Feeling safe

Lying in bed last night, doing a body scan (progressive relaxation), trying to unclench my body that was tight with pain, I had an insight. I hope I can articulate the thought. It felt like one of those epiphanies that is simple but hard to express.

As I was doing the relaxation practice, I began to add a loving-kindness practice to it. While I relaxed my eyes I told them I  loved them and thanked them for all these years of sight, the miracle of seeing my children as babies and watching them grow, the beauty of nature they had allowed me to take in, the thousands of books I’ve read that have enriched and transformed my life. And on to other parts of the body. When I got to my gut, I spoke to the Crohn’s as I never had before. I thanked it for trying to help me, unguided as the help might be. I endeavored to have a friendly feeling, to let go of resistance to it, resentment of it, and fear towards it. It was uncanny how quickly and almost completely the pain abated.

Then came the insight. I recognized the soothing of my sympathetic nervous system, that lizard brain that houses the fight or flight and the negativity bias. That part that is kept on alert by our crazy lives full of a constant buzz of low key stress. When I turned towards the Crohn’s with an open heart and affection, this part of my brain was soothed and the parasympathetic nervous system took over, calming me, comforting me, helping me to feel safe. I’ve noticed this response in my body when doing a practice to deal with intense pain.

Suddenly, I considered how important it is for us to feel safe, to keep the lizard feeling cozy and drowsy. I thought about how we are more open to our experience when we feel safe. Then I thought about how feeling safe plays into relationships. I turned it over in my head, how feeling safe may be the most important element in a close relationship. When you feel safe, your walls go down, your heart opens and intimacy is possible.

Then it struck me how impactful this thought trail was to the practice of befriending oneself. One of the obstacles to becoming a friend to ourselves is the critical self-talk we all struggle with. The way we feel devalued by our own inner conversation, the negative and limiting beliefs we develop about ourselves. Our critical inner voice can become quite abusive. Consider living with an abusive person, one who belittles you, diminishes and humiliates you. Would you feel safe? Wouldn’t you hide your heart behind impenetrable armor, would there be any real intimacy?

And so it is with our efforts to befriend ourselves. We need to feel safe. When we feel safe, we can let down our inner walls and come to a friendly and non-judgmental intimacy with all we are. How miraculous and marvelous and also how wrong-headed and stunted we can be. We can come to know and appreciate all of our own quirks and become patient when there is a misstep, past or present. We begin to treat ourselves as we would the most precious person in our heart, like our child or dear mother. When we feel safe, the process of self-knowledge, self-understanding, and self-appreciation becomes so much easier.

And how to feel safe with ourselves? Noticing our limiting beliefs and harsh inner critic is the first step. Recognizing that this is brought on by years of incidents with family members and society and reinforced by our desire to be good, to be acceptable. To be safe. So, soothe the voice when you hear it. When the blaming/shaming/catastrophizing begins, let it know that you are okay, that you are safe. That all is well. That the catastrophe isn’t happening, that the end isn’t near, that you aren’t hopeless. Soothe the inner turmoil and the lizard brain will fall asleep and your mammalian brain, that nurturing part of our brains, will awaken. The parasympathetic nervous system will also take over from the sympathetic. Rather than feeling on high alert, your heartbeat will slow, your breath will deepen, you will feel safe.

I don’t know how clear I’ve made this. It is hard for me to put it into words. The best visual for me is to imagine my inner voice as a child who is trying and who needs to feel safe. Handling ourselves with tenderness will accomplish this and quiet the lizard. To me, this makes more sense than trying to shut it up or feel guilty about the critical voice. I did this for years with little progress. This type of practice, soothing and reassuring the inner voice that all is well, that I am safe, brings a quick quieting of the noise and intensity so that I have space to remember that these are just thoughts, not who I am. And it seems that each time I reassure myself it gets easier and more effective. My friendship with myself has grown by leaps and bounds as well as my compassion and tenderness towards others.

child with flowers

notes from my journal ~ January 18, 2016

My focus for this year is equanimity. I’ve been reading about the bodhichitta practices (awakening and nurturing open-heartedness). One of the teachings is of the “Four Limitless Qualities”. These are: loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

The last line of my metta practice is “may my life flow smoothly, with ease”. It is slowly dawning on me that this is a prayer for equanimity and that it has little to do with the circumstances – rather it is about coming to a place of rest and ease in all circumstances. Asking for ease isn’t about asking for a break from the unrelenting challenges but rather asking for the expansion of my heart-mind that allows all things with the same open heart and peaceful mind. It is saying an unconditional “yes” to all of life as it unfolds. It is learning to surf the waves of Samara.

