Archive | October, 2013

The Poetry of Pausing

29 Oct

This evening while talking with a colleague before our dinner arrived, I suddenly felt flooded with exhaustion. Jet lag and the demands of my current schedule had caught up with me. As our waiter set down our plates and stepped away, I turned to my companion and asked, “Do you mind if I say grace?” I never want to impose my religious beliefs on anyone but in that moment I just needed to pause and center. “Of course not,” she replied. So I closed my eyes and for a minute said, “Thank you.” As soon as I did I felt peace start to flow through my cells again.

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We live in a world that operates at an ever increasing pace. If we’re not careful, we can feel like we’re running a race every minute of the day.

Something about honing in on gratitude helps moderate imbalance. How could I have not stopped and expressed thanks for the beautiful meal we were served? How could I not have acknowledged the blessing when others are starving and here was bounty?

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Religion has become such a point of contention amongst people that we as a society no longer really say grace. But one doesn’t have to be of a particular religion to realize that some have abundance where others have none.

I had momentarily forgotten the poetry of pausing. The peace that passes beyond understanding. And how much saying, “Thank you,” out loud brings me back to matters of primary importance. May I never get so caught up in my own ridiculousness that I lose clarity of vision and forget to express my gratitude.

Embracing Complexity

25 Oct

When I was a young girl I read a book called The Mists of Avalon that described the island associated with mystical practices in the Arthurian legend. In the story I was struck by the fact that in order to get to Avalon, one had to part through a veil of mist that kept Avalon hidden from the day-to-day world. To lift the mist, a person had to have the ability to navigate between various physical and spiritual realms. Without a doubt this stirred my imagination about what might be on the other side of reality in the realm of the subliminal, supernatural and/or spiritual.

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Regardless of one’s beliefs (or lack of), there is so much about the Universe we don’t understand. What is happening in the galaxies or when cells divide or when a flower’s petals fall to the ground and new blossoms appear in their place? And how is one to make sense of all of this? These questions are not unusual when we witness death in our lives. Thus for me, one of the surprising blessings that came after my mom died was a budding awareness that life may very well extend beyond what I perceive in my day-to-day reality.

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I was not raised seeped in religion. I didn’t necessarily perceive heaven as a place one would travel to after death, yet I didn’t dismiss this idea either. What I sensed prior to my mom’s death was that multiple dimensions of spiritual reality co-exist with our day-to-day experience but that we are often grossly out of touch with these realms. When meditating or during highly lucid moments of concentration, I sometimes sensed a type of Avalon existing side by side our world. And if we but opened ourselves to this other sphere, the veil separating us would lift.

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When my mom died, it felt like that very veil was lifted for a few weeks. My perception of God seemed illuminated, which surprised me greatly as I was not looking for religious solace to heal my wounds. And yet despite this, the spiritual world felt deeply palpable to me. The peace and beauty I perceived intermittently while grieving my mom’s death felt like glimpses of Eden here on earth despite the fact that I had just lost my mother. Death seemed to heighten this spiritual awareness. Transformation took on vast implications.

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The world is vastly mysterious. When I focus my mind on this the petty worries of the here and now shrink in size as I conceptualize something far greater than me operating behind the scenes. It’s not that my life is meaningless in this larger schema. Rather, it’s a part of it and I don’t have to understand all the minute details.

I have come to believe that heaven and earth co-exist. While we are definitely not living in Eden for the world is fraught with pain and evil, fragments of the Kingdom are here now, being inaugurated. Where there is love, God exists. Each time I witness an act of human kindness, I see fragments of heaven.

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Years ago I had an art teacher from Europe who used to say in his thick accent, “If you analyze a painting, you kill it. You take its beauty and power away. Sometimes you have to just let it be.” The same could be said of life’s enormous complexity. As much as we want to nail down our understanding of it, this is impossible. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I don’t want a simple God and I don’t want concrete answers. Instead I want to ponder the beauty and mystery inherent in all life forms. I want to hear the echo of transformation, a refrain playing through the caverns of my soul like a saxophonist’s music bouncing off the subway walls.

