We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I’ve always loved these lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Four Quartets”.
I was an angst-filled teenager when I first read Eliot’s poem. At that time, these lines were an invitation to explore, which is exactly what I did—internally and externally. I traveled, lived abroad, prayed, meditated, went on pilgrimages, wrote poems, danced, and did much soul searching.
But, despite all the exploration, I continued to carry with me a deep longing to understand my life’s purpose.
A few months ago, I moved back to the States, after living in Central Asia for a few years. I was terrified to “come home”. I feared it would be the end of my exploring, and that my longing would remain unfulfilled.
A few weeks ago, I woke up with Eliot’s poem in my head. But, it was no longer the “exploration” that was resonating with me; it was the lines that read: to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
By “coming home”, I had “arrived where I started”. When I had read the poem thirty years earlier, I had thought of the “arrival” in terms of a geographical location. But, now in terms of my experience, I realized that I was arriving back to my spiritual home, to my true self, the self that had always been there, but hadn’t been acknowledged.
I realized that I didn’t have to go to exotic locations and climb the highest mountains; it was here all along. And, as Eliot’s poem says, I felt as if I were seeing myself for the first time. But, this time without judgment, without criticism, without fear, without a need to change or alter anything.
And now every morning, I wake with these words on my heart. I imagine that I am arriving for the first time, with the wonderment of discovery—the discovery of beauty, holiness, glory, perfection of everything that IS, that is already there.
Maybe we need to a little less striving, and a little more stillness, arriving back home to ourselves.
Here is a meditation exercise that perhaps can help us return “home.”
What if the question is not why am I so infrequently the person I really want to be, but why do I so infrequently want to be the person I really am?
-Oriah Mountain Dreamer
This week we celebrate Thanksgiving. This is a week when we gather together with friends and family. We share a plentiful meal, and we are called to examine our lives and count our blessings.
This is the Hallmark Card version.
There are many who find this week very challenging. They struggle because they are hungry, maybe because they have food issues and dread being around tempting foods, because they are alone or have recently lost a loved one, or perhaps all the family togetherness is a bit stressful. And for many communities across the nation, this is a time of mourning and sadness, following incidents in Ferguson, Missouri.
And, their anguish isn’t made any easier by pictures of happy families eating turkey plastered on magazine covers and by well-meaning, but glib, messages about gratitude!
This is something I’ve always struggled with: trying to find a balance between gratitude, because I know that I am truly blessed, and allowing myself permission to struggle with my current predicament.
Recently, I came across this beautiful quote by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, and immediately it all seemed to make sense. I realized that I had been approaching the issue the wrong way. The problem wasn’t the way I felt; the problem was that I thought there was a problem! I had thought it was “wrong” to struggle, to have negative feelings. I realized I had deeply ingrained ideas about what I was supposed to feel and who I was supposed to be. And what it came down to was that I felt that who I was just wasn’t enough.
I realized that I am enough—right now, with all the feelings, struggles, predicaments. I stopped trying to “do”, and allowed myself to “be”. I allowed thoughts and feelings to surface, and like clouds, I watched them come and go, without judgment or criticism. And, a huge burden was lifted. It wasn’t that the negativity went away, but my need to be anything other than me went away.
Ask yourself Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s question, “Why do I so infrequently want to be the person I already am?” And add to that, “Why do I so infrequently allow myself to feel what I feel?”
On this Thanksgiving, perhaps you can be thankful for YOU—for your beautiful, courageous, inquisitive, fearless self. Perhaps you can be thankful that you are here, that you’ve come to add your special brand of spice to the mix. You are enough, right now. Let it all be.
Here is a Thanksgiving Meditation exercise:
When your life is filled with the desire to see the holiness in everyday life, something magical happens: ordinary life becomes extraordinary, and the very process of life begins to nourish your soul!
-Rabbi Harold Kushner
What is your life filled with the desire to see?
We go through life experiencing a series of highs and lows: praise and criticism, hugs and rejection, certainty and confusion. Sometimes we feel flat, lost, bored. And, these circumstances usually determine the quality of our lives. We are happy when good things happen and sad when bad things happen. We say, “it’s not fair” when someone hurts us, and we say, “life is beautiful” when we experience or observe random acts of kindness. We don’t realize that we are riding an emotional and spiritual roller coaster.
