No Struggle to Joy

As a follow up to my last post, I am now going to be in the community art show. I had let go of the struggle, stepped back and let go of the feelings of chaos around it all, and then on Monday was gifted by a dear friend and her husband with the loan of what I needed to frame my work for the show and their time and support needed to frame both pieces.

Part of the confusion in it all is that I had verbal confirmation of the show but by the weekend had not received written confirmation. On Monday, I was made aware that there had indeed been confirmation sent out but my name had been mistakenly missed. As I sat and pondered this shift and could name that I was fine with it all and at the same time feeling a bit disappointed in not participating with my friends and also feeling their disappointment, I allowed myself to again step out of the way and just name what I needed in the way of help if this was to happen. This naming allowed my friend to offer her support and by the end of the day, I had two framed pieces, the gift of time with good friends while learning the intricacies of the wooden frame, nails, etc. And most of all the reminder of shared endeavors and the riches in that experience rather than going it alone.

American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, writes about three ways to deal with chaos: “no struggle, poison as medicine, and regarding everything that arises as the manifestation of wisdom.” It is more than I can do here to clarify the three but in this type of situation, in letting the story lines go, we can stop struggling and make a choice, allowing ourselves to be present to what is in the moment. In naming without judgment we can relax. The river keeps flowing without my pushing it along. In fact on Monday afternoon it flowed me to a friend.

Pema states, part of our training in life and in our sitting meditation practice is “to lighten up, to have a sense of humor, to relax. As one student said, Lower your standards and relax as it is.”

As I get out of my own way by dropping my story line of how something is “suppose” to happen, something else arises, and, the joy in living greatly increases.

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Rest in the Posture

The highlight and largest breath of this week was a reminder, I don’t have to follow through on someone else’s wish for me if it does not fit or feel right in the moment. A no brainer, right? But one we easily forget to implement.

A week ago, in the first night at the college drawing class I am auditing, the instructor handed me a notice of an upcoming juried art show with the statement, “I really would like you to strongly consider entering.” And, to also be in the community art show the same weekend. So a seed was planted and I overlooked the word consider and went straight to I need to, or should, or must. I considered what I have in stock, my unfinished pieces, unframed or matted, one with need of a bit of repair, considered each one and brought them to Marko for his input. I came home after this weeks class on Wednesday night with a tight gut and a list in my head of what needs to happen in a weeks time. I did not sleep well. In the morning I put out a call to my framer and set an appointment and held an inner intention, if this does not flow well, I am not going to push myself. Good step number 1. Late that morning a call came in from the framer saying she could not meet at our proposed time but could meet later in the day at 4 p m.. Okay, I will be down in St. Paul anyway. At 3:45, I left the St. Paul office after a meeting ended early and was going to head a bit north, deal with the art, then head back down to St. Paul for a dinner gathering for a co-worker’s retirement.

Step number 2. I sat a moment in the parking lot envisioning the traffic heading north at this time of day and the drive back down to the restaurant. As the seconds ticked away a resounding NO entered and a lovely breath of air. No, I don’t need to add this to my life right now. Yes, I could pull this off if I rush but, I don’t feel like rushing.

Step number 3. Head down to the restaurant an hour early. Sit in the car and rest my body and brain, close my eyes for a moment. Finish the emails of the work day. Enter the restaurant and enjoy a delightful evening with people I very much care about.

In all of this, it was the gut that tipped me off. I realized since the Camino experience I have been in a wonderful state of calm and movement through life. I had earlier last year ended a relationship with a challenging volunteer position for a non profit. My month of travel swept away the tight gut of that experience and I have not felt that tightness since, until this past Wednesday night. My whole being said, I do not want to be rushing trying to fulfill expectations, no matter how well intended they are for me. 

