Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Book I Cannot Write

The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. –Joanna Macy

I spoke last fall at a fundraiser for an organization that serves adults with developmental disabilities. Adults like my two sons who live in one of the organization’s group homes and work at one of their sheltered work sites. I spoke about trying so hard for so many years to find a cure for my son's autism...and failing. I spoke about becoming a foster parent to James’s classmate Dan when Dan’s parents died and there was no foster family qualified to take him because of his autism. I spoke about being a single mother with two autistic teenagers, knowing that like Dan’s parents, I, too, would be gone one day, and how terrified I was about what would happen to them.

I spoke about sleeping easier these days knowing that they have a good life in the care of an organization that provides more than I ever could by myself. They work and go out with friends and do everything that anyone else does, with the help of caring and trained staff. I see them most every week, unless they are too busy and ask me not to come. I see that they are thriving.

I spoke about hope. I hope I have done the best I can. I hope that Dan’s mother looks down from heaven and believes that I have honored my promise to her to care for her son. I hope they are going to be all right when I’m gone.

It was a speech of joy and triumph, and immense gratitude. And yet when I spoke, my throat choked up and my eyes filled with tears. My voice quavered as I told my story, and more than once I had to pause and take a deep breath. The sadness is never very far away.

I’ve learned that denying my sadness over the years, being afraid of the enormity and intensity of my feelings, not only deadened the pain, but also deadened the joy. The first noble truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering. Our natural instinct is to avoid suffering, to run from it, to escape from it. But we can’t. The four noble truths do not offer a way out, but rather a way through. When my pain eventually broke through, when I got too soul sick to fight it anymore, I discovered that the released pain brought with it into the light the exquisite joy of life, here for us in unlimited abundance, always.

I write about James and Dan sometimes in my blog, little snippets of the story that began 24 years ago and will continue all my life, and theirs. People tell me I should write a book, that it would help other parents. Perhaps it would. But it is a book I cannot write. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because writing little pieces of the story here and there, as I do, does not ask me to leave the present to revisit those dark and deadened times for the extended periods which a book would require. Perhaps it is a story that has already been told, in ways more meaningful and eloquent than my writing skills permit. Perhaps the time for my writing that story is simply not yet. Or perhaps the time has passed. I don’t know.

But I know this. I’ve made my peace with sorrow. It doesn’t go away, but it isn’t scary anymore. I recognize it as the key to unlocking compassion. And compassion is the key to sweet, sweet happiness. Touching that raw place breaks my heart wide open, every time. And in that broken open place, is a deep, deep well, a bottomless well...of love.

Today is the last day of July, so this ends our focus on Step 7–Practice compassion. I hope that you have touched some tender places of joy as well as sadness, places that allow compassion to well up and spill over into your own lives and into the lives of those around you. Some posts this month have prompted comments and emails in which you have honored me and other readers by sharing some of your challenges, so I hope that you will be abundantly generous with compassion towards yourselves.


related posts: Mad/Sad/Glad Game, Game Change

Thursday, July 28, 2011

It Is Not So

Go to the places that scare you. –advice from her teacher to the Tibetan yogini Machik Labdron

Compassion flows from an open heart. Everything that closes our hearts is rooted in fear. So in order to keep our hearts open, we must sometimes face our fear. We must sometimes go to the places that scare us.

Pema Chodron tells the story of a young warrior who had to battle fear. She did not want to, but her teacher insisted. On the day of battle, the warrior stood on one side, feeling small. Fear stood on the other side, looking big and wrathful. The warrior bowed to show respect and asked fear, “How do I defeat you?” Fear thanked her for showing respect and replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast and get in your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I say, I have no power.”

Sounds so simple. But when I am anxious or afraid, my instinct is to act, or rather to react. I am tempted to listen to fear and engage on fear’s terms.

In taekwondo, we have to spar. I’m not very good at it. I get anxious even though we are padded up like Pillsbury dough boys and we don’t use full contact, so I know I am not going to get injured. Still, my opponents are always younger and faster. When someone is throwing a kick at me, my instinct is to back away, but my reflexes are not what they used to be, so I usually lose the point. The teacher told me to move forward, toward my opponent rather than away. Surprisingly, the safest place is right up close.

So it is with fear. Move close to fear. In Dune, Paul recites the litany against fear. “Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Sometimes I actually say this to myself. Silly, I know, but it calms me.

A Course in Miracles says that fear and love cannot coexist because fear is the mistaken perception of the absence of love. When we are afraid, we experience separation and loneliness. I find great comfort in this loving passage:

One gently walks with you Who answers all your fears with one merciful reply, “It is not so.”

