November 16, 2012

Looking Back

Last weekend I caught up with a close friend. We had a lovely, meandering, heartfelt conversation. During part of this discussion, I reflected on my graduate-school days in Iowa City. It's interesting for me to look back at that period of my life. As with most experiences, it's layered and not straight-forward.

In the first year of my PhD program, I waffled between feeling like the biggest idiot in the world and feeling completely capable and talented. Some days I sobbed after class; other days I walked home with a huge smile on my face. These complicated feelings stayed with me even as I finished my dissertation. Part of me doubted my ability; the other part felt confident and strong. (Lucky for me, I had advisors who believed in me even when I didn't believe in myself.)

I also struggled in my relationship to food (very restrictive) and exercise (too much). Yet at the same time I played doubles volleyball twice a week, which was the most positive, enjoyable athletic experience of my life. I worked with therapists to understand and heal old, painful wounds. Through this process I found my own strength and beauty. I met Mark in my second year of graduate school. I learned what unconditional love really meant.

Here's how I summarized things to my friend: I wouldn't want to go back to that time, but it was really important for me to go through it.

My seven years in Iowa City were part of my life path. A path of learning and growing that will continue until I die. Today I trust in my gifts, believe in myself and my abilities, savor really tasty food, work out in a way that's comfortable for my body, honor and move past my emotional scars, let go more often, and open my heart regularly.

Struggle has been an important teacher in my life. It's uncomfortable in the moment, yet incredibly helpful in the end. Most importantly, I know I'm okay even in the struggle. I trust. I experience. In my early years,  I deeply feared struggle (in a fear-of-death sort of way). But once I emerged from challenge after challenge, I began to relax. This is one of the many reasons why I LOVE getting older. Each year brings more experience, more perspective, more understanding, and more love.

November 11, 2012

Gray Days

It's mid-November in Wisconsin--cue the gray skies and short days. On Wednesday morning, I awoke from a dream. I dream for which I didn't remember the details, but had strong feelings--feelings of inadequacy and shame. On auto-pilot, I slid from bed and into my busy work day. Without mindfulness, the not-enough feeling stayed with me the whole day. And it was a gray day. Gray winter days feel surreal to me; I can't quite tell the difference between night and day; dreams and life. I easily carry with me any negative emotions formed in those early morning hours, not able to shake them without a purposeful pause or meditation sit.

On Thursday, I awoke from a different dream. A dream that gave me neutral to positive feelings. I went to early-morning yoga class, the sun showed its face, and my mood was remarkably different. I was enough, just as is. Such is the emotional weather of my mind and body. This is an apt reminder of what I know experientially from meditation: emotions change, bodies change, thoughts change. Nothing is concrete--not the blah of gray days or the burst of energy from sunny days; not the sorrows or joys of life; not the feelings of fear or gratitude. The weather--both in the natural world and inside our own minds--changes. 

This is both good news (e.g., challenging things don't last forever) and difficult news (e.g., things can change--devastatingly--in an instant; and we have no control). We might get a phone call that changes our life; we might make a connection that fills our heart; we might feel the weight of depression; or we might be buoyed by unexpected sunshine that illuminates a bee balm seed pod:

November 10, 2012


A few years ago, I took myself out of the news world--no longer read newspapers, limit my intake of web articles, and don't follow social media. This was a purposeful choice. After reading the news, I physically and emotionally felt worse. Now I don't. This doesn't mean I'm separated from the world; I feel deep in my bones the joys and sorrows that happen daily. Plus, Mark is a wonderful filter for information (as are my friends and family).

Because of my news freeze, I was unaware of Ann Coulter's post-presidential-debate tweet: "I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard." I only heard about this Tuesday night, while at our friends' house. Andrew & Jen are the closest of friends and their home is warm, cozy, and a lovely gathering spot. Their daughter, Madeline, is a gift. She's 16 months old and filled with spirit. She loves music and has a repertoire of dance moves. She's curious and smiles easily. She gives me hugs when I need them the most. And she also happens to have Down Syndrome.

When I heard about Ann Coulter's tweet, I immediately filled with anger; but this was only  a temporary cover for my sadness and hurt. I felt hurt. As if Madeline, whom I hold so dear in my heart, had been insulted. But then I softened and realized the painful place from which such mean-spirited comments originate. Ann Coulter's life must be filled with suffering. Otherwise, she wouldn't use (and defend) such unskillful speech.

These are times when I'm not sure how to work with the world in which I live. How can I make sense of fear-based media, mean-spirited comments, and intolerance? Then Andrew showed me a response written to Coulter; a response from John Franklin Stephens. I read this letter and cried. I cried tears of sadness, but also of relief. What if we, as a community, interacted in the way of John Franklin Stephens? What if we invited questions and friendships from those different from us? What if we responded to intolerance with tolerance? What if we kept our hearts open--risking being hurt, but making space for acceptance?

Ultimately, I realize I can't control the community in which I live. But I can change how I live. John Franklin Stephens is a wonderful role model. As is Madeline:

November 3, 2012

Us-and-Them Thinking

Last weekend I sat & walked in silent meditation. In this setting, it's very easy (and often unpleasant) to see the judging mind. My thoughts are filled with judgment--of me, of others, of the world. An example:
You're not very good at meditating.
Why is that person making so much noise?
My back hurts; maybe something is really wrong with me.

Judging mind is part of being human. It's the fabric with which we work, but it need not consume us. On retreat, it's easy for me to notice the judging mind, smile, and come back to the breath. In daily life, with all the busyness, it's difficult to see the seeds of judgment. Then they sprout into crankiness or unskillful speech or punishment of myself.

The judging mind is rich soil for us-and-them thinking. The ego concretizes a certain identity (e.g., gender, job, political affiliation, charitable cause) and then locks down. In that mind frame, there's no openness; no space. It's us versus them. If you're not on my side, you're wrong. In my experience, this is a very unpleasant place to inhabit. It feels constricted and untrue. 

Election season is prime time for us-and-them thinking. Yard signs signal sides. Media discourse is telling with no listening. Hallway conversations include criticisms of the other side. Emotion--fear, sadness, hurt--underlies these actions. Fear of change; hurt if someone challenges a cause we hold dear; sadness for the state of the world. These emotions are difficult. Our judging mind would rather us draw lines in the sand. Yet our hearts would rather us open to the emotion, see the middle ground, and work more skillfully. Vote for the candidate you think is best; do good work for causes you hold dear; yet see the human-ness in everyone, especially those on the other side. 

Recently, I watched a movie about World War II. Afterwards I sobbed. I cried for the state of the world--for the horrific things we do to each other. Then I realized these horrific things start very small--as seeds of judgment. And then they build. 

How do I live in a world where people kill other people? By getting more in touch with my kind heart. By setting my own intention to be mindful, tolerant, and kind. By holding the killers and victims closely in my heart.