December 31, 2015

Guiding Word for 2016


Winter is a natural time for reflection. The days become slightly longer and the calendar turns. I ask myself: What did I learn in 2015 and how can I move forward? To me, resolutions feel rigid. They feel like black-and-white solutions in a gray world. I try to move from intention. How do I want to live my moments, my days? What word or words can guide my actions? In practice, I must do the work, but it helps to have a guiding intention, expressed in a single word.

My previous words: trust, choice, allow, possibility. Each word was an umbrella for the year. None of these words told me what to do. They served as reminders of what was most important to me. Looking back, I see how they led me through a career change. I did the hard work, but reminders are helpful. Because I make mistakes; I forget and then I remember.

This year I choose "love." My creative work is most alive when it comes from love. My teaching is most effective when it comes from love. My connectionswith myself and othersare most genuine when they come from love.

If a word-of-the-year intrigues you, try this guided reflection (there's no way to get it wrong):


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December 29, 2015

The Intentional Break


This year, Mark and I celebrated winter solstice in a new way: unplugged from work, electricity, phones, and clocks. We only made exceptions for heat, stove, and fridge. Otherwise, we experienced the day as is. The weather was gray and misty, yet I saw subtle changes in light. Without electricity, a peaceful feeling—free of noise and unnatural light—filled our house. It was a reflective day for both of us. Our actions were intentional; our conversations relaxed; our senses awake.

The quiet and calm were made more obvious when I re-entered “normal” life. There’s excess, bustle, and separation in daily life. But there’s also choice. A pause is powerful. A purposeful break from technology and busyness has a big impact. The break could last an entire day or a few minutes. It's the intention that matters. (As I finished that sentence, the bell on my computer rang. At the hourly chime, I step away and take 3 deep breaths.)  These intentional breaksfrom screens, to-dos, and distractionallow for connection with ourselves and with others. Pieced together, these pauses create a more mindful day.
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December 11, 2015

Navigating Social Media


This American Life did a show on "Status Update." In the first act we hear high school girls discuss, in a dramatic way, the process of posting Instagram selfies. It's easy to dismiss this as immature high school behavior, but it rings true for anyone. These girls want to be "relevant." They want to be seen and heard, liked and admired. Social media is the platform, for high-school girls or middle-aged men.

When I post to Facebook or Flickr, I think carefully about my words. And I match these words with a photograph. Sometimes the image speaks, sometimes the words resonate. My intention is this: spread beauty, kindness, and wisdom; be real and true.

Still, I relate to the high school girls—how they monitor comments and likes. I don't want to crave that external validation. But it happens. Some days I post and let go. Other days I monitor. Because there's an addictive component to social media. David Foster Wallace said, "There's part of you that wants to do it over and over to get the food pellets of praise. It's one more way this stuff is toxic." Those food pellets of praiselikes, views, favorites, "great post"either disappoint us (too few) or fuel us (plenty, but we want more next time). For others, it's not the pellets of praise that are addictive; instead it's the constant need to know what's happeningthe fear of missing out. 

All of this can be toxic. It can also be meaningful: I connect with long-distance friends or new collaborators; I share hard truths and invite stories from others; I set an intention and step away when I'm off course. The toxicity comes from unconscious action. Living in habitual reaction doesn't feel good. It might feel comfortable—what we're used to—but it's not wholesome. It separates us from others and from ourselves. 

Sometimes social media connects us; sometimes it isolates us. If we stay in touch with our direct experience, we notice the difference. (Pause for three full breaths; notice the feelings.) And from this place of understanding, we make more conscious, filling, and alive choices.

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December 6, 2015

Different Views


I'm fascinated by perception. People leave a conversation or an event with radically different perceptions. Our mental filters--clear or cloudy--impact how we see.

It's important that I remember these differences; honor these differences. When I don't, I'm shocked or offended unnecessarily. Both shock and offense make an assumption: my view is the truth (your view is wrong). This assumption constricts my mind and separates me from others. If my filter is clear, I might experience surprise or hurt, but not shock and offense. I see most clearly when I'm connected to myself and others; I see most clearly when my heart is open.

These photographs are the same yet different. Same dormant plant in a roadside ditch at sunset. Different point of view; different color, different feeling. Just as I shift my camera angle, I can shift my internal view. A slight change in perspective allows a wider understanding. Because there's not one right way to view the world. There are many interesting, varied, and beautiful ways to see.

