After months of scary symptoms (dizziness, cognitive impairment, inability to focus my eyes), a specialist ascertained that I had sustained damage to a nerve in my inner ear. This was after more doctors than I can count on one hand mainly pointed out to me that I’ve been under a lot of stress as a caregiver and that I should not underestimate the power of the mind to somatize stress in the body. Had I considered trying to reduce stress? I even got the “everything happens for a reason” platitude, and “maybe your body is trying to tell you to slow down.”
There is more than a seed of truth in their observations and admittedly there is a part of me that needs a doctor’s permission to give myself more time to recover than I think I deserve. However, I knew that something was going fundamentally wrong with my body, and I felt certain that it wasn’t so ambiguous as “stress-itis.” I became worried at appointments that my very real medical concerns were being minimized by an assumption about how I was handling stress or what “the universe was trying to tell me.” Turns out my brain was just trying to tell me that it was getting faulty signals from my ear.
Because I persevered to get to the root of the problem, I am now feeling much better after only three weeks of vestibular rehabilitation. This hardship on the heels of hardship has yielded jewels of insight into my relationship with suffering, but that’s not to say I believe that I was “meant” to suffer. I tell this story because I continue to feel concerned about how we talk about stress and hardship and illness in our culture, and most especially in yoga culture.
First things first: You cannot avoid stress. By virtue of being alive, you will encounter stress. To be sure, we can make mindful choices and engage in practices that build resiliency and help to reduce the effects of stress – yoga gifts us with these very superpowers. Regardless, both positive and negative stressors will arise for anyone in a body with a brain and a nervous system wandering through an impermanent and unpredictable lifescape. That this body/brain must secure resources for itself in order to survive, and do so within the uniquely dysfunctional context of the modern world? Yes, there will be stress. And, in smaller or greater portion, all of us at some point will encounter tsunami-sized, knee-knocking waves of stress by virtue of circumstances that are entirely outside of our control. How our body and psychology respond to that stress can, up to a point, also be outside of our control, according to our exposure to childhood trauma, our level of social privilege, our access to psychosocial support, and our genetics. Yoga practice has the profound power to help us attenuate that response, but not delete it. “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gotta go through it!” as those of us who have gone on a bear hunt know.
Second: It’s not your fault. Self-improvement, or “self-help,” is more popular in the United States than anywhere else in the world. It is a $10 billion dollar industry. Also trending? Perfectionism, judgment, “Type A” personalities, shame culture, and a high-speed chase to achieve productivity, bypass pain, and mask weakness to the point of health hazard. This is not a coincidence. Self-improvement and self-judgment are two sides of the same coin and feed on one another in dysfunctional ways. I routinely witness people blaming themselves for hard things happening to them. And, furthermore, criticizing themselves for being emotionally upset over hard things happening. The contemporary malfunction of assigning blame to ourselves for being vulnerable to illness and sadness, subject to hardship and struggle, is intensely toxic. To believe that by “improving ourselves” we can eventually become immune to suffering is a dangerous psychology. It is on the one hand aggressively disconnected and unreasonable, and on the other an incredibly insensitive and demeaning way to be with a person who is suffering, yourself or anyone else.
Spiritual practice is meant to help us come to terms with and relax into the messiness of life, not set about trying to clean it up or rationalize it or pretend it’s not there. I don’t want to hear the metaphysical implications of why you caught the flu, I want to hear how your practice is helping you turn toward your suffering with kindness, and how you are taking mindful action to ventilate it. At no point on this path do we become immune to life or discover that everything is now going to go our way because we’ve finally mastered our practice. To the contrary, signs of mastery are that you “improve” at loving and accepting yourself as you are and trusting yourself to the changing currents of your imperfect life. If all goes well, you will learn to be happy and to suffer at the same time. Stress will befall the spiritual people and the not spiritual people. Stress will bring both the strong and the weak to their knees. It’s not your fault.
Third: Working on how you relate to stress is more effective than trying to reduce it.
I cannot tell you how many articles on caregiving I read over the past few years that listed “reducing stress” as a suggestion. If I had the power to set flame to something with the touch of my finger, I would have burned every one of those articles to ash and used it to draw magic symbols on my forehead to protect my ravaged spirit from the insult of empty platitudes. If anything, I was painfully aware of my minuscule power over mine and my Mom’s overwhelmingly stressful circumstances, and for someone to blithely suggest otherwise made me feel like a failure. To “reduce stress” in my life during that time would have been a miracle on par with “arise and walk, my son.”
I had occasion to visit Vilano Beach, Florida a few weeks ago. During the last leg of a 9-mile hike in the Guana Tolomato Estuary, I got stung by a scorpion when I stepped off trail to get a closer look at an impressive falcon perched in a nearby tree. When I got back to my vacation rental, I googled recommendations for how to treat a scorpion sting. One of the suggestions from an article on Web MD (I shit you not) was to “avoid getting stung.” I laughed so hard. This struck me as the quintessential American piece of advice.
For those of us who have not yet discovered how to avoid getting stung in life, Stanford research psychologists suggest that how we relate to the fact of stress in our lives is more important (and more realistic) than attempting to “reduce stress.” They suggest that the emphasis on “reducing stress” can actually generate fear of stress, a sense of deflation when stress cannot be reduced, a sense of discouragement and heightened anxiety when stressful circumstances arise, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness when stressors occur one after another. Taking the perspective that “stress is harmful” leads people to fear it and to cope in unhelpful ways like shutting down, avoidant behavior, and entertaining worst-case scenarios. Conversely, viewing stress not as a threat but as a normal part of life, an inevitable challenge to rise to, is associated with more positive outcomes – like humor and levity, greater trust in personal resiliency, and proactive measures to support oneself such as reaching out for help and taking extra measures toward self-care.
