Accepting the Call

I sat transfixed by the intense way the middle performer was clapping; his eyes focused somewhere beyond and deep within; his palms sending almost visible shock waves through the room, everything seeming to jump slightly with each punctuated collision.  Gringo dreadlocks and beards birthed ancient words, accentuated with guttural constrictions and fingers carving the air, offering something unseen and sacred into the Beloved Mystery.  Amid the interwoven rhythms, I felt my body coming alive from the inside out.  I sat paralyzed in stillness while the energy in my core churned and expanded, erupting into alternating tears of grief and joy, then exploding between my palms with jubilant, victorious laughter.  When all voices joined, my soul was shaken from its crust of propriety and began to dance.  I felt what has eluded me in the reserved and cheerful, what I have sought in shadows, what is broad and generous enough for my joy, my sorrow and rage, what burns bright enough to liquify these chains of fear.  It was an aroma like the rose water that graced the air, one I too can follow into the Unknown.  I felt Allah.

Fanna Fi Allah Sufi Qawwali

I will be leaving Laurelwood in mid-October.  Some have been surprised, but most have seen this coming almost from the beginning.  I have been unwilling to walk away sooner, have worked so diligently with my own grief and resistance, because the life and community I built here was so very close to all I long for.  But part of me never really landed here and I am hungry to understand why so that I can let this chapter of my life close and enter the next with self-love, trust, and optimism.  When I find space to feel in between all the preparations for my departure, and when I dive into the soft stillness of my core, two main themes surface to explain my need to leave the people I have become attached to, the quiet beauty, the opportunity to teach, the expansive vibrations, and the comforts of home.

To understand the first reason, I dig back into my experience growing up.  From a very young age, I knew I was deeply loved.  People told me.  I could feel it when they looked at me and held me, when we laughed and played and ate together.  But my physical and emotional pain was inconvenient, upsetting, and confusing to them.  No one knew how to help me overcome my fear of going to the doctor, deal with bullies, navigate my crushes, or figure out what to do with my life to find both comfort and fulfillment.  I understood at a deep level that this wasn’t due to any lack of love, it was simply that no one could give me what they didn’t have.  I didn’t blame them or feel angry.  I simply got down to the business of figuring it out for myself.  I self-soothed with sexuality and stealing sweets, I bullied back and made myself superior, I learned how to be what others wanted me to be, I sang.  And I got so good at this that when I ask my family now how I appeared as a child, they remember me happy, playing alone in the corner and humming a tune.  I remember fear and aimless longing softened only by my time in nature.

35 years later, I landed at Laurelwood with another group of people who loved me from early on and were committed to helping me find joy and peace.  But their response to my pain was similarly alienating, not because of lack of care but because of an inability to tune into and provide what really served me. I once again learned how to soothe and motivate myself by studying other teachings, meditating alone, adapting my behaviors and beliefs, singing, eating, developing crushes.  When I finally shared how much I was struggling, the concern was valid and some advice helpful, but most of it landed flat, far from what I needed.  It was only when I let myself step outside of my role as director to connect with interns as a peer that I found the validation, inspiration, and comradery I had so missed.  Many are expressing deep sadness at my decision to leave.  Everyone has done everything they can and I feel no anger or blame.  But I have to believe there is a place for me where people both love me and are able to transform that love into support and guidance that aligns with my own heart.  In my world, that requires vulnerability, humility, and authenticity; the ability to be on the journey of life at my side with just as much awe and trepidation regardless of where we are headed; and a willingness to feel and express messy, inconvenient scary things with the sole intention of creating a deeper, stronger connection.

The second reason I need to leave is to honor the importance of separating church and state.  This came to me in meditation in the humorous guise of our founding fathers, but I understood it as the core of my life-long resistance to organized religion.  I need a spiritual community.  I need reminders about the importance of going within, of looking for ephemeral allies, of exploring the deeper meaning of all around us to counteract all the consumerism, stimulation, and fear in our world.  But it is also essential to me that this process be honored as a deeply intimate and individual one.  The moment a shared commitment to spiritual practice becomes codified in rituals, beliefs, and any striving towards a common ally (god, guru, etc), belonging to the group will always include an element of compromising my own unique journey.  Shared values and beliefs are necessary for a healthy community, and I am more than willing to compromise my shower times, my shelf in the fridge, my raucous music or my tone of voice on a bad day.  But I will not compromise the organically unfolding process of life as my teacher and intuition as my guide.

