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.
legs-on-chair-sml
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.
hugging-mainfull-main_full
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.

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