Given that life is going to be stressful, what do you gain by not accepting it? Changing how you think about stress can balance your mindset, so that you feel less intimidated or singled out by stressful circumstances. A core component of stress resiliency is a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. This is one of the primary aims of meditative practice: sensing the possibility that two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time. It can be true that going through something stressful can make you sick and depressed; and it can simultaneously be true that the stressful experience invites you into a greater love, generates moments of grace and breakthrough, makes you a more resilient human being, gives you unique insight into relieving the suffering of others, and ultimately sets you out on a new and novel path with creative outcomes that you could never predict. Psychologists call the process of learning and growing from a difficult experience stress inoculation. Stress leaves an imprint on your brain that prepares you to face similar stress the next time you encounter it. If we recognize that stress is something we all share, stress can become an avenue for connection in an isolating society. Stress can inspire us to renew our dedication to our spiritual practice and to remember the importance of taking solace in the healing arms of nature.
Finally: You can develop a beautiful container for stress to occur in.
Atta diipa saranam, said the Buddha: “Take refuge in the island of oneself.” Mind-body practice brings us into conscious relationship with “the self in us that is aware.” The self that is aware is fundamentally okay, riding the unpredictable wave of the present moment without labeling good or bad. Over time, mind-body practice more fully realizes this part of you, generating a palpable space of awareness. Awareness resides where the mind is anchored to the body. What part of you is always, literally, touching the present moment? Your body. When your mind is anchored in your body, they come together as one, and enter into direct relationship with the world around you and inside of you. This space is a refuge. All of the things that you love about being in nature come alive in you when you enter into this space. It is an equanimous container as vast as the cosmos because it is you connected to the cosmos, a space in which stress can occur but not consume you. Ancient yogis used the Sanskrit word garbha to describe this place. Garbha means inner sanctum, womb, sacred dwelling – a place where we are completely intact, a place that has in no way been diminished since we took our very first breath – our fundamental nature where we are connected to, and belong to, all things. When we encounter stressful circumstances, we have this incredible opportunity to reap the fruits of our practice by remembering what it feels like to swim up to the safe island of awareness inside of us. This is a place of deep unyielding compassion, as soft and enduring as an angel’s wing. A beautiful container to experience stress in.
When you learn how to suffer, you suffer much less.
Thich Nhat Hanh
At the dawn of 2019, I sat in 5am darkness on my meditation cushion. I sat with a lot of suffering. Last year was a dramatic crescendo of three years as a strained caregiver. Once my Mom was placed in 24-hour care, I had to face the damage to the caregiver, which was substantial. During a time when I felt I should be frolicking in liberation, brushing the dust off my neglected guitar, enjoying more social time, dating — having awoken like Rip Van Winkle from a three year blur of caregiver chaos — I instead found myself largely at the beck and call of aggravated chronic illness.
Bringing my palms together for the traditional bow to conclude my meditation practice, I off-handedly questioned what exactly I was bowing to. A merciful deity who might bend to my plea to take this suffering from me? A more noble, perfected version of myself that would prove itself too worthy for such dissonance, dropping it like Marley’s chains? Was I bowing to the righteousness of my meditation practice, which at times feels mired in the same dysfunctional habits that lead me to suffer?
“No. I want to bow to my suffering,” I thought. “In this moment, I bow to the one who suffers.”
The suffering itself, not indulged or pitied, but truly seen and honored, cupped lovingly in hand. The merciful deity placed on the pedestal. The noble, highest expression of the self on the pedestal. The unswerving virtuous practice on the pedestal. What about the one who deeply suffers, to be placed on the pedestal? Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
To the extent that I can transform my suffering into liberation, as the Buddha taught, I am the all-powerful deity, but rarely a merciful one. When faced with my own suffering, half the time my internal deity looks more like the annoyed and disappointed God of the Old Testament; the other half looks like a very Eeyore-ish version of Job. Worse, I sometimes take the aloof and avoidant stance toward my suffering as someone who quickens their pace when they pass a homeless person on the street or someone in need of assistance. I try to step over it. I numb out. I get frustrated; exasperated. I shut down.
To my credit, through the merits of study and meditative practice, I do at times remember to turn toward my suffering with compassion, which is a step up from the zero times I did it in my teens and 20’s. But when I do, it’s somewhat awkward, brief, and outcome-oriented like a well-meaning narcissist … there, there … now, give me what I want. More often than not, I go relieve someone else’s suffering instead, which does help; up to a point. Relieving the suffering of others has been an ingrained and largely unquestioned motivation of mine for as long as I can remember. It’s a beautiful and sensitive reflex, but it’s not as entirely wholesome as it appears, or could be. The somewhat misguided subliminal motivations lead to severe burnout, codependency, and self-neglect. Why? Because I still behave aggressively toward myself, routinely. And I do not take care of my own suffering as I do that of others. Despite my practice, an overwhelmingly powerful part of me insists on seeing my own suffering and illness as weakness, flaw, curse, or punishment. In which case, of course, the suffering is ugly and must be redeemed, rather than held or healed. It’s the psychological equivalent of ushering a disabled person to the back of a hiking group and scolding them to either pick up the pace or earn their keep for slowing everybody else down.
But from that first spontaneous and reverent bow of 2019, toward “the one who suffers,” sprung an unprecedented and visceral experience of tenderness and attentiveness toward myself. It came with a clear insight that if I put in the time, effort and care to investigate the root of my suffering so as to understand better how to relieve it, combined with the proper motivation to take practical actions to heal, then I will be healthier and happier. More available, to myself and others. These kinds of realizations sound painfully obvious when you say them out loud. But being able to say it is not the same as being able to know it. To feel the truth of something, a truth that arises from the wisdom of the heart unclouded by the noisy whims of the mind (prajna), resonating with such power as to silence and disarm the dominant and misguided inner voice, that is why I come to meditation practice over and over again. I am the one who suffers, and I am the one who scorns and avoids the suffering that is there, and I am also the noble, enlightened one who, rather than collapsing or bypassing or shooing the suffering away, turns toward it with great respect and unyielding compassion, coupled with the dedication and perseverance to investigate and understand its nature, so as to comfort, uplift, and relieve it. To bow to “the one who suffers,” and to take resolute action on your own behalf, is a practice in positive neuroplasticity that expands your consciousness with the understanding that you are more than the sum of your parts: the one who suffers, and the suffering itself, is not alone, but in good company; surrounded by a vast, too oft untapped consciousness that holds endless potential for nourishment, creativity, peace, and freedom.