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November 24, 2015

Giving Thanks


Years ago, I visited New York City. My strongest memory is this: at a busy Starbucks, I shared a genuine "thank you" with the barista; she looked up at me, wide-eyed, and said, "You’re welcome!" In those moments, I saw the power of a simple yet meaningful thank you—a pause for connection.

It's easy to rush through life, but the pauses connect us. When I pause, the quality of my heart shifts. There's time to be kind; to share a genuine thank-you or provide comfort. And there's space to be grateful. I'm grateful for big things, like a safe environment and loving friends. I’m equally grateful for little things: rays of sunshine, fresh spinach at the market, or an elongated hug.

Gratitude is a current research topic. The studies show that gratitude practice is consistently and strongly associated with happiness. There’s so much beauty and kindness in this world. It’s easy to forget, but we can remember. For what are we grateful? What small moments have changed our days and our lives? How do we give thanks?
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November 20, 2015

Vulnerability as a Portal


In 2014, Pema Chodron gave a commencement address. Her topic was the importance of failure. She spoke about the raw place of failure or loss: "Out of that space comes a lot of ugly things. And yet out of that very same space of vulnerability and rawness and the feeling of failure can come our best human qualities of bravery, kindness, the ability to really care about each other, the ability to reach out to each other."

I know about ugly things. I understand self-blame, which spun me in circles of striving, overwork, and wanting to be someone other than who I was. But ugly things didn't help. What I needed to do was feel the rawness and vulnerability. To feel this over and over, until I trusted: I'm vulnerable and I'm okay. That's when I discovered the best human qualities.

I'm most connected with people when I unmask my face and my heart. Chodron describes this as the "ability to really care about each other" (to see and care with an open heart). I think vulnerability is a portal--a portal to deep connection. When we share the rawness, we allow others to do the same. If we embrace failure, we embrace truth: we're all imperfect. We're all complicated, beautiful, real, and in-process. 

My current raw places are these: sadness about my mom's death, doubt about the viability of my new career, concern for my friends' health, and compassion for the world. These run deep--they expose my heart. They awaken me in important and wondrous ways. And they remind me, daily, to be brave and to be kind. Because who knows what someone else is going through? These raw places connect us.

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November 11, 2015

Meet Yourself With Kindness


Grief is rich territory for growth. We all experience loss in different ways at different times. Right now I feel withered and bare. But I also feel the sun. I hear these words from Galway Kinnell: “Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness, to put a hand on the brow of the flower, and retell it in words and in touch, it is lovely.” Sometimes it’s necessary for me to place my hand on my own brow—on my own heart—and send blessings inward. This is the practice of loving-kindness.

Loving-kindness is open and condition-free. It's also engaged. We don't deny that life is difficult; we meet ourselves there with kindness. Instead of "I'm fine, my grief is over," I move toward my tender places. Instead of "I'll love myself after I finish the to-do list," I open my heart right now. It's a radical shift. And it's a life-changing shift. If I stay with loving-kindness practice, my heart softens and opens. From this place, I give more to the world.

The traditional teachings move outward in widening circles: ourselves, a beloved, a friend, a stranger, a difficult person, all people everywhere. It's comfortable to start with everyoneto wish the world wellbut if we don't send love inward, we're disconnected. My experience is this: when I offer myself loving-kindness, I offer it easily to others. If I send blessings inward (may I be safe, happy, and free), my circle of love widens. 

With any meditation practice, be honest yet gentle; persistent yet patient. There's no way to get this wrong. Just be. Just be with whatever arises:


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November 4, 2015

Sun Then Cloud Then Sun


Life is difficult. It's also wondrous and beautiful.

In her poem, “Buddha’s dogs,” Susan Browne realizes, “I’ve been chasing the same thoughts like dogs around the same park most of my life.” (Profound insight. We’re addicted to thoughts, which are real but not often true.) She ends the poem with these lines: “I wake up for the forgiveness meditation, the teacher saying, never put anyone out of your heart, and the heart opens and knows it won’t last and will have to open again and again, chasing those dogs around and around in the sun then cloud then sun.”

I love the phrase “sun then cloud then sun.” This beautifully captures impermanence—the external and internal shifts in weather. Everything changes. We walk on uncertain ground, yet we crave sun and resist clouds. In this way we attempt to control life. And in this way we suffer.