Rabbi Kushner says, “something magical happens” when we choose to see the holiness in every day life. This means changing our thinking a bit. This means seeing holiness in all the little things that make up our lives: making breakfast, taking a shower, going to the grocery store, having a conversation with a loved one. It also means seeing holiness in the challenges, the despair, the pain and the loss. It doesn’t means that we don’t feel pain, but we see it as part of something bigger than ourselves.
The magical thing that happens is presence and loving awareness. As we begin to experience the holiness of every moment, every person, every thing, we begin to see the beauty of every moment…not just the beauty of the beautiful moments, but even the beauty of the difficult and challenging moments. Perhaps our pain allows us to help others who are in pain. Perhaps our pain teaches us something new and profound about ourselves. Perhaps our pain wakes us up and keeps us present.
Ask yourself, “What do I have the desire to see?” And, what you choose to see, you will see.
Here is an audio exercise that you might find helpful.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves…
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
-from “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver’s powerful poem invites us to question our purpose in life, or what she calls our “place in the family of things”. Simply put, our purpose is loving what we love. But, what does it mean to love what we love?
To love what we love means to live authentically. It means that our lives are a reflection of our inner truth.
But, many of us may not know what we love. Others may know, but may not be living it. How can we know what we love and how can we live it?
Oliver begins her poem by telling us what NOT to do. We don’t figure out what we love by seeking the answers from others. We don’t have to be good, to be a martyr, to please others. If we let go of shame, martyrdom, codependence, guilt and fear, we can begin to listen to the voice within. We can quietly observe, sense, hear the answers in our midst, for, as Oliver reminds us, the world “calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over”. The answers are in every conversation, in the sunsets and sunrises, in the change of seasons, in the happiness and the loss.
It’s up to us to listen, and then it’s up to us to take this deep inner knowing and do something, to change thought into action, and to live our truth.
You have to have a self in order to let go of a self.
Selflessness is often touted as the highest aspiration. We should think of others first. We should martyr ourselves, sacrifice ourselves. And while the true state of our existence is one of identification with the Divine, rather than with the self, we think that the path toward selflessness involves one of shaming and denying the self.
But, as the quotation states, we can’t get rid of something that doesn’t exist! If we give and sacrifice and deny from a place of emptiness, we are simply creating complexes and other unhealthy emotional patterns that are obstacles to our spiritual and psychological growth. The problem isn’t having or not having an ego; the question is how well do we understand our ego?
There is an old Sufi saying, “Do you ride the camel or does the camel ride you?” The camel is the ego. We can’t get rid of the camel. But, how am I interacting with the camel? How am I interacting with my “self”? Do I understand my past, my family history, my habits and relationships? If I don’t understand my self, then my self is controlling me.
Gradually, as I begin to understand myself, I can let go of all the things that bind me, hook me, trigger me. I can see that I am more than my past, and that actually I am connected to something much greater than just my-self. This is a slow process, and one that is motivated by love, love for the self.
So, ask yourself, are you riding the camel or is the camel riding you?
Post No.11—October 28, 2014
It isn’t the content of our movie that needs our attention, it’s the projector. It isn’t the current story line that’s the root of our pain; it’s our propensity to be bothered in the first place.
We know what feel like to have our buttons pushed.
If we have enough presence of mind to understand what is happening, we try to understand where the feelings are coming from and separate our current situation from the past. But, according to Pema Chodron, we can go one step further. She suggests that it’s not our “drama” that needs our attention; rather it’s our tendency to get upset, to be “triggered” or “hooked”.
We can recognize that thoughts are static; they come and go. And, we can stop these thoughts. This doesn’t mean that we repress our thoughts or feelings; rather we don’t attach as much importance to them. But, how do we deal with the strong emotions?
Pema Chodron mentions a four-step process with the acronym FEAR:
F-Find the feeling in your body.
E-Embrace the feeling.
A-Allow all thoughts to dissolve.
R-Remember that others are sharing your pain as well; you are not alone!
So try this exercise next time your buttons are pushed. It’s not easy. Allowing thoughts to dissolve takes time and practice. Breathe them out, and be patient with yourself. Give yourself permission to feel. Give yourself love, compassion and the space learn what the present moment is teaching you. This, in turn, will enable you to give the same love and compassion and space to others.
Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.
At this time of year, I am always reminded of the Greek myth of Persephone, the goddess who was kidnapped by Hades and spent half the year with him in the Underworld and half the year on earth with her mother Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest. The Greeks used this story to explain the creation of the four seasons: autumn and winter occurred when Persephone was in the Underworld, and spring and summer occurred when Persephone was on earth.
