June 27, 2016

Letting Go of Expectations

I volunteer at a prison, participating with inmates in meditation and mindfulness. The work is meaningful and worth the one-hour drive each way. Last month, I arrived at 8:15am, only to be told our program was cancelled. The news was disappointing—these inmates value our mindfulness group—but I wasn't angry or frustrated. My only option was to get in the car and drive home. On route, I noticed the beautiful spring landscape: trees in a variety of colors, fields of new growth, wildflowers in the ditch. I was aware enough to realize: If I'd chosen to blame someone or be angry, I wouldn't enjoy the scenery. Letting go freed my heart and mind.

Fast forward to the afternoon. I needed a battery-powered, small digital clock. I began this errand with an expectation: a simple clock should be easy to find. Yet store after store didn't have it. My frustration built, so I stopped the search and returned home. Hours later I realized how irritable and constricted I felt. I compared this constriction to the ease on my drive back from prison. These juxtaposed events were vastly different.

When I volunteer in prison, I have clear intentions with no expectations. My intentions are to be present and available; to help and heal others; to hold nothing back. If class gets cancelled, that's part of the process (and part of my mindfulness practice). Yet when I run errands, I have solid expectations: This will be quick and easy; my needs will be met. These assumptions lead to disappointment, which can morph into anger and blame.

Expectations are interesting. If something exceeds our expectations, we're happy, but only briefly, and then we move to the next thing. If something disappoints our expectations, we're frustrated, dismayed, judgmental, and often stuck. In both directions, we're not content. 

It's most helpful to drop expectations; to let go of how we think things are "supposed to be." But wait: Won't we become lazy, nondiscerning, uncaring people? I don't believe so. We can put in serious effort without expectation of a specific outcome. When I attach to outcome, I'm stuck. When I work hard from intention, I open to possibility. When I expect people to act a certain way, I'm unhappy. When I see people anew, I open to love.

Expectations are a habit, and habits can change. Often I catch myself after the fact. When I reflect on a difficult experience, I ask: How was it supposed to be? My mind floods with expectations and judgments. Bingo: there's the suffering. Noticing is the first step. And when I notice, I try to smile. Because life isn't supposed to be a certain way. Life just is. This world wasn't created to meet my whims and expectations. When I let go—bit by bit—this complicated world opens up in a beautiful way.

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June 22, 2016

The Power of Possibility

I've long believed myself incapable of enlightenment. Daily, I practice meditation, generosity, and loving-kindness, but I reserved enlightenment for monks, nuns, and "special people." Then I heard my meditation teacher say, "We all have the potential to awaken. This is an important belief: it's possible to live with an awakened, open heart; to be fully present." With these words, something inside me shifted. 

The next day, I met a recently-graduated college student. She was bright, kind, and capable. Still, her first-year advisor told her not to pursue math. Hearing this news, I sighed and said, "I'm sorry you were told what you couldn't do rather than being told what's possible. I wish I could have been there to say: You're capable of so much; believe in yourself and move forward." With these words, she began to cry long-held tears. 

I want to be clear: enlightenment requires serious effort, as does studying mathematics. This effort is persistent and honest. But we spend far too much energy resisting our own goodness, limiting our potential, and then passing this on to others.

I think life is filled with possibility. It's possible for us to be our best selves: watering seeds of love, compassion, and awareness. It's possible for us to study mathematics, awaken our hearts, change old habits, plant gardens, follow dreams, find meaning, shift careers, make art, and forgive each other. Imagine if we encouraged ourselves and each other to see what's possible; to believe in our potential. I think we could change the world.

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June 15, 2016

Choosing Compassion

Last weekend I participated in a silent meditation retreat. I returned home with my heart wide open—wide open to joy and gratitude; wide open to grief and suffering. I wasn’t sure how to navigate daily life with such an open heart. It felt both strange and fully alive. Then I heard about the mass shooting in Orlando, and I wept. I wept for humanity.

Jack Kornfield wrote a compelling, wise response and his words resonate with me:  
“I am filled with tears and an ocean of compassion for so many who have been harmed. Sitting quietly, this tragedy strengthens my resolve to not let terror and fear take over my heart. As we move through this beautiful and troubled world, may we vow to be a beacon of peace, a fearless carrier of respect and lovingkindness for all life, a teller of truth, a voice for justice, a protector of those who are vulnerable or targeted. May the power of wisdom, integrity and compassion be our guide.”

We can be paralyzed by fear and sadness. We can be engulfed with anger and blame. Or we can live fearlessly with open, compassionate hearts. The latter is possible, though it requires engaged commitment. It’s a radical act to stay present, embodied, and aware during difficult times; to move from a place of love in response to an act of hate; to see our interconnection instead of seeing “other.” I stand with Jack Kornfield. May I act from wisdom and integrity. May I bring compassion to more moments. May I continue to live with an unguarded heart.

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June 8, 2016

Staying with Ourselves

John O'Donohue wrote, "Our bodies know they belong; it is our minds that make our lives so homeless." When things get difficult, we flee into thoughts and judgments. Instead of feeling, we escape into the mind. Sometimes our thoughts are helpful: we gain insight or create a solution. But mostly our thoughts are harmful: rumination about the past, anxiety about the future, or harsh, separating judgment.

When we come home to our body, we begin to feel. And in this way we heal. Because our deeper awarenessthe part of us that knows it belongswants to feel. Withholding emotion causes pain. To be whole again, we must allow ourselves to feel whatever arises. This means staying with ourselves, just as we'd stay with a close friend. If things get uncomfortable, we stayembodied and aware. What's going on inside me right now? What needs my care and attention? Staying for just 3 breaths is a powerful practice. Gradually we build trust in our belonging, to both ourselves and the larger world.

Here's the last video in my series, "Healing with Self-Compassion." If you're interested but notice a tug of "not enough time," I encourage you to start the video and stay for just a little longer than feels comfortable. Notice what happens. Notice how you feel.

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June 2, 2016

Open Your Heart to Who You Are

Here's an interesting paradox: until we accept ourselves just as we are, we can't make the beneficial changes we seek. We might recognize important ways we can change, but growth springs from acceptance not punishment. Once we're comfortable in our own skin, in the deepest parts of our being, we can move forward in positive ways. 

John Welwood describes this beautifully:
"Forget about enlightenment. Sit down wherever you are and listen to the wind that is singing in your veins. Feel the love, the longing, and the fear in your bones. Open your heart to who you are, right now, not who you would like to be. Not the saint you’re striving to become. But the being right here before you, inside you, around you. All of you is holy. You’re already more and less than whatever you can know. Breathe out, look in, let go."

Open your heart to who you are, right now, not who you would like to be. When we open our heart in this way, we open our heart to the world. We find presence, acceptance, and love. And from this expansive space, anything is possible.

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June 1, 2016

The Practice of Self-Compassion

I have well-grooved habits. We all have well-grooved habits. Some of these are helpful, others are hurtful. My self-judgment isn't necessary nor is it wholesome. It's a habit I want to let go. But if I let go, I need a beneficial replacement. I view self-compassion as a life-long practice. This practice requires mindfulness, connection, and kindness. It requires honesty and gentleness; persistence and patience. I know I'll resist at times, but I also know I can begin again in any moment.

Self-judgment harms us; self-compassion heals us. Self-aversion makes us miserable yet feels strangely comfortable. At times, we must move from our comfort zone: try a new practice and see what happens. Unwholesome habits won't change if we don't put in the efforteffort that's wise, persistent, genuine, and kind.

Here's the fourth video in my series, "Healing with Self-Compassion." Give it a try. See what happens. Anything is possible.

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