Deena Metzger wrote many years ago that in order to achieve a healthy Democracy we must first topple our own inner tyrants. We must shift the imbalance of power from the destructive, entitled, dominant and blindly indulgent factions in ourselves toward the oppressed, subjugated, underserved indigenous factions. It is in this spirit that I commit myself this year, not just to learning, but to becoming a skilled expert at noticing and relating kindly to my own suffering, investigating and taking action on its behalf, and rising to the level of proactive, compassionate self-discipline in my diet, physical activity, sleeping habits, leisure habits, spiritual practice and daily routine that is worthy of myself, whom I love. I’m not resolving to change myself in 2019. I’m resolving to change how I see myself, care for myself, and support my own being.
Ill-being, the causes of ill-being, the end of ill-being, the Path, insight and attainment, are not separate self-entities. Whoever can see this no longer needs anything to attain.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Heart Sutra translation
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the Earth.
that though the flesh be bugged,
the circumstances of existence
are pretty glorious.
I never aspired to become a yoga instructor. I stumbled into it. In retrospect it makes perfect sense: a popular and profound vehicle through which many of my personal callings and cumulative studies find voice. The most challenging aspect of becoming a yoga instructor was, for me, navigating the spiritual and psychological baggage of mainstream yoga in America.
In the beginning, I was pretty self-conscious about having allergic reactions to what felt like spiritual bypass and syrupy sentiments about gratitude, light and love, usually coming out of the mouths of people who looked more privileged than me.
You see, I wore heavy black mascara and a spiked dog collar in high school. My teenage years were marked by choking on my first taste of the different forms of mental illness that I would have to grapple with for the rest of my adult life, juxtaposed with the cultural pressures to appear normal, demonstrate achievement, and “fit in.” In my vulnerable and repressed state, I took refuge with the goth kids, to become (for better or worse) a walking reminder of America’s shadow. In my early 30’s, yoga found its way to me and gently held my hand as it walked me back into the temple of my body, demonstrating that it could be a safe and loving place, even after years of fearful dissociation.
As I continue to nurture a snail-paced recovery from 3 years of chronic stress as a caregiver without the requisite resources, in this season filled with messages of gratitude and joy, I feel called to bring the “gratitude messaging” down to earth for all of us, but especially for those among us presently struggling with chronic illness, mental health challenges, grief and loss, lack of financial resources, and overwhelming adversity during this holiday season.
When life gets so tough that the words “gratitude” and “joy” make you feel sad, cynical, or repulsed, it’s time to call in the angels of fierce self-compassion. In spiritual practice, we explore how it feels to open our hearts, and to peer closer into our fears, at a healthy pace. Whether or not feelings of “joy” and “gratitude” come easily for you is not a ruler by which to measure how virtuous, how courageous, or how ungrateful you are. The foundation of ALL spiritual practice is to move toward greater love and seek understanding, and that starts with greater love and understanding for yourself. In yoga and meditation practice, we generate feelings of safety in the body, creating a space inside of us, and cultivating the right conditions, for feelings of peace, love, joy and gratitude to arise in us regardless of external circumstance. Usually, the more challenging the external circumstances, the more challenging the practice. To love your best friends in their worst moments is like hiking up Looking Glass Rock; it’s pretty steep terrain, but it’s doable. It can be like climbing Mount Everest, however, to access that level of love and understanding for the relative you dread seeing during the holidays. You may not be ready for Everest; that’s why it’s called a “practice.” Just because you like the idea of playing piano concertos, doesn’t make you a concert pianist. Recognize and honor what is and isn’t beyond your skill level, meet yourself where you are, and sense what it would feel like to move beyond what now seems possible. Self-discouragement and harsh self-judgment are red flags that indicate the need to go back to square one: becoming a compassionate ally to yourself. If talk of “joy” and “gratitude” feels heavy to your soul, it’s time to take drastic measures to call in the angels of fierce self-love: take a hot bath; allow enough time for a good nights of sleep or take more naps; let nature be your nurse, in the woods or by a river; find someone to connect with – a trusted friend, a therapist, a support group. Keep a list of small things you can do to bring in the angels in times of crisis – especially those times when joy and gratitude feel difficult to access.
Gratitude and joy are not rewards you reap when things are going your way. Joy is the soulful pleasure of being and connecting, regardless of circumstance and surface happiness or unhappiness.Brother David Steindl-Rast defines joy as “the spiritual happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.” You can experience moments of joy in the midst of great discomfort. Sadness can contain an element of joy. The opening of the heart that occurs in moments of deep joy or deep grief often leads to feelings of gratitude.
Joy is far more than an emotion. Like grief, it is a life skill. Joy and grief are two sides of the same coin – equally necessary and fundamental ways of coming into relationship with being. Joy and grief are kin; both require an opening of the heart and a shedding of personal and social armor. Raw and honest grieving can be a pathway to joy. Opening to an experience of joy can open up the floodgates for suppressed grief to flow through.
Slowing down and setting aside quiet moments to see and appreciate the ordinary, everyday blessings in our lives, as well as marking and celebrating the extraordinary blessings in our lives, is the heart of gratitude practice. Beautiful clouds during your morning commute, a home-cooked meal, a hot shower, a simple peaceful walk from here to there, two minutes of mindful breathing. Although we have many such fleeting ordinary moments in our days, we usually speed right past them. We forget what joy they can bring if we bring ourselves more fully into the present moment. Neuroscience teaches us that, evolutionarily, the human mind developed a negativity bias as part of our threat response system (don’t worry, it’s not just you!). Due to this negativity bias, it takes 10 – 30 seconds to develop an emotional memory, a residue, of joyful moments and feelings. Therefore, a central practice in cultivating both joy and gratitude is “noticing the good” and “letting it steep.” Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to consciously say to ourselves, “this is a joyful moment.” Throughout your day, when you experience a joy or a feeling of gratitude: slow down, mark it, stay present, and let it steep inside of you. Even if this is all we do, it’s revolutionary. This simple practice can change the neural pathways in your brain to become more aware of joyful moments and to deepen the experience of joy.
