An Embodied Journey

This appeared as my morning reflection (by Jon Kabat-Zinn):

     The rehabilitation of the body, in the sense of fully inhabiting it and cultivating intimacy with it is, however it is, is a universal attribute of mindfulness practice… Since it is of limited value to speak of the body as separate from the mind, or of mind separated from body, we are inevitably talking about the rehabilitation of our whole being, and the realization of our wholeness moment by moment, step by step, and breath by breath, starting as always, with where we are now.

This spoke to me this morning as three events of the week came together in this quote. I enjoyed a spirited discussion yesterday with friends over lunch about the body/mind relationship as it relates to our compassion and caring as individuals and the gun violence which we live with in our culture. I watched the 2010 movie “Temple Grandin” this week and I have been learning about contour drawing and how to fully enter that experience.

In my early years, as for many of us, we received distorted information and education about the body from our churches and therefore handed down through parents and educators. The body being an “occassion for sin”, “the body is the devil’s playground.” Women in particular learned that they are the temptress, the vehicle for men to loose control of their reason. We learned of saints, who we were told to emulate, who used self flagellation to punish their bodies in an attempt to keep themselves in control. We were taught fear and left in ignorance about our bodies and believed that it is best to be disconnected from this physical home, ignore this body, and be more holy for the leaving of it behind.

This belief system belies our own experience when we are more fully present with ourselves with awareness of our physical selves. There was a time when I was experiencing anxiety attacks. The release of the anxiety came when I could learn to trust and breathe into my body and be present with each breath, bringing mind and body together and sitting in that awareness. Temple Grandin was born with autism in a time when this condition was greatly misunderstood. As she observed her world, she found peace, comfort and an ability to navigate this world as she learned how to be more fully present in her body thereby increasing her ability to understand compassion, caring, and kindness. Compassion is the ability to feel another’s pain and bear that pain with them. Temple learned this through her witness of the pain of animals and bringing that to a level of understanding through her own body. Rather than further disconnecting from her body, she went more fully into her body and revolutionized animal husbandry and opened a door into greater understanding of autism for future generations. Her work in the world was through her body/mind connection, the wholeness of her being. As is ours.

In my art class, one of the first things we were taught was contour drawing. Drawing slowly, with each breath, as if you are touching the edge of the object which you are observing. This has been a challenge for me as I have a quick, sharp mind and I do things quickly and efficiently. I tend to see things whole first and am quick to get to completion. I have had to greatly, consciously, slow down. It is painfully slow and yet there comes the moment when I am with the breath and the sense of time and space change and dissolve in the now.

It seems the conflict lies in our identification with our body, mind, emotions, and thoughts. We are not any of these. We live in a day to day sense of false identity; I am fat, I love this, I hate that, I am sad, I am happy, I am bad, I am good. We hold the body, emotions, and thoughts as who we are rather than a vehicle that requires good care, maintenance, and respect. Within that awareness we can let go of identifying with what we think, feel, and look like as these are merely energies of mind and emotions passing through. We are spirit born into this body, this mind, these emotions, moving through life seeking our true selves. A grieving individual will ask me, how can I grieve and be done with these feelings? There is no circumventing our grief or our lives. We can only go through, honestly feeling what we are feeling, not believing every thought that goes through our head, not identifying ourselves with every emotion that runs through us, not holding firm to what we perceive as absolute truth.

It is by fully being in our being that we then transcend into a more full sense of self as Self, a spark of God, Atman, Nirvana, however we name that which is wholeness. When we are fully aware of ourselves in our experience, a door opens to a more expansive understanding, realization, freedom. We live the compassion we seek. We breathe in the love that is boundless.

Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world. Mary Oliver

Labyrinth in Tuscon AZ 2017

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Our Daily Work

It feels as if spring is arriving and we are being nudged out of hibernation. We are enjoying the warmth of the sun on our skin, if not a bit cool. We saw two young men in shorts. Maybe my brain will thaw as well and I will be able to write again or maybe it is just that life has been a bit too full and disjointed to get thoughts to line up.

I have been thinking of our travel trailer in storage and some work that needs to be done when we pull her out in early April, and planning a trip to Chicago with two of the oldest grandchildren which happens also in early April, and our family trip to the UP in June and other summer events. My body and spirit want to move more even though I exercise every morning. A bit of adventure thrown in would be welcome. I have been a student for five weeks and already I feel ready for spring break.