So when fear is in my face talking fast, I take a deep breath and bow with respect as I look fear in the eye and softly say, “It is not so.”

He who knows how to live can walk abroad
Without fear of rhinoceros or tiger.
He will not be wounded in battle.
For in him rhinoceroses can find no place to thrust their horn,
Tigers no place to use their claws,
And weapons no place to pierce.
Why is this so?
Because he has no place for death to enter
–Tao Te Ching

Monday, July 25, 2011

It's Oneness, Beloved

If, as Stephen Covey says, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” then I want to know what my main thing is.

I can identify guiding principles in my life, such as the practices listed in the 10 Steps, but what is the main thing that ties them all together? Like Frodo’s ring in Lord of the Rings. To paraphrase--One main thing to rule them all, one to find them, one to bring them all and in the light bind them.

When asked to describe his religion, the Dalai Lama replied, “My religion is kindness.” That’s his main thing.

When I contemplated the theme of my guiding principles, what finally emerged was the concept of oneness. The concept that we are at our core one, one with each other, one with all life, one with God.

A Course in Miracles teaches that all suffering comes from our mistaken perception of separation. When we separate ourselves from each other, we separate ourselves from God. Jesus said that when we serve others, we serve him. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Bodhisattva vow is to remain incarnated until all sentient beings are enlightened. The Marines leave no man behind.

Someone once asked, “Do we breathe or are we being breathed?” Perhaps there is a divine Oneness breathing life into all living things. We are all joined by this single breath.

Perhaps this is why I love the greeting namaste, which means “I honor the place in you, where if you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.”

Bill Clinton became president by keeping the main thing the main thing. On the wall of his campaign headquarters was a big sign that shouted, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

I think my sign will whisper, “It’s oneness, beloved.”

Do you have a main thing? How do you keep your main thing the main thing?


Friday, July 22, 2011

Practicing Compassion

I read something on a blog recently that has been churning in my mind and spirit ever since. The title of the post was “Is my dad in heaven or hell?” The writer’s father had died years before in a car accident. She later found Jesus and became very concerned about where her dad was spending eternity. She went to her minister seeking comfort and asked him if her dad was in hell. Now what do you think that minister said?

“Yes, your dad is in hell.”


I’m not going to get into a theological discussion, much as I’m tempted to. I’m not here to debate whether there is a heaven or a hell, or who gets to go where, or if there is any person on this earth who knows for a fact what the answer is to any of these questions. I’m not even here to discuss the pastoral counseling skills of a minister who would tell a grieving daughter that her dad is in hell and she will be forever separated from someone she dearly loved.

What I am here to do is to confess that I am having a hard time feeling compassion for this minister. In fact, I have been full of judgment and outrage, and despair over what, to me, is a perversion on so many levels of a faith I love.

Justified? Perhaps. But that is not really the point. If I believe that judgment and anger separate us from others and that any separation from others is a separation from God, and I do, then I want to find a way to mend that broken connection. So I’ve gone back to the focus of this month – Step 7–Practice compassion. I noticed, really noticed, perhaps for the first time, the first word. Practice. Okay, so perhaps compassion is a skill I can actually practice. And perhaps I can get better at it.

[Of course, I would like to get better at it fast. I’m reminded of my daughter who came home from her first lacrosse practice saying she hated the game because she didn’t know how to play. I asked her how long she had been playing. Two hours, she replied in a huff. I suggested that she give it two more hours before she decided. She came home the next day loving the game and went on to play varsity for two years. But I digress.]

It’s easy to feel compassion for the writer of the post. I don’t need to “practice” compassion for people who are vulnerable and hurt, for hungry children, for animals in distress. Compassion springs forth naturally when a story touches our hearts and breaks them open. The real practice occurs when compassion does not spontaneously arise, when aversion or anger or fear has closed our hearts and separated us from someone we have labeled as “other.”

If I believe that all people are beloved children of God, and I do, then how do I claim my kinship with this minister who withholds comfort from an aggrieved daughter, who presumes to stand in judgment over a beloved father? I could think, “There goes a beloved child of God, cleverly disguised as a #@*&.” Oops, then I guess that would be me presuming to stand in judgment over the minister. Hmm.

If I believe that everything we do or think or say is either an expression of love or a call for love, and I do, then this minister’s words, surely not an expression of love, are necessarily and just as surely a call for love. Perhaps not a conscious call, or even an unconscious one. Rather, a spirit’s call to be reconnected to all that is good and light and loving. When I characterize his words in this way, I feel my perspective shift, my tension ease, my heart soften. And in this moment, my spirit responds and sends a blessing his way.

