A beautiful and powerful metaphor we experience in autumn is watching leaves transform from bright and shiny and green to rich yellows and oranges and reds. And then, we watch them fall, shrivel up, and be washed away by rain or snow.
Birth and death. Beginning and end. And we are equally multidimensional. We are beautiful and generous and loving; we can also be selfish, angry and cruel.
And I am convinced that denying our complex nature is the source of so much sadness and anxiety and stress. Striving to be perfect, denying our past, pretending to be something we are not—this is the great tragedy of our life experience! So, what is to be done?
Using Jung’s tree metaphor, our life’s work is to accept the totality of our being—to reach our branches upward, striving toward all that is good and honorable for ourselves and others, and at the same time to acknowledge and continually investigate our darker and often suppressed side, or shadow, as Jung called it.
Accepting life means accepting death; accepting our goodness means accepting our challenges. And this is what makes life so rich and beautiful and mysterious.
Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.
When we are hurting, it’s hard to imagine how others can’t also be hurting. And when we are joyful, we can be oblivious to the pain of others. But, in reality, we are all universes unto ourselves. We all carry pain and trauma and petty annoyances and blessings.
Often, we are so internally focused that we fail to recognize all these universes, and sometimes we can very reasonably get frustrated and even angry. But, maybe the driver who cut you off just lost his job. Maybe the checker at the supermarket had a fight with her child. Maybe someone is sick. Maybe someone is just in a bad mood and needs a little forbearance. Wouldn’t we want someone to cut us some slack too?
The old forget what it was like to be young and the young think the old are irrelevant. This group criticizes that group, marriages dissolve, and nations and religions go to war over disagreements.
We can’t fix all relationships and international disputes today, but maybe we can be kinder to the people we encounter. Maybe we can give someone the benefit of the doubt. Maybe we can send some love and good wishes and let go of some of our self-righteousness. And be kinder. Always.
This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor…Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
We usually measure how well we are doing by the details of our lives—our health, relationships, our mood even. But, as Rumi reminds us in this beautiful poem, everything and everyone that appears in our lives is a guide from beyond come to teach us something. Yes—whether it is a backache or that annoying family member or even our own resistance to what is happening, it is possible, as Pema Chodron says in her new book, to welcome the unwelcomed.
The practice is simple, but not easy. It involves observing all that arises—externally and internally—and with non-judgmental awareness, seeing it as it is. By softening to our experience and our reaction to it, we can slowly transition to a more mindful and reflective, rather than reactive, approach to our experience. And then we can unravel all the stories and habitual programing and feel the blessings of being a guest house.
Awake my dear. Be kind to your sleeping heart. Take it out into the vast fields of light and let it breathe.
It’s not officially autumn yet, but it sure seems like autumn as I look at my weather app, which displays a chilly 40 degrees!
I love autumn because it is the last burst of color and sunshine before dark days and cocoon-like spaces. This season invites us to let go of old and irrelevant thoughts, feelings, goals, and go inward and re-think one’s life—where one is now and where one wants to go.
We find ourselves simultaneously letting go of old ways, and at the same time awakening the sleeping heart and inviting the heart and mind into the fields of internal light—insight, investigation, curiosity and love.
As we head into shorter and colder days, I hope that we can find the time to explore these inner realms of light and warmth and breath.
Your personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices.
-Gerard Manley Hopkins
I love my family. I love my friends. I love my community and I have respect and admiration for a great number of people whom I wouldn’t necessarily say I love. And at the same time, I am aware of and respect my boundaries and don’t see any conflict with loving others and having boundaries.
Because having boundaries is one aspect of loving oneself, and that’s where it all starts. I can’t love others if I don’t love myself. I can’t listen to others’ opinions and feelings and dreams if I have none of my own. I can’t encourage individual expression if I parrot the loudest voices in my midst.
Our boundaries not only keep unwanted things out, they also keep wanted things in. Our boundaries draw a clear line of demarcation between where I end, and you begin. They protect, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins states, the inner core of your identity and your right to choices.
