August 1, 2017

The Importance of Teachers

heart In 2010, I attended my first silent meditation retreat—a doorway to deeper practice and broader awareness. It was a big leap (scary at the time), which I’ve taken another 20 times since. Cheri Maples was my first teacher. She was no-nonsense, a straight shooter. Her dharma talks were clear, honest, and filled with abundant wisdom. 

I’ve sat 10 retreats led by Cheri. In that time, my practice has changed and grown immensely, and Cheri has changed, too. She transformed from a no-nonsense, former cop into a wise, kind, nurturing teacher. She applied self-compassion in her own life, leading by example. She lightened up, while still practicing with deep integrity—she lived her talk

Cheri helped me in more ways than she’ll ever know. While on her retreats, I recognized my unwholesome habit of striving (desperately “doing” to side-step my pain). I saw my identification with a victimized self—clinging to my mental story of unworthiness as an (impossible) way to control this uncontrollable life—and I began to let go; to make different choices; to be more real, vulnerable, and free. Cheri reminded us all, “If not now, when?” And she asked us to question our solid views, “Am I sure?”

Last fall, Cheri was in a horrible, life-threatening bicycle accident. For two weeks, it wasn’t clear she would live. She spent months in various kinds of rehab, where she practiced mindfulness, patience, and skillful effort. Eventually, she returned home in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. I attended a winter meditation retreat in Madison, typically co-taught by Cheri, but in which she couldn’t participate because of her health. After a silent, mindful lunch, I walked into the meditation hall and saw Cheri, in her wheelchair, on the stage. My heart leapt with love and awe.

intrepid

Cheri spoke to us for 40 minutes, which took an amazing amount of energy given her condition. Her bottom line, after everything that happened: She’s grateful. She laughs more, accepts help, practices patience, and savors life. During an early juncture in her recovery, she clearly saw two roads she could take: depressed, victimized, suffering person or grateful, genuine, open-hearted person. She chose the latter, with dignity and grace. On that day in February, she was my teacher in new and beautiful ways.

Last week, Cheri got a systemic infection and died within hours. It shocked everyone around her, but didn’t appear to shock Cheri. She understands—in ways very few of us do—that life is fleeting, ever-changing, and not to be taken for granted, even for a moment. The day before she died, she told a friend, “I have lived such a good life.” A teacher until her last breath.

I feel deep sadness. Personal grief as well as heartbreak for the world. We’ve lost a great teacher, a mindful social activist, and a beautiful person. (For a sample of Cheri's wise, compassionate, honest teaching, look here.) A world-wide community mourns. Still, I know where Cheri would invite me to turn my attention: Gratitude. I’m grateful for each bit of wisdom I received from Cheri. I’m grateful for her example of how to live life, especially when it’s hard. I’m grateful I took a chance on that retreat in 2010. It changed my life. Cheri changed my life. I miss her steady presence in this unpredictable world. And I carry her in my heart: a reminder that steadiness is within me, too.

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July 19, 2017

Back to Basics

enlightenment

Meditation isn't just time spent on the cushion. It's equally about bringing awareness to daily life. At the Y, I bookend my meditation class with suggestions for everyday awareness. Speech and relationships are rich places to pay attention. I pose these questions about speech: Is it truthful? Helpful? Kind? (And is this the right time and am I the right person?) These are deep questions. So much of our cultural chatter is unhelpful, untrue, and unkind. It makes a difference when we attend with care to what we say. The more years I meditate, the less I speak. 

My friend Peter took these questions to heart and wrote a lovely song about skillful speech. When he shared it with a neighbor, he got this response: "Isn't that too simplistic? It sounds like kindergarten." This exchange made me wonder: perhaps all we need are basic lessons learned in elementary school.

I recently met with a group of educators of young children. The preschool director said, "Many days, we don't get into curriculum because we're helping kids resolve conflict. We let them know it's okay to disagree but they must treat each other with kindness and respect." Wisdom from preschool. If we all practiced this, our world might heal.

thyme stands still

Karen Maezen Miller is a meditation teacher who resurrected a Zen garden in her backyard years ago. Now people flock to her house for garden tours. Her basic rules: 1) Be kind; 2) Don't throw rocks; 3) No running; 4) Pay attention. Ostensibly, these rules apply to young children, but if we overlay them on our adult lives, they're wonderful instructions. 