By taking care of ordinary things that support our aliveness and well-being—our bodies, our pots and pans, our plants, our vehicle—we take gratitude in them. When we scrub a vegetable or wash our bodies in the shower or wash the dishes, we are expressing ritual appreciation for our food, our bodies, our material belongings. We can turn daily acts into an expression of friendship toward everything that supports our being. In the Zen tradition, students are taught to bow not only to other people, but also to non-human beings like plants and rocks and animals, meals, glasses of water, brooms and toilets, as a way of expressing respect and true appreciation for these things we are fortunate to have.
Everything in life may be a teacher, but everything in life is not a gift. There are many things for which you cannot be grateful; be wary of naivete and victim-blaming when yoga instructors and spiritual teachers veer into the realm of magical thinking. War, violence, oppression, and sickness are not gifts. The wisdom and life skills gained from these difficult experiences are gifts. We cannot be grateful for everything, but in every moment, we can find something to be grateful for.
As with all spiritual practices, the road to joy and gratitude, especially in the midst of hardship, begins with loving-kindness, curiosity, and the willingness to be with “what is.” In our most difficult moments, joy can emerge with the relief of finally accepting where we are instead of fighting it or pushing it away, and sensing the possibility that where we are is workable, even if it’s far, far away from what we wanted or expected. Joy can emerge from respecting our limitations and practicing unconditional patience in our healing processes. Joy can emerge when we consciously acknowledge we are suffering and take action on our own behalf, reaching out to others or engaging in activities that help us to process and aerate our suffering.
When your mind is predicting CERTAIN DOOM, make a conscious choice to trust that joy and unexpected blessings can (and will) continue to happen. My new favorite practice when my mind takes a dip or a dive into feelings of despair (while reading the Washington Post, or having a bout of insomnia, or feeling overwhelmed with caregiving responsibilities) is to make a counter-argument, and even collect and present evidence to the contrary, for my mind. My mind’s darkest predictions … “the world is ending” or “my world is ending” or “this terrible thing or feeling will never end” or “now this will never happen” … have, thus far in my life, never proved true. Life comes with both harm and grace, built-in. There will never be just one or the other. There will always be both. It will get better. Then it will get worse. Then it will get better. In our meditation practice, when the mind wanders, we bring it back to its anchor in the body and the breath. In equanimity practice, when the mind wanders into certain doom, we bring it back to the everlasting and unseen potential for joy and grace, for creation and rebirth. We are not clinging to the idea of joy, nor are we clinging to the idea of suffering – we are keeping ourselves open to both. Returning the forecasting mind, again and again, to the great mystery.
Wear all your clothes and do what you do.
Slow poke, we’ve got some things to find,
When I was faster I was always behind.
In his book, “The Five Invitations,” Frank Ostaseski, Buddhist teacher and founder of the Zen Hospice Project, tells the story of a common phenomenon in people newly diagnosed with cancer who express a quiet sense of relief after the initial shock. “Now I can finally rest,” they say, or, “Now I have a reason to say ‘no’ to things I feel obligated to say ‘yes’ to.”
“Do we need to die in order to rest in peace?” Ostaseski asks.
The rhythm of nature espouses a slow walk with life, a quiet day-to-day kind of existence. The modern industrial-technological world, heavily dissociated from nature, steams through life like a locomotive, fueled by careless waste and leaving destruction in its wake, moving us faster and faster along, as we are progressively emptied out of our emotional, spiritual core. There are two things we can never do living in this fast lane: we can neither deepen our experience, nor integrate it.
This month I enjoyed my first true vacation since taking on the mantle of caregiver three years ago. It was total bliss; all the time in the world to sit and soak up the St John’s River, which ran right through my back yard. That enormous swath of river was one of the quietest, most serene places I have ever been. I cannot emphasize enough its quiet grandeur. The rich presence of wildlife was stunning–barred owls, bald eagles, great blue and pure white herons, ibis, egret, alligators, bull frogs. The morning after my arrival, I sat staring at the river for nearly three hours, receiving something like a blood transfusion as I allowed its soft power to wash over me, the scenery continually changing with the growing light of day. The first noisy speed boat that sliced through the river was the most outrageous offense. How could anyone in their right mind disturb such a thing?
I watched the sun rise over the river every morning. One morning, well after sunrise, I was delighted by a family of river otter playing close to shore. Then I realized they were not river otters. They were manatees. Jaw-dropping awe! There were two groups of them, one close to shore, one rolling around and snorting closer to the central part of the river. I cringed every time a speed boat slashed through. A little research revealed that the very human-like eyes of manatees are a source of mermaid and mermen legends. Although they can no longer be hunted (which once threatened their extinction), power boats are now the greatest threat to the endangered species. Manatees are slow, near-surface swimmers, and they don’t have the agility to get out of the way of fast-moving watercraft. Many living manatees bear the scars of speed boat collisions. Whatever destination those speed boats are in a hurry to get to, do they know they are blazing through paradise? Or is it simply the thrill of speed that is of greater worth than the lives it claims and the health of the river that provides it passage?
Consider that our lives are the exquisitely serene and soul-singing St John’s River. And that we are power-boating through paradise.
More and more on my commutes to teach, I navigate the stress of people driving in too big a hurry or with a reckless need for speed, dangerously riding my tail on the highway. I observe a correlation between the increased processing speed of our tech devices and our increased need for speed on the roads. People want to get to their physical destination as quickly as they can get to their smart phone destination. Now that we can map the exact amount of time it takes to get somewhere, we feel the need to cram in a couple more tasks or distractions before leaving the house. When unforeseen obstacles arise, the specter of being late becomes a major source of stress. Noting this tendency in myself, I’ve begun to make a point of leaving for destinations with time to spare; enough time to ENJOY the drive. Riding in a car is a great opportunity to do breathing or chanting practices, even meditation practice, in the midst of a busy day. We are responsible for our own lives and other people’s lives on the road. People ride my tail, they weave and honk, they flash their brights, as if it’s my fault that they didn’t leave with enough time to get to where they’re going. As if their personal agenda, or need for speed, is worth risking my life and all the lives that depend on me.
