal. May you remember to do so (again and again) at any time.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Loneliness


Since making the transition from graduate student to stay-at-home mom, I have noticed an increased sense of loneliness. While I have enjoyed the time with my daughter and have seen our relationship strengthen, I have felt a widening gap between myself and others. Adults. Friends. Colleagues.

There is a sense of isolation—perhaps tied, in part, to the fact I have no job at present that takes me outside the home and encompasses a purpose beyond self or family; perhaps related to the monetary and logistical realities of finding a sitter whenever I want to attend a show, go out with friends, or enjoy a date-night with my husband; maybe even somewhat self-inflicted and tied more to my state of mind and chosen perspective than anything else.

Perhaps entirely self-inflicted. Loneliness is, after all, a state of mind. It is a perspective... a narrative based on my perception of the elements of my life... a chosen label affixed by no one other than me to a series of emotions and thoughts I experience and then refuse to let go.

Author Dr. Brenda Shoshanna is credit with this quote: "When a sense of hunger, loneliness, dissatisfaction and craving comes, don’t blame it on others, or on circumstances. Instead, stop and look within."

So what is it then? Why the dissatisfaction, the tension, the sadness, the restlessness, the worry, the exhaustion? What is in between this state of blech and the simple joy of peaceful alertness and presence?

It's a stuckness I have encountered so many times its akin to a recurring dream. Sometimes that's how it feels. As if I have gotten trapped in a labyrinth of my mind and hazily look around for the exit while knowing full well the exit is simply to wake up and stop being there.

One of the greatest lessons I hope to learn in this lifetime is the ability to maintain peace. To be at peace and find a sense of grounding and ease that remains somewhat steady and stable. A sort of calm interlacing with my core. I don't think you can be lonely if you are truly at peace... probably because you not only value your own company, but also because you never forget there is no such thing as separation on a spiritual (and perhaps even scientific) level.

So I must look within. Continue meditating, utilizing my dharma buddy/husband, recognizing my daughter as another teacher and incredible gift, and loosening my grip on an attachment I have yet to fully recognize with alertness and accept with intention.

May you regain a sense of connection in spans of drifting. May you look within with bravery and persistence.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Guilt


I finally called a realtor today. This was something I had been putting off under the guise of busy-ness, sickness, late nights and overtiredness, and all manner of ness that might make my feet-dragging seem justifiably plausible.

The truth, however, lies closer to my heart and has more to do with my emotional and physical attachments than anything else.

My grandmother had asked me, at one point, to keep her house "safe." It was a conversation from long ago during a time of greater lucidity than the drawn-out, lazy, spiral of her dying (which lasted several months and included long stretches of what might best be described as a sort of emptiness).

What she meant by safe was that she didn't want to see it sold to anyone. She wanted the home to stay in the family, and she wanted one of us to live in it - continuing a life and link to the place she had called home for over 80 years.

She was afraid it would become rental property, afraid someone might move in and change everything (which to her was another sort of death), afraid my mother might sell it immediately and never look back.

There was a certain desperation to her request, and I remember at the time being highly aware of my inability to make any such promise. And I still remember the look of sadness, panic, and fear on her face when it became clear her fervent hope might get crushed in the shuffle of her passing.

In part because of this conversation, and in part because it was the best thing for my new family (e.g., myself, my husband, and our intended daughter-to-be), as well as being helpful for my family as a whole, we moved into her home upon her death and began what soon felt like an impossible task: restoration and renovation with the focused task of bringing the home solidly back to an historic and beautiful single-family dwelling.

I'm not sure how successful we were, ultimately, in our task. So much remains undone on our wish list of projects and grand plans. But we did make some headway, and the home is undeniably special... particularly for the area within which it sits.

So here we are... nearly five years beyond her death and about to embark upon listing and selling the house because we cannot afford to hold onto it, and it does not make sense to do so given our goals, philosophies, and circumstances.

And I am feeling immense guilt. Heavy and pinching in my chest. Smashing my breath to the point of being noticeable but not unbearable. Racing through my head like a dog in the spring, crashing into things I thought safely sorted through and tucked away.