This morning’s reflective reading held a piece by Rolf Gates in Meditations from the Mat. He was talking about staying in a yoga posture but what he said connected for me in the broader aspects of life. We need to make rest a part of our practice, and we need to take that rest long before we feel exhausted or frustrated. In yoga we would rest in child’s pose to catch our breath. As in yoga, we can take a break and rest and take a few calming breaths before moving on and beginning again into a different pose. Like stepping out of something, getting your bearings and then entering back in to a different project or a different way. Or we can rest in the posture itself by just backing off a little within the pose, rest for a breath or two, and then see if you can deepen the pose. The key is to do it long before we want to bolt. So we are in a meeting, we feel frustrated, rather than bolt for the door or shut down, we can begin to take a moment to be mindful of our breath, our surroundings, then re engage. Or, we are in the midst of creating a painting and start to feel our own expectations about the piece and work ourselves to exhaustion.  When I am feeling the pressure of expectations, I can breathe with the awareness of what I am feeling and then go deeper into the awareness as it guides me to right action.

Gates ends with the statement, As a young man I would look in awe at older people around me who could sustain their effort at a job or a project over many years. I didn’t realize that these men and women had learned to rest in the posture. 

In the grief realm, I remind people that they can take a break from grief. In fact our grieving, as we get stronger, is a flow between inward and outward. Engaging inward and engaging outward with family, friends, and community in a constant healthy flow. In a long term marriage we rest in mindfulness as we assess where we are and where we are going and adjust in the flow of it. The best advice a long time hospice social worker gave me 15 years ago when I entered the hospice work life was, “You will survive this work life in hospice if when your attention gets pulled into the stress and chaos of the management life of constant change and turmoil, you bring your attention back to the work you are here to do, patients, families, grief. ”

We learn to stay focused, rest in our breath, deepen our awareness and keep moving in to the next posture.

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The Darks and The Lights

In 1982, I declared myself a life long learner as I went back to finish my BA. I have achieved an MA and many certificates in programs 2 and 3 years long. Now, after 12 years away from formal education,  I am back as a student and the delightful thing is, it is now purely for the pleasure in learning. I am at our local community college enrolled as an auditing student in Drawing 1. An entire semester of learning for the grand sum of $30.40! No term papers to write. No worry about getting a good grade. As I sat with the 16 – 20 year olds who were very sweet and kind and talkative to me, and I was clearly the grandma of the class, I could only feel joy in just being present.

In 2010, when I turned 60, I jumped into learning watercolor painting. My mother, who also started painting in her 60’s, was my inspiration.  I held tight to, “If mom can do it,…” There is no doubt, it is intimidating learning something new, stepping back into beginners mind while trusting that as I might make a fool of myself there is hope or I can simply bow out gracefully and choose another route. It is all about being kind to one’s self which includes allowing for the risk of trying because the pay off is enormous.

I have decided after 7 years of painting, learning to draw would be a tremendous asset. As our instructor, Marko, ran through slides of previous student submissions into the art show that is coming up, I could only sink back further into my chair and hold onto it with gripping fingers so I would not bolt for the door while Marko states, “Oh, you will achieve this in about 4 weeks. Not to worry.” Okay, trust is a big factor here as well. A little humor goes a long way too. I realize I can’t take myself too seriously as Marko casually tells us, with 40 minutes left of class, “I want to see what level each of you are at so for the remaining time just draw a self portrait.”

Oh, man! Marko hands me a mirror. The me that begins to appear on my paper looks tired and on edge as the lines around the face are jagged and she has no life in her eyes. I quit counting the aging and stress lines on my face. The mouth is out of order, the eyes don’t seem right. How do you draw a nose without looking like a pig? Gratefully, Marko tells us to finish it at home. I sleep on it with thoughts of the question, what brings life to a portrait? How does one show the soul? The spark, spirit? I look again at the portrait in the late afternoon. Then I see it, what I could not see before. Looking in a mirror to paint a self portrait is always a reverse image but beyond that it is the shadows that tell the story, the shading around the eyes, mouth, and the nose that bring the pieces of a face together into a whole. As I adjust the drawing, I begin to see a softness form and a spark of interest in my eyes, with a soft smile of inner calm.