When I returned from my vacation, I made a point of creating a photo album. Every day of my vacation, I journaled my experience. Taking time to mark and process our experience is becoming a lost art, a sacrifice for screen time. We have too much of everything these days. Too much music in our iTunes, too many photos clogging our storage space, too many connections to keep up with on Facebook, too much paperwork, too much stuff to fit in our house. We accumulate bazillions of photos on our tech devices like we collect bazillions of experiences in a day, with little or no time to process, digest, revisit, make special. Art anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake observes that “people in modern times become so concerned with getting on with the next thing that they don’t have time to consider their experience, and then to mark it, to care about it, and to make it special. When you have the time to think about it, then you see within a particular experience that something someone else says suddenly connects, something you read about connects, something you remember from a long time ago connects; that, in a way, is making artwork of your experience.” When we notice things and mark them, intentionally take time to process them — little parts of our day or big experiences — bringing significance to them in a ritualistic way, we return to our roots as human beings. Petroglyphs, storytelling, sacred sites. Cultural/ecological historian and catholic sage Thomas Berry wrote that “[humans] are the universe becoming aware of itself; through our eyes, the cosmos perceives itself.”
The present nature of society requires us to become inhuman. To wait until we are dying to slow down; to make radical choices in order to more deeply experience the specialness of our day-to-day existence. It is nothing less than the greatest human tragedy that for an insatiable infatuation with luxury, entertainment and human-centric advancement, we are forsaking a sacred contract with life, a soul-consummating relationship with all beings and the incomparable miracle of the cosmos.
An entertaining google search of “the fastest way to…” presented me with the following options:
THE FASTEST WAY TO BECOME A MILLIONAIRE
THE FASTEST WAY TO SUCCESS
THE FASTEST WAY TO PRE-ORDER iPHONE XR
THE FASTEST WAY TO GET RID OF A HANGOVER
THE FASTEST WAY TO GET FASTER
THE FASTEST WAY TO BECOME AN EXPERT AT ANYTHING
THE FASTEST WAY TO HELL
THE FASTEST WAY TO LOSE WEIGHT
I would like to propose something superior to all of these options:
The fastest way to become a slowpoke.
Take care of your inner manatees. They are slow-moving, playful, and mystical beings.
Bodhicitta is a sanskrit word that means “awakened heart, open mind.” Although it obviously speaks to the condition of loving-compassion, the emancipation of the mind by an experience of emptiness is its central feature. Loving-compassion is the organic result (or precipitating factor) of that release of agenda or themes in the mind. Bodhicitta is strongly correlated with equanimity. Equanimity can be described as spacious awareness (versus tunnel vision), freedom of mind (versus obsessive or habitual mind), not being controlled by the demands of the ego-self — all side effects of practicing or having an organic experience of sunyata – emptiness.
Okay. Let’s get away from the fancy concepts and turn our attention to kittens.
The past couple weeks will go down in my personal history book as some of the most adverse. You’ve heard it a million times from me and you’ll hear it a million times more: caregiving for a parent with early-onset dementia, and extremely limited resources in a country with a profit-based healthcare system and increasingly strangled social aid, sucks. Toss in a dash of broken timing belt at an extremely sensitive moment and YOU JUST SANK MY BATTLESHIP. Enter kitten, stage left…
Fela, a 6-week old female kitten, woke me up mewing her head off outside of my screened-in front porch last week. She was soaking wet from the rainstorm and trying to snuggle with my 10-year old male cat, Huck, through the screen. She was desperate for rescue but also afraid of rescue (who can’t relate with that?). So, after two days of sweet talking and leaving food out for her, I managed to lure her onto the porch and close the door behind her. As soon as I started petting her tiny head, she let out a purrrrr of relief and was full-blown domesticated. This was a mutual rescue. The currently heightened hardship of caregiving is slamming into my health, stability, work responsibilities, and personal routines like a wrecking ball nearly every day right now. At my worst moments, when my mind is made infinitesimally small by titanically overwhelming circumstances and my heart clenches under the weight of exhaustion, fear, anger and frustration, it’s like I’m drinking a 6-ounce glass of water with a pound of salt in it. But. When I come home to the tiny doting mews of Fela the kitten, who stretches out into a fierce downward-facing dog with excitement to see me, who looks the most cute when she’s doing something she knows she’s not supposed to, who gets so gushingly filled up with joy that she prances on her tippy toes like the tile floor is made of cookie dough, who slapsticks her way around the house like Chevy Chase… well, that 6-ounce glass of water turns into Lake Superior and I cannot even taste the salt. THAT is bodhicitta.
When you walk into yoga class with the weight of the world on your shoulders and then walk out of class like a great bird is bearing you across the sky, that is bodhicitta. When a gentle, persistent, all-day rain persuades you into an hour of rest instead of trying to push your way through exhaustion at the price of weakened productivity, that is bodhicitta by way of rain.
This past Wednesday, I was running on only 4 hours of sleep. I had a hundred things to do on behalf of my Mom and just as many personal obligations eclipsed by hers. My Mom and I were leaving the Minnie Jones pharmacy and I was weary to the bone and cranky as Ebenezer Scrooge. As we neared the bottom of the steps into the parking lot, I looked up and made eye contact with an elderly man sitting in his car, looking similarly tired. When I caught his eye, he lit up with a smile and asked how I was. “All right,” was the best I could muster. “And yourself?” I asked. “Oh, I’m thankful. I’m thankful.” He replied as if joining hands with me in a moment of humble celebration. I was kind of stunned and touched. I had never gotten or given that answer to a “how are you?”. The sky of my mind, which was full of low-hanging fog, was shot through with a tiny sliver of blue sky. My circumstances had not changed. The fact of my exhaustion and daunting obligations remained, but there was a little space around the plaque where my fear of those things had magnified and cemented to form an obstructive wall that blocked circulation. Little bit of circulation can start the process toward a re-awakening of the heart, a re-opening of the mind. That, my friends, is bodhicitta. Meditative practice enhances our capacity to recognizethose moments when they happen and to have the reflexive power to initiatethose openings of bodhicitta, not solely by external catalyst, but also from within.
On a personal note, I am purrrring with relief and fierce gratitude to those of you who contributed to caregiving assistance this month. Truly, there but by the grace of loving community, go I.