There is no hierarchy to my spirituality.  We each need different things at different times. It’s not about transcending or about feeling better.  It’s about extending and feeling more deeply. It’s about asking myself what walls that once protected me now constrict me?  Who and what makes me feel alive?  What brings me a sense of coming home?  My sense of wounded caution now constricts me.  I feel alive when I write and teach about our confounding, dazzling journey to live a life of meaning in this world.  I feel a sense of coming home when I lay on my back and let the earth hold me in the last rays of summer sun, when I place my hands on the tender alder branches and feel our roots and branches breathing through each other.

I am becoming well acquainted with fear, but a new version of it.  Not one that is doubtful or paralyzing, but one that holds a background melody reminding me of everything I risk losing. The most precious thing my time at Laurelwood has taught me is that I can hold so much more feeling than I ever thought possible without needing to take premature action to relieve the tension.  I treasure my growing sensitivity to the flow of energy in and around me, how it heightens both my pain and my joy, my ability to connect to myself, to others, and to everything in my world.  I feel move alive and present than I ever recall feeling before, and this gives me an unexpected strength and clarity to navigate this move without numbing distractions.  This sensitivity has also enabled me to fall in love with teaching.  I feel a new depth and clarity come through my words, people feel an open warmth from me, and the meditations and visualizations I share with others move me deeply.  I do not want to lose this sensitivity and attunement in the busy-ness of the world, in my own anxious mind ungrounded in daily practice, or by becoming surrounded by people who don’t value these things as I do.

Here I am again on the Hero’s Journey path of trials.  I’m not supposed to know what’s coming next or how to do this.  The dragons are all about fear and doubt.  But I know that because I accepted the call, the allies and guides will come, and then they will leave me to finish this on my own.  No one is coming to save me with a promise of security and enduring love.  This journey is mine alone.  And by accepting it, I proudly take my place among the life adventures I admire most: those who choose authenticity over propriety, courage over comfort, faith over control, and creation over stagnation.

Nancy

“Keep walking though there’s no place to get to.  Don’t try to see through the distances. That’s not for human beings.  Move within, but don’t move the way fear makes you move.” – Rumi

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Enter the Dragon

I was deep in visualization – facing him cross-legged, my palms lying upturned on his.  The familiar legion appeared dark, silhouetted in turquoise with ribbons of deep blue and flecks of magenta.  He said people often saw those colors inside of him.  Then I felt a presence arise, as if someone was standing with their nose right in front of mine, and all went dark.  I felt a weight come into the space between us, almost resting on my forearms.  Then I saw the shoulders of a figure appear, its back turned to me, head bent down, reaching outward as if wings stretched beyond my sight, covered with tiny scales like a snake’s back, reflecting that blue and green and then ruby.  As I described this aloud, I felt him pulling away and we came back to ourselves.

gameofthrones.wikia.com

“It was my dragon,” he said.  “I felt something dark coming that I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to expose you to it.  You were shielded.”  I protested, saying it felt as though the dark presence that had come between us was legitimate in itself, was facing me.  Then realized I had stood behind the scaled figure, that it was in a protective stance.  That was the last time we shared a visualization.  The next day another cycle began.  He tried to give me space for my side projects, but I could again feel his wish that I spend the day with him.  I recoiled from his need to connect, and I criticized myself for my need for space.  I badly phrased question about an old boyfriend coming to visit and our best week yet dissolved into jealousy, defensiveness, and accusations.  We took our space as we always did.  We resolved our inner tensions, admitted our short-comings, and reconfirmed our bond, but this time, my heart wouldn’t open.   I found myself in front of my spiritual counselor, seeking advice on a conflict with another director, and instead began sobbing about how much I needed to end this relationship and just couldn’t.  I was immobilized with grief over months of an inner knowing that we should not be bonding in such an intimate way colliding with my determination to endure the cycles of rupture and repair, to open my heart no matter what, to remain unattached, to protect this opportunity to hold and be held.