We spend so much time in our thoughts. Thinking, judging, analyzing, planning, and replaying. In doing so, we can over-complicate life. We blame (throw rocks), busy ourselves, and speak unconsciously. We see life as a puzzle to solve rather than a mystery to be lived, moment by moment, with our whole being.  Our way back home is through simple lessons we learned as kids:

Slow down.
Pay attention.
Be kind.
Tell the truth.
Apologize.
Get outside.
Take quiet time.
Help each other. 

Back to basics. We don't need much more than this. Simplicity is a beautiful thing. We can practice awareness with the next breath:


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July 11, 2017

Wholehearted Living

imagination In my prison sangha, there are a variety of men—young and old; tough and tender; expressive and quiet. One of our quiet leaders is a burly guy with a shaved head. No one messes with him. Yet I know he’s a kind soul who had an amazingly difficult childhood. He practices meditation diligently. His heart continues to open in new ways. He shows up every week and sits in the circle.

During a one-on-one visit, another teacher and I shared with our “big, tough guy” exactly how and why we value his wisdom, presence, and practice. We let him know we care. He paused and the tears came, rolling down his cheeks. I asked, “Are these tears because no one has told you this before or because you don’t feel worthy?” He quietly nodded, “It’s both.”

This powerful interaction touched me in two ways: It was a reminder to tell people why and how I love them—to not hold back these words—because it makes a difference; it was also a reminder of our western-culture core wound: a deep-seated feeling of unworthiness.

It’s a life-long practice to build awareness, understand ourselves, and bear witness to our own pain; to apply self-compassion. It begins when others see us—really see us, as is—and accept us without conditions. It continues when we do this for ourselves.

Brené Brown writes, “Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

May we all live and breathe in a more wholehearted way.

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June 28, 2017

Mindfulness Practices for Work

simplicity
When I teach mindfulness courses, my students often say, “I feel present and aware when I’m here with you, but I lose myself at work. How can I stay mindful in a busy work environment?” This is a great question, whether our work is done in cubicles, at home, inside classrooms, a studio, or within volunteer organizations. It’s easy to “lose ourselves”: to forget our breath, body, and awareness; to get caught in busyness. Yet we can remember in small, regular ways. With practice, we can return to mindfulness.

Change your perspective.
If you feel sluggish, scattered, stuck, or anxious, change your position. If you’re seated, stand up. If you’re standing, sit down. Take a short walk. Look out a window or, even better, get outside. Sit on a chair in a different room. Twirl or dance. Make a conscious choice to change your perspective. New ideas often arise in the shower, walking to the bathroom, or during an afternoon workout. We need breaks from the overthinking; we need space for creativity. Physically change your position, take a few deep breaths, and try to see the world anew.

Connect in person.
We’re constantly connected through technology. We ask questions via chat clients, email, or text. But complicated questions are asked and answered best in person. One email message can generate an hour’s work, when a phone call completes the task in ten minutes. The way we communicate makes a difference. Connecting in person helps reduce workload and strengthens relationships. The next time you have a non-trivial question, pick up the phone or walk to the person’s office. Engage with each other.

Do something kind.
Life can be difficult and work can be challenging. Our brains have a negativity bias that we must consciously tilt back. If you feel frustrated, disappointed, or just need a break, start looking for the good in people. Compliment a coworker. Give a genuine thank you. Tell someone’s boss what you appreciate about the person. Get coffee for your team. Write an inspirational message on a whiteboard. Listen deeply to a colleague. Do some small act of kindness.

Regular pauses throughout the day help us stay focused, aware, and more at ease. The busier we are, the harder it is to pause, yet it's vital for our well-being and our productivity. Take these pauses: notice your breath and body. And be willing to begin again and again.

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June 22, 2017

Holding Opposites Within Us

opposites Life is complex. It's not just one thing; it's many things all at once. Part of my meditation practice is making room for everything. I've noticed how opposites arise together: love and sadness; fear and freedom; grief and wonder. When I love from an unguarded heart, I open myself to loss. When I experience fear but move through it, I feel freedom and ease. When I'm cracked open with grief, I see the world anew.

