the dream

Every so often, I’ll have a dream that I don’t forget, that stays fixed and accessible. One I return to, experiencing the dream with all of its intensity. Where do these dreams originate, I wonder? I think they come from some wise place deep within, from the cave of the heart. Some might call it the Holy Spirit, the Holy of Holies, the Witness, the Friend, the inner sage…I could go on, but you get my drift. No ordinary dream.

In this dream, I’m walking down a familiar hallway with doors down its length. I look through the open door of each room and see myself in settings that have occurred throughout the length of my life. At each door, I pause. I know this room is no longer for me. I move on.

Coming to the end of the hall, I see a closed door. I approach slowly, with a feeling of uncertainty and dread, my pulse quickening. With trepidation I slowly open the door.

doorway

Immediately, I move back a step. I feel a sense of vertigo as I gaze out on emptiness, blackness. I can’t see a thing. I know it is stepping outside of the building entirely. I freeze for a moment, look longingly back towards the open doors.

Then I straighten my shoulders. I feel the inevitability of my next step. I can see no ground. All is darkness. It feels like I will be stepping into an endless void. Will I fall, end over end, forever? Will I float, suspended in the thick blackness?

gather my mettle and my foot inches tentatively out. Ground! Encouraged, I step through the doorway. I feel the ground, but I know that I am now outside. Out of the safety of the building, in the wild, unknown outdoors. I breathe slowly, in, out. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

Then I become aware of a heaviness in one of my hands. I lift it. I am holding a flashlight! I turn it on and shine it on the ground. There! I see it, a path, winding into the darkness. I can’t see very far, but I tell myself that I can follow the path as far as the flashlight shines. I begin to walk.

This dream has been an anchor in times of turbulence and has encouraged me to cherish times of transition and change rather than dissolve into fear and dread. It’s given me the grit to continue when I’ve been tired. Just one step. Just this one moment. Stepping through that door, whatever it may represent, is stepping from a place of certainty and a false sense of safety, into the quivering unknown, the fertile fields of uncertainty, the juicy aliveness of change.

May I be a bridge

Every morning, the Dali Lama prays this:

May I be a guard for those who need protection
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood
May I be a lamp in the darkness
A resting place for the weary
A healing medicine for all who are sick
A vase of plenty, a tree of miracles
And for the boundless multitudes of living beings
May I bring sustenance and awakening
Enduring like the earth and sky
Until all beings are freed from sorrow
And all are awakened
~Bodhisattva prayer for humanity
~Shantideva, Indian Buddhist sage 700 a.d.

bridge

Rumi says it like this:

Be a lamp, a lifeboat, a ladder.
Help someone’s soul heal.
Walk out of your house like a shepherd.

bird
Because I’m a simple soul, I’ve shortened the prayer to:

May I be a bridge.

A bridge between parent and child, between chistian and queer, between racist and person of color, between warring factions of any kind. And also, a bridge between what a person believes unkindly about themselves and the bright and shining truth of who they really are, between despair and hope, between suffering and relief.

My deepest felt call is to be a bridge. And this starts with me. I must first be a bridge to myself. Between who I was and who I now am, between my fear and my daring to love, between my regrets and my gratitude. Healing must first reach its calming touch into my own heart.

So, every day, as I whisper this to myself upon arising, may I be a bridge, as I am reminded by the limbs of two trees intertwining in a neighbor’s yard, may I be a bridge, as I listen to another’s complaint or irritation or sorrow, may I be a bridge. A hundred times a day, a thousand, a prayer without ceasing.

My own bodhisattva vow. May I be a bridge.

on using RAIN when uncomfortable emotions arise

The RAIN practice is one of those things that I’ve read about for awhile but only started using recently. Why did I wait? It has been so helpful, both in everyday life and in distressing times.

In brief, RAIN stands for:

R: recognize   A: allow, accept   I: investigate   N: non-identification or nurture

This is how it plays out. I might notice that I am feeling anxious, tense, upset in some way. I take a moment to recognize what is happening. It is helpful to name it (neuroscience shows that naming something helps to short-circuit unhelpful thoughts). So I notice, I say to myself, for instance, “loneliness”.

The accept/allow step is necessary because of how we tend to avoid or resist things that are unpleasant or that we don’t like about our life or ourselves. The step of allowing is just to welcome the thought/emotion without judgment. “Okay, loneliness. I see you. Come on in, have a cup of coffee.” I remove the judgment, with all its storylines about how I am fundamentally flawed, unworthy, etc. I intentionally stop resisting what is happening.

