Just a Tree

In his most recent book “Living Untethered”, Michael Singer tells the story of a Buddhist monk.

One morning, the monk greets his guru, who notices that the monk is glowing. The guru asks if anything has just happened. The monk replies that on his habitual early morning walk to see his guru, he saw the same tree he sees every morning, but for the first time he saw just a tree. The guru asks the monk to elaborate. The monk replies, For many years now, when I pass this tree I imagine the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi Tree. Or, I imagine the tree I climbed and fell out of when I was a child. But today, I saw just a tree. And I understood. And the guru answered, Yes, you understand.

A gazillion thoughts and feelings go through our minds and hearts every day. And how we see the world is usually through the lens of whatever we are thinking or feeling. We are in a good mood, we welcome the sunshine. We are in a bad mood, we hate the oppressive sun. The sun hasn’t changed. Our perspective has. Or maybe the sun reminds us of that time we got sunburned. Or maybe that glorious summer holiday in Fiji. Still, the sun hasn’t changed. But we have.

But, let’s be honest, a hug feels better than a shove. An I love you feels better than Moooooom, you are so pathetic! But does another’s assessment of us from one moment to the next really change our essence? Any less than the sun changes its essence? Not really.

So, what do we do? We don’t become impervious to life. Even the greatest mystics and religious leaders still had challenging thoughts and feelings and faced challenging situations. Because this is life. Rather, we try to become comfortable with the fluctuations of our hearts and minds, which are, according to Singer, unresolved issues seeking resolution. They are asking to be processed and released. What hurts is asking for healing. Not to be shut away or silenced. Not anymore.

And gradually, with practice, more and more phenomena—whether thoughts or feelings or situations—will appear without us taking it personally. And we will have the peace and clarity simply to do what is required in that given moment. When we can see that a tree is just a tree.

(W)Inner Dialogues

On our first date, Bob and I discovered that we had both read John Gray’s now infamous “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”. The book has served us well, helping us to interpret each other.

Oh, so when he says that thing, what he really means is…And when she does that thing, what she really means is…

Of course it’s not that simple; not all men are alike nor are women. But the idea that what one hears is not what the other intended is the magic of this book. Accepting that, as much as I can be 100% certain that I am right about another’s motivations and meaning, I can be dead wrong. And not just with my husband, with my mom, my kids, friends.

And…with myself. Yep. I can really have some crazy inner-dialogues. Manipulative ones. Mean ones. Judgy ones. And some are pretty self-traumatizing. We need a mars/venus book for the soul, for our own inner dialogues. We need help sometimes to interpret ourselves for ourselves. With love and patience and kindness, because, as John O’Donohue reminds us, negative introspection damages the soul.

What would positive non-damaging inner talk look like?

-That was such a stupid thing to do. What were you thinking?!!

-Oh sweetheart, it probably wasn’t the wisest of actions, but it came from a place of pain and right now you need love and comfort. Go inside your tender heart; what hurts?

-I am so scared.

-What are you afraid of?

-I am afraid of being abandoned. Again.

-So you started a fight so he/she/they would have to prove they would never leave you.

-Ya, and now they see I’m needy I am and will definitely abandon me!

-That hurts, and that is scary. To be reminded of old wounds. That abandonment doesn’t need judgment. That little abandoned girl needs a hug. She needs to know you will never leave her.

-You mean the one abandoning me is ME?

-Yes, maybe the one you’re afraid of losing is yourself, and this outer behavior is a cry to yourself.

-Wow, yes. It’s true. I have abandoned myself.

-And the path toward true homecoming is paved in love, not recrimination. And the people who love you, know how good you are. They understand your pain. It’s all ok.

We are all works in progress. We are all working through our own stuff, our parents’ stuff, our cultural and gender stuff…so much stuff! And I think we’d benefit from lightening up a bit, on ourselves.

I read this haiku today, and it seemed very apropos:

The Spring sun

  Shows its power

Between snowfalls.

-Shigeyori

Blessings and encouragement to you in developing (w)inner dialogues.

