Friday, December 28, 2012

Creating boundaries: The loving practice of NO

I am on retreat. There are about 20 monastics and a handful of “regular” mindfulness practitioners living in a shared space—shared bedrooms, bathrooms, dining room, kitchen, and practice spaces. We’re very close—physically. It isn’t always fun. Creating boundaries is not only necessary here; it conveys a deep caring and respect for ourselves, each other, and the practice of mindfulness. 
Not sure how to operate the camera: brain freeze
My retreat job is to prep food for the next day’s meal. I place a piece of masking tape and write NO on the top of each container of food that I prepare. NO stands for Not Offered. In an environment where offerings are key, generosity is encouraged, and sharing is a must if everyone is to make it through each day, being extremely clear about what is NOT offered is efficient and wise. If even a few of us help ourselves to the food that isn't offered, we will not have enough to feed everyone the next day.
NO apple ginger salad with toasted pumpkin seeds for you! (until tomorrow)
Creating Not Offered boundaries is also efficient and wise in everyday life. Can you imagine how less frustrated, angry, resentful, and taken for granted we would feel could we simply place a NO label on whatever is not up for grabs in our life? What would be on your Not Offered list—the 1.5 hours you need to make it to the gym? the fresh berries you bought to pack in your lunch? your willingness to listen, when somebody calls you to gripe and complain?

Being exact about what we will not give away can actually align us more with heartful giving. In fact, when we do not give away those objects, efforts, time, and so on, that are necessary for our own health and happiness, we can use them to become healthy and happy. And a healthy, happy person gives—for no reason other than their unencumbered heart and mind truly want to make offering.
Platform from which scraps are tossed to birds that fly above the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Nova Scotia
Love After Love, by Derek Walcott

The time will come 
when, with elation 
you will greet yourself arriving 
at your own door, in your own mirror 
and each will smile at the other's welcome, 

and say, sit here. Eat. 
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart 
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 

all your life, whom you ignored 
for another, who knows you by heart. 
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, 

the photographs, the desperate notes, 
peel your own image from the mirror. 
Sit. Feast on your life.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

An intimate tribute to my sweetheart

At the end, one didn't remember life as a whole but just a string of moments. -David Levien

I love how he thinks about money. We’d like to have a house on the beach someday, but unless it’s earned by doing what we love, we’ll be happy landlocked. I love that our money is spent on great coffee, books, music, and home and car maintenance instead of dinners out and new furniture. I love that he gives gifts to our mail carrier and to the woman who cuts his hair.

I love that neither of us wants children but that he would consider having a pig for a pet at some point, and that he gives real thought to my questions about what a pig might eat or whether a dog might pick a fight with a pig as I walk it down the street. I love that he checks the locks, the lights, the stove, and the faucets a second time before coming to bed.

I love that he says that he won’t stay up late, then I feel him snuggle in way past midnight. I love that he twitches and heats up when he’s dreaming. I love that he dreams. I love that he’s a sleepyhead in the morning and how it feels to slip out of his arms when I get out of bed to go downstairs for coffee and morning writing. I love putting a pillow beside him and tucking the blanket around his chin when I go. I love that he has the coffee beans ground and that all I have to do is add water and press the button.

I love that we pretend to punch and throw high kicks at each other. I love that he’d rather poke himself in the eye than watch the Super Bowl. I love that he reads the obituaries. I love that the TV stays off almost all the time at our house. I love that he gets excited over Apple products and puts songs that he thinks I’ll like on my iPod without asking.

I love how he enjoys working out with weights and eating ice cream and potato chips. I love that he enters all of his expenses on a spreadsheet and backs up his computer every day, sometimes more than once each day. I love that he reminds me to back up my computer so that my writing won’t be lost and asks me to email him a copy just to make sure. I love that we sometimes stay in our pajamas all day.

I love that he tells me when I poot on him during the night and how he tries not to laugh. I love that he sometimes cries when he hears about violence and war and people being mean. I love that he pretends to be my butler and bows before leaving the room. I love when he impersonates our dentist.

I love that he sent me and my sister for a spa day when she was having a rough time. I love that when I talk about a dream that I have for my life, he says, “You’ve got to do it, Sweets!” I love that we made a song in Garage Band called “Gonna Kill You.”