I thought I couldn’t stand up to my coworker.  I need to be respected for setting my boundaries and liked for it, and felt I had to choose one or the other.  I just didn’t feel strong enough to battle her anymore.  But when I went to her office, she said herself everything I wanted to say to her and our bond deepened.  In my relief, my heart opened, and I wanted nothing more than to hold him.  But hours later, I had withdrawn again.  Instead of going to him, I told him I felt like there was a dragon curled up inside that needed to rest in stillness.  I went to the hills and found myself grumbling and growling as I walked, heat rising up in me, my arms flung out to my sides arching backwards like claw-tipped wings of skin.  The dragon was not resting, it was awake and snorting like a bull, powerful and steaming in my core.

The ancients say not to look at an eclipse.  It is a time when our inner darkness blocks our light, allowing all of our habitual tendencies to express unchecked.  Do not start businesses.  Do not have crucial conversations with loved ones.  Stay indoors and chant for protection.  When the solar eclipse hit Oregon, I started out going deep inside, feeling the energy surging within me, but a strong impulse rose to meditate with him, so I went out two minutes before it hit its peak to find him.  We meditated together as the moon crossed over and I felt my energy fall heavy.  I felt the urge to kiss him followed by a familiar sense of recoiling from his gravity.  I left him to meditate with a group on the hill.  He and I worked side-by-side that afternoon, but it all felt strained, choreographed.  All the uneasiness I had felt in my own skin so often was unbearably undeniable.  I cried.  I questioned for the third time in two weeks whether we really could heal together when our demons triggered each other so severely.  And in between my sobs, I finally gave voice to that need to let him go.

The lightness I felt the next day at following my inner guidance, despite the pain of separation, dissolved when I read an article about not reacting to the emotions stirred up by an eclipse.  I was overcome by a desperate regret.  I woke the following day feeling like the grill of a semi truck was wedged in my chest.  All my plans to work on projects dissolved in a barrel of sobs that gathered into wailing, punching the wall of my room, feeling the guilt and regret lodging in my lower back, where I feared they would remain.  I wanted to release it, but couldn’t deny its truth.  I fled out of the building and charged up the hill.  I felt the dragon within tearing me apart, beastial wails flooding out of my throat.  I flung rocks.  I threw my water bottle back and forth across the mown wheat field, which just served as a reminder of all the life that had been decimated.  I knew anger was a part of grief, and that my anger was always directed inward, but I couldn’t bear the memory of him approached me for a hug, knowing it would never happen again, knowing I had ended our bond in a moment of intense emotion, fearing that because of that the friendship we had always pledged would be ruptured.  I hated myself for blocking what was trying to happen between us, for preventing its further unfolding.  And there was nothing, absolutely nothing, I could do about it.  It was done.  And I couldn’t stomach going forward.

I prostrated myself beneath an oak tree, watching the thin pale clouds pass between the gnarled mossy branches.  I was a white marble slab washed cleaned between the storms.  I sobbed to a friend who tried to help me understand there are no mistakes, that everything that happens is supposed to happen, even if we don’t understand why, and that a legion of divine beings are there to help us if we are willing to ask.  I was convinced of my wrongness, and refused to ask for help from beings who knew I suffered because I had ignored their guidance.  I sobbed to another friend who said now might be the time to return to therapy, and I clung to that notion for freedom.

Of course a large part of me could have handled this with more grace, could have loved and accepted him for all he was and wasn’t, could have recognized my limitations and stayed determined to be friends from the beginning.  But the stronger, far more wounded part of me just wanted to be held, and was willing to risk anything for it.  It was the same part of me that curled up with the last man, that stayed unhappy with my husband because I believed I couldn’t face the world without a daily hug, who let the drunkards do what they liked because they might hold me afterward, who entertained that weird guy in high school because he would hold me in an abandoned classroom, who begged for my mom to pick me up and all she said was I aaaaalways wanted to be held.  To my mom, my need for touch and comfort were inconvenient, unnatural, insatiable.  And here I am 35 years later completely unhinged by my own choice to leave a man that isn’t right for me because he was willing to hold me.  My integrity was only a millimeter higher than that enduring need.  And it took the intense power of a solar eclipse to make it so.  Perhaps all this pain, and the pain of whatever lies in store for me as a result, was worth it just to finally see how this pattern has crippled me relationally and professionally my whole life, and find the right help.

Last night, my dreams were sweet, a balm to the rawness of the day.  Except for one.  I walked up to a large aquarium filled with exotic, beautiful life.  But something dark beneath the surface was devouring the animals, swallowing the fish and biting the shells off the turtles.  I saw a gnarled brown head rise from the water, crumbled wings of skin emerge, and realized there were dragons in the water.  I woke disturbed, anxious that the darkness he tried to shield me from during that final visualization had indeed entered me as this dragon that tore me apart and destroyed our bond.  I was disturbed by the idea that I had been infected by something that isn’t mine and I must now carry it.  But I have encountered fierce animals before who became my protectors.