Which has led me to ponder the nature of guilt... and to consider what might be the Buddhist approach to such a feeling state. When I really think about it, it's clear I am holding onto something out of sync with the present—carrying something forward as a burden and taking its weight through my current moment.

I suspect it has to do with her disappointment at my initial response during that first conversation about the house long ago. I was not wholly honest; not in a way that was clear and unambiguous. I think I tried to straddle comforting and vague... which left us both feeling worse.

And so, if I am to examine the aspect of my action and its presence in my mind despite tangible absence, I must acknowledge and accept the mis-step of my ambiguity and cowardice. Right action might have been speaking the truth more clearly, or sharing greater insight as to why I could not make such a promise, or being brave enough to name and focus on the emotions I read so clearly in her face... instead of avoiding her palpable pain.

One of the most challenging aspects of Buddhist study, I think - or really any dedicated spiritual practice - is in learning to embrace one's mistakes without creating a pitfall within which to become paralyzed, or stuck, or hidden, or ignored.

Imperfections are a necessary and sometimes strikingly beautiful and important part of life, because they inspire our growth and refine our understanding of ourselves and others. Getting caught in guilt, regret, or any other form of self-denial prevents me from being fully present and focused in the now, which means I am at even greater risk of causing suffering or doing harm to others. And so the cycle continues.

I can no longer apologize to my grandmother, or choose a course of right action wherein I set aside all artifice and carefulness in order to speak plainly and from the heart. That moment has passed. This moment provides an opportunity to acknowledge and accept my actions, to dedicate thought and mindfulness to the situation in order to evolve my understanding, and to move forward with as much right action as possible... whatever that may be.

May you accept and own your imperfections to stand, unburdened, in the present moment. May you embrace all aspects of self to move forward in freedom and clarity.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Possessions


Our house is cluttered with things. Items, doodads, pieces of paper, collected images and artwork, photos, movies, toys, souvenirs, music, gifts, heirlooms, and the incredible flotsam generated by a combined total of nearly 77 years.

To be fair to both my husband and daughter, I must admit most of it is mine.

In an effort to simplify our lives and clarify the tangible and physically-expressed aspects of our living, I have been making my way through some of this stuff—very, very slowly. I try to take each item and mindfully consider its place and purpose in our lives. Not only must each thing be considered on an individual level, but also how it impacts our collective experience as a family.

So, for example, if I decide to hold onto my collection of Victorian postcards, or the trunk full of clothes that no longer fits but I wish fervently someday will, or the hundreds of brochures collected for places I hoped to visit... what impact does that have upon the space we collectively inhabit as a family? Is my decision to keep those things based on my attachment to them worth the space (psychological, physical, emotional) they take up?

Occasionally, I go through spurts of empowered purging wherein I take entire swaths of squirreled memorabilia and unceremoniously dump them into the trash. Whole boxes of letters, cards, bookmarks, stationery, etc. – heaving them into the universe with only a twinge of hesitation.

Of the many things I've managed to relinquish in this fashion, only one or two items stick out as "regrets." I sometimes think about them, wish I could see/touch/read/etc. them again. But it is fleeting... and when I think about that emotional pause balanced against the weight of those items and how much better it feels to be free of them - a wee pinch of regret is well worth a greater sense of simplicity.

It was not until I began this process in earnest (a more aware, focused, and intentional approach to paring down - not the kamikaze spontaneity of the past) that I realized I defined myself, in part, through my possessions. My sense of self - and more especially the self I fashioned for the benefit and admiration of others (e.g., ego-driven, little "i" self) - was defined by the music I listened to, the books I read, the artwork I hung on my walls, the items I chose to display on my shelves, the bedroom linens I picked out, the furniture I decorated with...

And as I began to let go of these items, I was faced with the reality of having linked my identity to material, tangible, things. Probably the least important of elements through which one might express him/herself - and yet there I was, struck by the absence of my things and a slightly anxious void as I noticed the impact their departure had upon my sense of who I was.

