hope vs. expectation

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Hope is essential. It’s an attitude of heart and mind that trusts in life, that refuses to quit. Hope that is active has an adventurous, open-heartedness and an enthusiasm that helps us move forward into the Mystery with an energetic buoyancy. This kind of hope doesn’t come from the outside, but is a well-spring hidden within us. This version of hope is a basic human need.

But this isn’t how we often think of hope. Our usual way of thinking of hope is tied together with a specific outcome. It’s little more than wishful thinking. This kind of hope looks to something outside of us to make us happy, rejecting what is present in the here and now. It’s the flip-side of fear. When the outcome isn’t achieved, our hopes are dashed.

I learned this recently when I realized my surgery didn’t provide the remission I had set my hopes on. I fell into darkness and distress. I lost my hard-won ability to be at home with Crohn’s disease. My anxiety and anger covered over the inner resources of objectivity and wisdom and I suffered for several weeks with deep disappointment and despair.

I denied my heartache for as long as I could, until I thought I would break open. When I turned to my sorrow and let myself fully inhabit the storms of suffering, I began to rest in the calmness beyond the struggles. My perception shifted and I realized that I had pinned my happiness on remission. I began to look again for the hope that takes me inside myself and points to the good to be found in my experience. I stopped suffering over symptoms I didn’t choose and couldn’t keep from returning and instead began the journey toward discovering the value of living fully given my current condition.

This kind of hope requires a clear intention and a letting go. Releasing what used to be and the craving for what I imagined should be freed me to embrace the truth of what is, in this moment. I stepped back into the grace of remembering that wholeness is possible even if a cure is not. Full of gratitude for this precious life, I turn to step back into the flowing, unpredictable, and wondrous river of Mystery and find I never left it and this, too, was grace.

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Change happens – notes from my journal 1/31/2016

An observation about the process of self-transformation (through reflection, contemplation, mindfulness, spiritual practices, etc): Hang on tight! Change happens.

It can seem a very slow process. I think of the time between the initial spark of insight and the realization in day to day life as feeling sometimes interminable. It feels like a long trudge up a steep hill. Not impossible, but trying. And tiring.

But there comes a day when all of the neurons have been re-wired and you notice that you’re motoring down a new neural pathway with no effort – this is now a default road! Yay! It can then seem as if you’re on a zip-line, racing through effortlessly.

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I’ve just had a zip-line moment and it is wonderful and also tough to describe. I would like to note that I had observed myself feeling a bit raw, emotions on the surface, tears flowing, circumstances aligning to tenderize my heart. I think there is a connection there that I want to remember. Perhaps in the future I could notice when I’m feeling this tenderness and upheaval in my emotions and consider that perhaps a knot is being loosened and coming (finally) untied. Perhaps inner liberation is at work.

“To be born in soul again and again is a positive experience, but it also involves pain. It means entering a new kind of life just when the old one might have grown comfortable. Familiarity can bring you tranquility, but you also need the sting and chaos of the new. To be alive entails both of these qualities, the yin and yang of peace and pain.

To be a person means to be faced every minute with the decision to live or to die, to accept the invitations for yet more vitality or to decline them out of fear or lethargy.” ~Thomas Merton

And from the Tao Te Ching 15 ~ Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?

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.

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.

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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.”

 

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.

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some thoughts on mindfulness during an intense pain morning

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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.