Go with God, my brother.

Related post: Calling for Love

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mary was a Real Mother

I know a woman whose son died in a carelessly started cabin fire when he was 12. That was twenty years ago. She told me her story after I commented on her brilliantly colored tattoo featuring a name, her son’s name, surrounded by turquoise rays of light emanating from an eagle, his favorite bird. One ray embraced a heart with a piece missing. She recently got the tattoo after all this time to honor his memory. And to let go, in a way.

As I listened to the story, I was struck by several things. First, you can talk to someone for a long time, years in this case, without having any idea about that person’s deep story. The story that matters. Second, tragedy is both personal and universal. I have grieved and still grieve over my son’s autism. Chronic grief. It is not the same as her grief which was heart-exploding catastrophic. I can’t imagine hers. She perhaps can’t imagine mine. But we share a mother’s broken heart.

I have often felt guided and protected by Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy and compassion. But Kuan Yin is always serene, never born as a human being, never suffering as a mother. So when my heart has been torn apart with pain that seems unbearable, I turn to Mary, mother of Jesus. As a therapist once said to me, "She was a real mother." Mary is often portrayed with a radiant, sublimely loving face, a Kuan Yin face. But I don't think that is what her face really looked like much of the time.

What did her face look like when her wayward preteen disappeared, only to be found days later teaching in the temple, shrugging his shoulders at his parents’ worried consternation? Or when he refused to acknowledge her in front of the crowd, instead claiming the people around him as his family? (I remember telling my mom once that I wished the next door neighbor was my mom. She promptly told me to go see if Mrs. Beasley wanted any more children and locked me out of the house.)

What did Mary’s face look like when her son was being ridiculed and hated? Not a mother’s proudest moment. What did she answer when all the moms got together to brag about their kids and asked her, “And what does your son do?”

I’m sure none of that compared to what her face looked like as her son was arrested, tortured, and killed right in front of her. I don’t care how strong your faith is. That is not something any mother should have to endure. And yet so many have. Before yielding to God’s will, Jesus asked for the cup to pass from him. How many times did Mary pray this prayer? How many times have I?

I don’t pretend to understand the meaning of such suffering. Or of any suffering for that matter. But I know that some of my most fervent prayers have been to Mary. The mom prayers. The prayers a mother would understand.

Lately, I’ve been asking Mary to watch over my two too young daughters who are expecting babies of their own. I ask Mary to strengthen them with courage, to soften them with kindness, to inspire them with wisdom, to delight them with joy, to calm them with patience, to awaken them with compassion, to sustain them with faith. I ask the same for me.

No, I’m not Catholic, but I think that’s okay with her. After all, Mary was a real mother.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Kuan Yin Calling

One Sunday morning years ago, I was driving through a business district in Portland. Everything was closed, the street deserted. I drove past a store window full of Asian ceramics and furniture.

Let me pause here and tell you something about myself. I don’t like to shop. I never browse. And if I’m going somewhere, I rarely get sidetracked.

Okay, back to the story. As I drove past the store, I felt a sudden urge to go in. I dismissed it and continued on, mentally noting the location for future reference. But the urge grew more insistent, almost like a scene in a Western where the cowboy lassoes the girl or a bandit and reels them in. I shook it off, reminding myself that the store was no doubt closed and I had other things to do. I told myself I would come back another time.

Not good enough. The further I drove from the store, the more compelling the urge became until finally, feeling like a crazy person, I circled back and pulled up in front. Although there were no cars in sight, there were two people standing by the door. I rolled down the window and asked if the store was open. They said they had no idea; they were just passing by.

Feeling more foolish by the second, I parked and went to the door, which, amazingly, was unlocked. I walked in, and, seeing no one, called hello. A petite, elegant Chinese woman came out from the back, and in answer to my question, assured me that the store was open. She added that there were also things upstairs and downstairs. She invited me to look around and went back to whatever she was doing.

I have always been attracted to Asian art and decor, even before I lived in Bangkok. If you came to my home, you would see rugs from China and Nepal, tapestries from Burma, furniture from Thailand, and art from all over Asia. Several closets are full of paintings I have no wall space for in my small house. I had no room for more. Nevertheless, I did look around, appreciating the things I saw, wondering why was I there. I wandered aimlessly about, going upstairs to see the furniture displays, and then downstairs where things were haphazardly stacked and stored.

Having seen most everything, I started back upstairs to leave, still puzzled about what drew me there in the first place. Then I saw her, a statue of Kuan Yin, covered with dust, in the midst of piled up chairs and pillows, smiling serenely, unperturbed by her jumbled surroundings.