But this story explains more than the formation of the four seasons. It also explores how a mother’s sorrow caused crops to die and her joy brought everything back to life. It also shows the cyclical nature of life: death/creation, joy/sorrow, abundance/loss.
Camus’ quote reminds us of the importance of this cycle, and that autumn, like spring, is another beginning. It is a beginning of one’s descent into the Underworld—the Underworld of solitude, bareness, introspection, quiet and reflection. This is a time when, like the trees, we can shed that which we don’t need anymore: old habits, irrelevant or destructive relationships, and anything that does not nurture us, feed us, make us feel alive.
Let’s embrace this season! Let’s commit to take long walks in the cool air, connect to the changing nature around us and celebrate time alone. Let’s contemplate what our own Underworld might be, what old or irrelevant things should be discarded, and rejoice in the quiet, darkness and, opportunities to reconnect, like the trees, to our roots, our source, our essence.
Live well enough to horrify a few and inspire many
-Clarissa Pinkola Estes
One of the simplest definitions of what it means to live well is found, I believe, in Joseph Campbell’s invitation to “follow your bliss”. This means to live an authentic life, the life you were meant to live, to pursue that which brings you joy, peace, and a sense of rightness.
Take a moment and look at the many areas of your life: dreams and aspirations, career, relationships, health, fitness and spiritual and emotional life. Are you living well in each of these areas? If the answer is no, then why not? Sit with this question for a while.
Perhaps, as Estes’ quotation posits, we are afraid of horrifying a few. We don’t want to rock the boat and think somehow that conforming to the wishes and desires of society, our families or religions is much easier, safer. But is it? Really?
To risk not pursuing one’s bliss is far more horrifying than horrifying a few. And actually, when we dare to defy conventions and speak our voice, sing our song, dance our dance, we inspire others to live well and to follow their bliss.
Don’t be satisfied with the goals and dreams of others. Seek not to horrify, nor refrain from horrifying. Simply allow everything in your life to embrace your personal truth.
When we are addicted we can never get enough of the thing we crave and our concept of nourishment can contract into a survival-based longing for more, coupled with a primal experience of not enough.
-author Christine Caldwell
Society condemns most addictions: drugs, alcohol, food, cigarettes. But what about addiction to something society nominally encourages, like perfectionism?
In our jobs, families, fitness, and even our spiritual path, the lines blur between healthy self-improvement and destructive perfectionism. The differences lie in what motivates us, and whether we can value and be grateful for the journey itself.
According to Christine Caldwell, addiction is never getting enough of the thing you crave. When we seek perfection in our spiritual practice, we seek the “right” way to meditate or pray; we believe that a particular self-help book or detox program will be the cure-all; we hope that by fasting or going on a silent retreat we will figure out what is missing. But regardless of the number of books we read, hours we meditate or retreats we attend, we are never satisfied. It’s just never enough.
Perfection is not the goal. Perfection sets you up for failure and supposes that your purpose, value and ability to receive and give love depend on fixing the broken person that you are.
You are not broken and you do not need to be fixed!
If there is any goal (though “goal” is such a loaded term), I believe it would be mindfulness—non-judgmental awareness. Mindfulness is seeing what is, not want we want to see. Mindfulness is being present and accepting the present moment.
We can begin by being aware of our breath, by observing the inhale and exhale. We can begin by watching how the breath moves in our bodies and if there are any “stuck” places where we store pain. By being fully in the present moment, we can compassionately, lovingly and courageously embrace whatever arises, and perhaps gradually break the cycle of addiction to perfection.
Sixteen years ago, I was pregnant with my first child. As an anxious mother-to-be, I wanted to know everything I could about pregnancy, birth and motherhood. I inquired about pre-natal classes. My doctor suggested I attend Yvonne Moore’s pre-natal yoga classes. I learned so much from Yvonne, who became not just my yoga teacher, mentor and guru, but also my friend. One such thing I learned, relates to the importance of taking care of oneself and when one’s needs need to come first. Yvonne used the example of airplane oxygen masks. At the beginning of every flight, the flight attendant says that in the case of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop down and you should first put the mask on yourself and then on your child. This, Yvonne, explained, was a perfect metaphor for how one should look at parenting. If we put the oxygen mask on ourselves first, we will have the physical and mental ability to care for our child. But, if we are gasping for breath, how can we possibly take care of a child, let alone ourselves?
