September 22, 2017

Noticing What's Underneath


This afternoon, I had a routine conversation with a potential client. I prepared my notes and readied to call, knowing I'd done this many times before. Still, I felt fear and doubt. My relationship with fear and doubt is long-term and sometimes unpredictable. I took a few deep breaths and made the call, recognizing fear but not letting it control my listening or speaking, nor my ability to stay present. The call went well: kindred spirits talking and details decided. A new opportunity to practice and teach mindfulness.

Just now, as I sliced tomatoes and peppers, I had an insight: my fear was not about the phone call; it reflected my circumstances two years ago on this day. September 23 is when my dad, sisters, and I made decisions about mom's end-of-life care. We had to decide, without consulting her, whether to extend her life via medical machines or to allow her to die. The news stunned us in its suddenness yet we all agreed, through tender, broken hearts, to let her go. We held a compassionate vigil, working closely with hospice nurses to ensure she didn't suffer. It was both deeply painful and vitally important.

This—much bigger and heartbreaking—decision is where my fear and doubt arose. The phone call was just a phone call. When I'm open and aware, I notice my internal weather. If a storm brews over a routine action, I need to look closer. On this particular day, I needed to cry and grieve. To put my hand on my heart, and bear witness to my pain. To remind myself that we made the best decision we could under terrible circumstances. I have no regrets about those last hours with mom, yet fear and doubt arose because that's what emotions do. Underneath is sadness. And deeper underneath is trust in my capacity to stay with everything.

I don't know why this anniversary resonated so deeply with me. Grief is unpredictable, just as life is unpredictable. I wonder: who else is walking around today—or any day—with a tender, vulnerable heart? This helps widen my circle of compassion, for myself and others. Life is difficult, wondrous, heartbreaking, and beautiful. How do we stay wholehearted and awake? I think we do it together, as community. Sharing what's real and true, and listening with kindness; hitting the pause button and connecting with each other; bearing collective witness to joy and sorrow and everything in between.
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September 11, 2017

Open to Possibility


The past few weeks, I've been focused and productive: revamping my website, finishing a new e-course, and teaching mindfulness workshops. Amid abundant yet busy days, I recognize my need to pause; to take a break; to gain a fresh perspective. When I don't pause—when I try to push through and work harder—my creativity wilts, my writing weakens, and my ideas stall. 

As always, the trick is to remember to remember. To prioritize short pauses: a walk around the block, a 5-minute meditation, or a heartfelt connection with another person. These ordinary actions widen my view. Instead of seeing deadlines and limits, I see possibility. I better understand when it's time to stop and when it's time to keep working. It's my own awareness calling me back: slow down and pay attention. What's the next most skillful step?

External sources rarely tell us to rest, pause, and slow down. We must do this for ourselves. It's beneficial to our health and well-being and, as importantly, it sparks creativity, compassion, and insight. We can practice together, in this very moment (our chance to remember to remember):

Open to Possibility
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September 10, 2017

Unique Expression


Some wise words from Martha Graham: "There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it."

There are many ways we block our unique expressions; ways we hide our own light. It's easy to list our faults, but difficult to see our beauty. Yet if we allow for our own goodness—if we see it, embrace it, love it—it touches everyone around us; it touches the world. When our unique expressions live and dance together, the world is bigger, brighter, and more beautiful.

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September 8, 2017

Pause and Look Inward


My friend Miriam just called. During our conversation, she asked about my day. I replied, "Lot of doings. But some days the doings just have to get done." She laughed at this, knowingly, then confessed she was grocery shopping with her one free hour of time. Though we try to cultivate our being-ness, we must finish work, run errands, and attend to others.

Much of our day is focused on externals, and it's easy to lose track of what's going on inside us. If we ignore emotions as they arise, they squeeze out in unskillful ways. At the end of a long day, I can be angry with Mark, though my frustration lies elsewherewith uncooperative technology, my own high standards, or lingering grief. If I attend inward, then I'm aware of my emotionsnot misplacing them on others. And I'm aware of my body, recognizing the need to shift positions, stretch, and move. 

