On Cultivating Stillness

20 Jun

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This week a few people have posted vacation pictures on FB. A couple photos in particular stood out to me. A friend in Maine has been posting images of seaside landscapes and quaint houses with flowerbeds. Another individual, visiting in Alabama, has been posting pictures of the Tennessee River, including the image above.

When I look at this Blue Heron everything in my being seems to stop and calm down. I am temporarily arrested by its beauty and the stillness of the water. The photo calls to mind a different pace – a time when summer was deeply intertwined with a slower rhythm. I remember when summer was a period where children felt occasionally bored and adults sat on their porches in the evenings with a glass of lemonade or a gin and tonic.

Our calendar year is broken into seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. Yet unless we live in a region where the climate truly dictates what we can and can’t do, we often lose track of nature’s cycles and rhythms. Instead, the show goes on. Electricity allows us to work until late in the evening and snow plows clear the roads so people can get to work despite terrible conditions. So like the Energizer Bunny, we go and go and go too. Until we are possibly on the brink of collapse.

Yet in some European countries, it is customary for people to take the entire month of August off. For them, summer is a time to pause and to be a little less productive. For me, I think about my childhood summers and how even though I enjoyed school, it was nice not to have to be up early every morning and to follow a set routine. I enjoyed reading books in bed, watching re-runs of “Leave It To Beaver,” and spending hours outside. Though an adult now, and without the luxury of discretionary free time, my spirit still pines for it. My soul wants a period of less structure and more spontaneity. It wants time for rest, a little boredom, and no agenda. Although a challenge, I think it’s possible to cultivate a bit of stillness within the chaos of summer activities, family gatherings, work, and social commitments. It might be that we spend a weekend reading a novel instead of running endless errands. Maybe we get take out food or eat peanut butter out of a jar, if we don’t want to hassle with the grocery store. Perhaps we do more exercise or spend time in nature to break the pattern of our never ending racing thoughts. Then again, we might simply look at this photo and for a few seconds, stare out at the greater expanse of existence where we can be still and know God.

The FB Prism of Fatherhood

15 Jun

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The other day on the radio, I heard an announcer say that the most important job in the world is being a father (or mother) but as this weekend is Father’s Day, the man was speaking about dads. And I couldn’t agree more that the shaping of another human being is probably the vocation people should take most seriously. That does not however mean that everyone does.

Whenever we have one of these national honoring of parent days, it’s impossible not to think a little about the role of mothers and fathers in our lives and what it might mean to be a parent (or not to be). Most Father’s Days I am on auto-pilot. My own father died in 2002 and prior to that, I had been estranged from him for fourteen years. But with the advent of FB, I can’t fully forget about the day if I log on, which happened this morning. I had temporarily forgotten that it was Father’s Day. FB reminded me.

A dear friend of mine, who I have known over twenty years has just had a baby. I see his groggy face as he holds the tiniest of babies next to his physical frame. My boyfriend has a picture of he and his teenage girls as his banner photo. And another friend has posted a collage of photos of she and her dad, including the fact that he wrote her daily while she was away at boarding school. My own dad, who I saw for the first time in years while he was dying of cancer merely asked me what kind of car I was driving. He didn’t acknowledge all the years lost in-between or ask what I did for a living, whether I was married, or if I had kids. He didn’t seem too concerned with whether or not I was happy because upon no longer being an extension of him, he didn’t recognize me. Yet at one point, I had been the apple of his eye.

I could be sad over my own relationship with my father. There were years when I was down right livid and there are still times when subconscious feelings seep up out of the depths showing me that no matter how much I think I’ve moved on, there are more layers to this onion. But for the most part, when I feel pain, it is in tandem with witnessing a more legitimate form of fatherly love. So it’s a mixed bag. While it’s difficult to acknowledge what one didn’t get, it’s hopeful to see that there is a another way of doing things. I am also keenly aware that nothing in life is black or white. I remember what it felt like to be loved and someone’s daughter, even if it was a highly distorted version of it. Most parents are simply doing the best they can. And at some point, if we can, we forgive them their humanity and the sins of the fathers.

I am due to go to church today and I will remember, as I always do, that there is a Supreme Father/Mother/Creator and that s/he will not let us be orphans.

Focusing….

6 Jun

In yoga there is a balance pose that entails wrapping one’s leg around the other while standing with a semi-bent leg and then placing one’s arm over the other arm and twisting them into a pretzel-like shape. The only way to hold the pose without toppling over is to stare straight ahead at a point on the wall and not dare take your gaze away – not even for a second. I am actually quite good at this for some reason. Perhaps it is because I learned a similar technique as a child in ballet where in order to turn without getting dizzy you have to “spot” somewhere on the wall as your head and body spin around in rapid succession.