I love that when I challenged him to a race in the long corridor of a hotel, he took off at breakneck speed, leaving me laughing so hard that I had to stop. I love that he must have time alone every day, sometimes much time, sometimes for many days. I love that when I leave for days or weeks that he loves his life, and that we sing a song called Male Independence before I go (there’s a Female Independence version for when he leaves).

I love how we sleep. Sometimes I awake underneath his shoulder or breathing in his face. Sometimes I am holding his hand. I love that when I asked him if he’d be angry if I burned down the house by accident that he said Yes. I love that I do the grocery shopping and the cooking, and that he comes downstairs saying, “Mmmmmm, that smells amazing-amazing” and makes me say that I’m a food genius.

I love that we respect the feelings that we have and hold the space for all of them, even when it’s not comfortable. Once when I was going through a few weeks of depression, he didn’t try to fix it, figure out what was wrong, or cajole. He put an extra blanket on me and rubbed my head. When he is deep and dark and brooding, I trust that he can hold the tension and that it will pass when it’s supposed to. I scratch his head, rub his shoulders, and make him grits for breakfast. I love that we meditate together and that he sometimes says “Man, I’m messed up” when we’re finished.

I love that when I’m channeling the brusque speaking mannerisms of my grandmother who sometimes cooked squirrel for dinner, he tells me that my delivery is lacking. I love that he corrects the pronunciation of some of my words and lazy speech habits. I love that he knows more than I about American history and politics, despite his having been raised in another country. I love that he loves to try different foods, and that a bottle of booze will go unopened for months at our house while a carton of chocolate milk won’t last a week. 

I love that we’ve declared that if one of us ever wants out of the relationship that the other will help with packing. I love that I can’t imagine the sadness that we’d have were our relationship to end but that the sadness would be tinged with the joy that runs through all of our todays. I love that with our sad-joy we’d keep our hearts open to loving again.  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Practicing mindfulness in times of tragedy

Children were killed in their Connecticut classroom yesterday. There is no way to process this easily, if at all. But today, even if you don’t consider yourself a meditator, perhaps you will devote a period of time to holding the children and adults who were killed, and all those who are left bewildered and heartbroken, including yourself, in the natural open quality of your body, heart, mind, and breath. Here’s what I did during my morning meditation:
I sat down and closed my eyes. I let my mind say “those precious children” slowly, as though the words could ride out on one full exhalation to find more space and be liberated. Then I breathed normally for a few cycles, releasing the tension in my eyes, my jaw, my belly, and my chest. I noticed that I was holding a great deal of tension in the back of my tongue, as though I wanted to say something that I couldn’t speak and that language couldn’t hold. I released the tension in my tongue. It came back. I kept going anyway. “Those precious children....” Breathe.... Release....
Sitting, breathing makes sense when the world doesn't
In this way I connected with a small bit of my own pain, confusion, anger, and powerlessness, at least for a while. In the aftermath of tragedy it’s easier than usual to spin off into story lines about gun control, security in schools, good and evil, and so on. But spinning off can ultimately shut us down, leaving us feeling disconnected from our own hearts and, therefore, unable to fully connect on a heart level with others. 

This is not to say that we shouldn’t think about and address the many issues surrounding a tragedy. But maybe the moments that follow soon after a tragedy are better suited for just feeling. Right now I hear the caw-caw of crows in the trees and the rumble of far-off traffic, and my listening is intent. The world outside my window seems so normal and reliable, yet today it is hard to believe even in bird calls. So for now I sit with the simple breath of my body and listen to the world without, and to the world within.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

New Year’s resolutions: BAH!

As December ticks down, many of us reflect on the year that is ending. I’ve even made a list of contemplation points to help me do this (email me if you'd like to receive this reflection list: But while deliberate, compassionate reflection can be healthy and helpful, when it comes to making resolutions for the coming year, only one word comes to mind: BAH!
I feel this way because New Year’s resolutions often smack of reprimand—I'm fat: I will eat less chocolate and more broccoli. These almost always sound eerily similar to statements that "naughty" students are made to write again and again as punishment: I will be better. I will be better

Javier told me that when he entered 4th grade and was allowed to participate in his first Confession, that a checklist of childhood “sins" was supplied to him—sins such as "I was mean to my sister." It’s no wonder that on a little Valentine made for his parents are written the words “I will try to be a better boy.” The feelings of inadequacy that we carry around usually have early origins. Why establish resolutions as adults that stoke those feelings?
What if we made a resolution not to make resolutions—deciding not to impose on our bodies, our minds, and our hearts even more messages of not being good enough, worthy enough, and so on (women can pick up any magazine in the checkout line for those messages; men, I assume the same for you).

