December 31, 2013

Declare Your Life

On Saturday, I shared Kwanzaa dinner with wonderful people. It was my first encounter with the seven principles of Kwanzaa. All are thought-provoking, but one (self-determination) struck me: define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves . The focus is internal. Speak, live, and create for yourself, not for external approval.

My friend Cyndi recently posed this question: How do you declare your life? How do you show up and announce your presence here, now? While enjoying the Kwanzaa meal, I understood one way in which I don't declare my life--when I focus on the expectations or approval of others. In those moments, no announcement (nor creativity nor realness) occurs. 

The declaration of life seems bold. Initially I thought of brave decisions (leaving academia) or public vulnerability (raw blog posts). But that's not how I announce myself. In fact, my claim on life is not bold or attention-grabbing. Yet it's absolutely real. (I answer Cyndi's question in the present moment. Forty-four years of life precedes this answer. And much of my growth came from self-determination.) 

How do I declare my life? By staying compassionately present with myself and others. By giving my full attention to people. By allowing for joys, sorrows, surprises, and truths. By listening to my own story and the stories of others. Open-hearted presence is how I announce myself. It's not sexy or popular, but it's me. It's how I declare my life.

The simplicity is striking: I announce my presence by staying present. When I'm mindful, I don't leave my body and emotions behind. I allow for my feelings, while listening to another. I stay with that person, whether their story is happy or terribly sad. Depending on the situation, I share tears, hugs, laughter, words, or silence. In doing so, I announce that I am worthy and you are worthy (all of me and all of you--even the dark places).

Some days I actively declare my life; other days I passively (and inattentively) watch life--or I search for the approval of others. But I notice the latter more quickly. And I spend many more days announcing my presence. It's the natural push and pull of life. It's how we learn, grow, and form new habits. On the cusp of a new year, I wish us all a deliberately and genuinely declared life.

(This is a collaborative effort with my friend Cyndi. You can read her wise words here. She is a gift to this world.)

December 17, 2013

The Gift of Listening

Think of a time when someone actively, openly listened to you. A time when you told your story unedited and felt heard. That's a powerful experience. Yet how often do we really listen to each other? The barriers to true listening are many: racing thoughts in our minds, our desire to help (read: control) another, and our self-judgment (how do I appear? what does this person think of me?). These barriers can be minor or all-consuming. Regardless, they separate us from the conversation. They separate us from each other.

In this gift-giving season, I challenge us all: give the gift of true listening. Listen to someone without offering unsolicited advice; listen to someone without judgment; listen to someone and really try to understand. Ask questions. Stay connected. Be present. 

Shiny objects steal our attention, especially at lively gatherings. But there's always space. Let's find an opening and listen to one person. Maybe someone with whom we have a difficult relationship. Or someone we've long put in a particular box. Or someone we know really well, yet want to understand in a deeper way. Or someone we know not at all. Maybe it's important to listen to ourselves--turn off the inner-critic and listen to our hearts. 

My intention is to listen more each day. To people. To nature. To myself. I know I'll forget. I know I'll be distracted. Yet active listening is a place I can return over and over again. It's a gift to another and it's a gift to myself.

December 16, 2013

Your Happiness Brings Me Joy

Mark once traveled to Key West for a sailboat regatta. He escaped during January--the coldest, grayest month. People asked me: "Isn't it frustrating he takes a trip to Florida, but you must stay here?" Just the opposite. When we talked on the phone, I asked for every detail--the weather, sunshine, racing, rum drinks, and fun. I felt vicarious joy from those conversations. His happiness filled my heart.

Sympathetic joy is open and expansive. Envy (or resentment) is closed and dark. I'm sometimes still drawn to the dark. Yet now I use envy as a wake-up call. If someone's good news triggers resentment in me, I examine that space: Am I pushing myself too hard? Am I working from the intention of my own heart? Or am I losing energy in comparing mind? What's the seed of my resentment? What needs attention in me right now?  

