November 24, 2015

Giving Thanks

Years ago, I visited New York City. My strongest memory is this: at a busy Starbucks, I shared a genuine "thank you" with the barista; she looked up at me, wide-eyed, and said, "You’re welcome!" In those moments, I saw the power of a simple yet meaningful thank you—a pause for connection.

It's easy to rush through life, but the pauses connect us. When I pause, the quality of my heart shifts. There's time to be kind; to share a genuine thank-you or provide comfort. And there's space to be grateful. I'm grateful for big things, like a safe environment and loving friends. I’m equally grateful for little things: rays of sunshine, fresh spinach at the market, or an elongated hug.

Gratitude is a current research topic. The studies show that gratitude practice is consistently and strongly associated with happiness. There’s so much beauty and kindness in this world. It’s easy to forget, but we can remember. For what are we grateful? What small moments have changed our days and our lives? How do we give thanks?

November 20, 2015

Vulnerability as a Portal

In 2014, Pema Chodron gave a commencement address. Her topic was the importance of failure. She spoke about the raw place of failure or loss: "Out of that space comes a lot of ugly things. And yet out of that very same space of vulnerability and rawness and the feeling of failure can come our best human qualities of bravery, kindness, the ability to really care about each other, the ability to reach out to each other."

I know about ugly things. I understand self-blame, which spun me in circles of striving, overwork, and wanting to be someone other than who I was. But ugly things didn't help. What I needed to do was feel the rawness and vulnerability. To feel this over and over, until I trusted: I'm vulnerable and I'm okay. That's when I discovered the best human qualities.

I'm most connected with people when I unmask my face and my heart. Chodron describes this as the "ability to really care about each other" (to see and care with an open heart). I think vulnerability is a portal--a portal to deep connection. When we share the rawness, we allow others to do the same. If we embrace failure, we embrace truth: we're all imperfect. We're all complicated, beautiful, real, and in-process. 

My current raw places are these: sadness about my mom's death, doubt about the viability of my new career, concern for my friends' health, and compassion for the world. These run deep--they expose my heart. They awaken me in important and wondrous ways. And they remind me, daily, to be brave and to be kind. Because who knows what someone else is going through? These raw places connect us.


November 11, 2015

Meet Yourself With Kindness

Grief is rich territory for growth. We all experience loss in different ways at different times. Right now I feel withered and bare. But I also feel the sun. I hear these words from Galway Kinnell: “Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness, to put a hand on the brow of the flower, and retell it in words and in touch, it is lovely.” Sometimes it’s necessary for me to place my hand on my own brow—on my own heart—and send blessings inward. This is the practice of loving-kindness.

Loving-kindness is open and condition-free. It's also engaged. We don't deny that life is difficult; we meet ourselves there with kindness. Instead of "I'm fine, my grief is over," I move toward my tender places. Instead of "I'll love myself after I finish the to-do list," I open my heart right now. It's a radical shift. And it's a life-changing shift. If I stay with loving-kindness practice, my heart softens and opens. From this place, I give more to the world.

The traditional teachings move outward in widening circles: ourselves, a beloved, a friend, a stranger, a difficult person, all people everywhere. It's comfortable to start with everyoneto wish the world wellbut if we don't send love inward, we're disconnected. My experience is this: when I offer myself loving-kindness, I offer it easily to others. If I send blessings inward (may I be safe, happy, and free), my circle of love widens. 

With any meditation practice, be honest yet gentle; persistent yet patient. There's no way to get this wrong. Just be. Just be with whatever arises:


November 4, 2015

Sun Then Cloud Then Sun

Life is difficult. It's also wondrous and beautiful.

In her poem, “Buddha’s dogs,” Susan Browne realizes, “I’ve been chasing the same thoughts like dogs around the same park most of my life.” (Profound insight. We’re addicted to thoughts, which are real but not often true.) She ends the poem with these lines: “I wake up for the forgiveness meditation, the teacher saying, never put anyone out of your heart, and the heart opens and knows it won’t last and will have to open again and again, chasing those dogs around and around in the sun then cloud then sun.”

