Sunday, January 29, 2012

Seasonal Yin Yang

I went to pick a friend up recently to go out to dinner. As we walked to the car, he remarked on the fact that it was still light outside. Sure enough, even on that chilly, cloudy late afternoon, it was still daylight. Wasn’t it just yesterday that dusk settled on the city by this time? In the northern hemisphere, winter begins on December 21, winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. By mid-January, we are deep into winter and spring seems a long way off.

And yet, on the second day of winter, the very next day after the dark solstice, the light quietly begins to return as the days start their gradual lengthening. How interesting that as we enter the season of cold, while bears sleep, the rains come (in Oregon anyway), fires crackle in the fireplace, and we all hunker down, the light is coming, bringing the promise of sunny days and summer evenings.

I thought about the yin yang symbol, the circle with the two curving shapes, one white, one black, in perfect balance and harmony. In the fullest part of the black shape is a small white circle, and in the fullest part of the white shape is a small black circle. Both small circles remind us that the seed for each shape is contained in the other.

Like the seasons. The seed of summer appears in the very beginning of winter as the light lingers longer in the cold, cold days. Likewise, the seed of winter is planted on the first day of summer as the light begins to softly fade, unnoticed as we enjoy walks in the park and iced tea on the porch.

Like summer and winter, joy and sadness come in their seasons. Within each is the seed of the other. We can no more stop their cycle than we can hold onto summer and keep winter at bay. Yet we try. And thereby cause ourselves so much suffering.

As one who was a big believer in the emotional version of daylight savings time, I tried so hard to hold on to the heels of the happy times, bargaining and pleading for just a little longer. The times of sadness were not even acknowledged, but instead denied, ignored, swept under rugs of fantasy.

It didn’t work. I got tired and gave up. Now the seasons come and go, each one bearing its own precious gifts, each one welcomed and invited in for tea.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. –Ecclesiastes 3:1

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

See How They Shine

Sail on Silver Girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way

See how they shine
If you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind

–Simon and Garfunkel

You might recognize these lyrics from one of my favorite songs, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Lately, this song has been playing in my head. For one thing, it has my word of the year in it – Shine. I like the idea that there is a time to shine and that time has come. Politicians in an election year are fond of saying “This is our time.” Well, I don’t know about those particular politicians or their parties, but the time has come for us as individuals to shine. Whatever has hidden our flame has burned off. The clouds have parted. The fog has cleared. The batteries have been recharged. This is our time, our time to shine forth in blazing glory.

I love the image of dreams shining as they approach. I can indeed see how they shine. So beautiful. When I look at them, I don’t see form as much as I see light. I used to have more specific dreams, about people, places, things, or events. When I try to articulate my dreams now, they are beyond words. I don’t even know what they are. They are like precious gifts, as yet unopened, glowing with promise, bursting open like a pinata of brilliant sunshine as they arrive. Each one is a miracle.

I am comforted by the idea of a friend sailing right behind me, a steady presence of support, a shoulder to lean on, arms to lift me, love to ease my mind. I can think of people who have been there for me, especially in the last year. Friends consoled me, reassured me, and ultimately celebrated with me. Sometimes those people are a surprise. People you first turn to might, for whatever reason, not be there. But then others step out of the shadows into the light and open their hearts to you. What a blessed, blessed gift. I have tried to express my gratitude in wholly inadequate ways. How do you repay kindness and generosity like that? There is no repayment for what is priceless.

All we can do is pay it forward. I am humbled by the opportunity to be a friend sailing behind others, to listen, to encourage, to comfort, to assist, to blow like a gentle wind to fill their sails.

So today, dreams are on my mind. Shining dreams. All our dreams. Dreams whose time has come. And friends. Friends sailing behind us, carrying us safely over troubled water, easing our minds, blessing us with every breath.

Blessings to you, my friends, today and every shining day.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Joy Book Club

I’m interested in how ideas come to people. Some of you have been kind enough to share with me how you get ideas for your writing. For me, the ideas for individual posts come from a variety of sources – something I read, something someone says, a memory, the kids, music, the dog, the creek by my cabin, most anywhere.