Her name is spelled many ways and there are many explanations of who she is, but most simply, she is identified as the goddess of mercy and compassion. Her name is sometimes translated as the one who hears the cries of the world. She is often depicted holding a vase containing the nectar of compassion which she pours out over the world to ease suffering.

Kuan Yin and I go way back. My history with her is too long to tell right now, but I think of her as my guardian angel. So there I was, in the basement of this store, facing this exquisitely beautiful (but huge!) bronze statue of Kuan Yin. Reminding myself of all my things I already didn’t have room for, I took one last look and turned to walk away....

She now sits on a sturdy wooden table in the corner of my living room. She is the first thing anyone sees when entering the front door. (She’s hard to miss!) I like to think she is blessing all who come, bringing peace to our troubled hearts, pouring her nectar of compassion over our spirits to ease our suffering.

So generous.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Finding Love

Okay, we’re all suckers for sweet animal stories with cute pictures. Here is your awww moment for the day. As you will see, Noah is a one-legged pigeon with a heart the size of the ocean. He lives on the Wild Rose Rescue Ranch and is clearly the ambassador of compassion.

Noah the pigeon and the bunnies

Browsing elsewhere on the website I found this wisdom – “Love is found where love is given.” I think the people who run this ranch must find love every day. Certainly Noah the pigeon does!

He will cover you with his feathers and under his wings you will find refuge. –Psalm 91:4

revised from archives

Monday, July 11, 2011

Guided Tour

This last weekend, I had company from out of town. My visitor was someone who lived across the street from me in Memphis when we were kids. He and his sister were part of a group of kids with whom I played and rode bikes. We had not seen each other since our early teens and had not stayed in touch until last year when our paths crossed in cyberspace.

He now lives in New Orleans, and until this weekend, had never been in the Northwest, which is about as far away from New Orleans in every sense as one can get in the continental US. So for three days, I was his guide, giving him his first impression of the place I have called home for twenty years. I wanted him to see the beautiful scenery of course, but I also wanted him to understand something of the culture here, the inner workings of this city and this region.

Although I never take my life here for granted, being a tour guide for a newcomer gave me the opportunity to look at my home with fresh eyes, to voice what I appreciate about living here, to share my enthusiasm about my life here. As the days went by, I found myself more consciously aware of what was best about the place. Oh, there are faults to be sure, and I didn’t deny them, but I wanted to put my city’s best foot forward, so to speak. And as I did so, I was filled with tenderness and love and gratitude for this community which welcomed me with open arms all those years ago.

It occurred to me that we might awaken this same tenderness and compassion for ourselves by a similar process. If you were going to take someone on a guided tour of your life, what would it look like? If you wanted someone to understand and appreciate who you are, what would you say?

Many guide books include sections on history, culture, places to see, and things to do. A guide book for our lives could include these same sections. What are the significant events in your history? What are your qualities and values that would help someone understand who you are today? Are there any customs or taboos that a visitor should know about? And what are the best things about you, the things you would want someone to be sure to see? Don’t forget that guide books include things to do that are fun! What would someone enjoy most about you?

If you have time and are so inclined, I invite you to be a tour guide for your own life. You could write a guide book or just jot down some notes. Or you could simply think about it. My hope is that a fresh look at our lives in this way will awaken compassion for ourselves. There is a saying that charity begins at home. Compassion does, too. Experiencing compassion and appreciation for ourselves will spill over to others as well.

Enjoy your tour!

Related post: First Date

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Calling for Love

Many studies show that our happiness is directly related to the connection we have with others. And we are only connected to others when our hearts are open. Great concept, but hard to put into practice. How many times a day do I separate myself from someone by closing my heart with anger, judgment, criticism, fear, resentment, seeing someone else as “other”? Let’s face it, there are plenty of folks out there I really don’t want to be connected to.

I have a friend in Los Angeles who does stand up comedy. She says she supports the military policy of banning women from combat. “Why,” she asks, “would I want to go halfway around the world to wear a ton of gear in the middle of the burning desert and shoot at people who have done absolutely nothing to me, when I can sit in the air-conditioned comfort of my own living room and take out a few people who really matter?!”

Been there. So if maintaining a connection to other people is the price of admission to my happy place, I sometimes need, as Patti LaBelle sings, a new attitude.