I am mindful of this awareness as I sit later with a bereaved spouse who is clearly not himself. He is despondent, lacking in any hope, wanting to end his days on earth, while hardly able to be heard in his mumble of a short conversation. He is so out of character, I have to rest my eyes and ask myself the question, “What am I seeing?” The man before me typiclly loves to converse, while deeply grieving he is always hopeful, dresses well, carrying himself with calm and pride. He loves to tell stories. Where is he? As I draw myself closer, almost touching knees, so I can bend in and hear his words, watch his body, see his downcast eyes, I begin to get a picture as he states in a whisper, “I don’t think I can reason myself out of this one.” When there is light in a being, the shadows highlight and provide contrast. When there is darkness the shadows accentuate the darkness. The light here, inside this dear man, was very dim. In further questions, and then talking to the daughter, I realize this man has his medications so mixed up, and his sleep and eating in such disarray that his mind cannot focus on the now. The pain is so deep and severe, he cannot make a whole of the pieces he finds.

He is now being watched closely and guided to the medical attention he needs but it is a reminder of our vulnerability in learning something new, in this case how to live alone after the death of a spouse of 67 years and when married as teenagers who had never left home. Everything, every thing, was done together by this couple. This is a big learning curve late in life as he struggles with memory loss as well.

The portrait of this man has shifted in a short time. I feared for him in his darkness until he was distracted for a moment and started to tell me about his granddaughter he was to see that evening. His pride and love for her filled his heart and he vibrated briefly with the thought of her as he told me her story of triumph over adversity. It was the dark of her story into light that raised his light and, for a moment, I saw energy rise, then fall again.

When the darks are too dark, they become harsh throwing everything off balance. It is the dark speck that shows the white spark of light in the eye. It is the dark shadow below the cheek bone that adds definition to the check and jaw. It is the dark lines of aging that adds interest to a life lived. It is the balance of light and dark that gives frame and equanimity to a life.  It is the light we see against the backdrop of dark that guides us forward like the light of the waning moon against the dark sky of night that greeted me this morning upon rising, like an old friend waiting for my arrival.

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Return To Love

Today, a young woman is dying and moving closer to her last breath. She will be leaving three little ones who will be too young to remember her. She is struggling and acknowledged to the Hospice team member, in a soft whisper, ‘I am afraid of dying.” She is young and we are used to supporting the elderly in their dying. Supporting the death of a 30 something is out of natural order and it brings pain and tears to those assigned to her care and to the whole team.

Most of us either acknowledge a fear of death, the unknown, or state that it is not a fear of death but the pain in dying and letting go of life and loved ones that we fear and grieve. If we are honest we can see that this fear gets played out in different ways every day of our lives as we make choices, usually unconsciously, based on any one or all of those fears.

We all know the spontaneous rise of fear when the body feels threatened. The feelings of anxiety and racing heart and mind. We fight to calm our breath and seek outside ourselves for answers and perspective, something to cling to that allows the fear to subside, something that distracts us and gives us a feeling of soothing or safety. It all seems to work for a while and then the cycle starts all over again At some point, we find it is the clinging that brings us full circle back to the fear of dying, the fear of letting go and having nothing to cling to in the attempt to claim our identity.

Death is not something most of us think about in our 30’s and it is something most of us can avoid thinking about on a day to day basis. When it comes time to take that journey ourselves or to assist a loved one on their journey we have little awareness of the experience.

We are a land of how to’s, directions for everything at our fingertips. I googled, “how the body dies,” and got a tremendous amount of information on how the soul leaves the body at death. And yet, it will be our first time, or not, depending on our beliefs, and we don’t know what it feels like, we don’t really know what it will uniquely be for us .

I am thinking of this today as the deeper I go in my meditation practice, I discover the more I have to let go of and to let go of clinging to, with a feeling of floating away from shore into nothingness. I am beginning to understand my meditation practice as the practice of dying.

11th Century mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg, writes:

The soul is made of love and must ever strive to return to love….By its very nature it must seek God, who is love. 