Our well-grooved habit is to resist painful feelings and cling tightly to what's pleasant. This creates tension in our bodies and minds. Elizabeth Lesser wisely notes, "How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change. And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be."

It's possible to hold these opposite within us. Hold them lightly, with spacious curiosity. Opening our heart-minds in both directions allows us to more fully inhabit this ever-changing life. We have far more capacity than we realize. Building awareness takes persistence and patience, but it's possible. You can start right now:



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June 15, 2017

End of the Day

found Evening comes. The day is done. If I stay aware, I do something that settles and nourishes. If I'm distracted, I often do something that overstimulates and depletes. (This is a life-long practice.) Either way, I'm met with thoughts as I lie down to bed. When I follow my thoughts in their endless loops, I stay awake. When I transform my thoughts, from blah-blah storylines to heartfelt gratitude, or when I move away from thoughts and gently into my body and breath, I fall asleep. Letting go at day's end is a powerful practice. Letting go of things undone or plans for tomorrow; letting go of tension, bit by bit; letting go of the copious methods we use to control the uncontrollable.

Short, regular pauses throughout the day—connecting with body, breath, and awareness—help us rest and sleep more easily. But we don't always remember and life interrupts. Whenever you feel anxious or unsettled at day's end, come here—to this post—and listen:

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June 4, 2017

How a Baby Raccoon Saved Me

intimacy Late Tuesday night, biking home from a friend’s house, I spotted a furry object on the sidewalk. This surprised me, as most critters flee when a person approaches, but not this one. So I stopped right there and met the eyes of a distressed baby raccoon. He looked at me, mewing and peeping. I spoke in a gentle voice: “What’s going on, little one? What do you need?” He clambered up my bike tire and clung for dear life, peeping in earnest: a direct cry for help; a situation I could not ignore.

I called my friend Miriam, whose house I’d just left, knowing she was awake and knowing she has a compassionate heart. Quickly, she researched our options and said she’d be by my side soon with a box and blankets. The raccoon retreated from my bike and laid in the grass. I sat cross-legged next to him, singing a loving-kindness chant. (A chant I’d just taught in my mindfulness class that evening.) He calmed, tucking his face into his fur, cold and scared.

Miriam constructed his evening nest, and we hoped mama would return for him that night. When we stood, about to part ways, still wide-eyed from these events, Miriam spotted a different baby raccoon in the street, recently killed by a car. A sibling of our little friend. It's no surprise he emphatically asked for help: he just witnessed a traumatic death. In life, we don’t often see the backstories of others, but they’re there and they're important, and this particular backstory was clear.

After little sleep, I awoke and readied to teach meditation at the Y, but first needed to check with my raccoon. When I approached the box, his eyes were open. He was alive and okay, but not retrieved by mama, so box and baby came home with me: sat on my back porch while I taught. 
treasure
I cleared my day to find this little raccoon a refuge, trying to embody the words of Mary Webb: “If you stop to be kind, you must swerve often from your path.”  In beautiful weather, I drove to Green Bay, where the Bay Beach wildlife refuge was teeming with kids and adults. I unloaded the box and walked inside. The setting felt strange, like a hotel lobby, people milling around while I attempted to “check in” my animal—a process I expected, somehow, to be more intimate. And in this sea of humanity, I was told, “We only take raccoons from Brown county. We don’t have room for others.” My Outagamie-county puffball was turned away—no room at the inn. Though this was disappointing, I understood the situation. My parting gift: two more numbers to call. The first shelter only accepted squirrels. A sinking feeling spread through me: what ifdue to limited resources—I must send this baby back into the wild? I tried to stay present: make the next and last available call.  

Sue, from Wildlife of Wisconsin, answered the phone and wanted to hear my story. Where did you find him? She listened with care and compassion. “Yes, we’ll take him. I can meet you at a gas station in Reedsville later this afternoon.” (By the end of this day, I’d drive 3 hours during my “swerve to be kind.”)