The investigation step isn’t a cognitive one, thank God. I’m in my head too much as it is. Instead, it is an investigation of how I feel in my body. Where do I feel this loneliness? Is it an aching in my chest? With anxiety, it may be a fist in my belly. With sorrow, it may feel like my throat is closing up. I just take a minute to see where in my body I am feeling the loneliness.

What happens next is that there is an organic, natural disconnection from the thought or feeling. I have created enough space that I can see that I am not loneliness, I am just experiencing a moment of loneliness. This can be wonderfully freeing, especially when the emotions are strong and I feel overwhelmed. I often take just a moment to nurture myself. I whisper loving words to myself, much like I would a dear friend, “It’s okay, sweetie. You’re surrounded by the support of loved ones. You are connected to them and to all of the human family. What you are feeling is common. You aren’t alone.”

It’s helpful to use this practice on small, everyday moments before trying it on the biggies. I use it most days now. Perhaps I’m sitting with friends or family, my mind wandering, not really present. Then I come to and notice I feel irritated or perhaps I judge myself for my inattention. I recognize it, name it, allow it. Often that is all that is needed, taking only seconds but bringing me back into the present, helping me to engage with life again and get out of the daydream.

Recently, I used RAIN on a tougher issue. I was sitting with Matt when I began to become faint, my fingers and lips turned icy, sounds distorted, dizziness. I’d been having a bad pain day. Feeling frightened by the idea that I might faint, I went into the bedroom and propped my legs up, covering myself with a soft blanket and putting soothing music on my phone. As I was lying there, working on calming my breath, I realized this would be a good time for RAIN. I started by putting my hands on my heart and belly, offering myself tenderness and compassion, “This is a moment of suffering. You’ll be okay. I love you.”  Then I let myself feel my distress, identifying that the strongest voice was fear. “Okay fear, I see you. I won’t resist you, I will let myself lie here with you.” I recognized the urgent voice as fear and allowed it to be seen, recognized, and welcomed.

Curious, I asked myself what I was most afraid of, what did the fear that most want me to notice?  I recognized a fear of dying and of doctors and hospitals (a lifetime fear). So I thought to myself, okay – I need to address my fear of death, aging, and illness. We all have to do that sooner or later, don’t we? I began to feel, under the fear, a strong resistance. I kept returning to my body, letting me experience in a non-conceptual way what was happening. At first, the fear felt like a band of pain across my chest. As I interacted with the fear, this pain relented and disappeared. As I began to sense the resistance under the fear, I looked again to my body – where was I feeling it? I noticed an aching, throbbing heaviness in my pelvis and lower spine. As I was coming into welcoming contact with whatever might arise, I felt resistance to aging, resistance to illness, resistance to the vulnerability and dependence aging and illness bring.

Then, it came to me that all these things that I was resisting are out of my control. None of us can stop time or predict illness. These things come to every life. Each one of us that lives long enough will experience illness, aging, death, the loss of all things. How illogical to expend all of that energy resisting what is inevitable?

Suddenly, there was a moment of deep recognition of being other than my thoughts or feelings. With a  shifting awareness, I saw that I am not this fear or this resistance. I exist behind and above and below and beyond these elements. I laughed out loud with joy at the sense of connection to the whole human family, to all of life.

Using RAIN in small, everyday ways helped me to develop the muscles to do the practice in a time of crisis. It was incredibly freeing, I can’t properly articulate how it affected me.  It brings to mind a scripture from the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

 

Meet me at the well

EVENTUALLY

 

We stop trying

to carry all that we know

as if it will protect us.

 

If lucky, we are forced

to accept that under

what we think is ours

is the beginning

of what no one owns.

 

At last, we are

humbled to dip our face

in the same well.

 

It is the look of your

face and mine

lifting from that well

that frees me.

~Mark Nepo

water from a deeper well, painting by ademaro bardelli

Notes from my journal 3/30/16

5:00 a.m.
I’ve been waking early, sometimes as early as 3:00 or 4:00, most days before the sun rises. I enjoy these early morning hours when it feels like all the world sleeps and I alone bear witness to the farewell of the moon and stars as the grey sky lightens. This morning as I sat at my desk I caught a movement from the edge of my vision and turned to watch a rat sliding silently around the kitchen floor, looking for openings. Oddly, I didn’t squeal or flail in fear. No sense waking the entire house. Just moments before I had stood in the kitchen making coffee, unaware that I shared the room with a watching rodent. Now I keep turning to check – has it come back to investigate the closed cabinet doors? Will it silently slither over to my desk? I feel a bit jumpy.