The connection between what I own and who I am has lessened considerably since that realization. Yet, I am now daunted by the sheer mass of the remaining chaos that might easily fall under the headline things I do not really need.

I battle inertia in the wake of boxes unexplored for at least 10 years. STUFF I have carted around with me from place to place, relationship to relationship... past marriage, childbirth, and graduate school. My albatross of things drapes the corners of our house, fetidly rotting in each room as I hesitate to dive in and truly consider each item.

There is so much more effort in Seeing. Considering. Acknowledging. And eventually Letting Go. So much easier to take a tidal wave of fleeting effort and simply wash everything overboard into the waiting dumpsters beneath our apartment.

But I don't want to take the easy way out this time. I want to remain mindful and awake in my process of letting go and to all the little epiphanies that come floating up like dust as I shuffle through each attachment. It's a good reminder I am the possessor, and not the possessed.

May you consume, consider, and possess mindfully. May each item you keep have purpose and provide joy.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Escapism


The past few weeks have contained a bit of self-induced hibernation... a sort of huddled, closed off, hunching against the cold and damp and dark of winter. I burrow - groundhog like - into a warm little reverie of interior fantasies and recollections: biking along the Channel Trail, eating freshly made gelato across from the park, walking lazily down the street at dusk and laughing into the fuzzy sunset of a beautiful day.

It was not until today - tromping through snow and avoiding ice on the stairways as I carefully held my daughter's hand and marveled at her winter-tinged elation - that I realized I had been seeking to escape winter. I was actively avoiding the present in an attempt to race forward to a warmer and theoretically more pleasant time... while simultaneously evading the present moment by reaching back to grasp at an idealized and romanticized past.

"I love winter!" my daughter exclaimed as she jabbed her bright boot into a snow bank half her size.

"I thought you hated winter. You said so the other day." I try to be gentle in my asking, but my true self knows I am seeking some form of camaraderie through the power of mommyness and the tendency of my daughter to seek my vantage point.

"No. I thought I didn't like it. But I do. I love snow."

Mmmm. And there it was. A simple lesson from a small teacher - providing opportunity for insight via her unencumbered and wholly honest interaction with the world at present. No yesterday. No tomorrow. Now, now, now.

Now there is snow. Now there is sunshine. Now there are icicles and slush and bundled up bodies holding swaddled hands because the world has reminded us to help each other on the stairs. The day is inviting us to stomp and scoop and giggle as the ground sparkles like a blanket of stars and the landscape lies altered and special.

My daughter reminds me it is not hard to find joy in life. You just have to live in it. Be there with eyes open and readiness in your heart... and there it is. Forever unfolding and stretching and shifting before you with newness in nearly every second.

I am sure I will still engage in escapism from time to time. I am too used to such actions as a form of self-care, and they rarely (any longer) take a form that is damaging or self-destructive. These are timid forays. Like a sheep straying away from its grazing spot because it forgot what it was supposed to be doing there.

Harvey Steiman is credited with saying, "Everything in moderation—including moderation." In the context of escapism, I think it's safe to acknowledge we all have our outs as a form of psychic and emotional survival sometimes. And sometimes we even go off the deep end... lost in an abyss of our own making... eventually resurfacing and reconnecting with the real world once more.

But perhaps it's helpful to remember such recourse is sometimes more a force of habit than product of necessity. And sometimes the ability to see joy in our present circumstances is as easy as changing our minds and deciding to see the world through fresh eyes.

May you remain mindful within your efforts to escape and return to life with new resolve. May you strive to live in the present with a sense of wonder and joy.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Honor


While listening to NPR last week, I heard a story about the Greensboro Four and the Woolworth Sit-In. It is an amazing event in our history, an incredibly important action in the fight for civil rights, and a great reminder as we face new aspects of inequality and issues of law in our country (e.g., equal marriage rights).

Apparently, the struggle to find some way to honor the actions of the Greensboro Four has been going on for quite some time, which led me to thinking about honor—personal honor and honoring others—and how that affects our experience individually and collectively.

