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.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Do No Harm--to yourself

Doing no harm would require us to refrain from acting upon anything or anyone in a way that causes injury. What an amazing world that would be: No wars. No bullying. The earth experiencing renewal and healing. But what if we began the practice of not harming by simply not causing harm to ourselves—by not engaging in even the subtle ways that we injure our own mind, body, and heart? 

What if instead of working too many hours, rushing around with too many things on our to do list, or overextending ourselves to others while ignoring our own needs, we practiced slowing down and getting enough sleep? What changes would take place in our relationships, in our workplaces, and in our homes if we said No more to foods that keep us bloated and dull, and Yes to drinking enough water to hydrate the trillions of cells depending on us? 
Speeding to get to meditation: Cape Breton, NS
How would the world change if we spent as much time disentangling ourselves from negative self-talk as we do believing it? What if we stopped believing that there’s not enough time to take a walk, a nap, a break, a day off, and started embracing whatever moves us closer and closer to who we really are? 

I suspect that doing no harm to ourselves would leave us more tender—more able to be touched. It’s when I’m rested and clear-headed that I notice leaves rustling and clouds moving and the suffering of others. And I care—I care more about things and people when I’m not wrapped up in my own harmful suffering. 
Cloud Play: Ligmincha Institute, Shipman, VA
Chögyam Trungpa once said, When the world touches you, let it. Sometimes we’re just too overwhelmed by the world to be touched by it. Doing no harm to ourselves can lay the foundation for letting ourselves be touched. From there, we can do even more than not harm others; we can love them. 

Can I be mindful and loving of whatever arises.
If I can’t be loving in this moment, can I be kind.
If I can’t be kind, can I be nonjudgmental.
If I can’t be nonjudgmental, can I not cause harm. 
And, if I cannot not cause harm, can I cause the least amount of harm possible.
-excerpt from writing by Larry Yang

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Generosity as a practice

I'm alive today because of the generosity of others; so are you. Someone had to feed us and keep us safe or we wouldn't have survived. What we have today is also because of the generosity of others—the generosity of ideas, time spent planning and creating, tilling the earth, and so on.
Lineage of generosity (my mother, far right in back, and her mother), 1950
Generosity is the first of 6 paramitas. The word paramita means “gone to the other shore.” We might think of the paramitas (generosity, discipline, patience, enthusiasm, meditation, and unconditional wisdom) as qualities that open up the shut down parts of ourselves—so that we might move from the shore of where we are to the shore of more compassionate living. To make that trip, we must leave firm ground and become more fluid. 

Rumi writes about generosity in his tale of a man begging for a crust of bread at someone’s home, and the homeowner replying, What do you think this is, a bakery? The beggar then asks for some gristle. No butchershop here, says the man. Finally the beggar asks for at least a sip of water, and the man tells him, This is not a well. At this point the beggar runs into the house and squats to defecate. Whoa! yells the man. What do you think you’re doing? The beggar explains that since the space seems vacant and unused, that it could use a little fertilizer. 

Since it’s often difficult to see our own vacant, unused potential, I sometimes choose to practice something for a period of time—to become curious about it and how it is playing out in my life. I am currently practicing generosity. But instead of focusing on generosity as it relates to possessions, I’m noticing how generous I am with these 4 intangibles:

It feels wonderful to receive authentic praise, and I want to be generous with my praise of others. I’m noticing when it’s easy to offer praise, and when it would feel disingenuous or trite. When I feel as though I'm holding back praise that is warranted, I'm asking myself why: Am I jealous? afraid to show tenderness? Or is something else causing me to hold back? I notice also when I am praising out of guilt or a desire to be accepted or liked—or simply to fill up silence. Part of the practice is also being specific with praise. There are studies that point to how generic praise (Great job, Way to go, and so on) can actually inhibit motivation in children, whereas specific praise (You always do a great job of putting your dirty clothes in the hamper) is motivating. I wonder if that holds true with adults. I'm checking it out.

I'm also working on being specific with expressions of gratitude: Thank you for always being on time. I appreciate how you tuck the sheets in extra tight on the bed. I feel welcome when you smile at me. Expressions such as Thanks for all you do aren’t wrong, of course, but I’m trying to offer more personalized expressions of gratitude—the stuff we might remember for a long time.

I am currently on retreat in Canada. I arrived on a Friday; my luggage showed up 4 days later. I got to the abbey late at night, ready for a good night’s sleep, when I learned that I would be living offsite in a cabin with 4 other women. The prime spaces were already claimed, with personal belongings in place. It was interesting to watch my mind turn flips as I considered how to mark my territory without physical belongings. I’m still working on ways to loosen up in my sharing of physical space, especially when space is at a premium.
Christmas dinner at the abbey: Not much room. A lot of space.
Silence is a formal practice here much of the time, but even when it’s not, I’m focusing on letting my generosity with praise, gratitude, and space speak louder than my conversational speech. It usually doesn't require many, if any, words to share in these ways, which leaves me in silence a lot. I am certainly listening a lot more than usual, and trying to speak words that promote peace and love.

With That Moon Language, by Hafiz

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud;
otherwise someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye
that is always saying,
with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye in this world is dying to hear.