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Prioritizing Our Moments

24 Oct

There is a poignant story in the Gospel about two sisters, Martha and Mary who invite Jesus to their home. While busy preparing food for Jesus and his disciples, Martha becomes frustrated with her sister Mary who is not helping in the kitchen. Instead, she sits at the Lord’s feet listening to him. Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But Jesus answers saying, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

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I find these words so piercing yet compassionate as Jesus basically tells Martha to slow down and breathe. How many of us need to hear this as a reminder that we’re losing perspective on what really matters? I remember a moment in my life when it seemed a similar message was telegraphed to me. I was working as a nanny for three boys in Marin California right across the Golden Gate Bridge. I had just graduated college and balanced caring for the boys with cooking and light housekeeping duties. One day the kids were just dying to show me something but I was caught up with dinner preparations. As they approached me asking if I could come look at whatever it was they were doing, my knee jerk response was, “Not now.” Yet as I looked into their eager faces so full of excitement to share with me, I checked myself. What was I doing that was so urgent? “Only one thing is necessary…”

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In a society that puts great value on work and productivity, it can be easy to lose sight of what really matters. We wear our busy schedules like badges of honor and almost seem to boast when we don’t have time to eat lunch or spend time with loved ones. But for those of us who have experienced great loss, part of the healing process is to realize that these things matter. A child looking up expectantly at us, an animal longing to be petted, or a flower begging to be admired are all things that can bring us great joy, if we take the time to embrace what is right in front of us.

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Be Here Now

23 Oct

One of the greatest impediments to connection is not being in the moment. To be intimate with our life experience, we have to be present. Yet in today’s hectic world, stress and concern over the past and future can pull us away from the here and now leaving us disembodied and checked out on some level.

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When my best friend’s baby, Nils was learning to eat, each day we slowly introduced him to different solid foods. One day, we put a few raspberries on his high chair tray for him to consume. As he crammed a raspberry into his mouth with his little fingers, a smile suddenly came over his face as he experienced the taste for the first time in his life. He gave us a huge grin as if to say, “Thanks, guys,” and then started to clap his hands. For weeks, he clapped every time he ate a raspberry or a strawberry. When eating these fruits, his ecstasy was palpable.

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This experience had a profound impact on me. Nils, having just come into the world didn’t have any notions about how to behave other than to just be. One could make the argument that the childlike freedom Nils experienced would eventually erode once he grew older and began to face responsibilities. And indeed, as we mature, more and more things can rob of us the present. The challenge then is to live fully regardless of the demands and stresses pulling on our energies.

Being in the moment opens us up to a variety of emotions including joy. I noticed this when I was taking care of Nils. Whether observing his delight upon seeing a bird or a flower, or noting the smile on his face when I walked into his room to pick him up from his crib after taking a nap, Nil’s exuberance moved me deeply. I was also struck by the pleasant rhythm of existence we fell into whenever I babysat for him. I’d arrive and we’d have breakfast. Then I’d sit on the couch and read while he sat on the floor and each day made new discoveries; how to grasp an object; how to roll over, how to make a sound. After about an hour of that, we’d get out the stroller and go for a walk. Then it would be about time for lunch. After lunch, he’d fall asleep in my arms as I rocked him to sleep. When I spent time with him, my worries and struggles seemed to melt away as he taught me how to focus on the here and now.

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Sacred Ground

17 Oct

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So often sacred ground is thought of as somewhere geographically and spiritually extraordinary. And indeed, I have been to some of those places where a vortex of energy seems to exude dimensions of heaven here on earth.

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And yet sacred ground can be found in ordinary places as well. Our kitchens, our writing desks, our workplace.

Lately I’ve been thinking I’m on sacred ground most when I’m engaged in work I truly love. When heaven and earth seem to meet in one single point in time that suddenly transcends all notions of physical space and geography. I can think of nothing better than kicking off my shoes and realizing I am here, where the shore meets the sand and God graces us.

Consulting the Oracle: On Signs, Symbols and Dreams

12 Oct

Throughout time, humans have turned to signs, symbols and dreams for guidance. We study our dreams and synchronistic factors trying to determine if there is some hidden underlying meaning in it all. “Is this a coincidence?” we ask ourselves, “or is it a sign from God or the Universe telling me what to do or what is to unfold?” How then do we shuffle through the information we receive in various forms and note whether it is a legitimate form of guidance or hogwash?

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As someone who has been attuned to extra-sensory phenomenon all my life, these are questions I ask daily. In fact, if there were a prize for most prophetic and bizarre dreams, I’d be the recipient. My subconscious consults the oracle all night while I just want a few zzzzz’s. What I have discovered is that everything in our lives can be looked at as information, some of it useful and accurate and some of it not. But the only way I can sift through it is to try and empty myself of any preconceived judgments, wishes, delusions and fantasies I might have. Otherwise, what I perceive as guidance doesn’t reflect true wisdom. Instead, it’s just me projecting my own internal agenda without filtering out any distorted thoughts or maintaining integrity.

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Next, if I really want to know if something is a form of guidance or not, I sit quietly in meditation and ask God to reveal some form of confirmation. But this requires a complete surrender to the outcome or answer instead of me manipulating my thoughts to think something higher is indeed guiding me.