Late in the afternoon, on my way to meet Sue, I saw multiple dead animals on the road, including raccoons. I knew I wasn’t “saving” this one—who knows how long he’ll live—but I was answering his call for help; making a small difference. He purred, chattered, and moved around the box. I drove, feeling fear—the uncertainty of life—and also feeling focused and aware. At the gas station, Sue was in the midst of a hectic day and still attended to us with care. She transferred the animal to her car, saying, “We’re only supposed to take 60 raccoons, but I always take more.” I was teary-eyed with gratitude, thanking her both for her work and her kindness. She replied, “We need people like you who really care. Imagine how many people just walk on by.”
beauty of the soul
I returned to my van and sobbed. Big, heavy sobs of relief, love, gratitude, and grief. (My friend Miriam, who tended this raccoon with me, recently lost her husband—my dear friend—to cancer. This was all interrelated in a raw and powerful way.) Seeing more roadkill on my drive and listening to a dharma talk on death and impermanence, I knew I hadn’t done anything grand. My actions were a small drop in the kindness bucket. I can’t save all raccoons, but I could support this raccoon, who so clearly asked for my help. It seems that's the most important thing we can do: Help the person right in front of us. When someone asks for help—in either a straightforward or hesitant way—we can stop to be kind; we can swerve a little from our path.

When I got home, exhausted and relieved, I walked around my yard. The previous week, I saw only weeds in my flower beds, which reflected the resistance in my grieving heart. But on this evening, I felt joy and wonder. I saw only flowers and abundance. I felt love, gratitude, and happiness. And slowly I realized: I didn’t save that raccoon; He saved me.
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May 24, 2017

Small Steps

self-kindness Over 15 years, I've made huge leaps. Yet each leap contained countless small steps. The path from self-aversion to self-compassion is gradual. It's hard to pinpoint a single moment, but eventually I had appropriate tools and enough practice, and my heart shifted. When I revert to old habits, I trust there's a safe space within me: I re-connect with breath and awareness.

In last night's mindfulness class, I shared a story about my journey. For years, I looked externally for approval. I asked my loving husband repeatedly some version of "Am I okay?" His reassurance was never enough, and not because he wasn't genuine, but because I was looking in the wrong place. What I neededin the core of my beingwas my own approval: my own love and acceptance. And once I found this, I stopped asking him those questions, because I trust that I'm my own anchor; my own friend.

One of my students responded, "How did that transformation happen? Can you describe it?" These processes are difficult to pinpoint. There were many small steps along the way, and the way is zig-zagged, not straight. But I made a commitment: I truly wanted to befriend myself. My tools were meditation, journaling, therapy, self-portraiture, gardening, mindfulness, listening, and being. During one of our unplugged sabbaticals, I went out for a run to the end of the island, not a single person in sight. I sat on a rock and sobbed, feeling old and new wounds. This experience didn't provoke shame nor did it provoke external focus: I didn't want to hide nor did I need help. I could stay with myself. I trusted that everything I need is inside me. As my meditation practice deepened, so did this sense of trust. (I still need human connectionlove, hugs, and supportbut my true ground comes from within.)

Small steps have huge impact. Small steps pave paths of great awakening. Each person has their own journey; their own deepest intentions. What's most important is to listen to our own heart and then begin: take the next small step and then the next. Forgive ourselves when we falterwhich we willand have the courage to begin again. Bit by bit: this is how we change.

With this in mind, I created two short guided-meditations. Small steps toward awareness:


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May 9, 2017

Tend and Befriend Yourself

eternity I'm deeply grateful for my new career: As a mindfulness teacher, I can’t escape my own crap. I’m continually called out, not by people but by awareness itself. When I prepare a class on self-compassion, I see multiple ways in which I’m harsh or judgmental, and then I choose differently: I practice forgiveness. When the topic is gratitude, I notice many ways that I protect my heart, and then I choose differently: I practice generosity.

I forget and remember hundreds of times each day. Earlier, I had three projects going and felt anxious about time. As part of my workflow, I edited a guided meditation and then listened to my own words, which returned me to awareness: What’s most important? I focused my attention and softened my heart. (I also smiled at myself: met my own crap with kindness.)

We often push ourselves, past exhaustion, when what we most need—as people, businesses, and society—is rest, creativity, compassion, awareness, and clarity. Yet to have compassion for others, we must first have it for ourselves. It’s okay to rest, laugh, and play. It’s okay to make mistakes. Life requires honest effort; it also requires gentle forgiveness.