As I meditated that morning in preparation for whatever the day might bring, I held my bunny close to my heart to keep it soft and open no matter what, and I felt that red and gold dragon sprout from my solar plexus, right where it all twists and burns, stretching its wings up over my chest in protection.  The two of them accompanied me all day.  I felt soft and strong.  I revealed threads of my story.  I held my sadness out for all to see.  The pain still came in periodic waves, but I did not need to sob.  I napped.  I did yoga.  I supported and spoke up for people who needed it.  And I gradually felt more moments of lightness. When I saw him for the first time in days, I stayed open.  I am ready to meet his gaze the moment he decides to meet mine.  I can receive whatever his eyes hold, for my fear of feeling has loosened just a little bit more.  And with this distance comes the hope that I can accept him now in a way I never could when he had the power to take from me the one thing I hunger for beyond reason.  I hope he can watch me take my own next steps in healing what my bond with him revealed to me, so that I may find someone I adore to hold and be held by without push and pull.  And I hope I can see someone take his hand and dive with him into the abyss I was unwilling to enter.

Nancy

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We Only Fear When We Forget

I was sitting at the edge of the waterfall.  Small children in life jackets were tossing themselves off the 20-foot drop into the pool below.  I saw their faces shift from trepidation to liberation as their bodies took flight in what had seemed an impossibility and then disappear below the surface for a moment.  I imagined what it would feel like to emerge victorious and invigorated.  I wondered what it would take to just step off into the free fall.  My muscles fired in anticipation of such a simple move, slowly standing and taking a few steps, no different from a thousand steps I have taken every day of my life.  My stomach twisted and my hands began to shake.

Whether I have been aware of it or not, fear has been the main motivator in my life.  I am afraid of taking the risk, and I am afraid of feeling stuck if I don’t.  I am afraid of getting hurt and I am afraid of being judged a coward.  I am afraid of losing my voice, and I am afraid of being rejected for my truth.  Life has been an exhausting exercise in liberating myself from fear by pushing myself to do what frightens me the most or seeking the easy and comfortable path so I won’t feel threatened.  Or simply numbing out.

Beginning a new relationship has made me face how much I try to control myself, my circumstances, and others in order to avoid feeling hurt.  When I’m triggered, I close.  When I succeed, I worry about when the other shoe will drop.  What will I do the next time he hurts my feelings?  What will I do when I have to find a job in the “real world”?  I better set an ultimatum.  I better spend my free time creating passive income.  I better really beef up my Linked In and Facebook profiles because I’m vulnerable out there unless a whole lot of people like I’m somebody, and I know the slightest wrong move could jeopardize everything.

There is no space for freedom in this sort of life.  In fact, it is no life at all.  It is living as a puppet to a parade of thoughts and feelings that have me totally hypnotized, jumping to action at their neurotic bidding.  A friend of mind recently introduced me to an article called, “Knowing that You’re Full of Shit Will Set You Free.”  I instinctively laughed for a good two minutes before he even told me what it was about, because deep down this was an incredibly liberating notion.  The one thing those who know me best have always told me is that I take things too seriously.  The author says we are all full of shit because we believe our opinions, assessments, conclusions and agreements are real and sacred, and get so bent out of shape when they are challenged or unfulfilled.  All of our thoughts and feelings are illusory and incomplete at some level.  When we take them seriously, as indicators of reality and our identity, we are locked into a constant state of reacting to our inner triggers instead of responding to the moment itself.

What’s the alternative?  I invite you to participate in an exercise to explore another way of being.  Become aware of what is around you.  Look at what is in front of you.  Absorb the details.  Now close your eyes.  Do you still exist?  Of course you do.  You are not the things you observe, but the awareness that sees them.  Now become aware of your breath flowing in and out.  Then hold your breath.  Are you still there?  Of course.  Even without light and movement, you are still there watching.  Apply this same technique to sensations in your body – the constrictions or agitations we call feelings.  Don’t label, explain, or try to understand or change them, just watch.  You are not these sensations, you are simply aware of them.  Now place your attention on your thoughts – the narrator in your head, the images that come to you as you do this exercise.  They are just like a movie and its soundtrack in the background of your life.  Even if they stop you are still there.  At our core, we are all just awareness – no story, no striving – just a familiar presence noticing each experience coming and going, energy changing from one form into another inside and around us.

