Thursday, February 25, 2010


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


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


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


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.