If you want to practice a different habit—a habit of self-compassion—listen to this short guided-meditation: 


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May 4, 2017

Lessons from My Garden

closer look Yesterday, I spent two hours in my yard. I made new flower beds last fall, using compost and cardboard. I worked in one bed: digging out dandelions (how do they still exist in no-light conditions?), cleaning grass from edges, and loosening soil. It felt good to place my hands in dirt; to connect with the earth. It also felt good to be outside: to hear birdsong and talk with neighbors.

After planting groundcover in the front bed, I walked into the backyard. My intention: obtain an overview of my other garden spaces. But my “overview” turned into a focused mission: get rid of weeds. I was hijacked by some primal part of my brain, and although I was tired, I went to the garage for a trowel and began digging out weeds. Once I started looking, I saw weeds everywhere.

I credit my mindfulness practice with bringing me back—back to patience, perspective, and gratitude. I dropped the trowel, stood up, and walked slowly around the yard. Having released my grip, both literally and figuratively, I felt ease and wonder. I looked at copious plants, in different states of development. I saw possibility: open spaces where I can transplant or plant anew. I felt satisfaction with my careful work in the front bed. 

Gardening provides me important life lessons. Here are a few from yesterday:

1. When I focus on weeds, I ignore beautiful flowers. Where I regularly place my attention becomes the habit of my mind. When I cultivate peace, compassion, and generosity, I feel better. When I feed resistance, irritation, and judgment, I feel worse. Sometimes I incorrectly believe there’s no choice: I see only weeds and work angrily to get rid of them. Most times, I recognize the choice: yes, there are weeds—in the ground and in my mind—which I'll never eradicate, but I can be with them differently, and I can also consciously savor the flowers.

wait patiently

2. Everyone has weeds. When I inhabit the small-mind of ego, I take things personally. My thoughts feel real but aren’t true: “My yard is the only one with weeds—it’s a personal failing; I'm the only person who feels shame and inadequacy.” These untrue thoughts isolate me when I most need connection. We all have weeds. We all feel pain. It’s part of our shared humanity. Deep connection comes when we show each other our “weeds” and accept one another as the beautiful, imperfect creatures that we are.

3. Persistent effort is important; patience is even more important. My garden brings me satisfaction, both in short-term effort and long-term results. Still, I get tugged by impatience: I want all the weeds gone now; I want all the planting done now. These are just thoughts. And they aren’t actually true. My true intentions: to enjoy my experience; to feel satisfied but not exhausted; to work, not from fear or anger, but from love and creativity. This requires patience. I need to put in effort, but I also need the gentle reminder that everything takes time. 

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May 2, 2017

Grief and Gratitude

return Four months after mom died, I began my volunteer work in prison. During our mindfulness sessions, we sit in a circle, volunteers and inmates together. We begin with meditation and then check in. The check-in is group meditation: each person shares from the heart while the group listens, in a spacious, deep way.

My first few check-ins were raw: the relationship between meditation and grief. I didn’t hold back; I let myself be vulnerable. After everyone shares, there’s time for general discussion. One inmate (I’ll call him “R”) looked right at me and told a story from his previous incarceration.

He went to a parole hearing, not expecting much but received wonderful news: he would be released in a week. He'd be released! R was beyond happy; he was giddy. When he returned to his cell, there stood “white shirts.” (Blue shirts are guards; white shirts are administration.) R immediately thought, “Oh no, something happened and they reversed the decision. I won’t be released.” But that wasn’t the news. The two men in white shirts said, “We’re sorry son, but your mom has died.” This took his breath away. His mom was his best friend. She was the first person he wanted to tell about release. On the very same day, two extremes occurred: he received freedom and his mother lost her life. Through tears, he said—still looking right at me—that for the next week he bounced repeatedly between joy and grief. And this juxtaposition helped him heal. He hoped that I could find the beauty and growth within grief. This was his genuine wish for me.

The whole group silently bore witness to this exchange. Both me and R in tears. Vulnerable, brave, raw, and real. A group wish for growth and healing within pain. A wish for insight within grief.

