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

October 8, 2013

10 More Questions

In May, I answered James Lipton's famous closing questions. Recently, I received a generous comment from Denise Fabian, and she posed 10 more questions. Here are my answers:

1. What pivotal event in your life changed you for the better?
When I was 25, my mom entered a mania. (Although she dutifully took medication, she went toxic on her lithium and was sans bi-polar medication for months.) My family--at that time--didn't speak openly about her illness and its impact on us all. But I chose that moment to have a heart-to-heart conversation with my dad. And that conversation led to weekly lunches, honest expression, and deeper understanding. My dad and I have a very special relationship--I treasure it more than I can put into words. I'm glad I reached out way back then. It scared me, but was one of the best decisions of my life.

2. What type of music do you most enjoy?
I like singer-songwriters. People with interesting voices sharing interesting stories. (Some of my favs: Patty Griffin, Dar Williams, David Francey, and The Wailin' Jennys.)

3. Spring or fall? 
I cannot choose. They are different, yet equally beautiful. Spring brings growth, shades of green, newness, warmth, and rebirth. Fall brings quiet, bright colors, harvest, coolness, and pre-hibernation. All very good things.

4. What is your favorite comfort food?
When I've had a tough day or am especially tired, my favorite cozy distraction is Stuc's pizza and a movie (curled up next to Mark).

5. What is your favorite creative activity?
Photography. It's my flow activity. When I shoot, I'm fully present and alive; I'm mindful. The act of taking photographs calms and centers me.

6. Looking back at your life, what era would you like to live over?
Even if I could go back, I don't want to. I am a collection of experiences and learning. With each year, I love myself more and I love life more. I wouldn't be who I am without the difficult--mistakes, unskillful actions, hurt, disappointment, pain. Right now I'm living life without regrets. There's no need for me to go back.

7. Barefoot or slippers?
I get cold very easily (even when it's 80 degrees outside). If I choose to be barefoot, I'm not cold. So barefoot!

8. How would you describe your home-decoration style?
Colorful, comfortable, warm, simple, welcoming, artful.

9. What evokes emotion in you?
Almost everything. I'm brought to tears by joy, relief, deep sharing, sadness, tragedy, and beauty. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I don't know how else to live.

10. What one thing do you want to accomplish before your life is over?
There is no one thing. I have a life menu of items I may or may not accomplish. Mostly, I don't want to accomplish before I die; I want to experience, feel, love, express, and live fully.

October 2, 2013

Essential Self-Care

What is essential self-care? The basic level of care required during the busiest, heart-wrenching, stressful periods of life. During these difficult times, we typically run on autopilot. Attention to self-care provides a mindful autopilot. If we understand our individual needs, we can maintain center when life interrupts. 

What creative, emotional, spiritual, and physical needs form my baseline? I like this question, because it requires me to notice. What's most important to me and what has the most beneficial effect on me? I might claim: I need a glass of wine at the end of a busy day or I need to zone out in front of a movie. But if I look closer these are not essential self-care. They are momentary band-aids. It's fine for me to do these things, but they don't make my essential list. They don't help me maintain balance during difficult times.

At a bare-bones level, what self-care do I need each day? Here's my current list:  sleep at least 8 hours (if not sleep, rest); drink at least 1 gallon of water; eat fruit(s) or vegetable(s) with every meal or snack; move my body; hug at least 1 person; get outside; laugh or smile; meditate; write.

I return to this list regularly. There are many ways in which I supplement these essential ingredients, but this is minimal self-care. It's helpful during difficult times. It's just as helpful at an everyday-level. With my intentional list, I have a place to return when I'm in a funk. Ah, I haven't meditated for two days or I haven't made meaningful space for my writing. That's okay, I can start again today. What a wonderful part of life: we can always start again, in this very moment. We can choose to give ourselves essential self-care.