This is what my life has been like for the last several months (years?). I go about my way, looking for small comforts in the midst of severe hardship, taking small breaths, while a rat runs around the edges, gnawing away at my serenity, keeping me off balance when I notice its quiet movements.

This long season of abject poverty has taught me many wonderful lessons. Things I thought I knew but had only heard tell of are now my very own. Learning to rest in uncertainty and to glory in small pleasures are what has sustained me and kept me sane.

So I’m not screaming for help as the rat silently shares my morning, but I’m not going into the kitchen either. Not until the daylight and activity chase it back through its secret hole into the neighboring field.

“We must risk delight. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world”. ~ Walt Whitman

Notes from my journal 3/13/16

For awhile now, I’ve been doing a quick morning practice. When I awaken, before my mind runs off willy-nilly, I take a few moments. I breathe slowly and begin the day by reminding myself how precious and transient this life is. I think of this marvelous quote:

When you arise in the morning,
think of what a precious
privilege it is to be alive,
to breathe, to think,
to enjoy, to love.
~Marcus Aurelius

This has been so helpful in starting my day with an alert, awakened awareness. I added a couple of new practices recently. Throughout the day, I practice the “art of the pause”. When I remember to do this simple practice (remembering is the key, lol), it greatly enriches my day. The art of the pause practice is simple: when I think of it, I take one moment and pause. I still myself and take a few slow breaths. I return to my body and to the present moment. I listen to the sounds, feel what it is I am feeling, look at where my mind has been. For example, a few minutes ago, I paused. I am sitting at the table on my front porch, journal sitting open in front of me. I pause, breathing with awareness. I feel the gentle, cool breeze on my skin and suddenly hear birdsong. I gaze at the sky, taking in the fluffy balls of clouds drifting across an impossibly blue sky. I notice tension in my belly and look at where my mind has been, lost on a train of thought full of worry and anxiety about the future. I take a few more steady, calming breaths, feel my belly soften. I relax into the beautiful morning and pick up my pen to write.

This simple mindfulness practice is so precious to me. It not only returns me to the present, allowing me to be more aware and in tune with the world around and within me, it also teaches me about my habits of mind when I am not so aware and engaged. I’m beginning to have a more clear understanding of my own habitual narratives. I can bring that understanding with me when I am in a reflective or contemplative space, tracing these habitual mind wanderings, examining them with curiosity and compassion. The slow, steady process of rewiring my brain and rerouting my thoughts, building new neural pathways, is greatly aided by this simple practice.

The other practice I began recently is to take a few moments when I lie down at night to reflect on the day. How did the day go? How did I live today? Did I live with joy, loving-kindness, and peace? Was it a happy day? Did I live in fear, turmoil, anger, or worry? This isn’t done as a form of judgment, just as a way to be aware if I got lost and suffered that day. This awareness helps me to recognize how I am living every day. I begin to gain a deeper understanding of my own mind and my own ability to live each moment. I gain clarity and I grow in my commitment to live the next day with even more loving-kindness, clarity, courage, and joy.

As these three practices are becoming more habitual, I find I would like to add another. This is an extension to my morning practice – to set an intention for the day. First thing, while I am still and my heart is full of gratitude for another precious day to live, I will listen to my heart’s desire for that day. It may be an intention to live more kindly that day or to look for small wonders or to cultivate patience. This morning, my heart led me to set the intention to be kind to myself in my limitations, to find joy in my quiet life.

Its-Ok-to-be-Happy-with-a-Quiet-Life

The Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans.
They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body
I would break Into blossom.

– James Wright

contemporary-prints-and-posters

Emptiness

dali
Emptiness in Buddhist terms doesn’t mean nothingness. It means that every single thing we encounter — including ourselves — goes beyond our ability to conceive of it. We call it emptiness because nothing can ever explain it. Reality itself is emptiness because we can’t possibly fit it into our minds.
Brad Warner

some thoughts on mindfulness during an intense pain morning

8eb32833205131_56a3e32e87cb8

It’s a bad Chrohn’s morning and I am home alone. I dislike being alone when it’s intense. When Matt is here, I can better release the sense of panic that can come with high levels of pain and body distress. His presence comforts me.