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I am a firm believer in prayer. When I need guidance in my life, I ask for it. I then wait for clarity, and eventually, it comes. But clarity and guidance can be perceived through other means as well, for not all of us are inclined towards the spiritual. For instance, often what we take to be “signs” come as a result of paying attention. Likewise, a good night’s sleep can do wonders for our discernment process. And during rest the subconscious often solves answers to various problems.

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In all of this, it is important to stay open to surprises. Often we are so certain that we know something but then suddenly perceive a different impulse or answer. When this occurs, it can be hard to change gears, particularly if the guidance we perceive seems strange, or counter to our rational thoughts. Yet I have learned that we are wise to consider the new information because sometimes we discover that the real solution to our problems comes from sources we never would have imagined. And this is all part of the great mystery and beauty of transformation.

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Seal Skin, Soul Skin

7 Oct

Surfing early this morning after a three week hiatus, I thought I’d re-post, “Seal Skin, Soul Skin” from April, 2012 for we all need to periodically return to the sea.

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One of my favorite mythological figures is the Selkie found in Irish and Scottish folklore. Selkies are seals who can shed their skins and become human. If they put their seal pelt back on, it allows them to return to water. Typically in the story someone steals the female Selkie’s coat which means she can never return to sea. Sometimes it is her lover. In other versions, it is her child. Yet as soon as she is able to retrieve her pelt she returns to the sea.

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I find the myth haunting and sad yet love Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ psychoanalytic analysis of it in her book “Women Who Run with the Wolves.” She discusses the myth as a lesson to all of us to never lose contact with what our soul most needs. In the case of the Selkie, the Selkie most longs for the sea. Estes talks about the myth as a reminder of all the things that can rob us from what connects us to our innermost nature and needs. In the story, the thief is reflected in the character of a lover or child but anything in life can chip away at our soul’s needs: work demands, the chaos of modern life, thinking we don’t deserve to take care of ourselves, etc.

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I used to give this story to women in my therapy practice many of whom had very loving husbands and children but who were stressed out and at risk of losing themselves. Their families weren’t maliciously stealing what was most precious and vital to them; in some ways their families were giving things most precious and vital. However, the reality is relationships (even the very best ones) require us to lose parts of ourselves at times. We invest, give, merge and devote our lives to the other. And this is a good thing; not bad. But we must also have that time at sea in order to stay balanced and true to ourselves.

The best scenario of the Selkie mythology is when she can live both on land and at sea with no one stealing her pelt (or she misplacing it). And as I literarily swam back into the sea today after a hiatus on land, I realize we all have a seal skin – a soul skin – that must be kept in a special place. Men and women alike need their seal skin/soul skin. We must protect it and can’t forget where we have placed it for the sea is a heavenly place.

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Listening to the Body…

4 Oct

I’m a huge fan of acupuncture and have been receiving it for years. But it’s not enough for me to get needles stuck in me that make me feel like I’m zoning out on Mars. I also need to know a little about how those needles are manipulating my chi. So I am always picking my lovely acupuncturist’s brain to explain things to me at a lay person’s level.

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This week’s lesson centered on the function of the General, for in Chinese medicine various roles are attributed to our body organs. And unlike in Western culture, where the mind is thought of as Lord of everything, in the Chinese system the heart reigns supreme. Referred to as the Emperor, everybody else is subservient to the heart. This is my kind of kingdom…

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Anyway, the General oversees the liver and is in charge of decision making. However, these decisions are not made rationally in the same manner that the brain functions. Instead, the liver operates more on intuition or “gut” instinct. Once the liver knows the order, it then passes this command on to the gall bladder who is in charge of operations, or the execution of that order. Thus, if a decision is made to do something specific, the gall bladder then stimulates the energy required to put that activity into motion.

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Because few of us in Western society trust our instincts and gut decisions, I asked my acupuncturist what happens when we question the logic of the General. “Then that’s anarchy,” he replied with a smile. “This wrecks havoc on the system.” (i.e. the body and mind become at war with one another).

“It takes courage to follow the General,” my acupuncturist said. “That is why when we say he or she had the ‘gall’ to do something, we mean courage is entailed.”

Personally, I find all of this fascinating and have come to learn over the years that the body has its own unique wisdom. Let’s make sure we allow it to have a voice in our primary decisions for it typically knows exactly what we need.

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The Ebb and Flow of Desire

3 Oct

When you look at the ocean when it is calm, sometimes it takes awhile for a wave to build but slowly it gains momentum and eventually swells, breaks and crashes to shore. Desire is similar. It crests and falls according to its own innate rhythms. The more we track these cycles of energy the better able we are to gauge our own transformation patterns.