Every time I get stuck on something – an external circumstance I think I can’t deal with, an inner feeling that is hard to tolerate, a destructive thought I think is true – I can simply see it as an invitation to free myself a little more.  I don’t need to understand or to act, I just need to open, feel that knot in my chest loosen, that cramp in my back relax, that irritating thought go.  I don’t have to let them run me.  I can stay still in my sense of self as what observes my experience and wait for it to pass, to relax away.  In this way, I am slowly being liberated from fear, from “supposed to”.  I am reminded that the only thing that is real is the energy in this moment, and my awareness can direct it by deciding what to feed and what to release.  It is that simple and real.  That is who I really am.

I never jumped off the waterfall.  My mind gave a dozen rational reasons why I shouldn’t because of what could go wrong and how intense the fear was, and then why I should because I want to be cool and feel free.  Clarity came in a sudden moment of stillness.  I realized that what mattered more than whether I jumped or not was that I was wasting so much energy on the edge, absorbed in the battle between my mind, heart, and body.  Real freedom wasn’t about the exhileration of jumping or the self-love of letting myself off the hook.  Real freedom was breaking the cycle of letting my mind and heart determine my reality, distracting me from the experience of myself, in that moment, as pure awareness.  As the turmoil settled, I realized what I really wanted was just to be in the water, so I climbed down the cliff, swam for a frigid minute, and moved on.

Whatever I am doing from moment to moment matters far less than how I am experiencing it.  When I am in my core, I know that I am neither strong nor weak, neither fearful nor brave, neither greedy nor generous.  These are labels on a spectrum that is becoming irrelevant.  Our world is changing at a rate that is impossible to keep up with.  Our minds can only accurately project out the next step or two if we’re lucky, and our hearts are becoming clogged with painful feelings from our past and the world around us that obscure the truth in every moment.  But if I can keep my attention on myself as pure awareness, as the observer of this present moment, I can experience everything around and within me not as a threat, but simply as energy moving through me.  I can let it wash me clean, I can let it empty my mind and open my heart, and I can remember I am free, always.

Nancy

“Attention is like a beam of light – the focused power of your consciousness transmutes everything into itself.” – Eckhart Tolle

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Sacred Suffering

We were sitting together under the canopy.  Her silks fluttered in the warm afternoon breeze, her blue eye shadow bright and the scent of lavender rising from her.  She was explaining to me with a grounded urgency how complex she is, how easily misunderstood, and that if I only knew her, I would see I was making a mistake.  Everything in my gut had told me she was too unsettled, too indecisive to justify the support she would need to have a satisfying experience.  But in that moment, my core softened.  I saw in her all of us who don’t quite fit in longing for a chance to prove ourselves.  I didn’t want to stand in her way.  And her conviction, self-reflection, and compassion moved me.  I told her so.  I allowed my attitude towards her to shift and open.  And the next morning, she chose to leave anyway.

How do we navigate this world with conviction and integrity when we are constantly bombarded with new input from both within and without?  I’ve had two panic attacks in the last month.  I sobbed so hard in a coffee shop with a friend that she had to take me out on a walk because people were staring.  In ten years, even going through my divorce, she said she’s never seen me so distraught.  My mind was tearing through everything in my life – my community, my job, my relationship – desperate to mend or remove what was broken.

The Buddhists speak of Right Action as a spiritually vital commitment to ethical conduct, implying alignment with our own deepest knowing and a trust that even things that feel counter-intuitive serve a higher good we may never fully understand.  There are plenty of recommendations about what Right Action entails – telling the truth, being kind, not over-indulging – but also an acknowledgement that sometimes there is no clearly ethical path.  Our minds will short-circuit trying to solve this sort of dilemma, and deciphering our intuition is a life-long experiment ranging from awe-inspiring to disorienting, embarrassing, and painful. I have learned, however, that I can handle anything if I am connected to my inner guidance.  If I’m not, all the blessings in the world will seem dull, chaotic and unsatisfying.