It is not only our prerogative but our responsibility to have boundaries. Only when I am fully me—when I have a clear and defined sense of self, of dreams and goals and perspectives, all born from my inner contemplation and life experiences, can encourage and accept you—completely as you are.
Or more simply put, live and let live…
Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.
It’s that time of year again…Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when Jews all over the world fast and atone for their sins. They spend all day at Synagogue, asking God for forgiveness and go to their friends and loved ones, asking for their forgiveness.
While I think it is important and necessary to acknowledge how we may have hurt others, I think we far too often think about how we have hurt ourselves with negative and shaming self-talk. Somehow we think we are supposed to know things before we know them, or have wisdom without experiencing the things that give us wisdom.
I’m convinced that most of us are doing the best we can. We’re human. We make mistakes. And life is our greatest teacher, showing us how to be more loving, more open, better listeners, more sensitive. But only life can teach us these things.
So, maybe—whether you are like me and spending a full day dedicated to atonement or you are not Jewish and you find yourself often asking others for forgiveness—you can direct some of that “atonement energy” toward forgiving yourself for being so hard on yourself, for expecting perfection, for not giving yourself a break.
And maybe, instead, fill your heart with love and light and goodness—that will enable you not only to forgive yourself, but also to forgive others.
The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.
For those of us who avoid conflict like the plague, thinking for ourselves—out loud does not come easily. Why do we let others think for us? Why do we keep our thoughts to ourselves?
I think it is because we have gotten too used to being a martyr. We’ve gotten too used to putting the needs of others—whether it’s the family unit or friend group or one person—above our needs. And we end up burying these feelings deep within our psyches and bodies.
It’s time to change that! It’s time to think for ourselves, to know our own minds and to call out those people and name those circumstances that hurt us and run contrary to our vision of a healthy and vibrant life.
Yes, it takes some courage, but living small hurts us. So seize the moment, live large, and speak your thoughts—out loud.
‘Who will teach me to write?’ a reader wanted to know. The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity. The page which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch, but touching it nevertheless because acting is better than being here in mere opacity. The page which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut, the page in the purity of its possibilities, the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all of your life’s strength. That page will teach you to write.
-Annie Dillard, “The Writing Life”
It is not the writer alone who struggles to find meaning in her work or life.
I think Annie Dillard’s advice to the writer in the above quotation could be tweaked a bit and read—who will teach me to live? And the answer would be life.
Life itself is our greatest teacher—life with its questions and surprises, life with its tender moments and desolate moments, life with its beauty and life with its wretchedness. It is not the guru or teacher or master who can teach us how to live. They may point a way but not the way, because we all come to life with different histories and DNA and hopes and desires. And life, like the pages of a book Dillard points out, has an ending point. While we may plan and scheme and create, all we really have is the present moment. And it is this moment of life, however it presents itself that is our greatest teacher.
So trust in your experience, your feelings, your perceptions, and continue to question yourself, push yourself and open yourself to your greatest teacher.
If you don’t get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don’t want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can’t hold on to it forever…Everything you’ll ever need to know is within you; the secrets of the universe are imprinted on the cells of your body.
We know so much more than we give ourselves credit for. How many times do we find ourselves in the same situation—fighting about that same thing, being attracted to that same kind of dysfunctional personality, putting ourselves in situations where we are uncomfortable or unhappy? Way too many times…
A friend once told me, “Deep down, there are no secrets”. Deep down, we know. We know when a relationship is doomed, when our heart is uplifted, when something tastes good. We know our hearts. This, I believe, is what Dan Millman is referring to when he writes, “the secrets of the universe are imprinted on the cells of your body”.
It’s already there. We don’t need to go through that same thing a dozen times to know that. We don’t need a guru to tell us. Or a loud pundit or wise author. Or even a friend. We know our own hearts.
And let’s be honest…when we honor ourselves, doesn’t it feel good? Doesn’t it feel good to be real? Life is way too short to live someone else’s life; start living your own life by befriending your own heart.