Life is busy. Interruptions happen regularly. Still, it's possible to pausefor 3 breathsand check in with ourselves: notice the state of our thoughts, emotions, body, and breath. The more we practice, the more quickly we notice. Choices present themselves in the pauses. Even when life is busy, we can find a little more ease. And on those days when we think, "I can't possibly pause or attend inward," that's when we most need the practice. Give it a try now (if not now, when?):

Brief Check-In With Yourself
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August 30, 2017

Practicing Peace


I'm a pacifist with a big heart. I want peace for our communities, our country, and the world. Many of us seek more peace in life, yet peace doesn't arrive without effort. It's unrealistic to think peace will magically appear. As individuals and communities, we can actively practice peace.

This has been on my mind and in my heart. There's a note displayed in my office: "In this moment, how am I practicing peace?" It's perhaps easier to describe the ways I practice war: tightening muscles, trying to control life, judging myself and others, wanting things to be different from how they are, allowing frustration and anger to build, pushing myself too hard. All of this is resistancebeing at war not peace with life. If I let resistance run the show, then my interactions with others suffer. Peace begins within.

So, in this moment as I write, how am I practicing peace? I notice my body posture and soften my jaw and shoulders. I let go of my sense of urgency, taking pauses when needed. I feel my breath, listen to the wind, and watch the squirrels, even as they dig in my new flower bed. Letting go, opening my heart and mind. That 1-minute practice helped. These steps needn't be grand, but they do need to happen. Small, regular doses of awareness.

I cultivate peace when I sit in meditation, walk in nature, or hug a loved one. I practice peace when I pausemaking space for a considered response rather than a habituated reaction. I practice peace when I forgive myself (for all the ways I forget and distract) and then choose to begin again.

Resistance is exhausting. We might not love our current situation, but we can stop resisting, little bit by little bit. Soften our muscles, release expectations, and open our hearts. With honest and gentle effort, we can cultivate peace within ourselves. And it's from this place that we better serve the world. 

PS: We often think there's not enough time. "I don't have time to listen to a 9-minute meditation. I have important work to do!" These thoughts are forms of resistance. It can be a great relief to practice peace, even now amid the busyness:

Practicing Peace
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August 25, 2017

Connect, Listen, and Be Kind


In 2008, I was still (happily) a statistics professor at Lawrence University. During commencement weekend, I gave the baccalaureate address. Just recently, I found my speech, which was never shared on my blog. In general, these words still ring true. So, here's a blast from the past, a view from 10 years ago...

Perhaps some of you have heard of the “six-word memoir” started by SMITH Magazine. SMITH is an online magazine that celebrates storytelling. In 2006, the editors challenged their readers to write six-word memoirs—a short six words to summarize a life. The response was overwhelmingly positive and sometimes deeply personal.  The magazine published a book that includes hundreds of these memoirs. 

Some of the memoirs are humorous, for example: “One tooth, one cavity, life’s cruel.” “The psychic said I’d be richer.” “Where the hell are my keys?” “College was fun. Damn student loans.”  

Others of the memoirs describe life’s difficulties: “Learning disability, MIT. Never give up.” “Hard to write poems from prison.” “Widowed. Forging reluctantly forward with faith.” “Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends.”

This second set of memoirs addresses topics we all encounter but often don’t discuss—difficulty, death, heartbreak, disease, struggle, depression. In not having the discussion, we isolate ourselves during a time when we might desperately need connection. Life is difficult for everyone. If we struggle, it doesn’t mean we personally did something wrong—it just means we’re living life. And it’s through these difficulties that we grow stronger as a people.

In his translated Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes about the transformative, not necessarily negative, effect of sadness: “You have had many sadnesses, large ones, which passed. And you say that even this passing was difficult and upsetting for you. But please, ask yourself whether these large sadnesses haven’t rather gone right through you. Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad.” 