It is not what we find in the distractions or what we consider a safety net; shopping, reading or anything else that takes the mind away. Rather it is that which we seek in the inner life through prayer, contemplation, meditation, alone time in nature, and ultimately death, that brings relief to our pain, our suffering. We seek to return to love. It is something to remember when we fear death, or the death of another, and struggle to understand. We seek to return to love. It is the timing of our death we do not know. But as one team member offered, “You were born, you gave birth, you know how to do this.” We struggle with believing that we do know how to die, to return to love.

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The Seed Within

A seed has been planted inside your heart and love is the water that feeds. With love eternally it will grow; the Divine Mother, She makes it so. Be in the now, you will find, and be in the heart, you will see. Allow the love that grows so deep inside, for within there lies a seed.  Traditional South American hymn

The beginning of a new calendar year, 2018. The celebrations of life and love have calmed, the children are heading soon back to school, thoughts of the new year arise with plans, resolutions, and determination while we sit in a deep freeze that stretches far and wide. Our focus turns inward to the heart of the home and to our own inner life, deepening awareness and calming all senses as we go about our work and our life connections.

When I went to the grocery store yesterday, all signs of the holidays had been stripped and Valentine candy, cards, and ornamentation were the replacement on the shelves. A reminder that we struggle with staying in the present moment and jump to the next pleasure in the future that gives us the joy of anticipation but strips us of the here and now. The joy in the now is the now, this moment, this breath, this person before me, this task at hand, this prayer in the mind, this blessing, this creation.

Leo and I have a tradition that we started about ten years ago. Sometime during this first week of the new year we take a day together to look back over the past year and reflect on the movement during that year. We then look to this new year as we understand it in this moment of this day. We look at our values and goals in our physical life, health, spiritual life, finances, trips, house projects, our giving, work life, family and friend connections, education, art and woodworking, play time, and anticipated large purchases. We both look forward to this day as a grounding for the year ahead.

Of course life has it’s own plan and I can look back over the records of these days of visioning and see the year offered its own surprises, more pressing needs, and unexpected opportunities. That awareness makes the exercise all the more rich as we name what is of value to us and then see what happens. Some years one or two items will keep getting added and keep moving year after year to the new list and then the day will arrive when that item is checked off the list.

We keep watering, trusting in the day when flowering happens, the heart opens, the mind expands.

Blessings on this new year, in all life, in all places. May we all find peace and calm, joy and good health, and the beauty of the seed within.

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Peace

In whatever way we define ourselves spiritually or religiously, whether we follow the Ten Commandments or the Eight Fold Path, the core principles and supportive disciplines are similar. We are asked to strive to live simply, do no harm, reduce self will, be selfless in our service to others, read scripture, pray, meditate, live peace, and live out to our best ability our unique role in the world.
Larry, a dear friend, a Vietnam Vet, singer, song writer, and teacher, wrote a lullaby in 1991 as his response to the Gulf War. Larry is a unique, gentle, caring, spirit filled man who lives out his role through music. I share it today in the midst of our busy world filled with the noise of anger and cynicism as it is Larry’s birthday week. I sat last evening with my eyes closed, breathing gently and calmly, shoulders relaxed, listening to Larry and Bret sing and strum, and I felt gratitude for all that we each offer the world in our own unique ways.
Here are a few of the lines from the chorus:
On a Thursday, in the evening
I am sitting in my kitchen
Guitar singing, me I’m wishing
Sending love out to my children.
 
In their beds tucked in and dreaming
Curled up tight gently breathing
In the midnight children sleeping
And their angels’ watch are keeping.
 
In the midnight children sleeping
And their angels’ watch are keeping.
 
In the midnight children sleeping
And their angels’ watch are keeping…….
I wish each of us peace in our hearts and in our days, and in our nights as our brains and bodies recharge and refresh and offer to you and yours from A Loving Kindness Meditation:
May all beings be peaceful and at ease
May all beings be well and happy
May all beings be free from suffering, and
May all beings know the beauty of their own true nature
Click or Copy and paste to find Larry’s song and enjoy..
Blessings and love to all in this season of love and light. May we carry our joy, love, and compassion forward as we walk into a new year of life on this planet we call home.
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All That We Host

We are entertaining more than usual this season, three family events, about 20 people each time, three weeks in a row. I have been thinking of guests and hospitality.