There's more than enough happiness to go around. It's not a limited quantity. We can rejoice in the abundance of others; we can bathe in their contentment. And we can still appreciate the good in our own lives. I think true happiness begets happiness (or at least openings of the heart). The moments when I resist are exactly when I most need the boost. Indeed, your happiness brings me great joy.

December 13, 2013

The Holiday Blur

Ten years ago my focus was solely external: Am I achieving enough? Do people really like me? What will others think of [fill in the blank]? The I'm-not-enough feeling heightened with holiday expectations. I bought presents for everyone, decorated the whole house, wrote cards, hosted parties, and filled my social calendar. I hoped these externals would generate comfort, but I always felt depleted (and a little cranky).

Now I carry a different holiday intention: how do I spend quality time with people I love and also attend to myself? The answer varies from year to year, but always involves mindful choice. This year there are no decorations and few cards; there are some dinners and parties. There's lots of love and creativity; there's presence.

December brings the shortest days. It's a natural time for hibernation. And an important time for self-care--even in the festive bustle. If we let choice slip away, the holidays become a blur of must-dos. If we live in choice, the holidays provide heartfelt connection. We can't do it all and still enjoy the moments. Doing it all is exhausting (and actually impossible). 

In this holiday season--in this life--what's most important to you? Identifying what's most important is a gift to ourselves. Choosing what's most important is a gift to ourselves.  And with these gifts we become more alive, open-hearted, and available to those we love. Life is no longer a blur, but a series of moments--both happy and sad, yet fully and purposefully lived.

December 5, 2013

In This Moment, I'm Okay

Daily I work with fear. It's a background hum in my body and thoughts. When I pause and explore this fear, it dissipates. When I ignore the fear, it builds. The stresses of daily life can trigger deep-seated habits in our brains. Although we're not in danger of lion attack, our minds and bodies react as if we are. And this heightened state (if prolonged) damages our health.

There are many practices that dampen this fight-flight-freeze reaction. (Rick Hanson's book Just One Thing presents a lovely list.)  One simple practice I find helpful:  pause and notice that in this particular moment, I am okay. I'm not in danger. There's no imminent threat. I am safe. This sounds obvious, but the gentle reminder is often what I need to come down a notch; to ease the anxiety.

In the words of Mark Nepo (The Book of Awakening), "when feeling urgent, slow down." Slow down, breathe, and notice you're okay in this moment. In fact, little is truly urgent (according to Nepo only when "there is some true physical requirement to act swiftly"). Yet busy schedules, external demands, and continuous communication generate a sense of urgency. It's empowering to realize that's an illusion. (Tasks might be important or timely, but there's always breathing room.) And this aha allows space to rest. To sit down, take three deep breaths, and really notice: in this moment, I am okay.

December 4, 2013

Be Vulnerable (Be Brave)

What does it mean to be brave? The Oxford Dictionary claims it's the readiness to face and endure danger or pain. Certain kinds of bravery are revered in our culture; others are overlooked. I think it's brave to be emotionally vulnerable--to face fear, hurt, shame, disappointment, and grief. To not only face these emotions, but to honor and tend to them.

Yet there are few models of brave vulnerability. Our cultural discourse leans toward judgment and certainty. In response, we create emotional armor. Armor that disconnects us from others. It disconnects us from ourselves. This protection might allow us to face pain, but it's not sustainable for enduring pain. It's not wholly brave.

Before we can be brave, we must understand vulnerability. We must explore our tender places and gradually expose them--in small and safe ways. I think it's brave to declare a dream, share a difficult piece of our story, and lead from our hearts. It's brave to be uncertain and try anyway, to express gratitude and love, and to make purposeful choices (perhaps different from those around us). I think vulnerability is a gift. And as I accept this gift, I become stronger, braver, and more alive.

It's not easy. And it's never complete. We can spend a lifetime noticing and embracing our vulnerabilities. We can spend a lifetime understanding what it means to be brave. A lifetime fully lived and experienced. Sounds like a worthwhile journey.

November 25, 2013

Today I Choose Gratitude

Thanksgiving provides space for reflection and gratitude. It's my favorite holiday. We give thanks for the harvest. We give thanks for each other. 