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Activities like yoga help us practice more than physical actions; they help us apply some of these concepts into our lives. How do we find balance? And how can we execute and accomplish anything when so many things compete for our attention?

I am finding that in this day of cell phones, email, multiple social and work circles, personal relationships and all of the things that compete for our attention, moment by moment I have to ask myself, “Where is the spot on the wall?” There are times when I simply have to tune out everything but the one thing that needs my focus be it a person, a loved one, an animal, or a complex task. Yet more than anything I have to focus on God as my source. He is the spot that keeps me sane and when I remember that, it is easier to concentrate during the day.

Related, Stephen Covey in his very well known book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” writes about the importance of centering one’s life around key priorities vs. abstract tasks. The latter is endless and will always bleed your life force while the former will actually help you stay centered and efficient around what really matters.

I must remember that as long as I spot, I can find my balance. And I must remember that this is a spiritual practice vs. yet one more thing I am attempting to control. Here’s to focusing so intently, the paradox results in surrender.

Longing for Simplicity

31 May

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Last week I spent time in Lancaster, PA, home of the Amish and much beautiful farmland. What drew my attention wasn’t the attire of the Amish or the sight of horse drawn buggies chugging along the shoulder of the road. Instead, I was struck by the beauty of the landscape and the image of families working together in the fields.

I spent my childhood summers in Wisconsin so this terrain is not entirely unfamiliar. While staying with my grandparents, I had the opportunity to visit many a farm and sung songs to myself while playing in cornfields. Witnessing the Amish tend their farms reminded me of this and left me with a haunting longing for a life more attuned by nature and its rhythms. Looking at a group of cows sitting in a field of yellow flowers, I thought, “Wow. What a nice life.”

This morning while reading the Twitter and FB feed, I stopped for a moment and said to myself, “What the hell? What the hell is this all about? This constant need to press myself into the world all in the effort of building a platform? My only intention with these efforts is that perhaps one day my voice will be loud enough for a publisher to notice me and to bet on an unknown horse. But to what avail and at what cost? On my deathbed will I care how many followers I have on Twitter? Or will I instead be glad that I produced quality work even if it never gets recognized and out into the world? I have no answers because as much as I longed for simplicity as a child, I also longed to be recognized and to influence. But I wonder if ambition causes us to miss the mark all together.

This week the gifted Maya Angelou passed away – a woman of remarkable talent and endurance. How did this woman live her life and how did she generate her influence? When I think of famous people of dimension, integrity and talent, I wonder if they longed to be players on the world stage, or if simply living their truths led to this phenomenon. Is it possible that if we embody the vision, visibility follows organically?

And in the end, what is it that we’re living for anyway?

The Art of Practice

15 May

When I used to teach mindfulness meditation in the hospital where I worked, I candidly told people that they would feel no benefit from sitting once. To experience a shift, they needed to “practice” mindfulness.

Most people try meditation once, get frustrated that they feel no change, and then never try again. I find this curious as we would never expect to become a concert pianist without practicing our scales. Yet when it comes to wellness, and stress management in particular, most of us want a quick fix. We want to feel good, yesterday!

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I remember a yoga teacher once saying that in order to relax, one had to invest a certain degree of effort. I was struck by his comment because he was right. I found it a chore to go to his Friday night restorative yoga class. Inevitably, I just wanted to go home and have a glass of wine. To switch into yoga clothes and drive to a busy part of town was the last thing I felt like doing. What I discovered though was that after an hour and a half of lying in various poses, I felt as if I had been drugged. I actually couldn’t stop myself from falling asleep by 9:00 pm and sleeping ten hours straight.

All a mindfulness practice requires of us is that we be willing to sit on a cushion. And yet for a number of us, this can create tremendous resistance. To stop and pause in the midst of our busy day can seem both a waste of time and even silly. But if we want to develop the ability to be present with anything and everything that is happening within and around us, it is a practice worth cultivating.

Mindfulness is both a philosophy and a practice in which there is no goal. One doesn’t try to relax, to empty the mind, or to achieve a perfectionist blissed out state of being. The only objective is to observe one’s thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations with curiosity and compassion vs. judgment.

This is actually really hard to do at first. When I’ve taught mindfulness I have experienced people’s resistance in the form of coughing, shifting in their seats, fidgeting, and even getting up and leaving the room because they couldn’t tolerate sitting for fifteen to twenty minutes in relative silence. Yet inevitably, if we offered the mindfulness class a few times a week, which meant that individuals had more mindfulness exposure, and a structure to practice it, they began to actually look forward to the experience and to request it more often. As they practiced, they began to feel the comfort that  sitting with one’s breath can bring – even if comfort isn’t the objective. Once again, the only task is to just “be” in a state of curiosity and compassion vs. judgment.

