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Embracing the Mystery

20 Dec

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I’m going to be in Venice for New Years. Not Venice, California. Venice, Italy.

When a friend-of-a-friend invited me to stay at her Venice apartment this winter, I was reminded to not turn away the gift horse. As Sheryl Sandburg wrote in her book, Lean In, “When you’re offered a space on a rocket ship, you don’t turn it down.” You jump in no matter what is going on in your life, no matter how inconvenient. The dance doesn’t alway come around again.

Going to Venice is not convenient. It’s sandwiched in-between the holidays, a writing deadline, and a teaching trip in Memphis immediately afterwards. I’ve also been gone for the last two weeks teaching. But when is boarding a rocket ship ever convenient?  You either say, “Carpe Diem!” and do it or you stay safe right where you are, never fully becoming who you meant to become.

I like order and control, particularly as the old year transitions into the new. I like to mastermind my goals and get my ducks in a row. I work on my taxes and await the New Year with quiet respect. I don’t party it up with horns, streamers, and confetti.

In Venice the locals drink champagne in St. Mark’s square. I’ll work on my tip sheet for the publisher while downing a beautiful cappuccino and I’ll map out my goals walking along the canals. But then I’ll drink champagne too, gesticulating like the Italians as we embrace the wild beauty of the night.

On the way out, I’ll pass through NYC where I’ll have an apartment to stay on 5th Ave. near the Met and the Guggenheim thanks to a friend’s sister who is a film producer. They are leaving museum passes on the counter and instructions regarding my stay with the maid. There will be two Parisians there too. Do not turn away the gift horse.

My expenses are maxed out at present but the trip was paid for almost entirely by miles. Do not turn away the gift horse.

I will be tired and jet lagged and discombobulated teaching so soon after it all but this is life. Instead of trying to capture, control, or manipulate the Mystery, we must learn to bow to it. When she beckons, we follow. We do not know where we are going. All we can see is the magic and mist and romance of it all.

*Photo credit – Laura Sousounis

Attitudes of Gratitude

22 Nov

This morning, I tried hard NOT to flail my arms out in African dance class as I had surgery last month and don’t care to rip stitches out prematurely. But how can one not feel joy when you hear a drum beat? Drums are akin to our hearts. They are the pulse of life itself – lub dub, lub dub. Years ago when music therapists and myself would bring drums into groups at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, even acute stage Alzheimer’s patients would tap a hand or a foot, despite being practically comatose and near death’s door.

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I have the privilege of taking African dance with a magnificent teacher. I studied African dance fairly extensively in college, so it’s part of my blood. However, the reason I love my teacher is because she understands dance as a form of worship. She practically radiates something higher than herself.

Dance is a way to express joy and praise; a way to mourn and rage.

I dance so I don’t forget I have a body that is often far superior to my mind. The body has its own knowledge and its own divinity. As Whitman wrote, “I sing the body electric!” and as Hafiz waxed eloquent:

Every child has known God, Not the God of names, Not the God of don’ts, Not the God who ever does anything weird, But the God who only knows four words and keeps repeating them, saying: “Come dance with Me.” Come dance.

This is the week of giving thanks. Dance reminds me of the vitality inherent in gratitude. Often, thanks is pretty basic: I slept well last night. This coffee tastes terrific. Friends make me smile. Strangers can be kind. Let me give you a hug. The dog wagged his tail. I’m doing what I love. It rained in LA. Sunday is football. People still care.

Amen.

 

 

Battle Scars

3 Nov

I  had surgery on Halloween. Nothing like being told that the risks of surgery include that 1) you could never wake up and 2) you could sustain nerve damage. Talk about fright.

My surgery was preventative and minor. Thankfully, I am extremely healthy and well and for that I am most grateful. But to put your hands in the hands of another human being is probably one of the most terrifying things you can do. You have to give up control and you have to TRUST. The surgeon said to me, “I get it. I don’t ever want to lie on that table.” But they wheeled me in anyway.

A friend asked if I got to take home the golf-ball-sized clump of cells they removed. “Put it in a jar as a souvenir,”he suggested.

No, thank you, although they did put it on ice.

They called me yesterday and it’s benign.

I got what a wanted.

But I also got more than good news. I was reminded of people’s kindness and the preciousness of life. Nothing should ever be taken for granted for we simply don’t know how long we have on this planet. We struggle and have our issues and conflicts but at the end of the day, love and joy are all that really matter.

I was also reminded that when we go through experiences we incur battle scars. Thankfully, this one is going to heal very nicely.