The ideas for the bigger concepts, however, seem to come to me in titles. For example, someone asked me recently why 10 steps, why not 12 or 5 or some other number. How did I know there were 10?

The 10 Steps originated from what seemed to be a random incident. I was walking through the living room one day about two years ago. My daughter was sitting on the couch with her boyfriend, who was slumped over looking so forlorn. Mia was gently patting his shoulder. She looked up as I passed by and said sympathetically, “Emanuel is looking for his happy place.”

I walked on by without comment, but in my head I thought, “Aren’t we all?” I realized then that after decades of not being a very happy person, I now lived in my happy place most of the time. As I pondered my own transformation, the title just came to me – 10 Steps to Finding Your Happy Place (and Staying There). I don’t really know why 10, and not 12 or 5. That’s just the way the title sprang forth.

I was immediately excited by the idea. I went to one of the ministers in my church and exclaimed, “I have a this title. I don’t know what the ten steps are yet, but it’s going to be great and I want to do something with it.” Without missing a beat, she asked me to lead the all church retreat. (You can see why I love my church!)

I agreed right away and then sat down with the title and started shaping content. And started this blog. In retrospect, there is nothing magic about the number 10. It could have been 12 or 5. Indeed, some of the steps overlap to some degree and could have been combined. But 10 is what came to me and 10 it has remained.

The following year, I was asked to lead a women’s retreat. Again, a title came to me before the content. Radical Joy. I ended up creating the program around four radical spiritual practices – radical acceptance, radical forgiveness, radical compassion, and radical hospitality – all of which lead to radical joy.

Lately, a new title has been dancing in my mind. The Joy Book Club. I have read so much about happiness and joy over the last several years. I realized that all this reading has saturated my thoughts and consciousness with a mindset of joy. Reading has become a practice all on its own. The 11th Step?

I loved Amy Tan’s book The Joy Luck Club. No doubt that was the inspiration for the new title that has come to me. I don’t know what to do with it yet. Like the others, there is a title before content, before a plan, before anything. But the title itself brings me joy. I like to say it out loud. It makes me smile.

So there it is. Maybe the act of writing it or posting it will spark some ideas, suggest some direction, or move it in some way towards manifesting in some form. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, I hope everyone is having a wonderful weekend. I’m headed up to the cabin for the day, long enough for a walk in the snow and a nap by the fire.

May all your titles bring you joy

Monday, January 16, 2012

In the Softness

Underneath the hardness there is fear
Underneath the fear there is sadness
In the sadness there is softness
In the softness is the vast blue sky


This poem describes my life. Lately, the last line has been floating in my spirit like a fluffy cloud on a balmy day. I wrote recently about feeling regret over how I handled my early parenting years. Even bigger than the regret is the sadness, the deep spirit sadness of ungrieved grief.

When my son James was a baby, he was so beautiful. Everything seemed possible. Over time, it was clear to everyone but me that something was different about him, something to be concerned about. But I saw only magical uniqueness. Even when he was diagnosed with autism, I failed to acknowledge or to accept the loss of my dreams. I failed to see him for, yes, the truly magically unique child he was. I denied the impact on my heart and on my life, and set out to force happy normalcy on us all. The alternative was simply more than I thought I could bear.

My heart formed a hard crust like a geode, hiding in darkness whatever feelings might dwell within. Maintaining my fantasy world required an enormous amount of energy. And it was not without a price, in lost relationships, health, and most important, in my ability to accept my son as he was. I spent the first part of his life trying to make him someone else.

One day, as I passed the partially open bathroom door, I heard James exclaim as he made faces at himself in the mirror, “It’s great to be James!” I realized then that the problem that needed to be fixed was mine, not his.

In time, my energy was exhausted and cracks began to appear in the hardness. On the outside my life looked fine. I had a lovely home, a great job, and another child. But inside I was coming apart, and what was pushing through the cracks was fear. Terror. What was I so afraid of? I think I was afraid of feeling all the feelings I had. I thought if all that grief and anger got free, I would be swallowed up in a tidal wave and swirled around in the dark water until I drowned.

But I didn’t. I survived. And when the water receded there was sadness, yes, but also joy. Life went on. And got better. Three more children came into my life, one with autism. I learned to accept all my children as they are. And to accept myself as I am. (Well, most of the time!)