The path is the goal. June 23rd, 2018
In the garden of gentle sanity,
May you be bombarded by coconuts of wakefulness.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
A disciple once asked Shakyamuni Buddha, “Teacher, what is the goal of meditation?” To which he replied, “The goal is the path.” Not a utopian static state of being, not a perfected version of you, but a moment-to-moment, awakened engagement with what is happening in the here and now. Not a gradually gathering and penultimate outcome, but an ongoing exploration, an ever-unfolding relationship with the world around and within you, as it is. Yoga and meditation practice help to awaken us to that relational space.
Yoga and meditation have a positive impact on our overall health, but those are happy side effects. If we make things like achieving a certain standard of health, balance, and stability our primary goal, well, life will mess up our plans. No amount of stretching, OM-ing, healthy eating, or cleansing your chakras will exempt you from the fact that you are involuntarily swept up in a matrix of life that exists by virtue of transformation, limitation, and mortality. Health, balance, and stability will always be elusive to varying degrees. Meditative practices are not about getting what we want; in a way, they are about being okay with not getting what we want. You can play at “manifesting” what you believe you deserve, but ultimately, you will be humbled by what you cannot control. No measure of discipline, organization, visualization or being-all-that-you-can-be will rescue you from the fact that life, in all its holy contour, is by it’s very nature fragile, complex, and unpredictable. Life is a relational space between many interdependent beings. Life is not about you, and it’s not about getting what you want. Life will gift you with treasures you could never have imagined to “manifest,” because true treasure comes all wrapped up in a stunning package of unexpected, blissful marvel; the treasure is in the not-knowing. That amazing grace will arise when it damn well can, for all beings, and not according to your personal schedule. “One dwells in suffering if one is without reverence and deference,” said the Buddha. Through meditative practice, we put ourselves in the way of the health, balance, and stability that is available to us at any given moment, and we relax into the lack thereof. We put ourselves not in the way of material graces, or the love of desired outcomes, but rather, we put ourselves in the way of the limitless grace that wells up from simply loving for the sake of loving, and simply being present for the sake of the wonderment of what we do not know and cannot predict; the fathomless and marvelous NOW. Through meditative practice, we put ourselves not in the way of the ignorance and greed that gathers around personal agendas and invulnerability and comfort-seeking, but in the way of wisdom that lies behind the doors of discomfort, death, and darkness.
The goal is not to succeed or conquer or transcend, or to finally arrive at a new place or a new you. The goal is not to feel good all of the time. The goal is not to be good all the time. The goal is to turn toward this messy and seemingly unremarkable moment as it is and to gaze open-eyed into the simple joy and the petty discomfort of it and not look away. Don’t wait for an end goal. Find the love and the peace and the relaxation right there in the middle of the turmoil, and you may have to reach out to others for help with that. We need each other for this truly advanced practice.
Ride the rough wave of mortality into an ocean of no separation. Turn toward your suffering and your struggle with kindness. Walk the wild edge of imperfect life and be imperfect back. Respond to the unexpected with your own unexpected response. Every moment of our lives offers up a fresh opportunity to trust in and engage the energy of what is happening, of what is so, rather than to quantify it, analyze it, bend it to our will, or bore it to death with habit and assumption. In the midst of constant change, unrelenting challenge, and unrealized expectations, we can take refuge in the practiced constancy of RELATING, lovingly and fearlessly and freshly, TO THIS MOMENT AS IT IS.
The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Our first obligation is to live in the universe. Thomas Berry
I loafe and invite my soul; I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass. Walt Whitman
Bought and sold,
And bought again;
The dove is never free. Leonard Cohen
I have a volume of scripture. It is not written with paper or ink. It does not contain a single word, yet always radiates light. (Won-Buddhist Koan)
The yogis and the meditators, the psychologists and the neuroscientists, teach us that, at any age, we have the power to shape the structure of the brain, to direct the flow and attention of the mind, to heighten consciousness, to deepen our capacity for love, to fundamentally change how we relate to our inner and outer world. The four boundless qualities …
… loving-acceptance …
… compassion …
… joy …
… equanimity …
absolutely can, with practical practice, become the foundation from which we move in the world, relate to ourselves and others, and deal with the innate suffering of life. With every breath and every step, we can craft a masterpiece of an ever-awakening self, because steadfast practice shapes how our brain, body, and nervous system respond to stimulus, sending roots deep down into the heart of the highest good that human beings are capable of. The practice of anchoring the mind to the body and touching in to the present moment, with an open heart and a calm mind, brings us home. The volume of scripture without paper or ink is the shared consciousness we find there, the unspoken language between ourselves and the vast cosmos. A deep knowing, without words, that always radiates light, guiding us to take action in harmony with all things. To take refuge in the awakened self is to become a refuge for the whole world.
Sankalpa is the yogic spin on new year’s resolution. Translated from the sanskrit, sankalpa is “a sacred vow to stay connected to one’s highest truth.” I like to think of sankalpa as a mother of triplets: sravana, manana and nididhyasana. Sravana is when the body is so calmed and the mind so settled that the message of the heart can be heard. Manana is turning toward the message of the heart with dedication, contemplation, and engagement. Nididhyasana is the organic and embodied action that we take on behalf of the heart’s message when we have fully integrated it.
The poetry of sankalpa invites us to resolves of the heart. It shifts our attention away from entertaining messages of self-deficiency to engaging practices that remind us of our wholeness, a numinous feeling from which healthy and life-affirming choices arise easily. What might happen if you stepped away from chasing “a better you” on the self-improvement treadmill and instead stepped closer to a resolve to love yourself more deeply as you are? The wisdom of sankalpa recognizes that resolute action arises from a place of listening, of self-reverence, of a genuine desire for personal healing and wellbeing, not by constructing a set of hurdles to gain our own approval or to improve how others perceive us. To turn toward our challenges and shortcomings, not with admonishment and a desire to perfect, but with a compassionate curiosity about what fuels our choices and how the soul might better flourish to influence those choices.
Sankalpa invites us down a path that leads to a clearing. A clearing inside ourselves where important messages can be heard. And an act of clearing—the clearing out of internal and external clutter that distracts us from our connection to being alive in this moment. As we approach the new year, we might ask ourselves—in what ways am I scattering my spirit and in what ways am I gathering my spirit? What are the right conditions for my highest wisdom to surface? So that we can be clear, not about how to live a better life, but about how to stay connected to what makes us glad to live and to be well.