Every thought and event of our lives becomes held in the body – for good and for bad – so removing actual tissue triggers contemplation.

“What’s being removed? What is healthy and what is pathological? Were there little pockets of negativity lodged in that lump that needed excision? What do our bodies carry in their consciousness? What do our bodies and souls actually need to thrive and transform?”

I recall a woman I once worked with who had had a mastectomy. She was experiencing phantom limb, plus an enormous amount of grief. To help express and understand her feelings of loss, I had her dialogue with her missing breast and actually give the breast a voice. I wanted to hear what it was thinking and feeling.

That breast held a lifetime of memories for her – sexual pleasure, breast feeding, and her beauty and identity as a woman. She felt lost without it but once the breast’s consciousness was respected and acknowledged, her symptoms abated.

Perhaps, at Halloween, we dress up in scary costumes to remember the mess that comes with being in a human body and living out the human experience. Yet El Dia de los Muertos is also a day to remember and honor the spiritual journey of souls.

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Sobriety of Mind

6 Sep

It’s astonishing how obsessed we can become with our own thoughts. It’s an addiction not really discussed but we’re all susceptible to it. Our thoughts can take us down quite literally. I have seen in it myself and I have seen it in others. Sobriety of mind is a noble undertaking.

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Ultimately, recovery is a process. We can never completely free ourselves of our thoughts. It’s the nature of the mind to look for trouble. To cling and grasp, catastrophize, and create drama.

We can gain some degree of sobriety though. We can learn to tame our minds. We can alter the way our perceptions tyrannize. And we can practice serenity.

I weary though of talking heads who say we create our reality and that everything external is a reflection of our internal perceptions. To a degree that is true but tell that to the woman diagnosed with cancer. You’re basically telling her that her diagnosis is all her fault. Tell that to the little boy sitting stunned in blood caught in the crossfire of war whose photo went viral. It’s a cop out to say something like that as it reduces life’s crap and evil to simplicity and allows us to abdicate any responsibility for helping others in situations far less fortunate than our own.

If I get hit by a bus, the reality is that it is going to hurt. I am going to have to deal with the aftermath of the accident. While I have some measure of control regarding how I deal with that reality, it’s still going to have to be dealt with. If my legs get broken, they’ll have to be fixed. Pain is a part of life. Our minds will react to circumstances and stimuli.

So where is the line between addiction and sobriety? When do our thoughts make us spin out of control into complete excess? And what do we do about it?

It’s not as simple as mind over matter or willing ourselves out of our feelings. Emotions are crucial because they give us information that something is wrong. As the brilliant Sufi poet, Hafiz wrote, “The Heart is right to cry even when the smallest drop of light, of love, is taken away.” Quite frankly, it’s not the tears that are an issue. That is just energy releasing that ultimately frees us. When we move the energy out we break long held karmic patterns of hurt the yogis refer to as samskaras. Instead it’s our thoughts that can keep us stuck, prisoners in our heads.

When we cling to what happened or what could happen and then dissect every angle of something completely beyond our control, we are simply grasping for control. And that is absurd.

We want perfection out of life. We want everyone to like us, for there never to be a mishap, and to micromanage ourselves and others. This will never be attainable yet the mind will keep questing for it. Why we build an alter to worship at it, I will never understand.

There is no constancy, as much as we long for it. There is our breath and this moment. That is it. The more we can move from one moment to the next without clinging or rejecting, then we achieve a degree of sobriety.

It’s okay to have pleasure. It’s okay to say, “F— it to worry and pain.” The pain and the worry will always be there because we are masters at it. We can ruin even the happiest of moments with obsessions but we don’t have to live with drama 24/7. For a bit, we can let go. We can enjoy ourselves.

The Beauty of Boredom

16 Aug

Boredom isn’t really in my repertoire. Raised an only child, I learned to entertain myself at an early age and never really felt bored. I came to appreciate that there is plenty to do in life.

Yet every now and then, particularly when I’m super pooped like I am right now, I have to spend a day doing almost nothing. I always find this somewhat frustrating. I mean what could be more boring than just sitting on the couch or lying in bed when it’s sweltering hot both inside and outside? Just being is not terribly exciting, thought provoking, stimulating, or pleasurable. Nonetheless, I sometimes work myself into such a frenzy of career demands that the exhaustion comes with the territory.

I dislike these days yet I know there is beauty in boredom. Watching the hours tick away, not even reading or watching t.v., I find myself in a weird free fall. Just sitting here on the couch in the last hour I have noticed the sky change from pink to violet and now I see the moon almost full. I have painted two pictures and emptied my mind of weeks of teaching and travel. I have felt spaced out and my head has buzzed with a weird tingling vibration.

