December 31, 2014

End-of-Year Musings

Some end-of-year musings haphazardly arranged in a paragraph:

If I use the word never or always, it's best to step away and meditate. Though unnecessary (and a bit excessive), an outdoor hot tub is helpful during Wisconsin winters. There's a fuzzy line between unhealthy obsession and the making of really good art. I feel better when I follow the seasonal rhythmsApples make a good snack. There are unlimited ways to see anew--to see something fresh in people, places, situations, and life. When I feel I must keep pushing or doing, that's exactly the time to be still. Having someone's full attention is rare and meaningful. Natural light is fascinating, especially as it changes. There's a relationship between my irritation level and time spent on the computer. I make choices in every moment of my life--a life for which I am deeply grateful.

December 16, 2014


Last May, I hung an exhibit in an interactive gallery. I asked viewers to caption four of my self-portraits and caption themselves in the mirror. I'm curious about perception. How two people can experience the same moment in completely different ways.

Look at the image above. How do you caption the emotion? Some answers from the May show: sadness, leaning in, doubt, fear, anticipation, relief, concentration, humility, depression, defeat, solace, grief, joy, contemplation.

A single image, yet varied perceptions. Defeat and solace; grief and joy; fear and relief.

Into every encounter, we carry a filter. Sometimes that filter is clear, but often it's cloudy--clouded by our expectations and our history. We think someone is unkind when she's actually distracted. We assume someone is happy when he's actually in pain. We perceive chaos where there's magic or tension where there's beautiful honesty. It's difficult to see clearly.

And it's helpful to know our perceptions are not reality. They are not the truth. When we're mindful, we open ourselves and remove these filters. We understand there are many views of the same situation. We might not like it. We might really want our particular view. But that's not how life is. There's freedom in letting go. 

This holiday season, can you see someone in a new way? Can you remove an old, muddy filter? Can you view a situation differently? Can you see yourself as beautiful?

December 12, 2014

New Grooves

I like routine. I find comfort in my morning meditation, Friday yoga class, nightly hot tub, and Saturday farmer's market. Routine is soothing. And it's also rut-making. Mark likes to try new things and he easily goes with the flow. I often resist. Yet the resistance sends a veiled message: don't assume, try something new, just show up.

When I take a fresh path, even the slightest veer, it's always worthwhile. My experience changes and my mood shifts. Sometimes I resist the entire time, yet I emerge differently. I see life in a new way. Old ruts can indeed become new grooves.

December 10, 2014

Slow Down

The season is winter. Animals hibernate, conserving their energy. Plants go dormant, covered in snow. Darkness sits on the earth, asking it to sleep. There's a beautiful stillness in winter; a place for restoration. Yet we humans create bustle and doing. We actually choose the busyness--parties, shopping, gifting, scheduling.  

Mark and I did errands on Saturday and saw an interesting juxtaposition: holiday music declared "the most wonderful time of the year" while people with tense, tired faces pushed and rushed. We receive cards in the mail that contain no message, no intimacy. It's as if cards, gifts, and holiday cheer are on the very long to-do list. 

Remember: this is the season of hibernation. We can choose quiet and rest. We can slow down. I want to do less and appreciate more; to make deeper connections with fewer people; to minimize gifts and expand love; to work from my heart, not external pressure; and to listen to nature, as it gracefully rests.

November 18, 2014

How Do You Want to be Remembered?

Before dad's heart surgery, we had interesting conversations about death. Funerals, obituaries, and end-of-life care. I knew dad would survive the surgery, but it was a prompt for honest discussion of death. Thought-provoking ideas for anyone, at any time.

One of the questions I asked him: after you die, how do you hope friends and family remember you? I like this question, for all of us. How do I want to be remembered? It's helpful to ponder and feel my answer; to articulate it in detail. Then compare this answer to how I'm living life right now. Are my daily actions aligned with how I hope to be remembered? If not, what changes can I make?

We all pretend death is far in the future. A future we hope never comes. Yet being curious about death allows us to fully live life; to live life according to what we most value; to live life true to ourselves.

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Our current culture of busyness, distraction, and urgency leaves us feeling hollow and uneasy—like we’re constantly “on our way” someplace else. Though this mode isn’t sustainable, there is another path: mindfulness. Mindfulness is being in the present moment in an open, non-judgmental way. When we’re mindful, we listen, notice, focus, and create. More importantly, we’re present in our own lives.

I teach to individuals in small classes, e-courses, and one-on-one sessions. I also work with businesses. I try to be flexible and offer people the practices they most need. Please contact me if you have questions or want more information. (I'm based in Appleton, WI, but I also offer e-courses and Skype sessions.)

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November 17, 2014

What is Mindfulness?

[This post was originally written in November 2014, but I've updated it many times since then, because my understanding of mindfulness continues to change and grow.]

