I don’t know where prayers go, or what they do. Do cats pray, while they sleep half-asleep in the sun? Does the opossum pray as it crosses the street? The sunflowers? The old black oak growing older every year? I know I can walk through the world, along the shore or under the trees, with my mind filled with things of little importance, in full self-attendance. A condition I can’t really call being alive. Is a prayer a gift, or a petition, or does it matter? The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way. Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.
While I was thinking this I happened to be standing just outside my door, with my notebook open, which is the way I begin every morning. Then a wren in the privet began to sing. He was positively drenched in enthusiasm, I don’t know why. And yet, why not. I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe or whatever you don’t. That’s your business. But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be if it isn’t a prayer? So I just listened, my pen in the air.
-Mary Oliver, “I happened to be Standing”
This is one of my favorite poems written by one of my favorite poets—the late Mary Oliver, who passed away last Thursday.
Mary Oliver’s life was definitely not the unexamined life. And her poetry reflects her lifelong examination of life’s deepest questions and yearnings. While she usually wrote in first-person singular, the “I” for her was less reflective of her personal experience, and more an invitation to the reader into deeper self-examination, encouraging the reader him or herself to become “I”.
So when I read this poem, I feel as if I am being invited to explore my notion of prayer. It is something only done in a place of worship? Is it a combination of words written by few and memorized by many? It is found in nature? Is it of my own making?
Mary Oliver doesn’t tell us what prayer is, but from the poem’s title, we are given some clue as to where or how she thinks we might find our answer. Perhaps, if we stop for one moment, and take in all that is in our midst, we might find that prayer is an unfolding, constantly evolving conversation with life itself. So maybe next time you happen to be standing, you might take in all that life is communicating to you, and lean in, and be ruthlessly curious.
Everyone you see, you say to them, ‘Love me’.
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise
Someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, the great pull
Why not become the one who lives with a
Full moon in each eye that is
With that sweet moon language
What every other eye
In this world is
The 14th century Persian poet Hafiz ends his poem “With that Moon Language” with a suggestion. Since all of us, he says, want to connect, maybe we can shift our focus from receiving to giving.
But, let’s think for a second—where do we usually place the focus of our interaction with others? On how we treat them or how they treat us? Maybe that snarl on the lady at the post office could be softened by our smile. Maybe the driver that cut you off doesn’t need you to sit on your horn. Maybe your friend just needs a hug.
Okay, BIG DISCLAIMER HERE: I’m not speaking at the level of the #Me Too Movement. That stuff is real and should be called out and no one should be anyone’s doormat. I am not talking about abusive relationships or misogyny or racism or homophobia. I am talking about our interactions with our family, our friends, and others we encounter at work, the grocery store, and yes—bad drivers.
And in these interactions, maybe we could soften our hearts, come out of ourselves a bit, and recognize the universal need to connect. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., whose life and work we honor in the US next week, An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of humanity.
The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.
I have far more questions now in my forties, than I did in my teens and twenties—when I was convinced of so many things. Robert Hughes, an art-critic and writer, was referring here specifically to the artistic process, but I think there is something here for all of us.
Doubt can be frightening. Questions can leave us unsettled. To be convinced of something is, in many ways, much easier. But then we might be limiting ourselves from living fully—exploring new passions or dreams, challenging our ideas about ourselves, and maybe opening ourselves to new relationships.
Whether you are an artist or not, that which makes us feel most alive is that which is most authentic—not that which we copy or follow. That is the consolation prize Hughes speaks of. But rather, it is through doubt and questioning and venturing into the uncharted territories of our hearts and minds, that we create the masterpieces of our lives.
After having been standing by the gate of the garden for a long time, Siddhartha realized that his desire was foolish, which had made him go up to this place, that he could not help his son, that he was not allowed to cling to him. Deeply, he felt the love for the run-away in his heart, like a wound, and he felt at the same time that this wound had not been given to him in order to turn the knife in it, that it had to become a blossom and had to shine.
-Herman Hesse, from Siddhartha
Yesterday, my yoga teacher asked us to think back on 2018 and reflect on something positive we had learned. I immediately thought about boundaries and how to have a healthy balance between self-love and self-care and loving and caring for others.
I recently re-read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. I find myself returning to the books that shaped my young adult life. And I find that, by seeing them with different eyes, different themes present themselves to me. Whereas the young me was drawn to the spiritual journey awaiting the burgeoning Buddha, the mid-life me is drawn to the life-worn Siddhartha, the man who has been shaped by his loves and losses, by his risks and failures, and by the lessons he is able to draw from the life he has lived.