With the arrival of my grandson Jaden, a brown skinned, dark eyed baby who reminds me so much of James when he was a baby, memories of James’s early years have resurfaced. And with those memories, some of the feelings have resurfaced, too. This time, however, I am not afraid. Feelings that I rejected before are now welcomed. Sadness is tenderly cradled.

In that sadness there is softness. A sweet softness. I took James out to dinner last night. Mia and Jaden came along, too. I looked from Jaden’s laughing baby face to James’s laughing grown up face, and thought of all the years, all the years of loving James so much, of hurting so much, of wanting so much. All the years of being so afraid.

I marveled at the cosmic wisdom of timing. What seemed so terrifying all those years ago seems strangely comfortable now. What I tried to hide in shame is now precious. And what I felt so angry about I am now profoundly grateful for. Of all my children, James broke my crusty heart open. Inside the dull geode shell sparkled brilliant rainbow beauty.

There will always be a raw tenderness in my heart for James, a place sensitive to touch. A place of quiet grieving. And that’s okay. The grief I denied all those years ago is now free. I breathe into the softness of it, trusting in the basic goodness of the universe, the perfection of it all, the sunny brightness of the vast blue sky.

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

Related posts: Cradling Our Feelings, The Joy of Sadness

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tech Update re Comments

Blogger has updated the commenting feature to allow replies to individual comments. This is a great thing! I think, however, that it has caused a glitch with Internet Explorer with respect to comments. I can't see the comments at all, and I've heard from others that they can't leave a comment. The timing of this problem would suggest a connection to the new Blogger features.

So for now, I'm switching over to Google Chrome, where there doesn't seem to be any problem. If you use Internet Explorer and have not been able to leave a comment, please use another browser for the time being if you can. Or you can email me your comments and I will post them for you until IE gets this sorted out.

Thanks so much for your patience and persistence.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Compliment Ratio

I took my three month old grandson to the store yesterday. He was not happy in the cart, so I ended up carrying him in one arm. No problem till I got to the bulk foods and needed two hands. I went to the customer service desk and asked for help. A lovely young woman named Emily went with me right away and helped me get what I needed.

Then, when I was checking out, she noticed me in the line and came over to bag my groceries and insisted on carrying them out to the car. When I tried to thank her, she brushed it off, saying she was happy to be outside. She was so gracious and kind.

When I got home, I called the store and told the manager about her exceptional help. The manager was so pleased and assured me that Emily would get some extra recognition. The manager went on to thank me for calling and said that a $5 gift card would be waiting for me at the counter on my next visit. Wow, I didn’t see that coming.

I read recently that a 4:1 rule applies to successful relationships. For every negative interaction, there should be four positive ones. I got to thinking that the same ratio could apply to all our interactions. If we complain about something, we could balance that with four positive statements. We could balance every criticism with four compliments. Every expression of irritation or anger could be outweighed with four expressions of love and appreciation.

In my recent post, Embrace the Tiger, I acknowledged the cranky mood I was in at the time. I did lash out with criticism in several different situations. Whether or not the criticism was warranted, the fact was that I didn’t feel good about how I expressed it. My frustration was not relieved. What a contrast to how I felt after I called the manager about Emily. I felt terrific.

Today I called one of the people I lashed out at the other day. I apologized for how I had handled my frustration. I explained more objectively what I thought needed correction, and I put that in the context of the overall great job I thought this person did. We ended that conversation on a much more positive note and I felt better. I hope she did, too.

Our attacks are rarely about the outside circumstances. They are about us. If we are mindful of the times when we send out negative thoughts and words, we can counter with four times of sending out positive thoughts and words. Inner harmony will be restored and we will be a lot happier.

And of course, we don’t have to wait for a negative expression to trigger the positive ones. We can build up a reservoir of good energy by looking for opportunities to think or say something good. Maybe you could have a compliment contest in your family. Or just aim for your personal best every day.

Joel Osteen once preached about “speaking the blessing.” He meant that we could give a blessing to someone else with the words we use, but when we offer kind words to others, I think we bless ourselves as well.