Only now, a year later, do I fully understand R’s words. I understand how sadness and gratitude exist in the same space of my heart. To love fully means to grieve fully. Once the heaviness lifts, there’s spaciousness, gratitude, and even joy. When I'm tugged by heaviness, I allow for tears—for sadness—yet I also allow for ease and gratitude. I smile as I think of mom (and Patrick and Mary and Grandma). I’m deeply grateful they were in my life; that I knew and loved them for even a short time.

I’m equally grateful for the compassion, wisdom, and vulnerability I witness in prison. In an institution that actively de-humanizes people, I observe humanity and caring in unique and beautiful ways. Greg Boyle writes, “Compassion is not a relationship between healer and the wounded. It’s a covenant between equals.” My prison sangha is just that. And this would make my mom smile.

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March 24, 2017

Where in the World is Joy?

farewell friends...

Tomorrow, Mark and I leave for 5 weeks away, completely unplugged. We travel to Nevis, West Indies and stay in a small cottage by the sea. We're "off grid": no Internet, television, email, social media, news, or screens. And we're also deeply plugged in: to ourselves, each other, and nature. Our days are filled with books, yoga, music, writing, meditation, cooking, long walks, ocean swims, and just being. This fills our spirits in inexpressible ways. We spend copious time cultivating our “doing” selves. It’s nice to nourish the being.

If you landed on my website looking for mindfulness opportunitiesclasses, presentations, or something elseyou came to the right place. Please contact me now, while your question is percolating, and I'll respond to you on May 1.

Time is a "thing" in our culture: not having enough time. But in this moment—when we pause—there's enough time. There's space. It's all okay. If you need a gentle reminder, listen to this short guided meditation:



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March 22, 2017

Opening to Vulnerability

be who you are

Earlier this month, Mark and I traveled to the Porcupine Mountains where we spent 3 nights in a rustic yurt on the Lake Superior shore. We hoped to snowshoe during the day, but the conditions changed rapidly. During our long hikes through the woods, the ground was unsteady: snow then ice then slush then flowing water then snow. This kept us focused on each step. When we reached solid ground, I noticed palpable relief: Ahh, I can walk naturally and easily. Immediately, I saw this as a metaphor for life. We seek solid ground; we crave certainty. Instead of viewing ground as a relief, ebb, or oasis, we start to expect it all the time. And this creates suffering.

It’s helpful to realize that life is always uncertain, though we pretend otherwise. We often feel alarmed—like something is “wrong” or a “problem” —when it’s just life. A different route is to flow with life, whatever arises. Life isn’t a problem to solve, it’s an experience to be lived.

Pema Chödrön writes: “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.”

Walking on uncertain ground—letting things fall apart and come together—is a brave path. It requires honesty and gentleness. It asks us to remove our armor and feel the raw vulnerability that is life. This doesn’t happen all at once—it happens gradually with patient and persistent practice. Peace doesn’t just arrive: It’s cultivated. Small steps have big impact.

You can begin right now. Listen to this short guided meditation:



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March 17, 2017

Our Core Wound

fragments

Over the years, I've interacted with diverse groups of people: accomplished academics, endurance athletes, prison inmates, college students, service workers, recovering addicts, and meditation teachers.  Within all these groupswithin methere's a core wound: an underlying feeling of "not good enough." Our mental narratives come in different flavors, but the wound is similar. It's a soft spot of vulnerability; a place where we wonder: "If people see this part of me, will they still love me?"

To protect these soft spots, we use varied strategies: achievement, judgment, busyness, blame, and fierce independence. These strategies work for a while, but eventually they exhaust us. In our own time, we realize: it's easier to feel vulnerability than to resist it.

Though we're all connected by this core wound, we apply strategies that make us feel more alone. The healing comes when we unveil our soft spots, and this takes bravery. We live in a culture that values mental toughness and individual accomplishment. Yet our healing asks for a vulnerable team effort.

As part of our global team, I'll begin. My wound calls to me through outward signs: striving to be perfect and save the world. These actions make me feel "good enough" for a while, but they don't cover my deeper ache: what if I'm really not good enough? What if I'm unlovable? This is a painful, lonely feeling. Through practice, I've learned to stay in meditation with the pain and notice how it changes. Gradually I apply self-compassion and restore my perspective. Yet I realize this medicine, though helpful and necessary, doesn't connect me to others. It keeps my story hidden.