Gratitude is good medicine. Years of research shows its positive impact. When grateful, we're happier, healthier, and more resilient. Some days the gratitudes naturally flow. Other days we're clogged. During life's challenging moments, anger and frustration flare. Gratitude might feel like foreign land, but it's only a few breaths away. If we pause and soften the heart (just a little), we can rest in thankfulness (or at least gain perspective).

My cranky-clogs clear more easily when I attend to my gratitude practice. At bedtime my body rests, but my mind often spins. I process the day, working through ideas, counting undone tasks, or replaying conversations. When I observe the spin, I first sink into my body, noticing and deepening my breath. Then I re-focus my thoughts--for what five things am I grateful today? (A stranger smiled back at me. I received a letter in the mail. Mark made me laugh. I noticed my busy mind and paused. My bed is comfortable and cozy.) Small things, big things, it doesn't matter. The practice reconnects me with my grateful heart.

Recently I found another practice: write a letter of gratitude to someone and read it aloud to them (while staying awake to your own and the other person's emotions). This suggestion deeply moved me. In particular, it seemed apt for my mom. Life with mom is complicated, but I easily filled a page with my genuine, heartfelt gratitude toward her. And during this Thanksgiving week, I'll read her the letter. It'll be an interesting part of our journey together--whatever the outcome.  [Post-Thanksgiving update: Reading the letter to mom was a surprisingly different experience than just writing the words. My heart opened wide, the tears spilled, and our connection deepened. Mom listened and she smiled. Indeed, this was a wonderful part of our journey.]

The ritual of gratitude is both sacred and basic. It's always within reach. Not as another self-improvement or to-do item. As a buoy during the storms of life and a friendly companion when all is good. Today I choose gratitude. Will you join me?

November 22, 2013

I'll Be Happy When...

There's a mind game that goes like this: I'll be happy when ... [fill in the blank]. I'll be happy when my work stress ends. I'll relax when I finish my to-do list. I'll love myself when I lose weight. Yet the self-improvements, to-do items, and work projects are endless. It's not possible to wrap up life.

There's a sign in our kitchen that reads "the time to be happy is now." The letters are all capitalized, so Mark sometimes yells the phrase during an apt moment. But the message is sincere. We have a choice in our happiness. We can choose to reduce our commitments; we can choose to prioritize what matters most; we can choose soul-filling activities; we can even choose non-doing. 

Currently I have no job. And I have no children. At a bare-bones level, I'm free of responsibility. Isn't this the dream scenario? I'll be happy when I'm retired. I assure you life with no responsibilities isn't non-stop bliss. I still want to control uncontrollables; be liked and respected; and avoid difficulty. I still judge myself harshly. These habits do not disappear, because we can't wrap up life. And there's great freedom in this realization.

Last week I envisioned a new creative path--a possible career that resonates with my heart. I was excited and motivated. I was alive. Then what happened? Distractions. It's easy to fill a day with striving and busyness not related to my core mission. It's easy for this to occur even when my mindfulness practice is strong. What a wonderful lesson.

I forgive myself for the distractions. And now a friendly reminder: dearest Joy, you choose how you spend your days. What a precious choice since "how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives" (thank you, Annie Dillard).

November 15, 2013

What Happened on Monday

My niece Emma gave a suggestion for this blog: include a few whimsical or what-happened-this-weekend posts ("your blog is cool, but sometimes it's like really deep"). Emma also made a PowerPoint presentation where she offered me new career paths (e.g., Mrs. Clause, children's book author, rickshaw operator). She's a creative, soulful, and humorous girl. This post is in her honor.

Monday was weird. It was exactly my vision of morning routine: meditation, breakfast, free writing, work on my book that's not a f***ing book. Yet my words felt forced and my mood dark. So I took a walk with my camera. (Yes! Take a break and do another creative activity. It's all part of my vision.) The weather was cold and windy. My hands went numb. I shot a few photographs and returned home. All day this tape played in my head: my writing voice makes me want to vomit; it's always the same--blah, blah, blah; this is torture.