I love the phrase “sun then cloud then sun.” This beautifully captures impermanence—the external and internal shifts in weather. Everything changes. We walk on uncertain ground, yet we crave sun and resist clouds. In this way we attempt to control life. And in this way we suffer.

But there’s great news: when clouds come, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. We often interpret painful conditions as “something is wrong”—with ourselves, others, or the world. It's okay; we're okay. Difficult isn’t wrong, it’s part of our ordinary, precious lives. Clouds come to everyone. And if we make space for the cloud, we make space for the sun. Our hearts open in both directions.

Each day, I have a choice: contract or widen, armor or love, resist or accept. I choose how I move through the sun then cloud then sun.


October 28, 2015

Open Your Heart

I received a simple letter in the mail: my retirement savings will be transferred to a new company. My first reaction: fear. Fear of change and uncertainty. 

Since my mom's death I feel a heaviness in my chest--pain that feels solid; more solid than anything I've ever experienced. My first reaction: fear. What if this pain never ends?

In small and large ways, we're all impacted by uncertainty; we're all affected by loss. Our pain, as well as our happiness, connects us. Naomi Shihab Nye writes about this in her poem "Kindness" (excerpted here):

"Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore."

For me to know sorrow, I must face fear. I can't know sorrow as the deepest thing inside if I remain afraid. Each time I dip into grief, something shifts and softens. It's not as solid as fear wants me to believe. And if I don't open my heart to deep sadness, then I can't open my heart to wondrous joy. If I don't embrace uncertainty, then I never feel peace.

We humans resist pain. But in that very resistance we give up so much: compassion, kindness, presence, and ease. As we move toward pain, opening our heart to ourselves, we move toward love. The unprotected heart is vulnerable but it's also expansive and free.

I see your hardship and suffering. I see the size of the cloth. In response, I open my heart to everything--uncertainty, loss, contentment, and love. It's only kindness that makes sense anymore. Kindness inward and kindness outward.


October 16, 2015

Watch a Tree

It's normal for us humans to be unmindful. We carry strong habits in our bodies and minds. Patterns of distraction, busyness, and judgment. These ingrained habits feel comfortable, but they don't serve us well. They create a feeling of separation; a hum of uneasiness.

The practice of mindfulness is exactly that: a practice. An honest yet gentle practice; a persistent yet patient practice. Mindfulness moves us from the virtual reality of thoughts to the aliveness in the body; it keeps us open and aware. If we experience more mindful moments, we retrain our brains; we form new habits. 

Mother nature is a wise, beautiful teacher. In any season (or even a non-season), you can choose a tree. Choose a tree near your home or workplace; choose a plant or bush in your own yard. Then watch it change. Spend one minute with your tree each day. Notice the colors, textures, shapes. Be curious and open. For that one minute, stay present. Even if you feel impatience or doubt, stay with your experience; stay with yourself. Notice what changes in your tree and in your life.


October 15, 2015

Both Okay and Not Okay

The weekend before my mom died, I attended a silent meditation retreat. (Not yet knowing of mom's illness, I set an intention: bring loving-presence and compassion wherever I go. This intention serves me daily.) On the retreat-center wall was a quote from Pema Chodron: "We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy."

I'm not okay: I'm sad, vulnerable, exhausted, and raw. But I am okay: I'm awake, loving, present, and true. I can hold both of these at the same time: being okay and being not okay. I've told friends I'm riding the waves of grief, but really I'm riding the waves of life. When grief ebbs, life still provides new waves, each with its own impact. I want to allow for it all. Yet some days I resist, and in the resistance judgment appears (self-judgment, most especially). Then I remember to be gentle. To cradle myself in my own arms; to sing myself a lullaby.