And I know this is absolutely vital to my physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

The other day I was so happy to be home I bought three bouquets of flowers for different rooms in my house. Today, I noticed each arrangement yield more to its blossoms. When we’re bored, we start to pay attention.

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Tomorrow is another day. The to-do list never ending. The I-want-to-do-list even longer.

Yet today I had moments of boredom and in those pockets of empty space, I heard the still small voice that beckons me. As always, I doubt where it will lead me, yet know I must find the courage to follow it. Without the down time, I wouldn’t have paid attention to its presence.

The Most Monogamous Relationship You’ll Ever Have…

6 Aug

“The most monogamous relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself,” my yoga teacher said to me when I asked her the yogi take on intimacy. After all, the word yoga means union.

How utterly boring I thought.

“The concept of romance just doesn’t exist in yoga,” she persisted.

Even more dismaying.

You learn to stay loyal to your heart.

In yogic philosophy, union stems from integration of the body, mind and spirit. Anything else is an illusion and takes one further from the desired goal of true connection with self and others.

Yet union is always available.

Sigh.

The task of staying present with compassion is the hardest work on the planet.

Yet this is the true invitation to intimacy.

And it is indeed an art form and a practice.

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What’s On The Other Side?

27 May

My father was a huge Steinbeck fan. When I was as young as five years old I was subjected to listening to entire passages read from the author’s novels. Wanting to watch cartoons or to read myself on a Saturday morning, I’d instead be interrupted by Dad as he puffed on a cigarette, sipped Coca-Cola and played James Taylor on the turn table.

One passage from the “Red Pony” perplexed me because my dad said it was beautiful and I didn’t understand why. Beauty to me had to do with pretty dresses I saw in fashion magazines. In it a boy asks his father what is on the other side of the mountains. “More mountains, I guess. Why?” “And on the other side of them?” “More mountains, why?” “More mountains on and on?” The dialogue goes back and forth with the young boy asking if anyone knows what is in-between the mountains. “Oh, a few people do, I guess. But there’s nothing there to get. And not much water. Just rocks and cliffs and greasewood. Why?” “It would be good to go.” “What for? There’s nothing there.”

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I always think of this passage when I hike. I find myself asking, “What’s on the other side?” as I move up and down the trails.

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It is good to go even when there is nothing to “get.” In fact, it is best to go with no intention of getting at all.

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I love the little boy’s inquisitiveness and insistence. I also love the strength and majesty of the mountains.

I look up and they are always there. They have not moved. They shape the confines of my life the same way a good parent’s presence stands gently in the backdrop or the way Spirit gently graces one’s experiences.

We humans are always looking outward curious about our surroundings – where we came from, where we are, and where we’re headed. I take to the hills to guide me through my journey the same way I grab a board to propel me through water’s motion, time, and space. What’s on the other side and in-between is the Mystery – so much grander and bigger than us and so much more miraculous.

 

My T.V. Little Girl: On Motherhood and Mother’s Day

13 May

There is nothing more masochistic than going to church on Mother’s Day, yet I do it every year. I do it to remember that I had a mother and that we all came from the womb of a mother. I do it to pay tribute to holidays that celebrate family life and community. I do it so that my heart doesn’t calcify. I do it to stay connected to a mother who loved me despite the tragic way her life ended.

It’s never a fun day really. No matter how much I think that enough time has passed, the tears start halfway before I get to church. It’s one of the few days I think about my mom’s suicide yet it’s important to remember it. I go into the sancturay wearing sunglasses and sit at the back of the church by myself. Although I am alone, I know something Higher sits there with me, as it did the day the police called asking if I could identify a body. I had waited five days for that call after receiving a suicide note in the mail.

At church someone always puts a foot in the mounth. Someone always wishes me happy mother’s day and then retracts it when he or she discovers I’m not one.  And that’s okay. I’m used to it. I’m there anyway because I want the connection to humanity. I want to remember when I visited church with my mother on Mother’s Day and to focus on the fact that motherhood is a creative force vital within all of us. I also feel enormous gratitude to the myriad number of women who have mothered me over the years.

Recently I had the opportunity to play a mom in a t.v. commercial. Although I’ve “mothered”  many as a therapist, teacher and nanny, I’ve never played the role or had the title. Yet in the commercial, I am the MOMMY. How I love that word. All the real life mommies were off set, while this MOMMY was on camera. It was the most surreal moment because for a brief moment in time, I lived a dream I’d always had. For the morning, I hosted a birthday party complete with balloons, screaming kids, and a daughter certain her parents were aliens. It was wonderful.