To this end I’ve created an anti-resolution: it goes by the acronym BAH. In 2013 when I’m feeling inadequate, anxious, angry, shut down, puffed up, and so on, the only thing that I resolve to do, for myself, is to practice BAH:
1. Breathe.
(Big, full breaths that soften the face, shoulders, and belly)
2. Ask So what?
("So what that I'm feeling _______ right now?")
3. Hold off on answering.
(I don't need to have an answer for why I'm feeling what I'm feeling. I can let feeling it be okay for now.)

I can imagine how the practice of BAH might play out: I’ll be grocery shopping (I love to grocery shop), and will have dark chocolate, coffee, fresh cilantro, and other goodies in my cart. I’ll get in line to pay. The line will be long, and I don’t mind long lines. That’s when it will happen: a new line will open and people behind me will dash over to it. 

Line-dashing is one of my hangups. It bugs me. A lot. It bugs me so much that I once lunged out of line and held my arms out to block the people who were dashing from the back to get to the new line (this was many years ago, but I can’t swear that I will never do it again). 

Have I told you that I once worked at Trader Joe’s? It was clear to me that I could work there when I saw that the training included how to open a new line: we were to walk to the person who had been waiting in line for the longest period of time and invite him or her to the newly opened line, helping them with their cart.
After my last day at TJ's. I got to keep the box cutter.
Can you hear how my thinking is totally loaded regarding this grocery line-dashing issue? I’ve written too much about it already but I’m still typing. That’s what happens when we talk, write, or think about a hangup (you’ll know your own hangups because they come with complete mental dialogues that you know by heart and play over and over and over, often at 2am).

While resolving to directly oppose our "flaws," such as deciding to “show more patience," makes intellectual sense, hangups don’t respond to intellect. Remembering that back in January we promised to be more patient will likely do little more than leave us feeling like failures when on August 17 the old desire arises to leap out of line to set the world back on its axis. We need something simple and real in the crazy moments. 

It’s interesting that one definition for resolve is “to break a complex notion into simpler ones.” We might consider “I will be more patient” as a complex notion, and BAH as steps of a simpler notion: to stand honestly in the moment. So in the line when Mr. or Ms. “Gotta Be First” makes the mad dash, the simplicity of BAH may just help restore my sanity. There will be no evaluation required as to whether or not I’m being patient, if I could be more patient, what being patient should look like, and so on. I will be left standing in linebreathing, feeling

Practicing BAH actually mirrors what occurs when we meditate: During meditation we 1) sit and breathe, then 2) when we realize that instead of being aware of our breath, we’ve been carried off into thought, we 3) return our awareness back to the breath. 

With BAH, similarly, we 1) Breathe, 2) Ask "So what that I'm feeling _____ right now?" (this helps us connect with what we’re feeling and makes space for the story line that’s going to come up anyway), then 3) Hold off on answering the So what? question (this lands us right back at simply breathing, accepting the moment and our feelings). If we decide to take action from this vantage point, the action will be a response instead of a reaction.

An interesting note: While writing this post, I learned that BAH is also a texting acronym for Bored As Hell. Sometimes our hangups are perpetuated because of the rush that we get from being hung up: we act on them with fervor, hoping that our actions will prove how right we are, how good we are, how smart we are, and so on. When we stop perpetuating our hangups, it's true—we may find ourselves Bored As Hell. (Feeling bored? Breathe. So what that you're feeling bored? No need to answer that. Just breathe.)

So if you decide to practice BAH when the SHTF, and you find yourself BAH...DWAI. AAMOF, I’d be surprised if that didn’t happen. THNQ!

Guest House, by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent 
as a guide from beyond.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

In the service of love: What brings you alive?

May this season's gift-giving include the most simple, ordinary acts of loving service that we can imagine.

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one,
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

      -John Lennon (1940-1980)