Slowly, slowly… November 24th, 2017
I recently had occasion to visit the woods for a full day. My caregiving responsibilities for my Mom have been so suffocating over the past several months that I simply haven’t had the time or energy for walks, much less hikes, and it was alarming how winded I got during my first summit. I had to stop 3 times to catch my breath. At the top of the mountain, as I took in the view and turned my face to the sun, closed my eyes to feel the rhythmic gusts of wind passing through, I felt my internal world finally start to meld with the pace of nature, rather than the pace of my whirling brain, and I felt myself receiving the world around me, instead of forcing myself through it. For the remainder of the day, I walked more and more slowly – a “saunter” as Thoreau would insist – and when I found a spot that intuitively attracted me, I gave myself permission to sit in that place silently for as long as I wanted to, letting go of my “hiking agenda”, and just sitting in the space for as long as it felt good, for as long as it needed to steep in me – no thoughts, no dialogue – just feeling its healing presence in my body. By the time I came to my second and final ascent, I felt as if I was no longer in control of the movement of my body, or the pace of my movement; my body was moving up the mountain as it wanted to, and in concert with nature. I found that my steps were quite small but vigorous and consistently rhythmic, and I could feel strong waves of chi in my feet dan t’ian. Without the slightest need or desire for pause, I made my way effortlessly up the mountain this time.
During my brief stint living in Africa many years ago, I picked up a frequently used phrase: “pole pole” (pronounced ‘polay polay’ in Swahili). If you tripped over something, or something went wrong, or you started to get frustrated or intensely sad about something, inevitably someone would respond with “pole pole”. It translates to English as “slowly, slowly”. Something is wrong? Oh, you just need to slow down. That simple. This December, how unconditionally patient can I be with myself? How often can I remember to tune into the sensations of my body and my breath NOT just during yoga and meditation practice but in the moments when I start to feel overwhelmed? Can I give myself radical permission and accountability to carve out time for things that slow me down enough to “receive” moments rather than force my way through them? Can I relax into the painful moments and slowly be with the pain with a heart of loving-kindness and support for myself rather than numbing out and dragging myself through it at a violent pace?
Relating Kindly To Yourself September 21st, 2017
Self-compassion is being open to and moved by one’s own suffering and recognizing that one’s own experience is part of the common human experience. – Kristen Neff
Shakyamuni Buddha told it like it is. The first truth of life, he said, is that we will encounter suffering. The first truth we can tell is to admit that we suffer and to name it. The second truth is to notice and admit our personal style of responding to suffering. Do you instinctively turn toward the feeling of suffering with a heart of kindness and compassion and pull out all the stops to address it and heal? Or, like most of us, do you blame and shame yourself for your suffering, power through it, and obsess over it when you are alone but conceal it around others?
How we relate to the fact of our suffering has everything to do with whether or not we ourselves aggravate and magnify our own suffering, and whether or not we engage, express, and digest our suffering, transform it into healing, and find access to joy in the midst of it. Liberative awareness, the Buddha taught, is a bird with two wings, both wings necessary to fly: compassion (unconditional friendliness toward oneself) and clarity (observing your thought, speech and behaviors with a curious and non-judgmental attitude). Meditation practices change how we relate to suffering when we approach our practice with unconditional goodwill toward ourselves and a healthy measure of patient curiosity toward our inner workings. When we change how we relate toward our own suffering, we change how we relate to one another’s suffering, and the suffering in the world. Every breath, every step, every word and action, an opportunity to relate kindly to ourselves and to one another.
An Everlasting Flower July 23rd, 2017
The ultimate source of comfort and peace is within ourselves. 14th Dalai Lama
Atta diipa saranam — take refuge in the island of yourself. Shakyamuni Buddha
The Korean chant that I intone in the early morning darkness to open my meditation practice says that inside of me are the eyes of eternity through which I can perceive the heart of existence, which is perpetually shining, even with the extinction of all things. The chant reminds me that to continually awaken myself to this inner knowing is “an everlasting flower”.
I find myself easily and often overwhelmed by the state of the world lately, and of our country. My thoughts and my feelings get dark. And in that darkness, I get knocked over the head with reminders to set aside despairing over what is wrong with the world, and to return to the fundamental work of being a peaceful and loving home to myself. Through that work, I stay connected to what is true, even with the inevitable coming and going of all things. Through that work, I become a source of refuge and of hope in the world, even with the inevitable coming and going of all things.
Inner peace is a doable thing. Embodied practice is key. Books and lectures are helpful, but pretty much a hill of beans if we are not awakening the concepts in our bodies. Inner peace feels like an actual place inside — both monks and neuroscientists will back me up on that. With familiarity, it becomes a touchstone. When it becomes a struggle to access it, the alarm bells go off to listen deeply; wait in the darkness, with whatever compassion, curiosity, and faith can be mustered, to locate and to generate an access point to internal refuge and safety. A path is formed by laying one stone at a time; and so, my practice of inner peace is the arduous work of laying stones through the darkest, most vulnerable and isolated parts of myself; and in the darkest, most challenging times. With every stone that gets placed, a masterpiece is crafted, of inner rootedness, inner peacefulness, inner wisdom.
To feel that we are an indispensable part of the love in this world, to feel the peace of irreducibly belonging to this world, no matter how imperfect it may seem, is the bare minimum of the truth we deserve to access. How much love you are willing to extend to yourself, and how safe your internal home is, determines how much of that truth you let in. Neglecting my body and my emotional needs, harsh self-judgment, shaming, isolation, and self-distrust exile me from my own inner world – my home – which is the world that connects me to all worlds.
