Wednesday, July 29, 2015

New Day

The sun comes up and we arise. Dreams from the night forgotten, the day not yet fully formed. This once-a-day opportunity to breathe in the wonderment of how we might enter our life once again—an opportunity I often zoom right past.

Since we’re hardwired to “go negative,” it’s way too easy to jump out of bed and start scanning for what might trip us up—will we be late, what if we don’t get the tasks done, do we really have time to exercise, and so on. This negativity bias is necessary; it helps us stay alive and maneuver the world. But with each new day there is also the chance to pause and soften a bit.

There is no way that is more correct than another to do this—we might linger over a cup of coffee, go for a short walk, take a few full breaths. It certainly doesn’t have to be anything spectacular. I’ve been reading a poem lately to start my day. While the poem is about the end of day, reading it before the zoominess takes hold will sometimes open me, even if just for a bit. 

don't want to miss the fresh space of morning. May we all find ways to wake up to each new day. 
Early morning walk: Carlsbad Boulevard
Questions Before Dark, by Jeanne Lohmann

Day ends, and before sleep
when the sky dies down, consider
your altered state: has this day
changed you? Are the corners
sharper or rounded off? Did you
live with death? Make decisions
that quieted? Find one clear word
that fit? At the sun's midpoint
did you notice a pitch of absence,
bewilderment that invites
the possible? What did you learn 
from things you dropped and picked up
and dropped again? Did you set a straw
parallel to the river, let the flow
carry you downstream?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Words and the excitingness of pure being

Gertrude Stein says that the “excitingness of pure being” has withdrawn from words when they’re worn out. Maybe a poet's work is to use language in ways that revitalize it so that we can learn to see and hear again.
Fresh seeing: views from Cliffhanger

Last night I picked up takeout for dinner. The owner’s 4-year-old waited with me and spoke in the simple, direct language of children: My sister hurt her chin. Do you have a daddy? What’s your daddy's name? My dog sounds like this...ruff ruff. I didn’t know where her language would take us, but I wanted to go there. It was fresh to be with her in this way. I needed to lean in to follow the flow of words that were so clearly an expression of what was arising between us on-the-spot. There was nothing extra. Everything mattered. 

Thank you, child-poet whose name I do not know, for speaking the language of pure being.

Fragment at the Beginning of Something, by David Watts

My son brings me a stone and asks
which star it fell from. He is serious
and so I must be careful,
even though I know he will place it
among those things
that will leave him someday
and he will go on, gathering.
For this is one of those moments
that turns suddenly
toward you, opening as it turns,
as if for an instant we paused
on the edge of a heartbeat
and then pressed forward, conscious
of the fear that runs beside us
and how lovely it is to be with each other
in the long, resilient mornings.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Breaking free from self-aggression

I’d rather we not meditate than meditate with even subtle self-aggression. Yet self-aggression is what occurs when we sit to be kinder, calmer, more enlightened, more anything. This doesn't mean that we don’t want to apply ourselves toward change or growth, and it’s not to say that meditation doesn’t fuel change or growth, but cultivating a level of okayness with things as they are right now—with ourselves as we are—is at the heart of the practice. 

With this okayness we don’t mind looking back at how things have or haven’t changed. We don’t mind looking at the part we played or didn’t play in these changes. The review is wise and valuable. What isn’t valuable is sitting day after day with the mindset of looking ahead—at the day that we might someday be enough. Again, please, let’s not practice in that way. 
Looking back at our fire circle, aka Dick's Landing
Looking back I discovered that 3 things I had heard about meditation did not come about for me. Instead I found out what did feel true to me. This is the assignment for all meditators: what feels true for you? 

Meditation Myth 1: I will feel relaxed.
What happened instead: I felt awake.
Sitting with my thoughts, my body, and my heart rarely feels relaxing. Sometimes I zone out, which can feel relaxing, but staying present to my mind, my body, my emotions is work. The best description I have for this work is that it feels alive—that I feel alive. Relaxation has me thinking of swaying in a hammock, maybe dozing a bit. And while I’ve certainly dozed while meditating, I’ve never confused that turned down, almost-checked-out state with being fully present.