And this quote in particular stuck out to me. Here is the aging Siddhartha, who discovers that he has a teenage son, only to lose him. And he wants to cling, to hold him close, to heal him, to love him back into relationship. How many of us have felt this—the desire to live another’s journey, simply to spare that person from pain? And did it ever work?
What Siddhartha learns, and what I learned in 2018 is that it never works. And not only does it not work, it actually causes harm—to ourselves and to others. Healthy love recognizes the autonomy that exists for us as sentient beings, recognizes that we all come here with a journey that can only lived by us, and recognizes that sometimes the best we can do is be silent or give space.
Before shedding the old to embrace the new, I invite you to explore what you have learned this year, something that changed your life and maybe something you want to carry into 2019.
Many blessings for a wonderful new year!
See you in 2019!
How you love yourself is how you teach others to love you.
It’s that time of year again—when we gather together with family and friends to celebrate, reminisce, and enjoy egg nog and mulled wine. It sounds pretty romantic, and sometimes it is, but sometimes it definitely isn’t.
Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by competing needs and struggle with our boundaries being threatened. We can revert to that child we worked so hard to heal and allow the inner critic to creep into our thoughts.
This is when some self-love and self-compassion are called for. How can we expect others to honor and respect us if we don’t honor and respect ourselves? It’s up to us to teach others how to treat us, how to love us, how to honor and support and nurture us—by honoring and supporting and nurturing ourselves.
So take some time every day—and especially at this time of year—to honor and nurture and care for yourself. Show others how valuable you are by valuing yourself.
There are many ways we grow as human beings; but two that have always been there is that we are broken open or we willfully shed, and usually it’s a mix of both.
Every day when I walk my much-loved dog Riley, I see the trees become more and more bare, and I see soggy yet colorful leaves covering the sidewalks and roads. And I think—I am also part of this process.
Very often, I’m blindsided by life and I am broken open. Experiencing my eldest go to university was not easy. Losing loved ones in the past few years has been painful. And the challenges of getting older have really surprised me. But as I walk with Riley through the wintry streets, I feel the need to willfully shed—to let go of the past, of old patterns, of things that no longer serve me, and of a stage and age that has come and gone.
Now is the time to dwell in this quiet cocoon of winter—reflecting on all that has been shed, and preparing for the mysteries that will blossom in spring.
The child of tomorrow I realized may actually be ahead of us in sensing not what is new but what is essential.
How often do we ask ourselves this question? Usually we are too busy, so it’s only when life throws us a curve ball that we are invited to step back and re-think what we think.
Or, you can have a conversation with a young person.
My youngest child, who is halfway through her high school experience, is asking herself this question. And, she isn’t buying into the values she was handed by her culture, gender, religion, or family. She is questioning, wondering, and accepting that living authentically is far more important than fulfilling pre-ordained standards. She sees her life as a blank canvas that she can make into anything she wants. Money isn’t important, nor fulfilling whatever she thinks others want for her. She doesn’t yet know what she wants, and that’s ok too.
But what she does know is that what is essential is being true to herself. Nothing else will bring her joy or meaning or success. So whether you are 15 or 50, perhaps it would be worth it to ask yourself—what is essential to me?
What keeps us alive, what allows us to endure? I think it is the hope of loving, or being loved. I heard a fable once about the sun going on a journey to find its source and how the moon wept without her lover’s warm gaze. We weep when light does not reach our hearts. We wither like fields if someone close does not rain their kindness upon us.
This is a festive time, as many in the US and abroad celebrate Thanksgiving, and it can also be a dark time. While there is much togetherness at this time of year, there is also a great deal of isolation and sadness. Not everyone has big families or large groups of friends with which to celebrate, or the money to have a festive meal. And in the Northern Hemisphere, our days are shorter and in many parts of the world it is colder. So we stay inside, become more contemplative, and probably spend more time alone.
The best cure for darkness is light; the best cure for sadness is love. As Meister Eckhart reminds us, it is the hope of loving, or being loved that sustains us. We need both—to give love and to receive love. So at this time of year, let us remember that we need both, that we need to open ourselves to others, that we need to receive, that we need closeness and intimacy. And also we need to give love—to our loved ones, to those we don’t know and are in need, and to our animals, and to our earth. So that we don’t wither, let us rain our kindness down on those around us.