Later, I wept on the stairs described my discomfort to Mark. His response: "Isn't that what all writers think? In fact, doesn't that indicate you're actually a writer?" In the midst of my doubt attack, I smiled then laughed. My husband is observant and funny. (Maybe he should be the writer.)

That night I spoke with Emma on the phone. In a previous email she asked, "Have you published a book yet?" After rich and varied conversation, I mentioned the book--no, I haven't published anything, but I have topics and notes for nine chapters. Her enthusiastic response: "Really?!" Yes, it's the book about life + photography. "No, I meant the children's book." Again, I smiled then laughed. She shared helpful advice: children love bright colors, curvy lines, and inanimate objects that talk. (Maybe she should be the writer.)

Besides all the laughter, there is some good news. When I danced around my living room to loud music I felt no doubt or judgment. Do you think Florence & The Machine needs untrained yet spirited back-up dancers? 

November 14, 2013


Initially I resisted my unplugged Saturdays. Now I welcome them. My spirit craves the weekly, 24-hour break from technology. Once I gave myself permission, the hesitation eased. All the what-if scenarios sprinted through my mind (something could go horribly wrong). I let them pass. The only permission I needed was my own.

While on meditation retreats, people agree to Noble Silence. We don't speak. This allows for inward focus; space to watch thoughts and emotions without the distraction of speech. I've been asked if this silence is challenging for me. Just the opposite: the permission to not talk provides great relief. My aversion appears when silence lifts. It's important for me to realize: at any moment, I can choose not to space-fill with my words. (For me, speech contains many long-held, emotion-masking habits. A topic for a different post.) 

Freedom exists in the present moment--if I allow for my experience, as is. If I let in difficult (and pleasant) emotions and investigate. Where does a feeling manifest in my body? Does the location change? Does the feeling change? Is there another emotion underneath? In order to be curious, I first must allow. I must take off my protective armor. I must open my heart.

To allow (to grant ourselves permission) feels counter-intuitive. We're used to rejecting difficult feelings. We're used to striving and improving. The permission of which I write is not acceptance of malicious behavior by others. It's not weak. It's not apathetic. It's the permission to be in this moment (a very brave choice). It's allowing for our own experience, as is. Not trying to change or fix. Just allow. And the only permission we need is our own.

November 8, 2013

Return to Your Own Life

Stay on your own yoga mat; dance like nobody's watching. These words encourage inward not outward vision. Comparing-mind is a dark, sticky place. In either direction (I'm worthless or I'm overlooked) there's unnecessary pain. Comparing ourselves to others--looks, accolades, talents, ideas--leads us away from our own hearts; removes us from our own lives.

When I take a photograph, brainstorm a course, or extend a dinner invitation with the intention of being noticed--of being seen and liked--my work isn't genuine; it's flat. When I'm centered (awake to myself) I enjoy the creative process and I'm less attached to outcome. Not surprisingly the quality of my work improves--it's full of life. 

The easiest antidote for my comparing-mind: get off the Internet, close the book, or recycle the magazine; spend intentional time with myself. What is the quality of my heart? What piece of me needs attention? I listen and nurture. (That which I seek externally can only be fulfilled internally.)

It's human nature to compare. And our culture provides countless opportunities for comparing-mind. It's helpful to notice these opportunities for comparison. And then get really curious about our response: How does my body feel? What emotions arise? What thoughts flare? Do I feel constricted or expanded? 

Signals that I'm in comparing mode: when viewing or reading the ideas of others, I feel my chest tighten and my thoughts race. My thoughts urge action, but my most nourishing choice is non-action. It's precisely the time to sit quietly with myself. To access my own basic goodness. To return to my own complicated, beautiful, unique life.

November 4, 2013


It's November and my body craves soups not salads. I enjoy my seasonal shift in tastes--a connection with the natural world. And I enjoy making soup. Soup asks for little and provides much; it's forgiving and flavorful; it's easy and wholesome. All this soup making created a mantra in my mind: nourish. 

To nourish is to provide with food or other substances necessary for growth, health, and good condition (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2001). Growth, health, and good condition. Yet we often feed ourselves news, food, images, or self-talk that inhibits health; that discourages growth. We're habituated. Our busy lives provide little space for actual nourishment. Unless we take a purposeful pause.