My mantra for this year is “this too”. It is from this statement: “I accept unconditionally the unfolding of this present moment in whatever form it takes – this too is allowed and accepted”. To dwell in equanimity is to be free from attachment and aversion. This too. This small happiness, this moment of sorrow, this anxiety, this gratitude. All of it . All of life with its sorrows and joys, rowing towards that wonderful shore of “no preference”, where each moment is welcomed and cherished equally.

It came home to me strongly when I learned of my old blog/facebook friend and ally Nicholas Temple’s diagnosis of prostrate cancer. I began to speak metta over Nick. He was struggling to receive the meds he needed and that the VA wouldn’t pay for until April. Then he found a doctor to provide the meds! I rejoiced – this was an answer for his life to unfold with ease, surely! Then, yesterday he fell, couldn’t get up, was taken to the hospital where they did emergency surgery to remove a tumor from his spine. He won’t walk again.

I faltered. It woke me this morning just after 4:00 a.m. Suddenly, I realized that receiving the meds and losing his ability to walk had little to do with the metta. The smooth unfolding had to do instead with receiving each moment with equanimity. The joy and the happiness, but also the suffering and the tragedy.

We all – each one of us – will encounter illness, old age, loss, and death. Equanimity isn’t about escaping the difficulties in our lives. It’s about opening our hearts to them with equal measure to the joys of this precious life.

My year in books – 2016

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Well, it would seem I have been a busy little reader this year. 120 books worth of reading.

My goal for several years has been 100 books, which I usually meet or come close to, but this year I passed it by in a reading frenzy. Part of the reason for this is that when I find a writer I enjoy, I like to read all they have written. Or at least until I get burned out. This year I found James Lee Burke and read 28 of his books before I grew weary. There were also 16 of Harlan Coben’s books and 14 of Michael Connelly’s.

A pleasant surprise this year was realizing that I had missed a few of the novels by Elizabeth Berg, one of my favorite writers. I don’t know how I managed to miss them but it was delightful to read “The Art of Mending”, “What We Keep”, and “The Pull of the Moon”. I marked these three as 4 star books, along with “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout.

The rest of my 4 star books were non-fiction: 3 by Pema Chodron (When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, The Places That Scare You, and Comfortable with Uncertainty), and other Buddhist teachers: Thich Nhat Hanh (Living Buddha, Living Christ), Stephen Batchelor (The Faith to Doubt), Ezra Bayda (Being Zen), and Tara Brach (True Refuge). Also included were my beloved Tao Te Ching translated by Stephen Mitchell, a wonderful book on Yoga Philosophy by Donna Farhi (Bringing Yoga to LIfe, my 3rd reading),and a memoir by Jesuit priest James A. Connor (Silent Fire).

Out of the 120, 97 were fiction and only 23 were non-fiction. That fell far below my goal of 40% non-fiction. I blame James Lee Burke. And being sick a lot this year, which always increases my fun reading ratio. I’ve started out 2017 in better form, with 6 non-fiction and 2 fiction, so far.

And all but a small handful of these 120 books came from that most magical of places, West Florida Public Library. Thank you for the books, for the entertainment and education, for the inspiration and transformation. I would not be who I am today were it not for the wonder of reading.

2017

I’ve kept a journal almost all of my life. Keeping a journal has become my most treasured life practice. It’s a sanctuary. It keeps me honest. It helps me to live with intention. It teaches me and upholds me.

Every January I get a new notebook. A new year, a blank book to be filled with my struggles and insights. A new book to record my thoughts and to help me navigate the fog of uncertainty that is an unchanging reality of life.

I used to take the month of December to read back over the year’s entries. Since Anthony died, the holidays are harder to get through, so I wait until January to read back over the past year.

This is such a joy.

I can see recurring subjects, I can track the difficulties and notice the ways I made it through them. I can note the insights, often tightly connected to the struggles from which they arose. And I always, always have fresh insights from the re-reading of it all. It encourages and strengthens me. And it gives me direction for the year to come.

For the last several years I have chosen a word or idea for a focus for that year. I put in the opening pages, along with ideas or quotes or poems that move me. This makes it simple to return to it,a guiding focus, a north star. I drift if I don’t live with intentionality. Some past year’s north star? Open heartedness…let go…equanimity.  This years is “Choiceless Awareness”. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. It’s startling how different events appear when seen through the lens of a simple intention.

notes from my journal July 6, 2016

This sentence flew up at me this morning, “Whether we remain ash or become the phoenix is up to us.”

When disaster falls, unexpectedly as it often does, or when some part of me is burned away by others or by my own hand throwing the match, when all of who I am is burned away and I stand uncertain in the smoldering ruins…here, right here, is the place of beginning. Always, always there is the choice. Do I try to resurrect the putrid corpse of who I was or do I rise into change with courage and even reckless abandon?