Meditation Myth 2: I will be able stop my thoughts.
What happened instead: I stopped caring so much about thoughts.
It took me about 10 minutes to realize that if I was going to continue meditating I would have to scrap the idea that I could somehow stop my thoughts. Creating an image of how I might look if I actually did stop all thoughts helped: it’s an image of a frozen-faced me with wide, faraway eyes that leaves me cold. Thoughts come and go. I stopped caring so much about them, which is the truest sense of being free that I ever experience.

Meditation Myth 3: I will feel good.
What happened instead: I felt authentic.
Yes, I hoped that meditating would help me tap into some “feel good” reservoir, at least for a while each day. And while meditation doesn’t make me feel bad, it doesn’t make me feel good either. What I do feel is authentic. So even when I’m sitting with my fear, I’ve become less afraid of my fear. I’m less anxious about my anxiety, less frustrated with my frustration, and so on. 
No. 8, just as she is this time
I can’t say for sure that it’s meditation that brought about these changes. Maybe it’s because I entered my 40s, started running, gave up cheese. But I suspect that meditation has fueled the changes at least in part. I'll keep wondering, ready to change my mind with each breath.

Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Idiot Compassion

I'm struck every holiday season by how easy it is to get caught up in the frenzy: rush around buying things, attend events out of obligation, spend money that we don't have for things that people don't need. Of course the holiday season isn't the only time we do things that move us away from peace.
Bow Head: This seems totally unnecessary
The efforts we make to keep others from being upset with us or uncomfortable is what Chögyam Trungpa calls idiot compassion, and we do this all year long. We might call these behaviors enabling. It happens when we act in a way that we know is not ultimately the best for someone, but taking the action helps us avoid our own discomfort. Idiot compassion is for us. It's the knockoff version of actual compassion, which happens when we're willing to hold our own pain, if necessary, to do what we know in our heart and mind is the "bigger kindness" to others and to ourselves. 

Life Coach Martha Beck suggests asking ourselves 2 questions (shackles on? shackles off?) to gain insight into why we accept or reject requests on our time, money, attention, and energy.

1. If I say yes, will I feel that I've placed shackles on myself? 
Do I suspect that the person will lay a guilt trip on me if I don't say yes, talk about me behind my back, get angry, and so on? Maybe their reaction will be more subtle, with the person pouting or bristling in some way. If I say yes to the request, will I dread doing it or feel that I've sold out? Am I saying yes because I'm afraid that the person won't think I'm nice, great, kind, and so on, if I refuse? If I could get through the guilt or anxiety of saying no, would I feel lighter?

2. If I say yes, will I feel "shackles off"? 
Will I feel that I've touched in on something heartfelt, or that fulfilling the request will ultimately energize me? Will I feel as though I've offered something more than a temporary fix to someone instead of simply avoiding disapproval? Would I want to do this even if I knew that it could turn out to be a lot of work and may not have the outcome that I want?
Shackles off: a precious time with my father
May we all take step after step away from what keeps our life too small for us.

Sweet Darkness, by David Whyte

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love

The dark will be your womb 

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds 
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The practice of lingering

Remember when you first fell in love and would linger on and on with a lover, no matter what needed to be done? Remember times when you acted out of pettiness at work and lingered in self-recrimination long after the damage was done? 

We’re great at hanging out in the highs and lows of strong emotion. But most of our moments are not highs or lows; they are quite ordinary and we rush right through them. In learning to linger in the complete ordinariness of our life, we may discover how very precious and satisfying ordinary can be.
Ordinary sunlight, ordinary water

How to get your linger practice in each day

The key is to choose something very ordinary—something that you’re doing anyway. Then either

  • Do that ordinary event slower than you would normally do it.
  • Pause at the beginning, middle, or end to notice and feel.

Practicing even a little throughout the day can infuse our life with a sense of “this is enough.”

Linger in the morning
*Cradle a cup of coffee or bowl of oatmeal in your hands. Maybe close your eyes as you chew or drink.
*Stay in the shower a few seconds longer than required to get clean. Feel and hear the water.