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As I currently mourn the deaths of my two beloved cats, Rumi and Hafiz, any sense of desire for a new pet feels dormant. It is like that ocean wave long before you can see it on the horizon. My desire feels flattened out, almost non-existent. And yet I know at some point, not anytime soon but eventually, the longing to bond with another of God’s creatures will build in my heart again. When it reaches its apex, even if it’s years from now, I’ll be in the cycle all over again, driving to Pet-co picking up the weekly supply of food and litter. But desire can’t be pushed pre-maturely. Nor can it be manipulated. It has to build in its own organic way swelling with the tides at its own pace.

When we’re in significant transformation cycles, it’s important that we respect this rhythm and take our related cues from the patterns of our desires. We would no more expect flowers to bloom in winter than we would anticipate stagnation in summer or fall at the height of nature’s ripening and harvest. We lean into transformation when we understand this. And yet in our current world this is so often counter to the messages we receive. We’re always told to get back on the horse when we’ve fallen off but perhaps both the horse and the rider need a little rest before having the energy and impulse to gallop again.

Speaking of resting, years ago I read a novel where the lead character described her relationship with her bed as her lover. She was so exhausted that she only longed for her pillow and the peace that accompanies sleep. I remember being amused by her description yet the reality is that it is hard to long for anything but the mattress or couch when we are physically fatigued. In fact, even sexual desire, the most basic of human drives will wane when exhausted. The infamous, “Not tonight honey, I’ve got a headache,” is a common refrain because quite frankly, many couples are truly exhausted and therefore “not in the mood” for connection.

In farming there is the tradition of letting fields lie fallow so the soil can replenish itself before planting crops again. For those of us running on empty, burnt out from work and responsibilities that have left us feeling bone tired, we need periods of inactivity. Without pause, it is difficult to get in touch with our innate impulses, particularly when our lives are moving at such a fast pace we can barely keep up. Transformation then becomes almost impossible.

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Rest therefore is vital. It is the small flame that will eventually spark into the warmth and strength of desire. If you’ve ever built a fire, you know that the strike of the match doesn’t bring instant results. On the contrary, the fire builds as it is patiently and lovingly fed with kindling and newspapers. As we sit and watch it grow in intensity, we feel its warmth and the sensual pleasure and comfort it brings. Then we start to feel joy, inspiration and motivation return where it might have been nearly extinguished. In this process, we have invited desire back into our lives.

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Tolerating Pleasure

2 Oct

It always saddens me when I hear people who while eating a delicious cookie say, “I’m so bad. I shouldn’t be eating this.” I mean, if you’re going to eat a cookie, you might as well enjoy it. But what I’ve discovered is that people in general struggle with tolerating pleasure. It doesn’t matter what the gratification relates to, many of us are not comfortable with feeling good in some area of our lives.

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As I write a chapter on the subject of desire, I reflect on the underlying issues related to sustaining pleasure and happiness. I am not alone in my observations that our culture, despite all its feel good impulses, actually struggles with embodiment and contentment. In her book Daring Greatly, sociologist Brene Brown writes that through all her research she has come to believe that joy is the most difficult emotion to feel (p.118). She attributes this to the fact that over our life span we become acquainted with all the things that can go wrong, plus we live in a society that puts much focus on catastrophe. Therefore, feeling joy requires a high degree of vulnerability. She states, “Once we make the connection between vulnerability and joy, the answer is pretty straightforward: We’re trying to beat vulnerability to the punch. We don’t want to be blindsided by hurt. We don’t want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment” (p.121).

This profound fear of disaster can single handedly keep us from desiring anything. Why fall in love if someone can betray or reject us? Why apply for that great job when we’ll only be crushed if we don’t get the promotion? And why eat that cookie if it adds extra calories? This type of mentality can stop the momentum of joy and transformation in our lives like a train stuck in its tracks. And yet it’s tremendously common for reasons far too vast to unpack in a blog post.

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I am not implying that life is one big hedonistic rush or that we can always feel good all the time. After all, too much candy can make us sick and misdirected desire can cause tremendous heartache. But believing that we are worthy of happiness and that life is good fundamentally changes the course of lives. Our heart’s yearnings can serve as a GPS system. Finding ways to fulfill these desires can help propel us through challenging times and shed light on our souls’ deeper journeys. When we experience a modicum of joy we began to transcend the profound struggle inherent in existence and the benefit of this is not simply self-serving. On the contrary, when we are tuned into desire and cultivate it in positive constructive ways, we contribute to the world through our enthusiasm and joy and access our talents and passion for the benefit of others.