Behaving honorably may be linked to the powerful words and concepts of many great thinkers and teachers:

  • Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you... ~ Mathew 7:12
  • This above all: To thine own self be true, for it must follow as dost the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. ~ Shakespeare
  • Right Action aims at promoting moral, honourable and peaceful conduct. That we should also help others to lead a peaceful and honourable life in the right way. ~Walpola Rahula
It seems to me behaving honorably requires a commitment to the act of honoring ourselves and others. My first exposure to the concept of honor was probably via the Bible (something I heard in a Sunday school class no doubt... to which I was privy because I tagged along with one of my church-going friends just so I could see what it was all about).

"Honor thy mother and father."

So simple and yet, for so many of us, such a difficult and challenging process! Certainly, in my teenage years and even early adulthood, I fell quite short of this one time and again. Honor requires forgiveness, patience, and empathy... and I struggled to maintain these with my family for a long time.

It was only recently I realized how many grievances I carried with me... attached like superglued velcro to my narrative of done-wrong and poor-me and not-fair. I am more understanding, now that I am a parent, of how hard you are trying even when you make incredible mistakes or repeat a pattern you had sworn to disavow as soon as you had a child of your own.

I also have a clearer understanding of how counterproductive it is to bring past pains with you into the present. Eckhart Tolle provides wonderful reminders to be more honest with ourselves about our current state of pain in the moment. Are you in pain right now? Not do you remember pain, not have you ever experienced pain, not has anyone ever done something to hurt you. Are you in pain right now? Right now.

And so the act of honoring others requires greater honesty with ourselves, a greater abundance of patience, and an increased commitment to letting go of the past. It requires vigilance and returning again and again to fall short... and then try some more. Fall seven times. Stand up eight.

It also requires we honor ourselves... which, I am guessing, if we were all to be honest, is not always so easy to do. Truly honoring ourselves requires the same amount of commitment, forgiveness, and patience - coupled with self-esteem, stark honesty, and the ability to treat oneself with respect and love.

And if we cannot honor ourselves, how will we be able to honor others? And if we cannot honor others, how will we be able to honor ourselves?

The questions of equality and rights that arise so often in our society seem, to me, inextricably linked to the concept and practice of honor. If we cannot honor each human being - each other living being - as valuable, essential, and interconnected... our ability to behave honorably lessens significantly.

And so our character (as a person, as a society, as a world) suffers.

May you honor yourself and others today in a way that brings you greater peace and comfort. May you see yourself and everyone around you as purposeful, important, and divine.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hormones


When I was pregnant, I read somewhere my body would undergo the impact of more hormones during that 9+ month cycle than it would my entire lifetime (from menses to menopause) were I never to conceive.

In other words, a pregnant woman is more deluged with chemicals and biological crazy-juice during the span of 40 weeks than a non-pregnant woman would be over the course of approximately thirty-five years.

I share this not as a cautionary tale (though it is worth noting), but rather as a way to underscore my familiarity with the seemingly inane and all-too-often surprisingly difficult impact one's chemical system can have upon thoughts and feelings.

Cognition and affect. Terms not often bandied about in regular conversation, but two of the cornerstones of psychology/counseling. And, as it turns out, two of the ways we (in Western society at least) most often identify our self.

What are you thinking? How do you feel? We assume our thoughts and feelings are ourselves... and so when they go careening in a direction unanticipated and not entirely embraced, our correlative inclinations get the better of us. We connect the thoughts and feelings to us. The me-ness of I.

And yet, as one of my meditation instructors so wisely pointed out, you are not your thoughts. If you and your thinking were synonymous, you would not be able to notice (or think about) your thinking. You would not experience your heart (feelings) and mind (thoughts) at odds were they somehow connected inextricably to your core.

That is the idea in Zen at least. You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings. And therefore, they do not control you.

This is sometimes difficult to remember, however, when we are sitting on the bed, crying profusely for no good reason and feeling a tightness in the chest that threatens to steal our breath.

My hormones have always been a challenge. I am one of those women who undergoes a stark transformation each month as my body's flood of whoknowswhat crashes forward and things like rationality, optimism, confidence, and patience go splashing out the window.