I too have gotten out of practice. I have no idea why but after years of an active sitting practice, I simply stopped doing it. Getting back to sitting has taken some “practice.” I’ve had to develop a routine: ten minutes in the morning, ten minutes at noon, and ten minutes before bed. To enforce this schedule, I’ve had to leave my cushion out where I can see it as a reminder and sometimes I have to set an alarm. Mindfulness doesn’t come automatically. One actually has to be mindful about mindfulness.

I started sitting while living in NYC . I was overwhelmed by the onslaught of stimuli there coupled with my own emotional experience. I no longer live in NYC but now there is a different onslaught of stimuli that overwhelms me. While I enjoy the benefits of modern technology, the constant barrage of information makes me spin. I also find the pressure to respond to constant messages, whether they be texts, emails, or phone calls, exhausting.

The outside world isn’t going away. It’s here to stay. My inner world and physical body are the only things I have some measure of control over. I can take a few minutes to sit while the world runs around doing its thing. I can make a choice to be still and to enjoy a few breaths. Before the moment is gone. I can make living a practice and that practice an art.

 

 

 

Why Waiting Is Worth It

8 May

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As a never been married woman about to turn 45, I have heard it all. If you want to know what NOT to say to someone in this situation, take note. I’ve been told that if I really wanted love that I would have manifested it (subtext = you’re either ambivalent or not working hard enough). I’ve been told that if I put as much effort into finding a partner as I did my carer or studies, I easily would have found someone by now. I’ve been told I need to get out more (the assumption being that I am shy wallflower, which I’m not). I’ve been told to not be so picky.

It has been suggested that maybe I need to work through my “issues”… Do you know how many people are in relationships who haven’t worked out theirs?

It has been insinuated that because I am thought to be pretty, there must be some great mystery as to why haven’t I gotten hitched. I’ve been called “catwoman” and also accused of being married to my work, which is definitely not the case. (But I have to support myself. After all, I’m single).

No one has ever questioned my sexual orientation, although I think this once crossed my mother’s mind, and I’m sure it has others as well. I’ve seen the pitying looks as well as the patronizing or fearful ones. I’ve also seen the “don’t you dare talk to my husband!” dagger eyes and jealous, longing stares from men and women alike wishing they too could go off to a yoga class or to surf but can’t because their lives are tied down with domestic commitments.

And through it all, I’ve stubbornly held out knowing that I had not quite found long term partnership. There have been dalliances, close calls, genuine love, plus many opportunities to learn. But I have never felt what I am feeling right now.

God does not leave us in the desert forever.

Yet one can no more look for love than try to make it rain. Instead is something that simply finds you. Yes, when you least expect it. And when you’ve come to doubt it may ever happen and you’ve even made peace with that.

I remember someone once saying that I would find love simply by doing my own thing and that one day, there would be someone walking a similar path that would simply come up beside me. Tell that to anyone today. That you’re just going to do your own thing and that love will find you. Individuals will look at you like you’re off your rocker. But ultimately, that is what I said I’d do. I was tired of trying to make things happen.

For years nothing happened.

And then suddenly, the wait was worth it.

On New Life

22 Apr

As a young girl, I was expected to do a fair amount of gardening. I wanted to rebel, but I enjoyed gardening. As I pulled dead leaves from shrubs, pruned and re-potted, my mind quieted until the only sound I perceived was the rustle of the wind. I discovered that cutting back limbs gave birth to new buds and that pulling weeds at their stems allowed other plants to breathe. As my fingers thrust into the earth, I could feel the pulse of creation, echoing back my existence as well. And as the sun nourished the plants I tended, it also sustained me.

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Spending hours in the garden, I began to perceive a type of wisdom inherent in creation. Although not spelled out for me, I discovered truths in what unfolded daily. Creation and the creative process itself seemed to reflect aspects of the Divine and what I perceived were expressions of God’s love. If there could be such beauty, God must exist and if new growth emerged from decay, this must be God’s regenerative grace. However, somehow we have to see beyond the dead leaves and know enough to step into the garden. We also have to get our hands dirty.

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To create meaning in our lives requires an active process. We scatter seeds, see where they land, and take care to nurture new life. When we can surrender to the conditions of our existence and yet face challenges with courage and heart, new growth emerges. Even if it is God who works the miracles of nature, without tending to weeds and nurturing seedlings, a garden won’t flourish. And without making an effort in personal transformation, our growth becomes stunted.

We have just passed the season of Easter and Passover – two religious holidays that in their own ways, speak of new life and liberation. And for those living on the East coast, the hideously long winter is finally shifting into spring. As we enter these upcoming months, what shoots emerge and what role do we play in their cultivation?

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