But there’s great news: when clouds come, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. We often interpret painful conditions as “something is wrong”—with ourselves, others, or the world. It's okay; we're okay. Difficult isn’t wrong, it’s part of our ordinary, precious lives. Clouds come to everyone. And if we make space for the cloud, we make space for the sun. Our hearts open in both directions.

Each day, I have a choice: contract or widen, armor or love, resist or accept. I choose how I move through the sun then cloud then sun.

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October 28, 2015

Open Your Heart


I received a simple letter in the mail: my retirement savings will be transferred to a new company. My first reaction: fear. Fear of change and uncertainty. 

Since my mom's death I feel a heaviness in my chest--pain that feels solid; more solid than anything I've ever experienced. My first reaction: fear. What if this pain never ends?

In small and large ways, we're all impacted by uncertainty; we're all affected by loss. Our pain, as well as our happiness, connects us. Naomi Shihab Nye writes about this in her poem "Kindness" (excerpted here):

"Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore."

For me to know sorrow, I must face fear. I can't know sorrow as the deepest thing inside if I remain afraid. Each time I dip into grief, something shifts and softens. It's not as solid as fear wants me to believe. And if I don't open my heart to deep sadness, then I can't open my heart to wondrous joy. If I don't embrace uncertainty, then I never feel peace.

We humans resist pain. But in that very resistance we give up so much: compassion, kindness, presence, and ease. As we move toward pain, opening our heart to ourselves, we move toward love. The unprotected heart is vulnerable but it's also expansive and free.

I see your hardship and suffering. I see the size of the cloth. In response, I open my heart to everything--uncertainty, loss, contentment, and love. It's only kindness that makes sense anymore. Kindness inward and kindness outward.

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October 16, 2015

Watch a Tree


It's normal for us humans to be unmindful. We carry strong habits in our bodies and minds. Patterns of distraction, busyness, and judgment. These ingrained habits feel comfortable, but they don't serve us well. They create a feeling of separation; a hum of uneasiness.

The practice of mindfulness is exactly that: a practice. An honest yet gentle practice; a persistent yet patient practice. Mindfulness moves us from the virtual reality of thoughts to the aliveness in the body; it keeps us open and aware. If we experience more mindful moments, we retrain our brains; we form new habits. 

Mother nature is a wise, beautiful teacher. In any season (or even a non-season), you can choose a tree. Choose a tree near your home or workplace; choose a plant or bush in your own yard. Then watch it change. Spend one minute with your tree each day. Notice the colors, textures, shapes. Be curious and open. For that one minute, stay present. Even if you feel impatience or doubt, stay with your experience; stay with yourself. Notice what changes in your tree and in your life.

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October 15, 2015

Both Okay and Not Okay


The weekend before my mom died, I attended a silent meditation retreat. (Not yet knowing of mom's illness, I set an intention: bring loving-presence and compassion wherever I go. This intention serves me daily.) On the retreat-center wall was a quote from Pema Chodron: "We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy."

I'm not okay: I'm sad, vulnerable, exhausted, and raw. But I am okay: I'm awake, loving, present, and true. I can hold both of these at the same time: being okay and being not okay. I've told friends I'm riding the waves of grief, but really I'm riding the waves of life. When grief ebbs, life still provides new waves, each with its own impact. I want to allow for it all. Yet some days I resist, and in the resistance judgment appears (self-judgment, most especially). Then I remember to be gentle. To cradle myself in my own arms; to sing myself a lullaby.

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October 12, 2015

Autumn Reflections


When a new year begins, people often reflect on their lives. But I think autumn is a rich time for reflection. Nature sends us into hibernation--in bright, beautiful, and gentle ways. It's a quiet place for self-reflection. In our culture of distraction and endless striving, I let two questions guide me: What is most important? What is enough?

When I move intentionally from these questions, I live a life true to myself. I live a life without regrets. My relationships thrive; my goodbyes--short- or long-term--embody love and gratitude. I feel connected to myself, to others, and to the earth.