This life, this human life, will never stop granting me the grace of pain. Will I stop resisting the sweeping away of what no longer serves? Will I turn into the pain and discover new life?

Will I remain ash or will I become the phoenix? Become the phoenix. There is a becoming, a season of formation. It isn’t automatic and it isn’t instantaneous. It takes effort, daily effort in big and small ways. Mostly small, everyday effort that one day rewards with an effortless rising into the wind to soar and drift high above former obstacles to happiness and equanimity. Like a river daily working its way around and through and over obstacles, until one day they are worn away by the flowing water and the river glides serenely by, unencumbered on its journey to the ocean.

So, today then. What of today? Will I remain ash or become the phoenix?

 

Each new day is a fresh start.
But, you don’t really have to wait.
Because each new moment,
each second, each millisecond
is a chance for you to start living
the life you’ve always imagined.
Don’t keep putting it off until
tomorrow or the next day.
Why wait a second more
when you have this fresh, new,
exciting moment standing
right in front of you,
waiting for you to notice it?

 

self-care practice

This is a practice that I do sometimes at the end of my yoga practice or when I am feeling agitated or sad. Sometimes I do it on the bed with a pillow under my knees and sometimes I do it on the floor with my knees up on a chair.
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I always use soothing music. The music I’ve been using for awhile for this and for legs-up-the-wall is:

 

I like to use the same music each time because it begins to bring me a sense of peace immediately from memory. Kind of like always sitting in a particular chair to pray and how just sitting in the chair brings a sense of presence. Also, the music feels a little sad, which helps me to release my sadness as the practice progresses. I lower the lights, maybe light a scented candle, and set this time aside as a sacred space for my healing. It may be a short, 15 minute restorative practice. Or it may be closer to an hour as I take the time to get in touch with my body and anything that may be clouding my heart.

When I lie down, I put my arms out to the side to really feel like my heart is vulnerable and open. I close my eyes and settle in. This is a time just for me. I take my time, no rush, no place to go, nothing to do but just this. I breathe for a few moments, slow deep in-breath, slow steady out-breath. Then I spend a few moments using my breath to connect with my body. I do this by breathing into different areas separately. First I breath into my abdomen, feeling it rise and fall. Just a couple breaths. Then my chest, rising and falling. I tilt my head slightly and see if I can feel my throat fill with air. Then I see if I can feel the breath in my back-body. That is tougher. I imagine the spine, with the little tail at the end. On the out-breath, I imagine it curling slightly in, on the in-breath straightening back out. Then I see if I can feel my whole spine/back-body filling and emptying with the breath.
The reason I spend a few moments doing this breathing practice is because it can be hard to get out of my head and into my body. This seems to help me. I return to a natural breath.
I start at my feet and work my way up, feeling each part of my body, releasing tension. I spend a moment or two on my feet, coming with a sense of curiosity. What do my feet feel like right now? Do they ache or are they sore? I mentally thank them for carrying me around all these years. I send love to my feet. And on to my calves and thighs. I spend a moment feeling my whole legs. Then I move on to my pelvis, my spine – bottom to top, my belly, my lungs and heart space. I usually spend an extra moment or two on my shoulders then down my arms. Then my hands. I rest for a moment. How does my body feel? Are my hands tingling or throbbing? Is there pain anywhere? I send love to my body. I travel up my neck to my scalp, then to my face. I try to relax my forehead and let my eyes sink back. I relax my jaw and my tongue.

Often, I have to return to what I am doing when I get distracted and my thoughts take off. Or I have to return to relax an area that is holding tension or contracting. That’s okay, no problem. I just come back and continue. I am taking care of myself.

When I am finished with the body scan, I just rest for a few moments. I check how I am feeling. Do I feel safe? Am I sad? Is there any tightness in my throat or heart? If I find sadness, I let it be. I welcome it and comfort myself. I ask the sadness, what do you most want me to know? Sometimes it is just that the sadness wants to be acknowledged. Sometimes it wants me to know where it is coming from. I let it be. I rest in my body.
I close my time with touch. I hold myself in a hug or put my hands on my heart or on my cheeks. I speak tenderly to myself. Often I pray a metta at this time. May I feel safe. May I be contented. May my body provide me with strength. May my life unfold smoothly, with ease. May my heart be open. May I rest in my own strength. Whatever comes to my mind.
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Then I roll over on my right side, rest there for just a moment, and get up.
This is a practice that is surprisingly difficult to do at first. We live so much in our heads that spending time noticing the body is challenging. But, with time, it becomes very restful and joyful.
If you decide to try a practice like this, I hope it is as healing and restorative for you as it has been for me.

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.