To All the Mothers

At the grocery store today, the card aisle was packed. Some card-shoppers looked perplexed; others looked lost or pained, while others were laughing. They flipped from one card to the next in search of the perfect Mother’s Day card. Funny? Or serious? Bible quotes or open it up and an annoying song deafens you? These are important questions…

But, the more important question is—what is my relationship to my mother wound? Do I carry unresolved anger and resentment? Am I in relationship with my mother? Can I speak to her honestly? Does she make me feel unsafe? Loved? And if she has passed, do I miss her terribly? Or not? What is my relationship to her legacy? It’s different for all of us.

Regardless of the relationship with had with our mother, and regardless of whether she is a part of our lives or whether we are estranged or she has passed, it is our responsibility as adults to mother ourselves now. It is our responsibility to heal our mother wound. It is our job to give ourselves what British child psychologist DW Winnicott called the holding environment—the space where we are emotionally and physically safe, where we are seen and unconditionally loved.

Many of us grew up experiencing a safe holding space; many didn’t. But we all need it now. And we are strong and wise enough to give it to ourselves. And to our partners and our children and our friends. And, maybe—for those of us with aging mothers—we can give it to them. We can reassure them of our love for them, our gratitude for their hard work. We can ask for their advice and remind them we are still in need of their wisdom.

For those of you celebrating Mother’s Day, I wish you a Happy Mother’s Day. I wish you a day of love and peace and truth.

The Warmth of a Loving Gaze

Seeing and being seen is primal. For the first few weeks of life, a newborn baby can see 8 to 12 inches away. Which is the perfect distance to gaze into the eyes of their mother or father.

As we grow, that distance increases. But, our seeing changes. We see  with preconceptions. We see the fringes. And for fear of being misunderstood or rejected, we wear masks. We hide behind safe facades that present to the outside world a more acceptable image.

Yet how strong is that desire to be seen! Really seen—for all that we are. In her touching song “The Warmth of Parents’ Hands” Arooj sings about moments of loneliness: the warmth of parents’ hands is what I’ve been missing; the warmth of parents’ gaze is what kept me going. We long to return to that safe place when we were unconditionally held, when we saw loving eyes gazing at us.

We are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. We are uber-connected by social media and phones and texting and Zoom, but are we curating images of ourselves? Are we letting it all hang out? Are we showing our true faces, the faces that, as John O’Donohue says, always reveal the soul?

That’s kinda risky…

So we go off and rack up degrees and have face lifts and try to downward dog our way to some image of—I don’t know—perfection, but not only do we never reach perfection, but we make ourselves (and everyone around us) miserable.

Maybe it’s time to stop. Just stop with all the metaphorical mask-wearing. Maybe it’s time to be who we are, and those who can truly gaze lovingly at us are the ones who deserve to stay. And maybe we can begin exercising our own seeing muscles. Look deeply into eyes, at the smiles or frowns or the attempt to hide an emotion. Maybe we can see what is there, not what we want to see. Maybe we can remind ourselves that our need to be seen is everyone’s need.

Here’s an exercise for today…try and make eye contact with someone you don’t know, with someone you do know, and try gazing into your own eyes in the mirror.

And invoke the warmth of a loving gaze.

You Are Extraordinary

I am believing more and more in synchronicity. Yesterday started out a bit rough, and I was processing it all with my morning cup o’ Joe and journaling and listening to my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist. And three songs in, Victory’s You are Extraordinary came on. And instantly I was hooked.

I was hooked with the first words, It’s a lonely place to be, when people just don’t understand me.

You mean, I’m not the only one that feels that? You mean, it’s ok to feel lonely? And say it? Out loud for everyone to hear?

Apparently, Victory (and by the way, isn’t that an awesome name????) believes it’s ok and her honesty and vulnerability gave me permission to shed some morning tears. And her honesty and vulnerability reached out to me and reminded me that life is filled with moments of being seen and moments of being invisible, misunderstood, judged. By others. By ourselves.

And it’s ok. To shed some tears. To touch the fragility of life. And feel the tenderness of our hearts. And our desire for connection. And it’s important to honor our precious souls and all the fascinating and quirky and amazing parts of ourselves.