Quick Tech Question

Greetings! I hope one of you might help me solve a mystery. I seem to have lost access to the comments after my posts. When I click on the comment link at the end of the post, I just get a blank page. This prevents me from writing a response to comments. If I go to my comments through my dashboard, then they are all there, so the comments are not lost, just my access to them through the comment link. To add to the mystery, this is happening on Internet Explorer, but not on Google Chrome. If you have any advice to offer, I would appreciate it! Thanks.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Embrace the Tiger

I haven’t posted anything for several days because I’ve been, well, cranky. Irritable, out of sorts, agitated, restless, not comfortable in my skin. This morning I was waiting for a call from the electrician who, I hoped, was going to come soon and fix the garage door switch which had shorted out. I asked my daughter to listen for the phone while I took a quick shower. When, instead of just saying no problem, she started telling me why she couldn’t, I got angry and went on a five minute rant, longer than it would have taken me to shower. After my rant, I still wasn’t showered, and I was still upset.

Wow, I thought, what is going on here?! I stumbled off to take my shower and started belly breathing to calm down.

Later in the day I got testy with a couple of folks who had made mistakes in unrelated situations, mistakes that I had initially taken in stride days ago but that today seemed worthy of detailed comment and not so subtle criticism.

I also did a lot of swearing under my breath, in between those belly breaths.

This is where we practice, isn’t it? When we are at the edge of what we can handle. When our equanimity is disrupted. When we are hooked by the drama of our own making. When what we want is relief, escape, distraction, a scapegoat. When we want things to be something other than what they are. When we want to be someone other than who we are. The way I felt today. The perfect opportunity to learn.

Joko Beck, in Everyday Zen, talks about the fragmentation that results when we separate ourselves from our experience. I feel agitated because I am identifying a problem over there, separate from myself, a problem that I want to fix by fixing circumstances or people. If I can fix it, I’ll feel better. Everything will be all right. I’ll be all right.

This fragmentation triggers fear. The only way I’m really going to feel all right is to return to my natural state of wholeness. How do I do that? By doing what seems counterintuitive. My instincts seek distance and escape from what frightens me. But I’ve learned that the way back is the way through.

Beck uses the image of embracing the tiger. By leaning into my agitation and anger, my fear, rather than trying to fix it or get away from it, I can loosen its grip. She suggests focusing on what is happening in my body. My stomach is tense, I can feel my heart beating faster, my face is scowling, my throat is tight, my head aches, and my mood swings from wanting to yell to wanting to cry.

Oddly, when I do this, when I drop everything else and turn my attention to my nonverbal experience of body sensations right now in this moment, what Beck calls walking on the razor’s edge, I find what I was really looking for all along – relief. The belly breathing becomes less forced, the tightness releases, my face relaxes, my mind clears like storm clouds parting after the rain.

The calm is fragile. Lightning still flashes on the horizon. I keep coming back, back to now.

I don’t know why I’m so “gritchy” these days. It will pass if I let it, if I don’t hold onto it or struggle against it. I feel better already.

The tiger purrs.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night

--William Blake

Related posts: Breathing Like a Baby, It Is Not So

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Channeling Sarah Palin

Even if you don’t live in the United States, you might know who Sarah Palin is. She was the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008 and has continued to make a name for herself in conservative circles. In one of her speeches, she threw a jab at President Obama, smirking in her Alaska twang, “How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ out for ya?”

This is not a post about politics, or even about Sarah Palin, but about that question. I find myself channeling Sarah Palin sometimes when I see one of my kids engaging in some thinking or behavior that does not serve their well being. As soon as I say it – “How’s that [whatever] thing workin’ out for ya?” – I hear Sarah Palin.

Sarah Palin, in turn, was channeling the therapist I went to years ago. Whenever I was deep in my defense of some unproductive way of approaching my life, she would sit back and tilt her head and say gently, “And how’s that [denial, magical thinking, effort to control what you can’t control] working for you?” (My therapist was from New York and lacked Palin’s accent.)

The answer was always, of course, “Not so great.”

As this year begins, I have read several excellent posts about resolutions and focus words. One post that especially caught my attention, though, was Alex’s post on The Bridge Maker about leaving behind what no longer serves us. It reminded me of Palin’s and my therapist’s question.