I naively believe that self-love is 80 percent of the solution, that it helps beyond words to take yourself through the day as you would with your most beloved mental-patient relative, with great humor and lots of small treats.
I love reading Anne Lamott. Her books are tonic for the weary soul. They make me laugh and cry—and usually both at the same time; and they give me permission to be flawed and complicated and erratic and wrinkly and not always the most loving mother/daughter/friend/wife. Mostly, Anne Lamott reminds me that being human is messy, and life is messy, but we can get through this with great humor and lots of small treats.
And, most important of all, self-love. Not the perfect version of ourselves we imagine that still has a flat stomach and never bears a grudge, but the real version that get offended and cries and still has nightmares and quirks and secretly fears most family gatherings. That one. Yes, love that one. Now. And not tolerate, like certain family members we’d be happy to see less of, but really really love–like your child or greatest love or best friend, or puppy. Really love all the parts of you that make you–you.
I agree with Anne Lamott; I think it is 80 percent of the solution. So rock your amazing self! Give yourself permission to be who you are and fill your life with good friends, great loves, great humor and lots of small treats.
There are a lot of good people…but they keep quiet about it. It’s the bad ones who make a lot of noise and that’s why they get noticed.
-Isabel Allende, from “The Japanese Lover”
I sometimes feel like the bad ones are winning, that it’s a done deal and I should just give up. And then someone gives me the right of way on the freeway, or a stranger smiles at me at the grocery store, or someone I say hi to at the gym but secretly think hates me, surprises me by chatting about her daughter in college who is trying to figure out whether to major in government or biology. And I think maybe, as Isabel Allende’s character Alma declares, there are a lot of good people.
So why not start making some good noise? Maybe it’s time for the good people to step out of the shadows and make some good noise and remind us that there are a lot of us out there. We have so much power to influence one another—for good! And this reminds me of a beautiful passage from Rumi: I like it when the music happens like this: something in His eye grabs hold of a tambourine in me, then I turn and lift a violin in someone else, and they turn, and this turning continues; it has reached you now. Isn’t that something?
Yes, it is something—let’s make some beautiful noise!
In any situation and in whatever you do your state of consciousness is the primary factor. The situation and what you do is secondary.
It has been a rough week on the world scene. And here in America, we have mid-term elections next week. Many of us, sensitive to the changes in our midst, feel jittery, sad, anxious, at times hopeful and at times despairing. And we ask ourselves, what should I do?
As Eckhart Tolle beautifully and clearly explains, of primary importance is our state of consciousness. This is our foundation, our center; it is where we find our faith, our deepest beliefs, and love. It’s easy, especially with all that is happening right now, to lose our foundation and get swept away by slogans that feed anger and fear. But anger and fear don’t serve us, and they don’t serve humanity as a whole.
When action is required, let it come from a place of wisdom, intelligence, and love. And we stay connected to that place by regularly checking-in—to explore our motivations, to find our anger and sadness and frustration and honor it, and to spend time alone breathing and getting grounded and clear. And with this clarity and connection to our consciousness we can—hopefully—spread more light and love in the world.
When I returned from Rome
A bird took flight.
And a flower in a field whistled at me
As I passed.
From a stream of clear water
And at night the sky untied her hair and I fell
Clutching a tress
When I returned from Rome, all said
“Tell us the great news”,
And with great excitement I did: “ flower in a field whistled,
And at night the sky untied her hair and
I fell asleep clutching a sacred tress…”
-St. Francis of Assisi
It’s easy to become so consumed with the details of our busy lives that we fail to notice the whistling flowers and the sacred tress in the night sky.
Yet, what about the moments that are not so beautiful or picturesque? In these moments, we can struggle just to stay above water, let alone notice the whistling flowers. Sometimes life is heavy and dark and confusing. And no book or pithy quote or spiritual poem can pull us out of our experience.
So maybe that is where we have to go—back into the experience of the body. We go right to the breath—we take in the reality of our experience; we hold it, and then we let it go. We don’t talk ourselves out of our sadness or difficulty. We don’t tell ourselves we should only be seeing whistling flowers. We see what we see. We feel what we feel.
And actually by being present with the reality of our experience, we can fully integrate all that is happening. We aren’t denying pain, hiding secrets or telling ourselves lies. And then the wisdom of our being guides us; it tells us how to mourn and how to heal and how to embrace the truth of our lives.
I love these words by St. Francis of Assisi, but let us remember that they reflect only part of the experience. There are moments of rapture and moments of sadness, and both should be held and honored.