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.