October 21, 2014

A Different View of Kindness

My dad recently had heart surgery. It was successful and he's healing beautifully. Yet those days at Mayo Clinic were intense--long hours, rolling emotions, and bedside caretaking. Amid the intensity, I still noticed kindness. The hotel worker who warmly checked me in. The locals who smiled and said, "hello." The nurse who found me black pepper for dad's dinner. 

In the words of Mary Webb: "If you stop to be kind, you must swerve often from your path." Kindness comes in different flavors. Most of us prefer not to swerve from our path. We don't like changing our schedules or plans. We want to be kind while we hold our course. I love Webb's quote because it shakes me up. It re-frames life. The kindness I practice is often convenient. Here's the real question: do I choose kindness when the action takes me out of my way? (Sometimes, not always.) And when I make that choice, does kindness remain or does it shift to annoyance? (Depends.)

I want to be truly kind. I want to swerve, always. The swerves are great teachers. When I'm my best self, I remember. Other times I forget. But now I'm curious. And curiosity leads to growth; curiosity leads to new paths.

October 1, 2014

Our Stories

We hold our stories in our bones, in our very existence. Stories of sadness, trauma, and hardship. The telling of these stories is important. Saying the words out loud, unearthing the secrets--these actions honor and empower us. They declare: my life matters.

I've written my stories. I've spoken my stories. I've owned my stories. And now it's time to let go. Freedom came when I told these stories. Prison remains when I live in them. When I think, "I wasn't nurtured enough as a child" or "I felt unseen" or "I sacrificed too much for academia," I enter a box--an identity that no longer fits. Wholeness exists when I nurture, see, and stay true to myself

It's an act of kindness to honor my past yet live in the present. I'll continue to tell my stories as they occur. It's how I learn and grow. But the tired stories, they can return to the earth. I don't need them anymore.

September 24, 2014

I Survived

Last fall I committed to one year of unplugged Saturdays. Fifty-two Saturdays, no computer, no Internet, no exceptions. At first this seemed radical. Now it's normal. Not only did I survive the year, I thrived. Saturdays free of search engines, email, and social media are a relief not a burden.

One year ago, these were my thoughts: "I can't be unplugged every Saturday. I'll miss opportunities. I'll limit myself." These thoughts felt real, but they weren't true. The truth: I can unplug every Saturday; I missed nothing; I'm not limited, I'm free.

It's easy to believe the stories in our heads. They seem real. They are real, because that's our experience. But they're not always true. I see this regularly in meditation. Thoughts arise, I come back to the breath, thoughts arise with more fervor, I come back to the breath, different thoughts arise (wait, what happened to the previous storyline?), I come back to the breath, fear arises, I come back to the breath, different thoughts arise (wait, what happened to the fear?), I come back to the breath, thoughts arise, I come back to the breath.

Mindfulness provides a clearer lens. I don't believe all my thoughts. I try not to know for sure. Instead, I stay open to people and ideas. I surprise myself. And I savor my unplugged Saturdays.

September 17, 2014

One Thing at a Time

At a recent meditation retreat, the teacher advised: "do one thing at a time." These words, which I'd heard before, stayed with me. I sensed a cover-up, a story I tell myself: I am focused on whatever is in front of me; it's part of my practice. Unconvinced, I investigated my story. Here are a few examples from my daily life:

On the toilet, I look at my planner.
On the phone, I prune my plants.
Unloading the dishwasher, I hold multiple dishes while opening multiple cabinets.
Pouring water from the refrigerator, I grab a coffee filter.
Waiting for my photographs to upload, I check my email.
Driving, I reach for something in my purse.
Researching a mindfulness topic, I open 30 tabs in the browser.

This investigation was sobering. I wasn't doing one thing at a time. Yet it was also helpful. I saw how multi-tasking related to my mood. When doing multiple things, I feel irritated and burdened. Or, in reverse view: when I feel anxious, I strive and push. I carry too much in my arms.

To do one thing at a time, I must be truly present. I must attend to whatever arises--in me, in others, in my surroundings. It's not always comfortable, but it's my path to freedom.

August 29, 2014

Love and Let Go

I spoke at my grandma's funeral. More accurately, I spoke, cried, spoke some more, sobbed, and spoke again. Later I described the event to my therapist. She said, "You felt. You trusted your feelings, Joy." And then she gave me a hug. 

I did inhabit my feelings on that July weekend in 2010. I allowed (publicly!) for sadness, love, regret, and gratitude. I laid open my heart. 

"Don't tell me what you think. Tell me what you feel," my therapist used to say. Most of my life I'd spent in my head: thinking, planning, or judging. I could analyze an issue. I could understand the reasons for my anxiety or self-doubt. But nothing really changed until I opened my heart. I found sadness needn't overwhelm, but it longs to be felt. And I unraveled my protective armor--armor that spared me hurt yet also denied me love.

Just last night, I sat on my back porch, crying. Many of my close friends are in difficult situations. If I love completely, my heart will be broken. Yet it will also burst with joy. Things only get murky when I believe I can save people. In this mode, my sadness morphs into fear and I retreat to my mind. I try to think of an escape. 

From Mary Oliver's "In Blackwater Woods":
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let go,
to let go."

My therapist again: "Joy, your life and growth will mean continually giving up control." Let go. When I emerge from my murkiness, I find balance between loving and letting go. I feel without the delusion of control. My heart expands. A smile forms naturally. I accept all the blessings of pure, unbounded love.

August 15, 2014

Now for Something Completely Different

Where has my silliness gone? Yesterday I reread my latest posts. The topics: self-judgment, difficulty, fear, over-thinking. All important topics. All exactly where I was at the moment. Yet I've left out my happiness and childlike wonder. Life is heartbreaking, but it's also joyful.

Last night I made a different choice: take my camera, tripod, and remote shutter-release outside. Jump around. Leap, bound, play, and laugh. My first stop was the backyard--a safe place. But my neighbors were gardening or eating, and the mood felt calm not playful, so I walked to the park.

(me walking backwards, a little giddy)

The park felt festive. Families gathered. Smoke rose from grills. Children laughed. Cars drove past. I placed my tripod in a patch of sunset light next to the road. In that spot I jumped and twirled and giggled. I felt playful and free.

When we most need it--when we feel sad or angry or hurt--we forget that life is fun. We're surrounded by joy, laughter, and beauty. Sometimes we need to jump around, do the unexpected, or make our own adventures. When I'm playful, my heart opens and my thoughts subside. I see the magical world that is my life.

(me walking forwards, relaxed and happy)

August 14, 2014

Sacred Space

Meditation acts as a microscope on my mind. Certain thoughts trigger bodily tension. That tension attaches to emotion. That emotion triggers thoughts. And around we go, in mere seconds. These seconds speed by, as do my habituated reactions. In meditation, I observe this cycle, but it doesn't define me. In meditation, there's no "me" to define. 

Yet in daily life, the story of me plays loud and large, in not so pleasant ways. I'm trying to find more space. This space I seek is not grand. It's the space between moments--the gap in conversation, pause in movement, or break in workflow. Viktor Frankl describes this place: "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

When I allow for that space, I access and respond from my heart. When I rush through that space, I act out of habit. I'd rather choose. I'd rather be free.