He helps me breathe when I am panting with the pain. The slower breathing also helps with emotional distress. Easing emotional distress over what is happening greatly improves the experience of pain.

I’m freezing and can’t warm up. I wrap multiple blankets and afghans around me to not much avail. My head is foggy, my thoughts racing furiously. It’s easier if the pain comes in waves. I can recover, like with childbirth pains. This morning it is unrelenting kind.

I feel a steel band tightening all across my mid and lower torso. But the pressure is pushing outward somehow. Like a fist contracting on an inward pressure. I work to keep my belly relaxed, my chest open, my breathing normal. I release the tension in my shoulders and face, try for the torso with a bit of success. The pain is somehow lessoned, but the tension continues to rise as the pain shouts. Again and again I release or at least try to.

My heart races, my head pounds. My body trembles and shakes. Pains in my chest and throat frighten me and again I struggle with panic. It’s hard to swallow. Hydrate, I tell myself. I take the long slow shuffle to the kitchen, my body curled in on itself, unable to straighten. Slow steps, cradling my belly to minimize the movement. I lean on the counter, exhausted. Try to drink, choke down a small sip. Nausea rises and the slow trip back is like being tossed on stormy waters.

I cannot distract myself. I’m not much for TV and it makes me seassick during these times anyway. Heartbreakingly, I can’t read either because of the nausea and an inability to focus. I try sitting on the porch, on the lovely spring morning. Too cold, freezing, freezing, (it’s 70 degrees).

Back inside. I do a calming meditation with Tara Brach. It’s hard to breathe, hard to be mindful when my reality is so distressing, but it helps. Still, after some time I begin to become overwhelmed again with the pain in my torso, the trembling, the spasms, throat pain, nausea, dizziness. I struggle to breathe slowly.

Moving into the bedroom, I turn on some peaceful flutes I use for body scan type relaxation. I light a wonderfully scented soy candle I often use for yoga practice. I can’t manage body scan type relaxation or even restorative yoga when things are this intense, but the scent and the sound bring a measure of comfort.

I know that mindfulness in this experience will help more than any other strategy or practice. But, like with yoga, mindfulness is difficult right now. It’s my own resistance to this experience that is causing me problems. Mindfulness asks me to interact with whatever is there with nonjudgmental awareness. Just this. Only this. There is an openness or receptivity with the experience that I am struggling with. Again, I work to slow my breath again and try to release tension and then I examine my experience.

I don’t want it! That is probably a natural reaction to suffering and pain. We automatically judge every single thing as good or bad. I like this, not that. I want this, not that. I will be happy when this happens, unhappy when that happens. Mindfulness is a way of stopping that warring with what is and just accepting each thought, each moment, each thing in my moment to moment experience with kindness and a sort of curiosity.

It’s a way for me to say, oh hello pain, my old acquaintance. Come in, sit, have a cup of tea. A nonjudgmental awareness that treats what is kindly. I put my hand on my heart and whisper inwardly, this is a moment of suffering. I offer myself compassion and love. I sit with my body in a less panicked way. Resistance to what is doesn’t make it not so. In a case like this, it makes it more so. Resistance to pain doesn’t help it lessen. It greatly adds to the suffering.

I remind myself that all of the thoughts and feelings accompanying this pain are not necessarily true. When I stop and give a tender, kind, and interested attention to my experience of pain, I am met with my resistance. This too, I whisper, and I feel a shift in perspective. My experience of this moment changes. Looking with curiosity at my resistance, I find a lot of aversion, a lot of “don’t wants”. I don’t want Chrohn’s, I don’t want this pain, I don’t want to be unable to work, I don’t want to be turning 60 this year, I don’t want to be sick,  I don’t want to die, I don’t want to lose those I love, I don’t want, I don’t want, I don’t want.

All of this resistance brings unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and contraction. Letting go of resistance, strangely, brings expansion.

 

 

 

Rumi

I really don’t care for Valentine’s Day. But if asked about love, I would point to the poetry of Rumi to help describe it. I have a small framed piece as a gift from Matt with a quote from Rumi,

The minute I heard my first love story,

I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was.

Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere

They’re in each other all along.

Rumi has a lot to say about love. His ability to put to words what is in my heart is grace. The songs of the poets, Rumi especially, kept me tethered when the ground disappeared. They kept me safe until I found the beauty in darkness, the spaciousness of not-knowing, and the miracle of mystery.