Toward the end of her song, Victory poses a question, Will I sacrifice myself to become like everyone else or will I rise? And in the final words of her song, she finds the answer, I will love myself.

That is the question we face every day. Will I awaken to be the true me? Will I love myself, all of myself? Not fake conditional curated love that comes with expectations and ultimatums. But the all-embracing love that sees and accepts all.

I think I’ll go for the all-bracing love. The one that reminds me that I am extraordinary. And so are you.

The Joy that Wanted to Become You

There can be no genuine beauty or harmony that does not acknowledge the opposite powers of anger, fierceness and destruction…a true spirituality includes all of life’s aspects, not only those we find pleasing or simple, writes Jane Hirshfield.

I need to be reminded of this time and time again. Because it’s so easy to configure some Mr. Potato Head version of my ideal spiritual self. And expend huge amounts of energy trying to be that. Trying to be… kind, loving, ever-forgiving, patient. All good stuff. But not real. And definitely not sustainable.

Because nothing lasts! No emotion, no spiritual state. My body, time, my life. Even meaning and understanding elude me at times. I search. Have moments of insight. Clarity, and then lose my way. And maybe that’s ok. Maybe this fluctuation and ever-changeability is what life is.

As Paul Tran writes in their exquisite poem “The Cave,” Sometimes that’s all there is. This. This—this feeling, this circumstance, self, this life, with all its ups and downs and joys and sorrows and moments of insight and moments of utter lostness. 

So perhaps rather than creating some version of my ideal spiritual self, I can rest back and love what I see. Hold what I feel. And embrace the words of Hannah Emerson in her poem “Keep Yourself at the Beginning of the Beginning,”:

please
try to dive
down to the
beautiful muck
that helps you get
that the world was made
from the garbage at the bottom
of the universe that was boiling over
with joy that wanted to become you

Light and Dark

Earlier this week, one of my children called.

Mom, I’m sick; doctor says it’s strep. My response? Oh sweetheart, I am so sorry; that must really be painful.

Later that day, I was thinking about our upcoming move to Israel, and it looked somewhat like this: I’m kind of scared…I know we’ve moved a lot before, but this one feels harder for some reason…oh stop complaining, stop being so negative, where’s that gratitude list you wrote this morning? think of all the people really suffering in this world, and get off your pity pot.

Why don’t I talk to myself with the same love with which I speak to my children? Why can they be sad or frustrated or worried or in pain but if I slip even slightly from my self-imposed image of perfection, I berate myself?

Somehow, from somewhere I got it in my head that only one side of the yin yang symbol was correct—the light one. Meaning—all the positive emotions, the seven heavenly virtues, the curated social media positive psychology happiness images are the correct ones. And anything painful or upsetting or hard is just plain wrong. Even worse, a reflection of one’s deficiencies. My deficiencies.

Because we’re supposed to be happy and loving and forgiving and trusting and definitely grateful all the damned time, right???

NO!

The yin yang symbol reminds us that light and dark both exist. Simultaneously. In the world. In us. As poet Ross Gay has written, joy…is not a feeling or accomplishment: it’s an entering and a joining with the terrible. We know joy because we know the terrible. We know abundance because we know loss. We know beginnings because we know endings.

So maybe we could be a bit kinder to ourselves, a bit more loving. Maybe our inner dialogues could look a bit more like the outer dialogues we have with those we most love. And by doing so, we’ll be softening and healing our own hearts.  As Elizabeth Lesser writes, When you feel yourself breaking down, may you break open instead. May every experience in life be a door that opens your heart, expands your understanding, and leads you to freedom.

Flashing through the Storm

My heart is swollen. As if a gland,not a muscle, writes Kimiko Hahn in her poem “Utica Station”. A few words into Hahn’s poem, and I’m hooked, right there, remembering times past and feeling—as well—a swollen heart.

Hahn’s poem invites us to look deep within. At what and whom we have loved. And lost. And if we do, engage in what many call navel-gazing, we might find sadness, longing, regret, fear. All those uncomfortable feelings our social media feeds tell us are unacceptable. And weak. What is acceptable is all the positive and happy emotions—joy and gratitude and equanimity and patience, to name a few.

