The Newness of Autumn

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

-Albert Camus

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.

To Live Well

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.

Addiction to Perfection

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.

Breath is Life!

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.

Emotional Vampires

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?”

-Judith Orloff

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!

Boundaries

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.

Thought Experiment

Thought Experiment: a test in which one imagines the practical outcome of a hypothesis when physical evidence may not be available.

-Collins American Dictionary

 While flying recently, I met a Chemistry graduate student who was on her way back home after attending a conference. She eagerly shared her ideas about wave theory and its practical applications on such things as pacemakers.

 I had never met someone so passionate about science! She made chemistry and wave theory accessible even to a non-scientist like me. Being a mother of children who have a love/hate relationship with the subject of science, I found myself curious about her education.

 “We are all scientists,” she said. Science is about being curious, seeing a beautiful and mysterious world and wanting to know more. She talked about “thought experiments” and how Einstein’s work on special relativity was the result of a thought experiment he conducted when he was only 16 years old. “We are not encouraged to be curious,” she said. The “why’s” and “how’s” are ignored and our children eventually stop asking questions. And by the time they get to school, she said, children have lost much of their curiosity.

 It seemed to me that science and spirituality were not so dissimilar. I told her a bit about my work as a life coach, and that “thought experiments” seemed no different than mindfulness, where one watches, examines, and questions. She paused, then nodded, and said that she’d never particularly thought of herself as a spiritual person, but she could see the connection.

 We began engaging in numerous “thought experiments”, asking each other spiritual, scientific and philosophical questions. We weren’t necessarily seeking answers, but rather were invigorated by the process of investigation. By the end of the conversation, we realized that we were both scientists and spiritual seekers. We realized that we are surrounded by opportunities for “thought experiments” And we realized that we must remember the childlike qualities of wonder, amazement and curiosity.

The Bud or the Blossom?

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

-Anais Nin

We tell ourselves that playing it safe involves very little risk.

The known, however frustrating, is at least familiar. We are well acquainted with the challenges of our jobs, marriages and friendships, and continue along, rarely asking ourselves if we are actually fulfilled.  

 But, at some point, the pretense becomes unbearable. The lack of authenticity may manifest as an illness, irritability, or even self-sabotage. Oftentimes, if we do not consciously choose to end the pain, our subconscious will mercifully do the work for us. And then, we have a choice: do we remain tight in a bud or do we take the risk to blossom?

 For many of us, we might not even know what blossoming would look like. We have become so conditioned to listening to others that we have forgotten to speak to and listen to ourselves. So, that is the first step. Begin the dialogue.

 Take your time. Ask any question. Experiment with answers, and try things out. Observe yourself, and don’t judge what arises. It is a process. And as you begin to blossom and open to your true self, you will feel a freedom, a lightening of the load you have been carrying, and you will find that within you there is more courage than you ever imagined.

Removing Obstacles

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

-Rumi

 

We live in a culture of perfectionism. We want to shed unwanted pounds, find the perfect mate, complete all the tasks on our to do list, and maybe even fit in time for a marathon! We have somehow equated these external accomplishments with happiness. But, do we even ask what is driving us toward completion of these goals? And, how do we feel about ourselves along the way? Will “happiness” only begin the minute we have achieved everything we want to achieve?

 

But what if deep joy and contentment were available to us now? What if, right now, we already accepted ourselves as beautiful, successful, and intelligent? What if all of those lofty goals, just out of our grasp, were not connected in any way to our sense of well being?

 

As Rumi writes, our focus is not to seek for love (or joy, peace, well being) in things, but rather to remove anything that keeps us from experiencing the fact that we ALREADY have everything we need, that we already are loved and accepted. What, then, are these obstacles? Guilt, fear, shame, anger, to name a few. It is anything that keeps us from accepting that joy is possible right now, today, without doing anything on your to do list.

 

There is no one key that unlocks every door. It’s up to each person to begin their own inner-dialogue to discover what are their own particular obstacles. Then, through mindfulness, meditation and other forms of reflection, we can begin to see these obstacles, understand them, accept them, go into them, and eventually they will lose their power over us.

 

So today, as you are making your to-do list, which I do every day, remember that completion of this list has no bearing whatsoever on your worth as a person, on your joy, peace and contentment. And, maybe while you are making your to-do list, you can also make a “self-gratitude list”, a list of things about you that already are, things that you admire and like about yourself. Put this list in your pocket and carry it with you, and if you start to have a moment of self-doubt, pull out the list remind yourself that you already are loved.

 

You are not alone.

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Your great mistake is to act the drama

as if you were alone. As if life

were a progressive and cunning crime

with no witness to the tiny hidden

transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny

the intimacy of your surroundings…

-excerpt from David Whyte’s “Everything is Waiting for You”

 David Whyte’s insightful poem reminds us that we are not alone, that everything out there is communicating to us, from the simple inanimate objects that bring ease to our lives, to people and animals and other expressions of creation. The question is, are we listening, observing, participating in this divine conversation?

Very often, what prevents us from participating in this divine conversation is a belief that there is something wrong with our lives or with ourselves. We resist our current circumstances and desperately seek a way out of our pain. And, it is this resistance that is actually the greatest source of our pain and the source of our sense of abandonment.

We have not been abandoned. In fact, everything is working together in this glorious miracle of life. And, you are part of this miracle!

The transformation occurs when we begin to let go, and look for all that is already there rather than focusing on what we believe is missing. And our resentment, blame, and sense of victimization transforms into gratitude.

It’s a process. But today, start by finding one thing in your life that speaks to you, and say thank you. You will be surprised at how greatly this affects your outlook and your connection to your experience.

Blessings and Love,

Tara

Ill-matched Threads

She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
of her life, and weaves them gratefully
into a single cloth—
it’s she who drives the loudmouths from the
hall
and clears it for a different celebration

where the one guest is you.
In the softness of the evening
it’s you she receives.

You are the partner of her loneliness,
the unspeaking center of her monologues
With each disclosure you encompass more
and she stretches beyond what limits her,
to hold you.
-Ranier Maria Rilke

About fifteen years ago, a friend told me that, like a cat, I’d had nine lives. She was right; I’ve had an eclectic journey. I grew up Christian and converted to Judaism. I got a Ph.D in Russian women’s literature and now I’m a Life Coach and stay at home wife and mother. I studied literature and now I write poetry. But on the other hand, woven together, these “ill-matched threads” of my life combine to tell the story of my search for authenticity and deeper meaning.

I sought far and wide–in various religious traditions, academic institutions, and philosophies.  I was looking for that one thing that would make sense and take away all the questions. But no one voice or tradition spoke to me! Instead, I discovered myself in bits and pieces here and there…in that piece of art, in this poem, in that city, in this prayer.

And then I realized that it was up to me to write my own story! I realized that the truth of my constantly unfolding story was there–inside–and it always had been. I didn’t need to seek outside myself for myself, and I began giving myself permission to be true to myself.

This is a beautiful journey, with surprises and ups and downs, with moments of tears and moments of laughter.  This is a journey without end, where life presents us every day with endless opportunities for growth, gratitude, and love. And when we live authentically, we in turn encourage others to live full and passionate lives.

 

Featured image for post CC by mindfulness.