So as we start this year, maybe it’s a good opportunity to take stock. We could look on both sides of the question. What is working for you? What is not working for you?

For me, I would say that meditation and prayer are working for me. I like to start my day with some stretches and then some quiet time to meditate, read something inspiring, pray. This year, I’m going through A Course in Miracles again, so that is part of my morning, too. When I start my day this way, I’m ready for the universe. Throughout the day, I say quick prayers of gratitude. I even have my phone set to vibrate at certain times to remind me.

Listening is working for me. I have made an effort over the last years to be a better listener. I don’t know if I’m a great listener, but I feel confident that I am a better listener than I was. When I am in the listening zone, miracles happen.

Exercise is working for me. I trained very hard last year to get my black belt in taekwondo, which I got in November. After that, I slacked off. It didn’t take long to feel my body stiffen up and my energy sink. I went back to class last night and it felt great to sweat!

Breathing is working for me. I have written before about belly breathing, consciously developing the habit of breathing into the bottom of my lungs (which makes your belly move out). When I catch myself in shallow, anxiety producing breathing, I shift back into my belly, and I can feel the physical and mental benefits right away. Belly breathing helps every aspect of my life.

What is not working for me? Regret. For one who “preaches” self compassion and self forgiveness, I am sometimes still vulnerable to that sick weight of regret that seems to crush the breath right out of me. (Good time to shift to belly breathing!) What seems most painful to me these days are memories of my early parenting years. Being around my daughter and grandson so much has been a source of deep joy and pleasure. As I watch my daughter become a truly wonderful mother, and as we all love this precious baby more than we ever could have imagined, memories of my own transition into motherhood, which had faded into the background of my life, have now come to the fore. There is so much I wish I had done differently. The recent resurgence of this pain teaches me that I need to work through it yet again. And I will. But right now it hurts.

On a more practical level, what is not working for me is multi-tasking. A skill that not so long ago was highly valued has become, at least in my life, a euphemism for lack of focus and attention. When I retired last May, I naively believed that my time would become unlimited. I really thought that there would be plenty of time for me to do everything I needed and wanted to do. It’s grossly unfair, I think, that I still have to pick and choose my priorities. (I can hear you laughing. That’s okay. I’m laughing at myself, too.) The Tao Te Ching teaches, “The sage chooses this and lets go of that.” I have a long way to go to being a sage.

What about you? Are there things in your life working well? Not so well? Whatever your opinion is of Sarah Palin, perhaps we can all channel her just enough to take a look.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Word of the Year 2012

Okay, this is strange. The word I chose last night on New Year’s Eve turned out not to be my word! Here’s what happened.

One word seemed to emerge in the last few days. I liked it. It seemed to resonate in my spirit. I stayed open to other words until the last hours of New Year’s Eve and then settled on that word. I started thinking about the post I would write today when I got back home from the cabin. It was taking shape in my mind just fine.

I woke up this morning and headed home just as the sky started getting light. The last few days have been very dark and rainy/snowy. As I drove down the mountain through forest and beautiful farmland, the sky cleared up, blue patches appeared, and the sun peeked above a ridge. As the rays lit up the sky, a word jumped into my mind – Shine. My heart jumped in excitement. I immediately recognized it as my word, but the timing was all wrong! I tried to go back to the first word, but now it felt flat.

Since my word for 2011 was Yield, it seemed wise to do so. And so I did. My word for 2012 is, much to my surprise, Shine.

When I got home, I didn’t write this post right away. It seemed prudent to pause and see if there were any more surprises. But no, it is clear to me that Shine is here to stay.

I’ve spent the last few hours just letting the word float around in my mind and spirit. The image that comes to me is of removing opaque blocks that hide my natural radiance, like wiping off mud, or polishing gold, or breaking off an outside shell or crust. The radiance thus revealed is the radiance that shines in all of us. We don’t have to do anything in order to shine – the light is already there, brilliant and glorious, as it always has been, is now, and ever will be. We have only to let the blocks fall away.

We are all meant to shine, as children do. ... And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
–Marianne Williamson

So I hope all y’all will shine along with me this year!

This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine
Let it shine
Let it shine

–Harry Dixon Loes