Linger in the afternoon
*Sit in your car before turning the key. Take a look at the world that exists beyond your windshield.
*Be the last one to leave a meeting. Take your time gathering your things.

Linger in the evening
*Stop before opening the door when you return home. Look up at the sky.
*Feel your feet warm as you snuggle beneath your blanket. Snuggle in even more.

May we all learn to linger in the perfect ordinariness of our life.
Brownies, blue plate, blue candle
Playthings, by Tagore

Child, how happy you are sitting in the dust, playing with a broken twig
     all the morning. 
I smile at your play with that little bit of a broken twig. 
I am busy with my accounts, adding up figures by the hour. 
Perhaps you glance at me and think, "What a stupid game to spoil
     your morning with!" 
Child, I have forgotten the art of being absorbed in sticks and mud-pies. 
I seek out costly playthings, and gather lumps of gold and silver. 
With whatever you find you create your glad games, I spend both my time
     and my strength over things I never can obtain. 
In my frail canoe I struggle to cross the sea of desire, and forget that I too
     am playing a game. 

Monday, September 1, 2014


Everybody loves a chance to start over—a new beginning. With meditation we’re often instructed to return to the breath when we notice that mind has wandered, and begin again. Always fresh. 

But finishing has a freshness too; in fact, knowing when something is finished can feel even more freeing than starting over. The key to this freedom is found in letting something come to a natural close. 
When did this happen?
A renowned meditation instructor once shared how he stopped smoking. He had been on a spiritual journey for years, practicing and teaching yoga, and was still smoking a few packs a day. When he mentioned to his yoga mentor that he must quit, the mentor replied, Don’t quit. Let it give you up. 

I can remember many things that simply ended for me: spending the summers barefoot, fearing the dark, being married. These things died a natural death; they were finished with me. 

Perhaps finishing doesn’t come with the same fanfare as starting something new because it involves surrender—surrender to what we know in our bones as true. It never works to hold on to something past its expiration date, and it brings unhappiness not only to us but to those around us. So maybe when we meditate we could just notice when we’re done with a certain line of thought, a certain emotion, and then return to the breath. 

A wise woman once said that Way Open and Way Closed are really the same thing. I wonder if this is what Christ meant when he said It is finished—that the ending He offered would be a transformative opening.

Summer is now leaning into fall. May this ending land gently for you. 
An end-of-summer butterfly, Wakefield, VA

Late August, by Mary Chivers

It's as if we're always preparing
for something, the endless roll of the earth
ripening us.
Even on the most tranquil
late August afternoon when heavy heads
of phlox bow in the garden
and the hummingbird sits still for a moment
on a branch of an apple tree—
even on such a day,
evening approaches sooner
than yesterday, and we cannot help
noticing whole families of birds
arrive together in the enclosure,
young blue birds molted a misty grey,
colored through no will of their own
for a journey.
On such an evening
I ache for what I cannot keep—the birds,
the phlox, the late-flying bees— 
though I would not forbid the frost,
even if I could. There will be more to love
and lose in what's to come and this too: desire
to see it clear before it's gone.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Make room for sadness

Sadness is powerful. It softens us when life is tough. It keeps us open when we’d rather shut down. Sadness is not the same as depression—not even close. When you're depressed you don't feel much of anything; when you're sad, you feel everything. 

A tinge of joy runs right through the heart of sadness. Chögyam Trungpa called this feeling sad-joy—the two being inextricable, a mixed blessing that makes us weep when we hear beautiful music or remember a lost love and smile.

Weeping may stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning. -Psalm 30:5

We can’t script sad-joy. We can only pause, slow down, and notice when it arises, then not rush away from what touches us. Sometimes it’s scary to open ourselves to sadness, but without it, our joy remains confined to us. With it, the heart breaks just enough for joy to spill out as kindness, as caring. 

May we be brave enough to let our hearts be softened by sadness.
Favorite tree: felled by tornado, 2012

Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride 
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.