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October 8, 2015

Let the Love In


Just recently, I realized--in a visceral way--how much easier I give love than receive love; provide support than welcome support; offer help than accept help. My role as "caretaker" is both genuine and protective. When I'm the one giving, I feel in control of this uncertain, difficult world. When I receive, I'm completely vulnerable. I'm open. And in that openness, I could get hurt. But if I don't take the chance, I can't really love. To love wholly, means to accept love wholly. This is a lesson I re-learn often. And each time, my understanding deepens.

We humans have a negativity bias. It's baked into us through evolution. We scan the horizon for danger. We guard ourselves against being hurt. With quickness and ease, negative stimuli go straight to our brains--into memory. Yet we skip over multitudes of positive experiences. Why? Because we don't even notice them; we're too busy scanning the horizon or looking for the next task. Or we notice them, briefly, but don't actually take them in

Here's the great news: we can retrain our brains. In brief, regular ways, we cultivate the positive and take in the good. First we notice a positive experience, then we embody it (savor it) for three deep breaths. Thirty seconds at a time, bit by bit, we build a more contented, happy life.

This practice works in a general way. It also works as specific medicine for basic human needs: safety, satisfaction, and connection.  If you feel anxious, notice you're safe--not physically in danger--right now; stay with that feeling of safety for three breaths. If you feel frustrated or irritable, do something that brings you satisfaction; then linger in that satisfaction for three breaths. If you feel lonely or sad, hug a friend or hold hands with a loved one; soak in the connection for three breaths. (Or remember a time of satisfaction or connection, and stay with that enlivened memory.)

This practice isn't grandiose. It's completely do-able. Start by noticing the positive in your life. Then begin to stay with the positive, as it fills your whole being. Then stay longer. These are brief pauses throughout the day. Perhaps 5 minutes of your daily life. Definitely do-able. And perhaps life-changing.

If you want to try this practice, listen to my guided meditation (included below). If you want to learn more, read Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. 

May we all have more moments of happiness, ease, and connection.


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October 7, 2015

Resilience


I've been thinking about resilience. The American Psychology Association writes:  
"[Resilience] is 'bouncing back' from difficult experiences." But the idiom "bounce back" doesn't feel right to me. To rebound, I must have a hard shell (perhaps elastic, too, but a hardened exterior). Resilience, like courage, doesn't mean being tough or hardened; it means being open, honest, gentle, and strong. Resilience means grieving my mom while living life with an open heart. It means, in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, "Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final."

Life is an honest yet gentle practice: I need to stay with the difficult; and I need to be inwardly kind. Resilience allows for everything--even the dark places--but it requires self-compassion. I don't see myself as "bouncing back"; I see myself as feeling, learning, and growing. All the while, keeping my heart open (gently) to everybody, especially myself.

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October 5, 2015

I'll Meet You There


From the poet Rumi:
"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense."

When I eulogized my mom, I began with those words. She loved me unconditionally, without boundaries. She met me "beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing." Mom met me--in whatever state I arrived--with love and understanding.

Now I re-enter life with raw emotions, my tender spots revealed. And I wonder: Who else is grieving, hurting, or rejoicing? Do the strangers I pass feel lonely or anxious? What lies beneath the armor we so habitually wear? I think we're connected, deeply, as humans who navigate this difficult and wondrous world.

In times of sorrow, we have permission to drop the armor; to love and be loved; to grieve and feel. Then the rawness subsides and we return to daily life. Our armor rebuilds. Yet this armor moves us further from Rumi's field--further from acceptance and compassion.

As best I can, I hope to stay unarmored. My intention: keep this heart open to everything life offers; keep this heart open to everybody (including myself). There is a field and it's filled with love, beauty, and awareness. 

I'll meet you there.

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September 28, 2015

The Raw Places


My mom died at 2am Saturday. I took this photograph five hours later. It reminds me of the vigil we kept for mom. On the hospice floor, we held a 12-hour vigil. The last few hours, we literally encircled her with love--me lying in bed with mom, hand on her heart; my sister sitting by mom's side, stroking her forehead; dad, bowed forward, holding mom's feet; my other sister soothing dad's hands and my feet. It was a circle of love and awareness. She resisted for hours, but then died with some ease. It was difficult, but deeply important and valuable. I have no regrets. 

My heart is filled with both love and sorrow. These are the raw places of which we don't often speak. I'm vulnerable. My heart is cracked open--to the grief and to the beauty. This life is so very precious.