But the human experience is nuanced, filled with ups and downs. And some of us (like me!) have particularly melancholy dispositions. We cry when we hear a song that takes us back to that summer before our freshman year of college, or when we smell homemade bread, like the kind Mom used to bake, or when we think of lost loved ones. Or when we worry about the world situation.

This depth of emotion is not bad. As Susan Cain writes in her new book “Bittersweet”, We live in a culture that only wants to talk about what’s going well. Anything that’s not going well is positioned as a detour from the main road. The truth is that pain is not a detour from the main road. Pain is part of the road we walk as human beings.

We shouldn’t avoid our navel! It’s what helps us stay fully engaged with all parts of life. With all parts of ourselves. I echo what Melissa Febos writes in the first essay, entitled “In Praise of Navel-Gazing” of her new book, that writing about or sharing vulnerability, pain, trauma  is a subversive act. It takes courage. And support. And permission—that only we can give ourselves. Permission to be all of ourselves. To feel all of our feelings. To be sad. And happy. To be confused and wise. To be hopeful and utterly lost. And to remember that The Divine is with us, through the light and through the dark. As Rumi reminds us, When I brood like a raincloud, laughter flashes through me. It’s the habit of lightning to flash through a storm

Freedom to Choose

This year Passover begins the evening of Friday, April 15. While traditional Passover dishes are not to my liking (I’m not a fan of matzo!), it is the holidays that most resonates with me. Because Passover is about freedom.

I’ve spent most of my conscious life trying to be free. Of my past.  Of pain. And I’ve tried so many things! Books, workshops, retreats. Breathwork, hikes up mountains, and quiet time alone. And I’ve had a lot of teachers.

And every year, as I observe Passover again, I find myself asking the same question—am I free?

Yes, and no. Yes, I am no longer a child who has no agency. Yes, I have the ability to choose whether to forgive or carry resentment. Yes, I have the resources to nurture and hold past wounds and love and forgive myself.

But no, I cannot erase the past. No, I cannot invent a different family of origin. No, I cannot pretend away all the intergenerational trauma.

The road to freedom is a bumpy one. We figure it out as we go along, as did those who came before us. As poet Ocean Vuong says, survival is a creative act. We are, all of us, survivors. Creators.

So this Passover, I find myself asking  different question; not am I free? But rather, how can I choose every day to bring more freedom to others?

This is particularly relevant this year, as so many Ukrainians have had their freedom stripped from them. This is a question perhaps we all can ask ourselves—how can I choose every day to bring more freedom and peace and healing to those in need?

Meditations in an Emergency

My daughter and I were talking recently about the usefulness of writing. Journaling. Of artistic expression in general. I mean, how can you compare a poem with heart surgery? Or law? Or politics?

When I read Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O’Hara I find my answer. In this prose poem, New York School poet O’Hara reflects on his anxieties, his desire for love, his thoughts on nature and the realities of living in New York City. In these troubled times, I find solace in the honesty of O’Hara’s words. He openly shares, I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love. Later he writes, My eyes are vague blue, like the sky, and change all the time; they are indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and disloyal, so that no one trusts me. I am always looking away. Or again at something after it has given me up. It makes me restless and that makes me unhappy, but I cannot keep them still.

He shares his truth. His vulnerability. He isn’t seeking for a solution or escape; rather he appears to find comfort in releasing the thoughts in his head. Reading O’Hara encourages me to do the same, to write my own meditations in an emergency. Reading O’Hara encourages me to seek out other stories, and maybe share my own.

When we write and share, when we read stories and poems, we remember that we are not alone. We are all stumbling through life, doing our best, holding the joy and holding the sorrows. Calling out the horrors and counting the blessings. And we could all benefit from releasing what is too heavy for us to carry alone. We could all benefit from our own version of meditation in an emergency.

Maybe that looks like a journal entry. Or a poem. Or maybe yoga or calling a friend. So yes, heart surgery is definitely important, necessary and thank God for heart surgeons! But poetry, though differently, can also heal the heart.