When I typed "mindfulness" into Google there were 40,600,000 results. Mindfulness is a big hit, or maybe a buzzword? It feels intuitive, as if we know what it means, yet a clear definition eludes us. I appreciate when someone asks me, "What is a mindfulness teacher?" Indeed, what is mindfulness, really? I'll take a crack at an answer:

Mindfulness is an embodied awareness of the present moment; an open yet focused awareness of what is--not in the past or the future, but right now. And mindfulness doesn't expect things to be a certain way. It allows for the current experience, as is. 

If this definition feels foreign, it's because we live few mindful moments. We don't know what is, because we think, judge, numb, ignore, and distract. Busyness leaves no space for what is. And we don't know how to allow, because we crave what we don't have and we resist what we do have. We continually search for something else. This is human nature. If you feel mind-less, you're not alone. Yet there are good reasons to be mindful. Neuroscientists say we can retrain and change our brains. If we practice mindfulness, we more effectively pay attention, regulate emotions, and process information. We reduce anxiety and boost immunity.

Mindfulness is a life-saving path, but it's not easy. In my experience, three pieces of wisdom light the way:

Regular meditation is necessary. Meditation is a direct lens into our mind. At first we see wild, untamed thoughts. Then we see gaps. Eventually we see connections: a thought leads to a sensation leads to an action. We also see the impermanent nature of thoughts and feelings. Nothing lasts forever. 

It's helpful to pause throughout the day. Pause and ask the question: what's going on inside me right now? These pauses enhance everyday mindfulness, but they aren't meditation. Formal meditation allows for deeper inquiry. And it's a bigger commitment. There's a different quality when I set a timer and stay: stay with whatever arises—busy mind, doubt, fear—gently coming back to my breath, over and over. I stay until the bell rings. Daily meditation (even 5 minutes) is a direct route to awareness. 

Resistance happens. The modes of resistance are many: I don't have time, my mind is too busy, this is stupid, I feel uncomfortable, I'd rather do something else. Resistance occurs initially and it reoccurs far down the path. I find this comforting: I'm not alone; my resistance is normal. A commitment to mindfulness requires both honesty and gentleness. It's an honest look at whatever arises—no turning away from unpleasant discoveries (including resistance). Yet the practice is gentle—again and again, with kindness, return to the present moment. 

You will resist. You will come back. And it's all okay.

Awareness brings freedom. Mindfulness is a practice. Results appear gradually and in surprising ways. If we meditate, work with resistance, and stay with our experience, we live more mindful moments. We see differently. We love differently. We're at peace, not war, with life.

My two most important personal insights: 1) it takes more energy to push away my pain than it does to feel it, and 2) until I love myself—as is—I can't fully love others. These insights came through years of practice. They arrived first in a heady way and then in an embodied way. I eventually trusted my ability to be present. The insights uncovered choices and led me to intentional action. My awareness brings me freedom.

The journey inward is difficult. We resist dark places and we crave happiness. We re-learn the same lessons in different ways. But if we're patient, we arrive (and re-arrive) at awareness. Mindful awareness. Open awareness. Alive awareness. And that's a beautiful way to spend a life.

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November 12, 2014


As I write this post, urgency nags me. Not an urgent need to finish my work, but a sense I should be elsewhere; that I should be doing something else, being someone else. This is one way I resist the present moment. While in the act of doing one thing, I feel I should be doing something else. It's also a strong signal: listen inward, what's happening right now?

[I just took a 10-minute break to sit quietly with myself.]

Thoughts rule our world. We construct elaborate stories in our minds. We plan, fantasize, ruminate, judge, and doubt. We're addicted to thinking. And we're trained to believe our thoughts, no matter what. Here's one of my most-believed thoughts: "There is something wrong with me." This thought drives my urgency, my pressing, my wish to be anywhere but the present moment. "There is something wrong with me." A believed thought that is completely untrue. I lost hours working from a false hypothesis. Yet this is what it means to be human: we fall into trance and then we come back. The noticing--the coming back--is a revelation. It's worthy of celebration.

My 10-minute timeout is all I needed. I sat, embodied, with myself. I saw my believed-but-false thought for what it was.  And I came back. The urgency lingers lightly in the background, but I'm myself again. 

What are your most believed thoughts? How do they drive your actions? How do they make you feel? And, most importantly, are they really true? 

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.

July 23, 2014

Under Construction

In 2001, I created my first webpage. Unsure of my work, I included a hard-hatted man next to the words "under construction." My initial viewer was Mark. (Besides being my husband, he's a software engineer with a good eye.) He gave many suggestions, but this was his first: "Every webpage is under construction, always. You needn't make that announcement." 

Thirteen years later I see that everything is under construction. Every idea, project, and relationship. We're all works in progress. It's impossible to wrap up life with a colorful bow and say "done!" Life is continual practice, sometimes on shifting ground. Everything is under construction. But this feels vulnerable, so we protect ourselves with explanations. This is only a first version, an initial idea and I'm in the process of making changes (read: these are all the reasons my work is imperfect).