Art by Trifon Markov

I have traditionally accessed that guidance by entering into an honest and wordless conversation with my body.  I watch for when I open and when I close, when I feel most grounded and alert, inspired and full, and when I feel unsettled or find myself clinging or gorging without satisfaction.  The difficulty recently has been that I am in love one minute and resentful and critical the next.  I am inspired and grateful for my work one moment and feeling stifled and overwhelmed the next.  My core expands and contracts as frequently as the thighs of an Olympic sprinter.  And my mind has been complicating things by telling stories about each thing I observe – what it means about me, what’s supposed to be happening instead, how I can should fix it all.  I know the damage that can come when I speak too liberally from my confusion or act prematurely without clarity, but my distress compounds in limbo.

After another tearful, confused and hopeless call to my sister, she sent me several emails with links to audio books from Gay and Katie Hendricks.  Their words took me straight back to The Presence Process, reminding me that our somatic experience is often not a source of information about the current situation, but an invitation to follow that thread back to a past experience longing to be released.  Gay and Katie add to this by explaining that love at is most essential level is an act of giving space – to ourselves and to others.  I realized that while I was on the right path by tapping into my feelings as the key to accessing my intuition and Right Action, I was missing the most important step: giving my experience space to dissolve into love.  Forgiveness and reconciliation come not from a belief in or determination to do the right thing, but as a natural and effortless consequence of our willingness to know and speak the truth, whatever it is.  Why is this still so hard to do, even though I see the benefits and deeply value living an honest, loving life?

Observing my resistance, I see in true Buddhist fashion that it is my inclination to avoid suffering that compromises my willingness to know the truth.  It is easy to make decisions when one course of action clearly brings deeper peace and joy.  But what do we do when all of our options seem painful, or something that should bring us pleasure doesn’t feel right?  The suffering inherent in both continuing forward and changing direction obscure the truth if we have not learned how to endure pain.  Only when we can embrace and befriend our suffering without leaping to action in order to find immediate relief, can we be present enough to discern the subtle nuances of intuition and truth.

There appear to me to be two different ways to suffer:  the suffering born of a stubborn determination to seek an easy, habitual release and the suffering inherent in enduring the long rhythm of moving against our Self-destructive conditioning.  Right or Sacred Suffering is all about listening and acting in accordance with truth, ready to embrace the consequences, while habitual suffering, bent on obtaining momentary pleasure and relief, creates a separation from truth and an experience of being adrift and lifeless.  Sacred Suffering is often acute in its burn, releasing vital bursts of insight, creativity, and fortitude born of contact with our deepest self.  Habitual suffering deadens, depresses, and drains in endless cycles of longing for what doesn’t fulfill, of denying the truths we don’t want to hear.  Habitual suffering pushes for what it believes will bring gratification – it resents and rails and coerces.  Sacred Suffering breathes deeply, lets go, feels the grief and emptiness, and waits certain of deeper fulfillment.

Despite professing faith in the unfolding abundance of the universe, I admit I have been complicating things by clinging desperately to a script of Right Action I believe is the proper path.  This defense mechanism has shielding me from the reality of spiritual progress as purely experiential, messy, confounding, all about crisscrossing conventions and limitations, simply opening to this moment over and over until we are transformed into something we never could have imagined.  I recognize my current disorientation as part of an organic shift away from a primarily intellectual inner experience to one of energy.  While some days I am restless, fearful and confused, other days words and sensations take tangible, increasingly visual form inside me.  I experience the subtle differences between my energetic core and vibrations I draw in viscous and opalescent from above and below, and spread outward infinitely.  Overlain on this profound  inner experience are the challenges of my outer life – how my core reacts to tasks I am given, social interactions, choices about how to share my time and attention.  These two realities are awkward acquaintances, creating turmoil with their competing priorities, inclinations, and insights, but also equally valid, balancing and strengthening each other.

It is strange to contemplate all the things that are sacred to me and to realize that suffering is one of them.  Sacred Suffering to me means taking the long-view of life.  It means embracing the confusing fluctuations between things that aren’t yet clear, resisting the easy path of escape until bonds loosen of their own accord.  It means giving space to all the dynamic, seemingly contradictory parts of me, especially when they hurt, without needing more or less of anything.  It means accepting the cycles of self-sufficiency and being held, moderation and intoxication, daydreaming and focused exertion.  Sacred Suffering means trusting that every time I find the fortitude to release my preferences, to endure the separation after merging, the disillusionment after excitement, the emptiness after seity, what is timeless returns with humbling and stunning generosity.  Only when I shift my focus away from the people and circumstances that surround me towards the loosening and spaciousness within can I see clearly and feel loved.