Some worthwhile questions: Do the people in my life nourish me? Do they support me and help me grow? Do the actions I take nourish me? Do they feed my creativity? Do they move me forward? Does my speech nourish me? Is it truthful, helpful, and kind?

I stood in my backyard today and watched the perennial beds now covered in leaves. Instead of sadness, I felt contentment. These plants go dormant for the winter, but then emerge with life in the spring. Dormancy + nourishment = aliveness.  As I enter winter, with its low light and cold air, I think of myself as a perennial. This is precisely the time to pause, notice, and nourish. I can embrace winter as I quietly grow my spirit; a spirit that emerges brighter and stronger each spring.

October 24, 2013


Insight abstains when I actively do or think. Insight arrives when I'm spacious and aware. Last weekend I sat, ate, and walked in silent meditation. Cheri Maples described her experience with social justice and equanimity. She posed a question: how do I engage in the very habit I complain about? That struck me. Because earlier in her dharma talk--when she mentioned the doing, individualistic nature of society--I felt anger (read: complaint). How do I engage in this particular striving habit? By pushing myself to produce; by judging myself harshly; by not forgiving myself for even small infractions. 

I felt clearly the hard edges of my life--the inner-places not yet accepted. I walked and wept. I sat and wept. And in this process I developed deep tenderness for myself. A tenderness I hadn't yet realized I needed. Though I practice loving-kindness for myself and others, I was blind to the beauty of self-forgiveness. 

When I felt shame, I gently said: I forgive you. When I noticed myself lost in thoughts, I gently said: I forgive you. When I glimpsed my judging mind, I gently said: I forgive you. When I stumbled (or dropped a fork or misread words), I gently said: I forgive you. I not only whispered the words, I felt the forgiveness in my body.

Frustration and complaints are signals; they serve as bells of mindfulness. Sometimes the anger is at our own mistreatment of ourselves. I'm grateful for this insight. And I forgive myself for previous (and future) blindness.

October 18, 2013


Last year I gradually cleaned out my campus office. Each week I put more files in recycling, deleted emails, and gave away textbooks. The process was cathartic. As I tossed out the old, I wondered: why have I kept all this for so long? The quick answer: I didn't have time, while in the throes of the academic calendar, to purge my materials. Yet I made time last year, even as I worked long hours. The deeper answer: I clung to those materials; they provided me a sense of security. If I really simplified at the office, I would see how unhappy I was.

My schedule is now flexible. Time is not an issue. Besides writing, connecting, and exploring, I'm drawn to simplification--cleaning out the pantry, my closets, the few junk drawers. I see what an accomplished consumer I used to be. I collected things as a way to fill an unnamed emptiness. But it didn't help. What did help was my commitment to inner-work, not the clothes I accrued.

It's interesting: since I quit my job, I must simplify (we're down to one income); yet not having my job makes it easy to simplify. I'm not overwhelmed by life. I'm not exhausted at the end of the day. I no longer need all the band-aids of years past: new clothes, new books, easy dinners, expensive lotions. Instead, I practice actual self-care: meditation, reflection, nourishment, presence.

Mark's great at sussing out needs from wants. Often he'll ask me, do you really need that? Do you have to take this particular action? Do you have no choice? My quick reaction is yes, but my eventual response is no. There are few material goods I need. There are few tasks that must be done in a very specific way. There are few circumstances in which I don't have a choice.

Because I (blessedly) have extra capacity, I more clearly observe my surroundings. I see how people often interact with the world: rushing, interrupting, complaining, longing. I just rented a car and an employee asked about my plans. I told her I'll spent the weekend at a silent meditation retreat. She replied, "wow, I so need a meditation retreat." (The whole office gave a collective sigh.) Yet we continue to apply band-aids. We're overwhelmed by work, commitments, and life, but instead of meditation retreats we choose busyness (more gadgets, eating out, mindless activities, texts instead of conversations). The very things our souls crave--creativity, space, rest, reflection, connection--elude us. 