Not a measuring stick. Not a weapon. April 26th, 2017
There was a time when I was largely motivated by the belief that I was fundamentally unworthy of love and that no matter how hard I tried to do well and be a good person, I was irredeemably abnormal, flawed and less than everyone else. This old conditioning still expresses itself in my life and my spiritual practice, and I have come to recognize the hallmarks of its presence. I acknowledge it when I catch myself pushing to obtain some imagined standard in my meditation practice or in my life, rather than simply trusting in what I am capable of; when I catch myself trying to feel a certain way rather than leaning in to what I am actually feeling; when I begin to pressure myself to over-prepare for classes or workshops or meetings, as if I’m not already good at what I do or comfortable with who I am; when I magnify perceived lack or flaws or weaknesses in myself, crafting ugly images with little regard for the gentle, well-meaning, beauty-seeking, and innately generous soul that powers the person that I am; when I feel the need to be very serious or austere to prove my worth or selflessness, rather than seeking out levity and joy to temper this life that already comes with plenty of heaviness and seriousness built into it; when I pressure myself to do more and be more and get it all done even at the cost of good sleep and healthy nourishment and a walk outside in the fresh air – all things to keep me healthy and glad to be alive; when I feel a strong internal dissonance — a sense of isolation and self-blame in my suffering — that is when I know my “never enough, not worthy” self has come to visit. In those moments, the wholesome practice of meditation and the wholesome practice of offering my gifts in the world gets warped into unwholesome activity. My meditation practice suddenly forgets to be a place of refuge–a place to connect with what is with compassion and curiosity. It becomes instead a measuring stick and a weapon to wield against myself or others. Shakyamuni Buddha said that “liberation is a bird with two wings: clear-seeing and compassion.” Through this teaching, I have learned that whenever I start to feel a sense of dissonance or isolation, the answer is ALWAYS to apply more compassion and self-acceptance.
At the age of eleven, my spiritual life was stirred awake by Christ’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’, by my walks alone in the woods, and by John Lennon’s song “Imagine”. The expansive feelings they stirred in me became moral compass points: listening to the natural world, protecting the vulnerable, commitment to the sanctity of life, imagining my way into a life of peace. These aspirations fundamentally shaped my life path. But there are moments when these moral drives find a way of warping themselves into weapons and standards to wield against myself and others. My spirit gets drained with a sense of burden and despair as I weigh all of the cruelty and suffering I see in the world against all of the kindness and grace. In the name of harsh self-sacrifice, I deprive myself of compassion and generosity and access to inward peace while trying to bring those same qualities into the world. I lose my sense of goodwill toward others with my self-righteous indignation and hostility toward ignorance and harmful actions, without considering the unseen suffering and lack of nourishment that fuels the behavior; I disregard the spirit of my perceived enemies and scoff at their audacity to be flawed and struggling human beings, as I am; as we all are.
The great singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt sang, “What is venerable can be damnable.” Spiritual practice and precepts and moral values are powerful, and as with any power, we must be vigilant not to wield that power against ourselves and others. Spiritual power is strictly for upliftance. We must ask ourselves regularly – how are my practices and values helping me to be with the world as it is? Am I using my spiritual practice and moral values to steady my soul or to drain my soul? To awaken myself or to punish myself? To love myself or to demean myself? To love the world or to demean the world? To wish healing and awakening on others or to wish them harm and further blindness?
Spiritual practices and precepts must be grounded in their proper context: expanding our capacity to love. Not a door-mat, it’s-all-good, rose-colored glasses kind of love, but the kind of love that the Greek word agape and the Tibetan word maitri point toward–goodwill toward all, independent of approval or disapproval. The love of God operating in the human heart. Our practice, grounded in its proper context, should not only sharpen our discernment and inspire constructive action, but also expand our patience to be with the world as it is, to be with ourselves as we are, to be with others as they are. “We are all on our path, Jenne,” Won Gong said gently to me once while we were chopping vegetables and I was expressing irritation about someone in a damning tone of voice. Our practice, in the proper context, is meant to bring us into relationship with the fact of imperfection — with a familiarity and intimacy with imperfection, a deep knowing and understanding that imperfection is the axis upon which reality spins, upon which we all spin — that we will always be an imperfect expression of ourselves, that our loved ones will always be an imperfect expression of themselves, that humanity will always be an imperfect expression of itself — because that is what makes things “go” in this reality we find ourselves in. We cannot have wisdom without neurosis, we cannot have affection without irritation, we cannot have the garden without the stinky decaying matter, we cannot have new life without death, lotus flowers without mud, joy without suffering, summer without winter, light without darkness — and neither one is more important or ‘better than’ the other because their equal weight, their equal importance, is the stuff of wholeness. If I befriend what is inside of me, ALL that is inside of me, the ‘darkness’ especially, I gain fearlessness and unshakable peace and unconditional loving-acceptance; I see that the suffering and struggle that I experience in myself are not my own, they are an expression of the shared human experience. When I stand in this awareness, I can relax my sense of being a separate “I”. I open myself to an experience of how inextricably linked I am to all things. I don’t have to get so caught up in being “Jenne”, attached and obsessed with my sense of self, with how good “I” am or how bad “I” am.
There was a moment during my meditation practice at silent retreat when I was overcome by the experience of no-self, of being utterly confronted by the field of aliveness around me and within me. All thoughts of self — evaluation, identification, and performing for others — dropped, entirely and absolutely, like 10,000 tons of weight shed in an instant. I was swimming so totally in the pure, unadulterated experience of being alive and a part of everything around me that I have never felt so satiated, so utterly complete, so indestructible with nothing separate or distinctive to destruct. Every word, every step, every action I took was organic: the fullest, most correct expression of my being possible, precisely the most good that could come from me at any given moment, without thought or grasp or control, because it simply wanted to arise from “me-connected-to-everything”. The axis of me-connected-to-everything was LOVE and ACCEPTANCE. The experience of total belonging and total immersion into the fabric of reality arose from love and acceptance of myself, love and acceptance of others, love and acceptance of the world, love and acceptance of all things.
Spiritual practice is not a measuring stick. It is not a weapon. It is not makeup that you apply to show everybody how good or how wholesome or how enlightened you are. It is a mirror that you continually wipe judgment from to reflect things as they are; a pond, where, through the work of peacefulness, the debris settles at the bottom so that the reflection is clear. It is an invitation to reach out through the space between us and to find where the heart can connect and where the healing can begin.
Won Gong asks, “What do you see
when you look out the window
before you say tree?”
I see long limbs reaching
to lift tiny green and blossoming beings
toward the nourishment of the sun.
Sometimes, I am the rooted branch
lifting others closer to nourishment;
sometimes, I am the fragile, trembling being
allowing myself to be lifted
by sturdier arms
toward the light.