This, coupled with what is most likely seasonal affective disorder, means winter gets kind of tough. My outlook changes. My perspective shifts. My thoughts become darker... more destructive, less kind. My feelings become heavier... dangerously close to anger, volatile yet fragile, and pushed to a level exponentially larger than warranted by the tangible circumstances of life.

It was not until these last few weeks I was really able to step back from the powerful presence of my negative feelings and thoughts - and experience them on a level separate from me. I was able to know them as other - distinct from the core of who I am. And in that knowledge, I found an anchor to which I could return each time I felt too tossed about by my internal whirlwinds.

And so, I am seeking to find a more sustainable form of balance wherein I notice and acknowledge my thoughts and feelings... and then I let them go. It's very difficult so far. I'm sure my family could tell you with a serious look upon their faces: I am not very good at it yet.

But... the funny thing about life is how everything is so interconnected. Thought becomes feeling, feeling becomes word, word becomes deed. Minds shape moods and moods influence thoughts - and there in the midst of it all is some form of self unshaken by the little "i" concerns of ego. Some part that remains awake and processes everything on a meta level - steadfast in a peaceful state of being.

That place - that meta state, that big "I" self - has many names and shows up in many different places. Religion, philosophy, meditation and mindfulness, psychology and counseling. It feels different, and often better, than the majority of what most of us refer to as "life."

And whether you believe in some form of god or no; practice meditation, mindfulness or Zen faithfully or not; see a therapist or counselor; find a different experience of yourself via art, performance, dance, music, or the written language... whatever your path... that place can be your anchor.

Buddha said: Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

I'm going to try and remember I am in this muddle of winter and self-imposed limbo - and seek my anchor in the nearness of spring, the intransigence of life, and the bravery of faith.

May you embrace the separateness and wholeness of the myriad aspects of you. May you know you are and regain control in times of difficulty.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Silence


There is an odd and inherent contradiction to blogging. It creates a public and infinitely open forum from which to communicate, and yet the words shared are limited via the medium used and must always be funneled down to an individual perspective. It's hard to walk the fine line sometimes between personal and purposeful. Ultimately, one's intention as a writer remains helpless in meeting the perspective of the reader... and so the process ends up feeling a bit like writing a love letter to someone you know from afar - without expectation of response.

In looking back on yesterday's post, I have been thinking a lot about silence (specifically, the Buddhist take on silence), and also about suffering and compassion... and how that all blends together in the context of blogging through the process of my spiritual exploration.

One of my favorite Buddhist proverbs is:

Do not speak, unless it improves on silence.

I love the recognition of silence as something valuable, as well as the importance of thinking before speaking. Sometimes our words are like our thoughts: random, ego-driven, tangential, and disconnected from mindful awareness. Silence may afford further reflection; it may allow someone else an opportunity to provide wisdom, guidance, or strength; and it may lead to a more silent internal state... one truly centered in the now and from which we may speak and act with authenticity and humility.

How, then, does silence come to bear upon blogging? It's a rather talky activity - potentially self-important and typically one-sided in its execution. My guess: Most bloggers negotiate and utilize large periods of silence before setting out to communicate their thoughts. Posts are purposeful, the structure and tone of the blog decided in advance and carefully maintained by the author. I would also hazard a guess most bloggers are doing so because they value interpersonal connection and believe there is merit to sharing their thoughts and personal experiences while reading those of others in an effort to remember and expand upon the universality and interconnection of the human experience.

One of the things I struggle with lately, in seeking to better understand Buddhism, is in knowing how to balance an awareness of the suffering of others with an openness and honesty to my suffering - in whatever form it may take. This can be difficult because we are relativistic thinkers... and so our tendency is to compare self with other - be it for good or ill.

Halfway through my post yesterday, I started to worry my focus on boredom might seem callous in the context of the earthquake in Haiti, the health struggles of friends and their families, the financial struggle of thousands striving to make basic necessities (food, shelter, clothing) a consistent and stable reality, the disenfranchisement and discrimination faced by individuals whose rights are unjustly and consistently denied...