A Course in Miracles teaches that love has no opposite. Love is all there is. (Wasn’t that the title of a Beatles song? No, that was "Love is all you need." Also true.) When something happens that blocks our awareness of love’s presence, we experience that separation as fear. When we feel afraid, we reflect our separation from others through negative thoughts, words, and behavior. In reality, all we are doing is seeking reconnection. We are calling for love. Everything we do or say or think is either an expression of love (when we are connected) or a call for love (when we are separated). Everything is one or the other. Everything. It’s that simple.

When I can remember this, I find that it is much easier to keep my heart open. For example, if someone is unkind to me, instead of reacting defensively, I can take a deep breath and think, “Man, you are seriously calling for love.” Someone cuts me off in traffic? “Hey, I see you are needing some love over there.” Big hurts, little affronts, it’s all the same. If it isn’t an expression of love, it’s a call for love.

This reframing shifts my attention from my own hurt feelings or irritation. My ego is not engaged. I can stay connected at that sacred level. It’s easier then to respond with an expression of love. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I voice affection. It might be as simple as a smile, or sending a silent blessing.

If I am unable to make this shift, if I react with separating thoughts or words or deeds of my own in retaliation, then later I can see that I was calling for love myself. And yes, sometimes I am the perpetrator who initiates the call for love by being unkind or insensitive to someone else. When I see my own behavior in this light, it is easier for me to accept responsibility and apologize.

Characterizing negative thoughts, words, or behavior as a call for love helps me avoid judging and reacting. If I can reinterpret a perceived attack, from myself or someone else, as a call for love, then my heart stays soft and open. Compassion flows naturally to others and to ourselves from an open heart. We stay connected, happier, and our lives become expressions of love.

Monday, July 4, 2011

So Generous

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want yourself to be happy, practice compassion. –The Dalai Lama

This link between happiness and compassion may not be immediately apparent. One dictionary definition of compassion is “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.” Frankly, this doesn’t sound very happy to me.

And yet, compassion opens our hearts and connects us to others. It lifts us out of ourselves, out of our isolation and separateness, to touch with tenderness the heart of another. And there is joy in that touch.

I am not a writer of dictionary definitions, but if I were, I might expand the definition of compassion to recognize that blurred line we sometimes experience between joy and sorrow. Tears flow as readily for one as for the other.

I read something recently that, to me, describes the raw heart of compassion. (I’ve been trying to find it again for the last two days without success, so if you recognize it, please tell me where it came from! I don’t remember the exact words, so I’ll try to capture the meaning as best I can remember.) The author was describing the bounteous generosity of nature. The sun shines down on all without discriminating between the thief and the saint. So generous. The rain nourishes weeds as well as trees. So generous. The flowers display their beauty without regard for who is passing by. So generous.

The passage was infinitely more eloquent than my memory allows, but the concept was much on my mind up at the cabin this last weekend. As I sat by the creek, I watched small insects flit above the water, visible in the sunlight, disappearing in the shadows. The breeze sang in the trees whether I was there to hear or not. A mother duck guided her ducklings expertly through the rushing waters around rocks and under branches. It was all so exquisite. So generous.

I know, that doesn’t sound anything like the definition of compassion I quoted above, but somehow it captures my experience of compassion, as either the giver or receiver. It is the experience of a heart broken open, vulnerable, touching and touchable. Perhaps that is the essence of compassion...touch.

I hope you will share your thoughts and experiences of compassion this month as we focus on Step 7–Practice compassion.

related post: The Joy of Sadness, the Sadness of Joy

Friday, July 1, 2011

Miss July

Evita at Evolving Beings has honored me with an interview this month, part of her series profiling a different person every month. The process of answering her questions led me to reflect on my life these past years more deeply than I usually do. I thought I would share the questions with you in case you would like to explore these questions in your own life. And of course, if you would like to share any of your thoughts in the comments, please do!

Here are her questions. Hope you will have some fun and perhaps gain some insight in answering them.

1. What area(s) of your spiritual/emotional life have you decided to change and why? (focus is on past)

2. What strategies have you implemented to change, who inspired you, person or organization, book, etc.? (focus is on present)

3. How have the changes benefitted your overall life, happiness up to this point? (focus is on present versus past)

4. What are the next steps or goals in your life as an evolving being? (focus is on near future)

5. What message do you have for others who are struggling or embarking on a similar journey? (words of wisdom/inspiration)

If you would like to read my interview on her site, please click here.

I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend, a holiday weekend if you are in the US, where we are celebrating the 4th of July. I will be “unplugged” up at my cabin, so if there is a delay in posting your comments, please know that all your comments are very important and I will post them immediately when I get back on Monday. And we will then get started on our focus this month, Step 7-Practice compassion.