I encourage each of you, within your own comfort zone, to talk about the difficulties and the struggles. To know you aren’t alone. To not compare your difficulties with others. Difficulty is difficulty, and pain is pain. Sylvia Boorstein, a Buddhist teacher and author, talks of an inscription she encountered while on retreat. The words are simple, yet meaningful: “Life is so difficult. How can we be anything but kind?” Let me repeat that: “Life is so difficult. How can we be anything but kind?” Kind to others and kind to ourselves. Just a slight softening during a difficult time. Softening of words, responses, and actions at a time when hardening is often the status quo. This is not to say we should naively ignore inappropriate or damaging behavior by people (ourselves included). But it does say that as a general rule, kindness is helpful. And connection is helpful. Let's have those difficult conversations—both as a sharers and as a listeners.

Some of the other six-word memoirs are about mistakes made and experience gained: “Afraid of everything. Did it anyway.” “Most costly mistakes, learned valuable lessons.” “Happy now that I know myself.” “Learned. Forgot. Better off relearning anyway.”

Another reality of life is that failure, although sobering, is vitally important. Without taking risks, without making mistakes, without occasionally failing, we don’t push our boundaries and gain valuable insight. I know graduation is a time when we celebrate and honor people’s accomplishments, and this is important. But as you think back over your college career, weren’t there failures and mistakes made, and didn’t these make the accomplishments possible and the appreciation of the accomplishments more rich?

As with other difficult things in life, we don’t often talk about failures—we tend to shove them away, perhaps only discussing them years afterward. Yet there's richness in mistakes that can be mined for helpful insights—insights into ourselves, others, and the world. There’s a fine line, though, between learning from our mistakes and wallowing in the negativity of failure. Kindness is again the key. Can we effectively analyze our mistakes through a lens of kindness? Instead of, “Well, I screwed up again,” can we pause and gently ask, “What can I learn from this process?” Additionally, this understanding and non-judgment can be extended to others. We can give others the space to fail and grow and change. What a wonderful gift to give and receive.



Woody Allen once said, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” Personally and at a societal level, we need innovation and we’re strengthened by creativity. This kind of creativity does not come from a perfect track record. Expect failures, know everyone fails, listen for the lesson or insight, be kind, and move on.

Happiness, passion, and creativity are the themes of others of the six-word memoirs: “I colored outside of the lines.” “Seventy years, few tears, hairy ears.” “Laughing until I pee my pants.” “Found great happiness in insignificant details.” “I live the perfect imperfect life.”

I encourage us all to do what we love. Spend time doing things we’re passionate about—that get our creative juices flowing. A lovely effect of human variability is that happiness and passion come in very different forms for different people. I get really excited talking with students about statistics. [This was back in 2008. Now I find contentment teaching meditation.] Others of you love playing music or making art or being with children or programming computers or reading literature or gardening. These loves might translate into a paying job or they might simply stay as cherished ways to spend free time. 

In his book Earth in Mind, David Orr writes: “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.” 

The society in which we live typically defines success by traditional achievements and accomplishments—your grades in school, your advanced degrees, the amount of hours you work, the amount of money you make, your career advancement. Certainly, these are indications of hard and often good work, but they aren’t the only definitions of success. Advances in technology allow us to multitask and be in constant contact with others—checking things off our to-do lists and putting more items on the list. At a time when we're connected to the world through email, cell phones, text messaging, etc., we are often disconnected from ourselves—from our creative thoughts and deep emotions. 



It’s important for us all to reconnect with our hearts—how do we want to spend our precious time? Not because we have to or we should or we’re expected to, but because of a strong creative craving from inside us. Sometimes we’re so busy that we don’t even know what we truly want. So we must make some space, some quiet to reconnect and listen to ourselves. This can be difficult in our current society, but it's not impossible. And the more we pause and think and listen and be, the healthier we and our society become.