This anecdote stayed with me. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that the lesson embraced more than just parenting. It relates to every relationship and to our general sense of self. What does it mean to take care of ourselves or to put our needs first?
This can mean making something nurturing a part of our regular schedule: exercise, meditation, yoga, or a night out with friends. More broadly, it is a general way of being and expressing oneself that feels authentic and valid. Ultimately, what matters is that you are true to yourself, that you recognize and understand your needs and you address them in an honest way.
This can be hard. We often feel guilty when we give to ourselves before others. Internalized voices of authority – parents, teachers, significant others – block us from an honest dialogue with ourselves.
Here’s an exercise that might help: the next time you are faced with the choice of giving to yourself or giving to another, explore the ramifications of each choice. How do you feel if you give to yourself? How do you feel if you give to another?
Slowly you can begin to have an internal dialogue, speaking to the part of yourself that condemns you, that won’t allow you to take care of yourself. Then, you can give the love, validation and permission you are seeking. By exploring your internal reactions, you can begin to unpack the unconscious triggers to your responses, and discover your true needs and desires.
So, keep that image in your mind, that simple image of the airplane oxygen masks. Remember that breath is life. YOUR breath is YOUR life. Nurture your basic needs and mother the child within. The sense of well being you seek will not be found in denying yourself, but rather in giving from a place of wholeness.
When encountering emotional vampires, see what you can learn…You can simply feel tortured, resentful, and impotent. Or, as I try to do, ask yourself, “How can this interchange help me grow?”
Emotional vampires are everywhere: in your family, at work, amongst friends and acquaintances, and they can easily sap you of your energy and joy. What are some possible responses to this negativity?
One response is to cut the emotional vampire out of your life. There may be a friend or romantic partner who drains you and treats you unacceptably, and it may be appropriate for you to remove this person from your life.
But this response may not be possible if the emotional vampire is, for example, a boss or family member. However, this does not necessarily mean that you should open yourself up to be hurt by this person.
In this case, perhaps it would be helpful to adopt the approach mentioned by Judith Orloff. First of all, recognize the affect the emotional vampire is having on you. Never minimize your pain or suffering! Being someone’s doormat or punching bad is never acceptable.
Then, as Orloff states, you can either feel hurt and powerless, or you explore what you can learn from the experience, and what response is required in this particular situation.
One encounter may require you to stand up for yourself and clearly state your boundaries. Another encounter may offer you the opportunity to learn something new about behaviors that trigger strong emotional reactions. And, another encounter may require you to be quiet and learn patience and forbearance.
You decide. This is your journey, a journey with moments of joy and moments of confusion and pain. And, we can take these challenging moments and challenging people, and, with non-judgment, patience, and understanding, turn it around and use it as an opportunity to grow!
Healthy, resilient boundaries feed upon themselves, so that the more vibrant they are, the more they develop…once you become strong in your boundaries, they become more porous; love and caring flow more easily between yourself and others.
-Philip Moffitt, “Setting Personal Boundaries”
Many of us struggle with establishing and honoring our boundaries. Raising the subject is enough to make us cringe, conjuring up harrowing images of confronting our boss, spouse, friend, or even spiritual teacher or therapist. We fear threatening the status quo. We fear conflict.
We may feel tired, ill-used, abused or ignored. We believe ourselves to be kind, sympathetic and compassionate, and we wonder how we got ourselves into this predicament. We try to understand the other party’s side and we seek peaceful resolutions, but more often than not, nothing changes.
We don’t realize that our silence does not benefit anyone!
It is possible to remain gentle and kind and create boundaries. Creating these boundaries does not mean that we seek out conflict or that we attack out of hatred or anger. Creating boundaries simply means honoring and loving oneself.
Our ability to create healthy boundaries communicates that we have a strong and clear sense of what our needs are and how we believe they should be met. When we honor our boundaries, we are not only taking care of ourselves, but we are simultaneously giving permission to others to do the same and honor themselves and their boundaries.
Creating boundaries may involve walking away from a difficult situation or changing the subject of a challenging conversation. Creating boundaries does not need to involve unpleasantness. There will be times, however, when such tactics do not achieve the desired result and a more direct approach is required. In these cases, it is important to operate from a place of clarity, calmness and compassion, both for oneself and for the other party.
So, let us remember, setting boundaries is not about attacking others or avoiding intimacy, but rather is a gentle approach to loving and respecting ourselves. And the more we do, as Moffitt states, love and caring will flow more easily between ourselves and others.