So, if you feel alone and caught in some version of "not enough," please know I'm beside you. Daily, I feel this same uneasiness. We're connected in far more ways than we realize. Most of us feel like we're not enough, but the truth is: we are enough, as is; we're perfectly imperfect; we're flawed and lovable.

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March 3, 2017

It's Okay to be Happy


Two months ago, I wrote a post entitled, "It's Okay to not be Okay." This seemed an important recognition both for me and the world. We needn't pretend we're okay when we're not. Be messy, real, raw, vulnerable, lonely, or sad. Be however you are. And try to meet others there, too.

Now it feels important to share another message: It's okay to be happy. Life is complicated, heartbreaking, and uncertain. If I'm not careful, I'm pulled into heaviness. Though outwardly I exude light and compassion, my heart gets heavy. At a recent meditation retreat, I felt—in a visceral way—the holding back of my heart: there was a tug, a slight tightening, in my chest if I allowed for happiness and ease. My mental chatter created tension: "Joy, you shouldn't be happy, because Patrick just died," or "Joy, you shouldn't feel ease, because our country is in crisis." 

By staying open and aware during that 3-day silent meditation retreat, I rediscovered lightness. I could feel a pull toward darkness (blame, anger, grief) and chose a different path. The red string around my wrist reminds me daily: enjoy my practice; lighten up; laugh and sing. It's helpful to realize that things change. For months, I felt heavy. Now I feel lighter. It's okay to not be okay, and it's equally okay to be happy (or to flow between the two).

In difficult times, it's a radical act to be creative and happy; to step away from darkness and move into the light. That's the kind of radical I'm trying to be: a superhero of kindness, joy, presence, and light. There's plenty of kryptonite in my path, but I have hope. Not blind hope, but hope as described by Rebecca Solnit: "We don't know what's going to happen next, and that gives us room to act. Hope is active engagement with uncertainty and the possibility that it holds."

Active engagement with uncertainty. Room for anything to happen. Allowing for pain while equally allowing for joy. It's okay to be happy.

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February 28, 2017

The Straight Scoop on Mid-Life Crisis


While in academia, fresh after tenure, I remember walking with my dad and asking the question, "What is a mid-life crisis, really? What's it about?" He responded that as people reach middle age it's natural to reflect on life; to notice if their lives are meaningful and fulfilling. I paused, then blurted: "But if your career and your values are inline, then everything should be okay, right?" In hindsight, I felt defensive when I spoke these words, as if making the case to myself. Indeed, my core valuesthen and noware to teach, express, connect, learn, grow, help, and serve. Ostensibly, my career and values were inline. 

Years later, I sat with my husband in our favorite Mexican restaurant. It was the first week of classes and I felt soul-tired. I described my feelings in raw detail. He looked at me and asked, "Is this your mid-life crisis?" Again, I felt defensive: "No. It's more like mid-life deep reflection." He looked at me in that knowing way, and I smiled even through my tears.

In the ensuing weeks, as I made the decision to resign, Mark stressed to me, "You're getting caught on the wrong detail. Within the phrase 'mid-life crisis' the most important word is not 'mid-life,' it's 'crisis.' You are in crisis." I opened (again and again) to my vulnerability and realized his words were true. I was in crisis. My inner and outer lives were severed. I was trying to "solve" a puzzle by re-arranging pieces within my career. But this wasn't a puzzle to solve, it was a life to live, with intention and care. 

I no longer react defensively to the phrase "mid-life crisis." (In fact, it makes me smile.) After dropping my identity as an academic, I let go of many limiting beliefs that stunted my growth and narrowed my view. And I see this as an important, life-long process. 

To learn more about my transition from statistics professor to mindfulness teacher, you can read this interview in River + Bay: "Dispatch from Midlife." (Deep thanks to my friend, Joanna, who saw me as an interesting subject. Thanks also to River + Bay, which is a beautiful place to connect with community.)

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February 23, 2017

Fleeting


"A solid rock cannot be moved by the wind, the wise are not shaken by praise or blame." The Buddha spoke these words 2500 years ago. And they're still relevant today. We seek praise and resist blame. We're shaken, not unmoved. I find it interesting when we receive both praise and blame for the same action. This dissonancewhen we're "wise"tells us to take everything with a grain of salt. We grow from feedbackpositive or negativebut it doesn't define who we are. 