With every act of self-care your authentic self gets stronger and the critical, fearful mind gets weaker. Every act of self-care is a powerful declaration: I am on my side, I am on my side, each day I am more and more on my side.
-Susan Weiss Berry
Whose side are you on?
All too often we put the needs of others above our own. We give to ourselves only if there is enough time at the end of the day, and even then we feel guilty. And at times, we are so disconnected from ourselves that we don’t even know what self-care looks like.
I think a good place to start is to ask yourself: “Whose side are you on?” It might take a while to accept that you actually are on your side. Once you do, you can begin to explore what that looks like. What does it look like to love yourself, believe in yourself, nurture yourself with enough sleep and good food and healthy relationships? What does it look like to pursue your passions and take rests when you need them? What does it look like to pause and put your hand on your belly and ask your inner being—what do you need right now?
Give yourself permission to be on your side. And then, with all the love and care you have given yourself, you can give love and care to others.
When we are in pain, we need to hear, “I hear you, I see you, I am sorry, what can I do, I am here for you” and not “Think of how worse it could be, be grateful for all the good things in your life, and even this too shall pass”. Because truth be told—none of that helps. The hidden message behind all these well-meaning statements is—you should get over it; it’s really not that bad.
But maybe it really is that bad.
And maybe what you really need is a hug. And maybe what you really need changes from moment to moment. And maybe that just has to be ok. Maybe you need to make space for your grief and the variable ways in which you deal with your grief. And maybe you need to be very selective about the people you let into this process.
We all know grief. And if we don’t now, we will at some point, because that is just the nature of life. Love and loss. So, do we stop loving because the grieving hurts so bad? I don’t think so; that would be a terribly grey and sad existence.
So, maybe we can come to a gradual acceptance that grief is part of the life experience, and when we do suffer—we can create as much space and comfort and loving people as we need for that pain. And maybe we can also strive to care for our loved ones who are grieving. We can listen, offer hugs, and as much space as is needed.
This, I believe, is true compassion.
Our obsession with our happiness has contributed to our unhappiness.
-Tal Ben Shahar
I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that I dislike suffering. While I might theoretically understand the benefits of suffering—the wisdom gained, the empathy learned from connecting to the collective human experience, and the deep and personal growth available on the other side, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’d trade it all in for sunny skies and healthy children. But life isn’t like that.
While there is suffering we are responsible for, I think most of our suffering is simply the result of being human. There is joy and loss; there is birth and death; there is kindness and cruelty.
But in our obsession with happiness, we have denied the existence of suffering, thereby creating a culture where those who suffer are ridiculed, pitied, and scorned. So we, in turn, master our defense mechanisms to deny, deflect, numb or fly away from our suffering.
But, let’s be honest…this never works.
We need to give ourselves permission to be human–to have the full range of the human experiences and not to judge ourselves for times of sadness, fear, anxiety or even hopelessness and panic.
The truth is—if we turn to our felt experience of pain, and if we name it and accept it and allow it and honor it and send it compassion and love, rather than doing our best to rush away as quickly as possible, we will actually be able to allow those very real and very human emotions to pass through us. As they say, what we resist, persists.
So, when I am suffering, I have a practice of putting my hand on my heart (I adapted this from Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion) and I acknowledge my suffering. I name all the emotions. I talk to myself as I would talk to a therapist. And somehow by naming everything, by getting it out—at least to myself—the monster in the closet doesn’t seem quite as big. And then as I acknowledge the painful thought or emotion, I ask myself—can you stay with this right now? I breathe into it, and I just name it and stay with it. Sometimes there are moments of pain; sometimes there are periods of pain. But regardless of the length of the suffering, we need to give ourselves permission to feel whatever we are feeling and not judge ourselves.
And that is just the start. Talk to good friends, safe friends who can handle your vulnerability, and maybe find a good therapist who can help you address some of the deeper issues that might be coming up.
Be gentle and loving with yourself—always. And, give yourself permission to be human.