I often provide unneeded words of clarification or explanation. This habit has stumped me for years. I assumed my behavior was unconscious armor against the judgment of others. Yet when I look deeper, I see it as distraction from my own self-judgment, which is far fiercer than external criticism. With this insight, I have a new practice: each time I feel my throat tighten around words of justification, I try to come home to myself. I notice my breath. I investigate and stay with difficult emotions. I treat myself tenderly. And I do this over and over again. 

July 21, 2014

Life Interrupts

I hit a wall yesterday. Life didn't cooperate with my plan. I felt like Lord Business in The Lego Movie: "You're ruining my perfection!" Desperately, I held tight control. Not real control, just perceived control. That's my habituated reaction to fear, shame, and uncertainty. And I'm sitting in a pile of uncertainty.

I often relearn this lesson: life isn't tidy; life interrupts. Sometimes I move with the flow. Other times I meet my edge. Meeting my edge yesterday was helpful. It exposed my soft spots. I can't fix the world, but I can attend to myself. I can pay attention through all the interruptions: electricity not working, friends' cancer diagnoses, unexpected car repairs, peddling a new business, and my father's heart surgery. I either stay with my edge or abandon myself. I'd rather stay. In these raw, vulnerable moments, I most clearly see my heart--my beautiful, tender heart. These are not interruptions, they are life itself.

July 14, 2014

Lost in Thoughts

Yesterday I went for a run and was completely lost in thoughts. A small dog, tied up in a yard, barked at me. I jumped out of my skin. Then I laughed and reflected. The stories we construct in our minds can consume us. I was running outside, yet I didn't experience my body or nature, only my thoughts. I was living in another world--in my head--where I was disconnected from everything, including myself.

Thinking is good. It helps us process and understand. Yet if our thoughts consume us, the understanding weakens. When do you receive your best insights and ideas? Possible answers: the shower, while gardening, on a walk, brushing my teeth, a quiet moment sitting on the couch. 

Often, we box ourselves in. We overthink a problem or situation. Indeed, our culture reveres intellectual hard work. But we can't solve all problems just by thinking. It's also important to process emotionally, let an idea sit, and gain larger perspective. The spaces that naturally happen in life--showering, walking--provide a break from the thinking and often allow for insight. Imagine if we purposefully created more space.

When I'm lost in thoughts--and I notice--I use a variety of techniques: nature walk, yoga, weeding my garden, breath awareness, meditation. My best strategy, though, is simply lying on the couch. Non-doing. I don't necessarily meditate, but I scan my body. I feel my emotions. I notice my thoughts but I don't follow them. I don't jump from the couch to do the next thing that pops into my mind. I lie on the couch for a while--longer than I think I can. And I settle. I stop believing the stories in my mind. I find a bit of clarity and perhaps a new perspective. Just by lying on the couch, intentionally doing nothing.

July 2, 2014

True Confessions

I slowly looked through a women's magazine. I sat with the images, the perfect images. Everyone's skin was flawless--no scars, wrinkles, or spots. Page after page of glowing, perfect skin. Impossibly perfect skin. 

As a photographer, I understand the importance of light. If only our lives were bathed in golden light. Instead, we see ourselves in varied light with unflattering views. So what is real? What is real in a culture of photoshopped models and my-life-is-beautiful social media? 

What's real for me is when I get offline--when I walk outside, hug a friend, savor a meal, share from the heart, or laugh with Mark. Life is messy. And I'm grateful for every messy moment. As a counterweight to all the impossibly perfect skin in magazines, I share with you some true confessions:

I'm not a natural blonde. Every six weeks I receive highlights from my stylist, Sarah. Here you can see my roots just before an update:

I delete 90% of the photographs I take. I shoot hundreds of images a day in order to get one I really like. I take many bad photographs.

I get frustrated by piles of dishes stacked in our drying rack. On occasion I start throwing the non-breakables around, to which Mark responds, "Yeah, take that!" And I smile.

If two words sound alike, I sometimes misuse one for the other, with the incorrect meaning. Me, the writer. 

Our lawn is one-half grass and one-half weeds. My flower beds are dense and wild (with fewer weeds).

I regularly have a good cry. Sometimes for a specific reason and other times because I feel generalized sadness. I always feel better after I cry.

I have no good reason, but I dislike crows. [Later: My friend Amy convinced me that crows are immensely likable. I'm sure there's something else I dislike for no good reason.]

I am both grateful for and horrified by the attention I get on Flickr

I have very deep laugh lines. And red, broken blood vessels all around my nose. 

I sometimes take inauthentic actions because I want someone to like me.

I'm a mindfulness teacher and some days I don't feel very mindful.

Sitting too much makes my lower back hurt. Stretching, yoga, and pilates make my back feel better. Some days I sit too much at the computer and don't stretch. Other days I stand at the computer and take yoga breaks. Life isn't perfect. And I'm grateful for every messy, imperfect, real moment. I'm grateful for it all.