It is a luxury to be able to focus on an emotion such as boredom. I see it as an opportunity to practice gratitude and consider my blessings to be able to label my suffering with such a small and trivial word. And I chose to blog about it - and to keep it even when worry struck halfway through - because I hoped my words might bring a sense of connection or comfort to someone else standing under the same raincloud.

There is another proverb I found today that seems fitting:

Every path has its puddle.

Sometimes the puddle exists in the wake of a tsunami and threatens to overwhelm us, and sometimes it is merely the mirage of water we seem to be standing in - a self-propelled hallucination because we are determined to see water where there is none.

I like to think there is merit in exploring both.

May you listen, pause, and breathe today. May you answer all forms of suffering (even the imagined ones) with compassion and courage.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Boredom


Today I am bored with myself. Bored with my life. Bored with routine, with the walls of my apartment, with my non-job-ness, with inhabiting the world of a almost-four year old. Bored with a dog who won't stop peeing in the apartment, with cooking three meals a day and cleaning once a week and doing laundry/changing sheets/switching towels.

Once I acknowledged my feeling-state as boredom, I quickly realized no one was responsible for it save me. I also made the connection that boredom, for me, is very closely linked to sadness and ennui. And I use ennui here not to be snooty or throw around "10 cent" words... but because it really captures the more subtle connotations of the listless, mopey, sticky place I internally reside.

My gut instinct, in thinking about how boredom might tie in to Buddhist philosophy, was it belies a sort of dissonance of self. Boredom is the symptom, not the problem. It's simply a reverberation of some wiggling, uncomfortable, niggling area of unease - most likely an area of attachment or ego left entirely unattended and therefore running amok.

I also wonder if boredom results from actively evading a feeling state or "truth" I wish to remain hidden. After all, the use of the label boredom allows me to point fingers outside myself... naming some exterior other as the source of my problem.

Steven Pressfield (author of The War of Art) might label boredom "resistance" and suggest my state of ennui directly links to a decision to run away from or avoid my true calling - to work against action connected to my higher self and soul's purpose.

William Glasser (father of Choice Theory) would suggest I am choosing boredom - accepting and continually creating/embracing this feeling-state. He might say I am placing the power of my feelings within the domain of external sources, rather than taking responsibility for that which I control: my actions and expectations.

And the Buddhists? As with many spiritual pursuits, you will find many answers along your search for capital "T" truth. I think, as with many things in life, sometimes it helps to take it all in and do your best to synthesize a response that syncs up for you.

My impression at this point in my life: The first step is noticing and naming one's boredom. As I understand it, this relates back to a common Western habit - that of disassociating ourselves from our thoughts and feelings. By naming it, I can begin the process of letting go, which then (hopefully) leads to an eventual shift away from boredom/sadness into a more productive and less painful place.

And then... I have to allow myself to be in my boredom and sadness. Rather than running away from it, or using meta-cognition (thinking about my thinking) to avoid experiencing those feelings, or trying to subvert them through mindless activities (eating, surfing the web, wandering the house)... I have to be bored; I have to feel sad. I must allow myself time and space to think the bored/sad thoughts and feel the bored/sad emotions and go wherever I may go without holding on.

It's a very uncomfortable thing. I have tried it, and I didn't like it. But I noticed fully inhabiting my bored/sad state seemed to clear away some of my self-imposed smokescreens surrounding some other emotions... which ultimately link to choices I am making, attachments I have yet to acknowledge, and a lack of openness to my true self - my Buddha nature, as it were.

We are very hard on ourselves sometimes. We often avoid the reality of the darker side of ourselves in an effort to attain some imagined ideal of perfection. I believe we are a mixture of the human and the divine. We walk a physical and spiritual existence wherein we are beings of tangible and intangible forces. And in that dichotomous paradox, we struggle to balance between frailty and grace... sometimes forgetting both are true expressions of self.

May you accept and truly inhabit your thoughts and feelings today and gain greater insight. May you allow yourself to be who you are, where you are, without judgment or disappointment.