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September 17, 2015

Start Where You Are


Some days I begin with a strong intention, but quickly lose myself in thoughts, externals, or busyness. Life feels chaotic and I feel unsettled. Yet mindfulness has taught me this: remember to remember. Wherever I am--whatever my mind state and actions--I can begin again, right now. If I pause and breathe; if I take an honest yet gentle look inward, I can move forward with intention.  

We often sabotage ourselves by thinking change must be grand. Our inner-critics claim: It's not worth doing if you can't do it full steam and exactly right; or it's not worth doing if you don't have a large chunk of time. Yet lasting change occurs in small, consistent ways. The only requirement is to begin--to start exactly where you are. Meet yourself with kindness and integrity; forgive yourself when you falter; and be brave enough to start again.

(If the embedded audio, 5-minute meditation, takes too long to load, you can go directly to my SoundCloud page.)

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September 9, 2015

Change


Life is uncertain. We might prefer it otherwise, but change happens, often. Maya Angelou wrote: "I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights." She was a wise woman. I'll add a fourth thing: change. I learn a lot about myself in the way I handle change. I see where I flow and where I resist. I see where I want something different or don't want what I get. And I feel how the fight exhausts me. I want to be at peace, not war, with my life. At peace and fully present. So I breathe into the change--breathe and be. I try to find ease--the littlest bit of ease--even in uncertainty.

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August 30, 2015

We All Struggle


We all struggle. We all experience pain, embarrassment, and loss. But fear isolates us. It whispers in our ear: this is a problem with only you. At times, I want to shout from the rooftops: "I feel sadness, fear, and doubt. I'm not always happy. If anyone out there feels this way too, you're not alone--you're never alone."

We all hide pieces of ourselves, but I want to make space for these in conversation--ample space. Embracing difficulty and darkness requires less energy than pretending it's not there. Shadows enhance the light. They show us truth, compassion, and gratitude. They make us whole.

Yes, we all struggle. In this way, we're deeply connected. As you read this, you're not alone--not alone in your joy, anxiety, grief, or contentment. We're in this complicated, beautiful world together. Our lives are intertwined. When you need it, please take my hand. 

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August 26, 2015

What Gets Lost


A few months ago I taught mindfulness at a local business. On that morning, I did final preparations for class, allowing little wiggle room in my schedule. I left with just enough time to arrive 15 minutes early. I got in the van (we're a one-car family) and noticed the gas tank was empty--completely empty. My first thoughts: "Argh! What was Mark thinking? He knew I had an important meeting. I rarely use the car and this is what happens. Now I'll be late." 

Poof--mindfulness gone. Right away I went to blaming and judging. In my rush, kindness was lost. And this was eye-opening. At that particular moment, I regained my composure, forgave Mark, forgave myself, and moved forward. Yet I saw how easy it was to make a different choice: to stay angry or deny responsibility. Either of these would lead to more suffering--for me and everyone around me.

In a strange way, our culture values busyness. We pack our schedules, allowing little free time for life to happen--for empty gas tanks, long lines, sick days, unexpected repairs, or genuine emergencies. When life feels urgent, important things get lost. We lose kindness, creativity, and compassion. We lose the ability to listen deeply or see anew. We lose faith in ourselves and connection with others. We might do more, but we experience less.

A meditation teacher once asked me two questions: What is most important and what is enough? Thoughtful answers to these questions guide my daily choices. Even small simplification lets my life flow more freely. When I understand what's most important, I invite presence and connection. When I know what's enough, I make room for forgiveness. And when I'm mindful, I stay open to possibility. Even as busyness swirls around us, we can make different choices. We can practice peace and spread kindness. We can be the change we want to see.

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August 21, 2015

Interconnected


When I rush through my day, I feel anxious but I also feel disconnected. It's helpful to pause and look inward. It's equally helpful to pause and look outward--when I really see the faces of others, compassion comes naturally.

Here's a beautiful exercise: look through a crowd, take in people's faces, and say inwardly, "Just like me, that person wants to be happy; just like me, that person wants to be free of suffering." We all want to be happy. And we're all interconnected. In airports, traffic, grocery-store lines, and work meetings, look around; notice people's faces. Just like me, that person wants to be happy. When I realize this, my heart softens and the world widens.