Social media is complex territory. It allows for connection across continents. And it also feeds into a primal part of us that seeks external approval. It magnifies our need for praise. What's popular becomes more popular, sometimes viral. And still we're not satisfied: we need the next thing to go viral and the next. This is being "shaken by praise."

I share my photographs on Flickr. Sometimes I post a photo with trepidation and everyone loves it. Other times I post an image that resonates deeply within me, yet doesn't resonate with others. There's no "blame," but the lack of praise has the same feeling. I see my craving for "favorites" or "likes," andif I'm wiseI step away, because I'm on Flickr for community: for sharing images, being inspired by others, and building relationships. When my focus moves from relationships to "favorites," I'm off track, not living by what matters most. Popularity is fleeting. Meaningful connection is lasting. When I'm not shaken by praise or blameI feel more at ease and my work rings true. 

When I gave the Lawrence baccalaureate address in 2013, I ended with words that seem appropriate to end this post: "My students will recognize this mantra: you are not your grade. You are also not your job or your title or your number of friends on Facebook. Your self-worth is not connected to these externals. You are all worthy, as is. And you decide how to live life true to yourself. You have choices—important choices. Because how you spend your moments is how you spend your days is how you spend your one precious life. Make it count; make it real; pay attention; start today, in this moment. Live your life, and know I'm living my own life right beside you."
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February 22, 2017

The Practice of Mindfulness


The practice of mindfulness has two important pieces: 1) notice when you're distracted, and 2) return to the present moment, with spaciousness and compassion. We can't stop our thoughts and judgments, but we can form new relationships with them. Noticing is the first step in any awareness practice. We can't make changes from autopilot, but if we notice, we make more conscious choices. 

Though sometimes we might notice and make judgments: "Joy, I can't believe you were lost in thoughts again. Pay attention!" Our return to presencethrough sensations of the body or sounds in the roomcan be gentle and still effective: "Joy, you've been ruminating. It's okay, come back home. Feel your breath." Letting thoughts rest, letting judgments rest, for just a few moments. This cultivates awareness and compassion.

Mindfulness is a practice, not an end result. It requires a willingness to begin again and again; to drop expectations; to pay attention in a spacious, kind way. And it's possible to do this practice in small doses. Small changes have big impact.

I encourage you to practice nowin this very moment. If you feel a tug of resistance or not-enough-time, that's a clue you might really need this pause. Give yourself permission to just be; to listen to this short audio:



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February 13, 2017

Commit to Yourself


While working as a professor, I remember telling a friend, "I'm not creative." It seems a strange statement now, but at that time it felt real. I viewed creativity in a narrow way: painting, drawing, or being crafty. Though I was a creative teacher, I didn't notice because it felt like science not art. (Upon reflection, I see art in science and science in art, but I needed a wider perspective.)

Gradually, I grew the dormant pieces of myself. I gardened, cooked, meditated, and started this blog. I took online courses: photography, poetry, and writing. This was an important leap. First, I prioritized time for myself and my personal growth; second, I tried something new: creativity.

We often put ourselves at the bottom of the list:
Work
Family
Required events
Laundry
Errands
Creative/personal practice that fills my soul

To connect with our passionsto live a meaningful lifewe must commit to ourselves. This can be in meditation, art class, a garden, a journal, the yoga mat, or a hammock in the backyard. If we don't attend to ourselves, something eventually gives. We get sick or fed up or become numb to our lives. A more wholesome path is to make time for ourselves now.

If you're like a previous version of me and think "I'm not creative," or "I'm not capable of being mindful" or "I don't have time for anything," please pause and consider your choices. Maybe you are creative, if you expand your definition. Maybe you're capable of mindfulness, if you have helpful guidance. Maybe you do have enough time, if you give up other things.

I welcome you (and a friend) into my e-course, "Coming Home to Yourself." But more importantly, I encourage you to take a leap: make one small step toward soul-filling activities. Carve out time for yourself. Commit to whatever practice feels right to you. Show up, just as you are. But show up: for yourself.

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