Nancy

 

“Why, then, do we have to be human and keep running from the fate we long for?

Oh, not because of such a thing as happiness – that fleeting gift before the loss begins.

Not from curiosity, or to exercise the heart…

But because simply to be here is so much and because what is here seems to need us,

This vanishing world that concerns us strangely – us the most vanishing of all…

There are the hurts.  And, always, the hardships.

And there’s the long knowing of love – all of it unsayable…”

  • Rilke – Ninth Elegy, Duino Elegies as found in In Praise of Mortality
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Allowing Love

For summer solstice, our community gathered on the lawn inside a broad ring of wild flowers with a fire pit in the center, singing and smudging and burning our limitations.  We each called in our deities and guides and ancestors, and they danced around the flames together.  Someone slipped a crystal into my hand and I intuitively received a sacred, secret ritual to ground my energy.  I felt my body moving, my energy solidifying, the vibration swirling and cleansing every layer of my being despite my fatigue.  The night was deep with gratitude, connection, and celebration.  The next morning, a stray word from a well-intended resident stung so deep inside me, I found my new love and sobbed.  I told him I feel like I am being split open down the middle by our connection, my bark peeling back, heart exposed raw to the world because I am ready to love in the way I have always longed to, but I don’t know how to do it – not in this imperfect world where our wounds rub against each other.

As much as I have believed myself to be someone who lives to dive hand-in-hand into the abyss, reality has been proving otherwise.  The prospect of really allowing myself to be loved is bringing a new, acute sort of pain that shows me just how guarded I have been for so long despite having mastered how to behave warm and open.  Welcoming new intimacy brings a lightness and softening to my life, and nourishment my heart has ached for, as well as the realization of how I have adapted to manage my addiction, my trauma, and my anxious attachment style.  To avoid being taken advantage of physically, to protect my heart from rejection, and to live content without physical and emotional closeness, I have developed avoidant tendencies characterized by erratic boundaries, an overly ambitious work ethic, and some questionable interpretations of spiritual practice.

In her podcast on De-Conditioning the Hungry Ghosts, Tara Brach validates our deeply human need for safety, bonding, and to be valued.  When those needs aren’t met, we turn to surrogates such as food, sex, technology, work, fantasy, etc.  Addictive cycles that are more or less socially acceptable develop because these sources are ultimately unfulfilling, but we lack alternatives that bring us more lasting happiness.  Many spiritual teachings share that the only acceptable desire is for reconnection with our source.  Whatever constricts and separates us from that will lead to suffering, and whatever expands and connects us will provide sustenance.  Our devotion to anything – our love for it with a committed and single-pointed focus – can bring us to lasting fulfillment if we align it with our ultimate source.

What is it that I seek with a committed and single-pointed focus?  Since I was a young child, that has always been romantic love.  My attempts to anchor that longing on an abstract, divine source have always failed and because of that, I have felt ashamed of my lack of true spiritual motivation.  I can, however, begin to root it in my best and highest self and send it through the one I am drawn to toward our divine source.  Between today and that lofty aspiration is a horde of pitfalls.  So many of my friendships and partnerships have evaporated from lack of care.  I start out enthusiastically and then recede into uncertainty over how to show care, my inability to sustain it, a sense of being used, feeling overwhelmed and critical, and finally settling for the painful, but familiar sense of solitude.  I had always believed my anxiety made me fall for and bond with people who weren’t right for me.  Now I realize I always push away whatever gets inside.  I know how to long.  I know how to heal a broken heart.  What I haven’t learned yet is how to do is look deep inside someone and still say, “This is mine.  That is yours.  And I love you.”

As cautious and disoriented as I often feel, I am hopeful because of all the ways it feels different this time.  This man and I have lived and served side by side for months and have already developed trust through engaging each other’s gifts and short-comings.  I have been able to overcome my fear of rejection and speak up about the small things, asking for space in a way he can honor because I understand how it feels to be anxiously attached.  I have done enough work with presence to not believe all of my thoughts and feelings, breathing instead into the twisting in my belly and chest, giving it time to share its wisdom instead of reacting impulsively.  Grounding and reconnecting alone enables me to feel fed by something besides his attention and affection.  And when I am ready to return to him, it is from a place not of longing, but of celebration, and he is always there, open and ready.