But here's the good news: we can make different choices, right now, in this moment. I choose to get off-line and spend the weekend in silent meditation. Is there a different choice you can make now, maybe a micro-choice? A choice that fills instead of depletes? A choice that simplifies instead of complicates? A choice that connects you more deeply to yourself and others?

October 15, 2013

Unplugged Saturdays

My relationship with cyberspace is complicated: intentional action feeds me; mindless activity drains me. I have useful practices, but it's time for radical intervention. In a previous post, I described a rigid internal voice: I couldn't possibly [fill in the blank]. For example: I couldn't possibly unplug every Saturday for an entire year. What if I glimpse a great idea for an essay? (Write by hand in a notebook.) What if my new, as-yet-unknown profession requires Saturday emails? (Make a different choice.) What if I need driving directions at the last minute? (Consult an old-school map.) What if I've taken amazing photographs? (Wait a day; let them simmer.) I can't possibly stay away from the computer all day every Saturday for a year

Yes, yes I can. It's a radical act of kindness for my soul.

My last three Saturdays included no Internet, no computer. It's a mere 24 hours. Yet I felt the tug. Downtime at home brought the habituated pull--glance at email, look at photographs. I noticed the craving and let it pass (poof, it's gone). One day a week of restoration, re-wiring habits, and connecting in person, not online. It's my simple yet radical commitment to presence. 

October 9, 2013


Twelve years ago doctors discovered a malignant melanoma in the scar tissue of my dad's arm. When melanoma spreads, people die. We spent two weeks waiting for surgery; waiting to see if the cancer had spread. It was excruciating--the most painful period of my life. I walked on campus in a daze; normal conversation felt bizarre. All my thoughts were with my dad. At the hospital during surgery--a surgery that blessedly showed no spread--I was wide awake. My life in sharp focus: I value relationships over all else. 

At that time I worked 60+ hours a week (and probably obsessed for 70 hours). During my awake period, I committed to better work-life balance; to putting people first. Six months later I mindlessly returned to the busyness. My dad was okay--quite healthy, actually. I re-rationalized the long work weeks. I lost sight of my awake choices.

Gradually I found my way back to wakefulness. What do I mean by awake? Present. Real. Self-aware. Open to life--the joys and the struggles. Mindful. Vulnerable. Brave. Connected to self and others. Living life true to oneself.

I've had more episodes like my dad's cancer scare. Experiences that shook me awake, but only for short spells. These taught me lessons and built my arsenal of tools: meditation, therapy, writing, and reflection. Now I feel more awake every day. I notice small details, everyday kindnesses, and undercurrents of my inner-dialogue. When I engage with people, I feel like myself--not a cardboard cut-out of what I think I should be. I am me, whatever that is in the moment. 

My former therapist said something that sticks with me: "Joy, trust yourself. Everything you need is already inside of you." It's human nature to look externally for validation and love. But until we come back to ourselves--until we learn to trust and love ourselves--we aren't fully awake; and we can't fully love others. This is not a self-centered or surface kind of love. This is not retail therapy or rationalizations. Self-love starts by taking an honest look at ourselves. There's beauty in all of us and there's also darkness--judgment, anger, sadness,  shame, fear. Self-love comes from working honestly and gently with the darkness (and celebrating the light). It's hard work; the work of a lifetime. Once I experienced self-love, I was able to awaken; to make choices that are true to myself--to the self I know so well. 

I spend more moments awake. I also lose myself in doubt, fear, and shame. But I find my way back, because I viscerally know that place of center--where I access my basic goodness, as is. And when I'm centered, I have more to give the world. My heart opens, my creativity opens, and I'm fully present to all of life.

A close friend was recently diagnosed with cancer. The news vibrated through my body; my heart ached. But I didn't need this emergency to reset my priorities. It's clear (and has been for years): I'll do anything the family needs; I'll be there for the difficult and the everyday. There's no other place I'd rather be than right beside them, wide awake.

This writing is in creative collaboration with my friend Cyndi Briggs. Cyndi is wise, funny, kind, and awake. You can read her thoughtful post here