When I first met Leo and spent time at his family home with his family of 11, I was most taken by the amount of people who would simply stop by with no notice and, most frequently over a meal time. Somehow more food would be found, a jar of peaches from the root cellar, another loaf of bread, smaller pieces of cake, anything to make the meal go further. Sometimes, I felt that I was watching the story of the Loaves and Fishes. With smiles on their faces, laughter, story telling, and card playing, the guests were welcomed with open arms and hearts and made to feel at home. Living as my family did, further from family and relatives, we did not share that experience unless we were visiting in the Upper Peninsula as the guests.

In many cultures the guest is seen as God having just walked through your door. The guest is offered the best even if there is very little. The guest would not necessarily be someone known to you but a stranger, a traveler, or a group of travelers seeking food, shelter, and hospitality for the weary. We know the role of the host but what of the guest? The guest, who might be experienced as God in human form, is to receive what the host has to offer, humbly accepting their gracious service. We live in a more cynical time. It is hard to imagine us opening our homes and welcoming in a stranger who shows up at the door.

We like to feel prepared for any guest, sending out invitations, preparing the home and the food for the event, and being in control of the situation. Like a wedding or even a funeral, we plan and usually our plans do not behave and we are met with a surprise. An estranged uncle shows up, a few we planned on and paid for decide not to arrive as promised. We feel hurt, angry, and complain for weeks after. We hold on to the experience because it is not what we planned. At times we might even feel that it ruined our time, our event. The unwanted change, we feel, took something from us.

We find out that even God can change her plans. Rather than expecting the unexpected, we expect that our life will be honored the way we design it and when things don’t turn out the way we expect, we move into anxiety, irritation, hurt, complaining, and anger.  These emotional and mental states are really the unwanted guests and once these unwanted guests arrive, we have a hard time being the host we really want to be. Our body, mind and emotions become the hosting ground for a whole group that wants to camp out and take over, not allowing the peace we desire, and we become distracted. We  really desire to be the hosts to truth, love, beauty, and all that is of highest virtue in our own lives and being the host requires adjusting as we go.

When we bring this attitude into our own hearts, accepting ourselves and others as we are along with the surprise elements that show up, we grow into patience, recognizing the opportunity for taking a breath, allowing the surprise to ride through us, and when the body is calm again, opening a heart to that which is unexpected. Not good or bad, simply unexpected. We adjust. We throw out the plan and let a new script be written.

I enjoy being the host and I enjoy being the guest and I look forward over the next two weeks to the humble task of serving, with, hopefully, surprises and all.

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A Video Presentation

Since my return from El Camino, I have been gathering photos and creating a video of our journey to share with all of you. It is complete and my son assisted in making it available on Vimeo. Copy and paste the link to view. It is a delight for me to see it each time and breathe in the gentle air and feel it again on my skin. I remember the dear people we met, the food, the feel of the paths walked, the laughter shared, and the countless ways of being supported.

http://vimeopro.com/cineomatic/el-camino-2017

Enjoy!

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Taking the Empty Chair

Oh God! make me busy with Thee, that they may not make me busy with them. Rabia

Ha! This showed up as this mornings reflection from Blue Mountain Meditation Center. I burst out laughing. It is so true in so many ways.

Whether it is in meditation or sitting for prayer, the mind is going through its endless lists and planning, running commentary regarding work, situations that have brought conflict, dreaming about something in the future, regretting something in the past. It gets so busy in the mind, we find ourselves arguing with ourselves because there certainly isn’t anyone else in there. Meditation is most likely the situation Rabia was speaking of in his declaration but we can all identify in countless ways. Enough already. There are only so many ways we can spread ourselves out with invitations to be more involved in civic organizations, political, Facebook, holiday events. Who are the “them” that are calling us to show up?

What Rabia calls for is focus. Let me be so focused that nothing else intrudes, nothing distracts. In today’s language, the call is for recharging, rebooting. Somewhat crass language for sitting in mindful awareness but it is language familiar to us. If we do not recharge our computer or phone or iPad we have an instrument without any power. We are the same. We need focused time for recharging or we are running around without any juice.