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August 19, 2015

An Embodied Intention


An intention isn’t a goal; it’s a way of being. Intentions live in the present moment. Intentions support what we value most in life. Yet busyness can interrupt intention. It’s hard to live intentionally with packed schedules and scarce space for reflection. But here’s an important truth: we always have choices, even when—especially when—it feels like we don’t. It might only be a micro-choice, a small step toward freedom, but it’s there.

One of these small steps is re-connection with our heart’s intention. Not our mind’s intention—not the striving, judging, doubting, achieving thoughts. A true intention resonates through our whole being. And in doing so, it stays with us always, even in the busyness. An embodied intention is a place to which we can return again and again. Because we forget and then we remember. We’re human and imperfect. We’re also unique and beautiful.

Whether or not you have a current intention, I think you’ll benefit from this short guided meditation. Make a quiet space and gift yourself these twelve minutes. My wish for us all: may we live more moments with intention; may we live more moments with loving presence.


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August 9, 2015

Living with Questions


Imagine a typical conversation and a question asked. Do you imagine a pause and internal reflection? Probably not. We don't often sit with questions. Because uncertainty is uncomfortable. And answers seem certain. 

I'm trying to live more with questions; to not know. This process is difficult--it goes against my long-held habits. But it also feels alive. When I sit with a question, my mind is exposed: a flood of judgment, doubt, or longing, followed by "the answer." When I make more space, in an honest yet gentle way, I settle down. I find an answer that feels genuine, and might change as I change.

Each night, I reflect on my day. I gauge whether my actions were in-line with my bigger intentions. I see where I make mistakes and how I can start again.  And I often sit with questions. 

This practice is described beautifully by poet Jeanne Lohmann:
"Questions Before Dark"
Day end, and before sleep
when the sky dies down, consider
your altered state: has this day 
changed you? Are the corners 
sharper or rounded off? Did you
live with death? Make decisions
that quieted? Find one clear word
that fit? At the sun's midpoint
did you notice a pitch of absence,
bewilderment that invites
the possible? What did you learn
from things you dropped and picked up
and dropped again? Did you set a straw 
parallel to the river, let the flow
carry you downstream?

Today my corners are more round. I lived a few powerful moments with death. I found no clear word, and that feels okay. I allowed for possibility. I learned bits of patience and self-kindness. I occasionally let things flow (my life is layers and layers of letting go). Tomorrow, who knows?
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July 31, 2015

Slow the Pace


As you view this post, you might have an uneasy feeling, a thought in the back of your mind: I have a lot to do; will this take long to read? These nagging thoughts can plague us on the busyness treadmill, where everything feels urgent.

I know that urgent feeling. It can happen as I prepare a mindfulness class. It can happen when I take a photograph. It can happen in my meditation. It can even occur when my schedule is open and free. 

On Tuesday I wrote these words on a piece of paper: slow the pace. This resonated with my whole being. I'm tired of the striving and judging--old habits that sneak in when I'm not looking; when I don't fully see my life. Instead of striving, I want to slow down and be patient: while in the car, I slow my speed; while walking, I notice sounds around me; when washing my hands, I take my time; as I write this, I deepen my breath. Each of these reconnects me with myself and the present moment--reconnects me with gentleness. When I rush, I tend to judge. When I rush, compassion is hard to reach. But when I physically slow the pace, I'm gentler with myself and others. In this way, the quality of my work improves, because I work from a place of love.
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July 27, 2015

Working with Difficult Emotions


It's human nature to resist pain. Evolution trained us to push away the difficult, to just survive. These habits are well-grooved, but they're no longer necessary. And they block true healing. As Carl Jung concisely stated, "What you resist, persists." 

When I resist pain, I only create more pain. If I resist my grief, anxiety, shame, or fear, I strengthen the hurt not the healing. But when I make space for difficult emotions--when I invite them in and look more closely--there's a release. It's counter-intuitive, but it works every time. After years of practice, I have a new relationship with fear. It's no longer a scary monster in the corner. Now it's a known companion. It's a signal: look inward and be gentle.


Michele McDonald created an acronym for this process: RAIN (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Non-identify). First we must recognize our situation--what is my direct experience in this moment? Exactly how do I feel uneasy? (This takes time and inner-reflection.) The second step is a big leap: allow for the feeling; allow for the experience, as is. Here, we release our grip and let the feeling flow. (This can be done in small, safe ways; it's a gradual process.) Investigation is the third step. Once we allow for the emotion, we bring curiosity--not in a heady way, but in an embodied way. How does this emotion pulse in my body? What are the sensations and how do they change? (This investigation is worthy of a lifetime.) The last step is resting in awareness, in presence. Our emotions don't define us. If we allow for difficult feelings, eventually they morph and settle, and we sit in a centered place.