Since adding a class to my life, writing has had to be pushed aside for time and I miss the writing and reflection. As I sat in meditation this morning, I remembered that whether I am writing, drawing, painting, meditating, playing with the children, or sitting with a bereaved, it is all the same when I am present. Each activity when I am present allows me to see, feel, experience life in a moment. When I take a seat or stance or walk in the present moment I am alive and connected to life. It may feel like my time is torn between one thing and another but it is not, as at the core it is all the same exercise and as Jon Kabat-Zinn states, it is all “taking your seat in and in relationship to the present moment.” It is our relationship to this moment that is our life. Usually what keeps us out of the present moment is anxiety and regret, one for the future and one for the past. We live in our constant inner chatter about one or the other.

This is my life and it can all seem trite and mundane when we hear reports of yet another school shooting and the loss of so many beautiful lives and this awareness too becomes the practice of focus and staying present. We sit with our caring, our anger, our concern, our activism but not by loosing ourselves in a future or a past but by continuing to live in the moment that is ours in each breath. We connect to the source of each moment as best we are able to be open to grace, spirit, love, compassion and then we bring these out into this world we inhabit.

As Kabat- Zinn states in his book, Arriving at Your Own Door, “Now is already the future and it is already here. Now is the future of the previous moment just past, and the future of all those moments that were before that one.” We live with anxiety worried about the future and if we are where we “should be” in life. Are we where we thought we would be when we looked forward at age 21? And yet, we are our future in this very moment.  We create worry and anxiety about some untold future not realizing our tomorrow is built on today. As we re-center in this one moment, the only one we have, we build a center for tomorrow. We build peace on peace, joy on joy, compassion on compassion. At the center of my being I do know why I am here and why I am drawing and writing and I trust in where it is all taking me. I believe all of this when I hold a steady attention, some days, some moments, being harder than others. By holding a steady attention, holding a focus, we can rest in the focus. There is no anxiety. There is only space, breath, and presence; all grounding for a full life.

Seventeen lovely children and adults were in the midst of a day, in the midst of a breath, and it was the last. We sit in that awareness and feel the pain of those who have been left behind, who grieve their loss, who feel confused and uncertain of their future and wish, with every breath, they could change this past. As we sit in this awareness, we enter this moment with them through each breath in and through each breath out, transforming in each breath hate for love, anger for peace, doubt for faith, despair for hope. We hold steady in the strength we have today and make this our offering, this our daily work toward an untold future, this a promise for a more compassionate loving tomorrow.

The dawning of a new day, a new moment, at Morning Sun.

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The Warmth of Love in a Cold Climate

We are in a new month. I am noticing closely as we are not going anywhere for the winter months and it is interesting to watch the movement of weather while noticing how I feel about the weather. For the most part, being here in the cold and snow is fine. It just is. What I am missing is being outside walking as I just don’t go out when it is so cold. I mainly notice the weather when I see a photo on facebook of someone in a warm climate. Oh my, to walk outside again would be delightful!

We are in full moon time, the stars are bright and crisp in these below zero nights. I pray with gratitude for the warm home we live in and pray that all might have a warm safe place to lay their head for the night. My studio/office faces south and the warm rays of the sun surround me as I sit at my desk. I try to sit facing the sun streaming in through the window to soak in some vitamin D.

It is an introverted time of the year as we are still wrapped in darkness for a good part of our 24 hour day. We enjoy small intimate dinner gatherings and head to bed early or sit quietly reading. We can be more patient with our lives when we are buried in snow as travel in extreme weather and darkness isn’t fun anyway. It is as if we live through months of energy conservation saved up for the high days and nights of summer. We also notice we spend less money in winter as we go less and shop less. We add 5 lbs of extra weight to our bodies just to keep ourselves warm.

Winter requires creative endurance while creating ways to stay active, engaged, and healthy in the unforgiving cold. One of my bereaved, 83 year old gentleman, is as giddy as a teenager with the delight of meeting a woman who he finds interesting and good company. His daughter is stunned with the transformation and pleased that he has come out of himself and found a reason to get up in the morning. Winter gives us a reason to reach out to find friends who understand our need for connection in these days that otherwise draw us into seclusion.

Finding warm love in the midst of a bitter winter is good for the soul. It brings a smile to the heart and we all grow larger for knowing it.

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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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