When we are depleted we get short tempered, make mistakes, make errors in judgment, at times succumb to illness or injury, and we loose our connection to the Self within. We hurt those we love including ourselves. It hardly seems worth it but we get so sucked in to tasks we don’t know when to step back.

It is as simple and as hard as setting time for ourselves, committing to it, and showing up to ourselves. Getting recharged can feel compelling when we get used to sitting in quiet with ourselves. We want more. We find ourselves looking forward to siting in the empty chair or cushion and simply and profoundly being engaged in the act of  being. Not busy doing. Simply being. Feeling the connection to all life in all forms. Breathing in beauty, joy, and relaxation.

The chair for the weary traveler. El Camino 2017   Take it, it’s yours!

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A Healing Balm

The Christmas and seasonal decorations are on display in our home and it feels peaceful and festive. I am aware, as I place items, that it is like dressing. Choosing the outfit, the jewelry, telling a story with the choices made and the colors displayed, all symbols of how we are feeling in the day or the season. The outer display of the inner journey.

This phenomenon is alive in many forms in the month of December which honors many special days in the Christian and Jewish traditions as well as including spiritually significant days for Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans and Zoroastrians as well as African-American Kwanzaa. Each rich and alive with tradition in its many forms.

Leo’s family has a tradition of stopping at people’s homes to see their tree. That was a tradition foreign to me but with his large family and extended family all in the same area, off they would go to see a decorated tree. Each tree in each home designed by a family or family member reflecting beliefs, personality, style, taste, likes and dislikes. We each year tell a story with our ornamentation or lack there of, whether we are Christian, or secular and choosing to celebrate Christmas or any other faith or tradition honoring a tradition of celebration.

In the spring season of the Christian Easter, I have attended Jewish Passover in different locations and found this true in the way the stories are told, the seder plate, the personal tastes imbued in the foods. I have celebrated the winter solstice for many years with different friends which was a new creation each year with some elements honored and held. Some with a party, others with burning a traditional oak log, gathering water for the new year, drumming, meditation, and connecting to the earth.

Each celebration in any season brings in light, love, and that which is larger than our singular life on earth, holding all that we hand down, to be used or not, with variations of the next generations additions and subtractions.

I turn to the altar I redesigned on returning from the Camino. I enjoy altars. I have made them many times over the years. A place to honor the Divine in whatever form, adding items from nature, candles, maybe a photo of one who has left this world, or one who needs prayers at this time. As with decorating a house at a holiday, it draws our attention, gives a place to focus and center, being aware of the story told with an outward reflection of the inward journey. It offers a place to ground and is as simple as one candle and as elaborate as one can imagine.

A personal altar offers a quiet reflective place to be in a busy season. Even places of worship are busy drawing one out of the inward reflective space. We live in an extroverted, busy, talkative society. Creating a space where one can take a seat in conscious awareness is a personal gift to the self, now and any time of the year. It tells a story, reflects our inward journey, might include objects and beliefs handed down or might be inclusive of an entirely different spiritual direction. Each year we have many opportunities for ritual, many ways of tradition, as well as space for expressing the beauty and the story of this moment.

Marilyn is 80. Her husband died shortly after last year’s Christmas. This year she is emotionally revisiting those days and states that while she is a person who will decorate every room at Christmas she desires nothing this year as she sits in deep sadness, loneliness, and loss. As we sat and entered the story, she expressed that while the decorating was her delight, she and her husband found their Christmas connection in the manger scene. They always set it up together and it was a connecting piece for them in this season. As Marilyn talked of how the kids would come and bring down all the decorations from the attic, I asked if maybe this year they could just bring down the manger scene, the connecting piece for her and her beloved. I saw Marilyn’s heart open with a smile and a feeling of relief pour over her body. “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. Yes, that is just enough.” The manger scene is enough to tell her story, this year. An altar for her gaze and reflection. A connecting piece to something larger than self. This year a healing balm.

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