This path is both brave and beautiful. It takes strength and kindness. If you'd like to try, I'll be your guide. This meditation applies when you're in the midst of difficult emotions:

July 22, 2015

Hug Someone


Connection is a basic human need. We long to belong. And though social media connects us across oceans, it can disconnect us from those in our own home; it can disconnect us from our own heart. The Internet makes communication easy, but doesn’t encourage deep listening. It’s a fuzzy line between actual connection and mindless surfing. Handheld devices make the line even fuzzier. Some questions to guide us: Are we really present with the people right in front of us? Are we really present with ourselves? These connections must be cultivated.

I encourage you to get offline and make an in-person connection. Listen to someone’s story. Look people in the eye. Share a hard truth. Sit in quiet reflection. And, if it feels comfortable, hug someone. Hug a friend. Hug yourself. Hug your pet. Hug your loved ones, even if you’re not the hugging type. Hugs connect us heart to heart. They fill a basic, beautiful human need.
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June 29, 2015

Where's the Joy?


Two weeks ago I went to a silent meditation retreat. During a group interview, one student asked the teacher, "I see all these stern faces and I wonder, where's the joy?" I loved his question. Meditation can seem so serious: turning inward, facing our hidden places, and staying no matter what. This is serious business. And it's also a pathway to joy.

Moments of wonder, joy, and awe cannot be manufactured. They occur spontaneously. And they're easy to miss. If I'm lost in thoughts, I don't feel wonder as I view the evening sky. If my heart is armored, I don't feel joy as I witness an act of kindness. If my mind is closed, I don't feel awe when I experience something new.

To feel joy, I must be aware and non-judgmental; I must pay attention. If I cram my schedule, limit meditation, and disconnect from myself, there's no space for joy. Where's the joy? It's in little moments when I'm fully present; it's in daily life when my heart is wide open; it's in raw places when I feel the preciousness of human life.

Joy isn't forced laughter or planned fun. Joy isn't having things exactly as we want them to be. Joy happens in spacious awareness--when we're cracked open with grief or when we walk silently in nature. It's all around us, if we really pay attention; if we allow for our experience to be just as it is.
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June 18, 2015

Learning to Stay


Our society cultivates busyness and urgency. It's easy to feel like we're "on our way" to something else, even as we do what's right in front of us. This uneasiness is baked into our DNA. We scan the horizon for predators and don't fully open to the moment. We flee the uneasiness, yet it remains. It remains until we learn to stay.

In my mind and body, there's an undercurrent of fear. It's my loyal companion. Regularly I try to escape: make to-do lists, drink wine, obsessively check Flickr, strive to improve (in every way), or sink into murky judging-mind. None of these escapes works. They feed my tension and dis-ease. So if I'm not mindful, I go through loops of empty escape.

The loop is broken once I stay. When I make the choice to pause and allow for fear, it morphs. Instead of a scream it's more like a background hum. Staying isn't easy, but it can be cultivated. And it must be re-applied again and again. Staying requires awareness, curiosity, and self-compassion. It's a way to be my own best friend. 


In meditation, I choose a posture I can maintain the entire session. If I feel the urge to move, I stay. If I get an itch, I stay. Movement isn't wrong, sometimes it's even necessary, but it's habituated; it's a reaction instead of a response. The experimental lab of meditation allows me to see all the ways I mindlessly react. If I feel an itch, I want to scratch it immediately. If I feel pain, I want it alleviated immediately. If I feel uneasy, I escape to my thoughts immediately. I notice these reactions while in meditation and, more importantly, I also notice gaps. Staying with my breath, I see space where I can make a choice; where I can respond mindfully. And this translates to my daily life.

Pushing away my uneasiness--escaping the present moment--takes more energy than actually staying with my experience, as is. Learning to stay is one of my greatest life lessons. It's allowed me to access the difficult and savor the positive. It lets me connect deeply with myself and others. And it provides real choice. I feel more present in my own life. I feel more free.
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