I challenge us all to redefine what is meant by success. Not to exclude traditional ideas of success, but to add to the definition. Let it also include pursuing our dreams, doing what we love, making and learning from mistakes, talking about difficult experiences, connecting with others, being kind, and really, truly listening. In the words of David Orr, be a storyteller or a healer or a peacemaker. Connect with and support your own inner longing, while also creating space for others to do the same.

So what do you think your six-word memoir is? And is it perhaps different from four years ago? Will it again be different in four more years? We all change—from year to year, and sometimes from moment to moment. I think we should embrace and celebrate these changes (what wonderful evidence of the life process). 

As I wrote this speech, I thought about and created my own six-word memoirs from various stages of my life. For example, “Love koala bears and Andy Gibb.” (In middle school, the number of koala bear stuffed animals I owned was outnumbered only by the number of Andy Gibb posters on my wall. You students probably don’t know of Andy Gibb, but I can tell you he was a dreamy teen idol who wrote wonderfully cheesy pop singles—“shadow dancing, baby you do it right.”)



A six-word memoir for me in college is “Deeply love volleyball, hate intense pressure.” (I went to Indiana on a full volleyball scholarship. My love of the game was challenged by the intense pressures of winning in the Big Ten. I learned a lot from this experience, and I treasure those memories, but it was difficult at times. Difficult, gratifying. and important.)

My early graduate school experience can be described with the memoir, “Very smart people, do I belong?” (Like most graduate students, I'd done very well in college. In graduate school, though, I felt merely average, surrounded by brilliant people. This was humbling for me, but gradually blossomed into an experience in which I learned about myself and my particular strengths. I found successes in applied coursework, creative solutions, and inspired teaching.)

There are many ways I can currently describe my life. One possible six-word memoir is “Most important thing in life? People.” (My relationships with my husband, my family, my friends, my students—these all easily trump the busyness of daily life. The people are why I love my job. You students are a pleasure to work with in so many ways. And my colleagues are equally engaged, generous, and committed. People, relationships, and connections are what I find most valuable—and this includes my relationship with myself.)



This celebratory weekend is a good time to talk with your friends and family about their six-word memoirs—about their experiences, failures, difficulties, and successes. It’s also a time for personal reflection—how have you changed and grown and what is your current six-word memoir? This is a time to share, listen, laugh, and cry. To be fully present for each of these precious moments. 

And, as you proceed with your next steps after Lawrence, I encourage you to 
Stay connected with yourself and others. 
Have difficult conversations. 
Have joyful conversations. 
Pause regularly. 
Listen intently—to yourself and others. 
Take risks. 
Do what you love. 
And be kind.

[Joy's note: Ten years later, relationships are still the most important thing in my life. Some new six-word memoirs for 2017: "Left academia. Found a different calling." "Be brave. Live wholeheartedly. Love well." "Feeling cranky? Get off the computer." "Tell people why you love them." "Sit on the cushion. Find peace."]
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August 22, 2017

Acceptance


For years, I’ve practiced letting go—letting go of old stories of shame, responsibility for the world, and wanting things to be a certain way. I’ve sat multiple silent meditation retreats, feeling sensations in my throat and heart, trying to let go, release, and receive. Just recently, I started acupuncture as a new experiment in letting go.

Last week, my acupuncturist did a front-body treatment, including a needle in my heart. She described how that heart point is where we hold our old, deep grief; grief that we think defines us. She wiggled the tip of the needle, then left the room. I cried the whole session. A good cry, where I both released and received.

Afterward, I realized that letting go has become a project for me, another way for me to push and strive: Joy, you must let go before you can be free. Yet another option—or perhaps just put a different way—is to accept. To accept my shame and grief; my vulnerability and flaws; my wanting things to be a certain way while trusting that things are just as they should be. If I accept all this, knowing that darkness helps my light shine brighter, then I’m whole. The resistance is exhausting. The acceptance opens my heart. My old stories don’t define me, but they’re part of me. They’re part of my empathy and compassion; they’re part of my bravery. I no longer want to listen to shame or fear, but I can accept they’re in the background, helping me remember what it’s like to be human.

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