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Life is wondrous. But the imagination even more so because it allows us to live many realities. I also had another little girl on screen recently who was equally delightful.

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I go to church on Mother’s Day to remember my mother and to remember that I am still a daughter who loved being a mommy when I played pretend.

 

 

Just Say No!

17 Apr

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When I was in middle school and high school I was expected to get up at 5:30 a.m. to water the plants and take care of our animals before going to school at 8:00 a.m. This was in Southern California where delicate potted plants needed to be watered in both the morning and late afternoon. Much of our shrubbery had automatic drip and spray sprinklers but the plants that didn’t would easily die within a few days without consistent care, particularly the fragile, moisture loving flowers such as orchids and fuschias. These varieties are tropical in nature and not meant for an arid dry climate.

This was also the era of Nancy Reagan’s, “Just say no!” campaign to help young people not sucuumb to drug use. I think of that phrase now. As direct as Nike’s, “Just do it!”, “Just say no!” is a great motto, if you can adhere to it.

I bring this up because these days many of us the minute we wake up log onto the computer or our phones to check text messages and emails. There is little division anymore between work and private life. It’s all mushed into one undifferintiated mass.

I’d rather water plants at 5:30 a.m. and walk and brush two magnificent large dogs like I did when I was young than look at a screen the minute I open my eyes. It’s a more humane way to wake up. It’s more embodied; more centered; more intimate. It’s a semi- equivalent of a toddler jumping on your bed or a lover kissing one awake. When outdoors at 5:30 a.m., you see the sunrise and the way the colors shift with an ever increasing degree of light. Even if engaged in a type of physical labor, there is something balanced in it because it involves the body fully vs. sitting sedentary at a screen.

I was raised with a Midwestern, farm mentality work ethnic and that ethic is in my DNA. However, that ethic can be brutal when it’s not mixed in with nature and natural rhythms and interpersonal relationships.

Sometimes we just have to say no to work and to technology and to get into our bodies and into nature. This actually feeds productivity because relaxation restores the mind and soul. It opens new vistas. As all farmers know, sometimes you have to let the fields lie fallow in order to create a better yield. If you demand the goose that lays a gold egg each day to produce more, she can stop producing all together.

Creativity always demands a tension between inner/outer, surrender/will, rest/activity. There is day and night, light and dark, life and death, order and chaos. There is a reason on the 7th day, the Lord took a break. We must take a moment to see, “That it was good.” Otherwise, we miss the show all together.

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Practice Creates Possibilities

15 Apr

As both an artist and psychotherapist, I have long been interested in the interplay between process and product. While we strive to create a consummate product, so much of life is about the process itself. My personal belief is that honoring and surrendering to the process creates the best outcome.

Is there such a thing as perfect? And do we even want it? The quest for perfection can kill freedom, spontanity, and creativity. Great work often comes from exploratory failures. My acting teacher always says, “It’s your job to throw up. The editor will clean it up.” In essence, just let yourself be open to the flow happening – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

My yoga teacher said a similar thing last night. “There is no perfect in yoga. That’s why we call it a practice. And the minute you think you have “it”, the moment will be gone. Then you open again to the not knowing, the fumbling, the tension, and the pushing. Then you find “it” again but for a moment. The beauty though is that the practice creates possibilities. Without a practice, everything shrinks. There are few possibilities.”

This comment really struck me because there are certain things I’ve been “practicng” all my life, one of which includes acting. Now all that practice is creating possibility. I wrote, produced, and starred in a short film and just acted in my first commercial. The film is being submitted to festivals and I am auditioning regularly for new projects. Step-by-step, or as Anne Lamott would say, “bird-by-bird.” Practice creates possibilities.

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For those of you wondering about the break in these e-newsletters and my blog, I moved to Los Angeles in February and have been getting settled here while placing focus on acting and film production. In addition, I have continued teaching Mental Health First Aid instructor trainings and have maintained my private practice. I also set a firm intention to finally get my book published by 2017.

Yet I am reminded over and over again that we need to practice “being” in the midst of the doing and that ironically when we engage in that “practice” of rest and relaxation, many opportunities emerge from the resulting spaciousness. It’s a constant tension between being and doing, process and product, will and surrender. And it is our breath and spirit that sustains us through these explorations. It is always the journey that gets us to the eventual destination. Namaste.