I have been willing to risk sharing feelings I often withhold in an attempt to feel fully self-sufficient and in control.  I have also been able to interrupt moments of compulsion with bursts of will rooted in my determination to honor my inner voice.  He understands addiction, supporting and validating me by seeing it working in me the way no other partner has.  He respects the process and is willing to learn from my feedback.  And I am slowly learning to look past perfection towards gratitude for our easy, mutual understanding, the uplifting calm of his presence, his loyalty, patience, and honesty, and the expanded sense of strength I find in being a part of something broader than myself.

A familiar recurring dream of mine has taken a new turn.  I am usually running late for a plane or train because I have so much luggage to pack or other people are running behind or I have gotten the departure date mixed up.  This time I realized everything I owned had been thrown away.  Rummaging through the dumpster, I was relieved to find my wallet intact, and understood that was all I needed for the journey:  proof of who I was.  I rushed to the gate, confident I could prove my plane ticket with my ID and credit card, and the flight attendant just waved me through.

What am I finally letting go of?  What am I finally learning?  The lesson isn’t as simple as focusing my mind and heart solely on god so I can resist all temptations and distractions and just pray, meditate, and chant myself to divine union.  And it isn’t as easy as letting my days dissolve into silly jokes and cuddling and fantasies, and deluding myself into thinking that will make me happy.  It’s about owning everything I am and engaging with it in a new, lighter, and more open way.  I love beauty, grace, kindness and sacredness.  I enjoy crude jokes and slap-stick humor.  I can be both incredibly caring and cold.  I long for intimacy and it frightens me.  I work too hard and I’m lazy with my energy and attention.  I am serious and frivolous.  And I have found someone as dynamic as I am – someone I would be wise to believe when he tells me I have nothing to apologize for, and when he reminds me that everything can be perfect just as it is, while we still have a long way to go.  It is not will power that changes us, but our willingness to love what we are given.

Nancy

“Love says, ‘I’ve seen the ugly parts of you, and I’m staying.'” – unknown

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Open Palm

When I was 21 and living in Glasgow, I met a young British South African attorney at an internet café.  Drew was bright, poised, and handsome, but with his stiffness and my sensitivity, we were both having trouble making friends of the Scots.  Drew impressed me with stories of being the only white person at concerts and rallies during apartheid, of going on walkabout in the bush, and of befriending black South Africans at university.  I felt grateful for the sense of companionship and adventure, but my heart resisted every step of our developing intimacy.  I could feel Drew subtly molding me to his preferences – approving of my more proper outfits, flattering my intelligence over my heart, and encouraging me to develop my business ideas at the expense of things that moved my soul.  As I approached the end of my visa, I struggled to reconcile the compelling security and adoration he offered with the frustrating, frightening sense that I was meant for something more expansive in a life I could not yet see.

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Someone once told me that there are two ways to hold something: clenching your fingers around it to negate the natural pull of gravity or turning your hand over so that it rests gently in your palm.  Grasping requires effort, distorts what you cling to, and shields it from view.  Holding with an open palm leaves it fully visible, whole, and free.  If we adopt this approach to life, what stays with us is purer and more truly ours.  I told Drew this story as I boarded the bus for a young backpackers’ tour of Ireland, hoping for some adventure and perspective.  As I looked out the window to wave goodbye, he was standing on the sidewalk with his arm outstretched and a quarter nestled effortlessly in his open palm.

I did return to him, several times.  After a warm reunion following my trip to Ireland, which had left me grateful for the comforts he offered, I left again to spend the summer back in LA with my family researching some business ideas.  My research was fruitless, however, my brother was far less available to me than I had hoped, and my Dad was still absorbed in grieving my mother’s sudden death less than two years before.  I felt invisible, in pain, and without direction, frightened by fantasies of cutting myself.  I returned to Drew and we flew down to South Africa together to visit his family.  On landing in Johannesburg, I was overcome by a visceral realization of how tense apartheid must have been, how much brutality was needed to control such a vast and oppressed majority.  Despite the kindness Drew’s family showed me, I was unsettled by their advice that I show my gratitude to the black servant who helped raise him just by giving her money.  And despite being greeted warmly as the only white patrons of a black night club, Drew’s family showed mistrust and veiled contempt towards the throngs of young, poor black men begging for jobs around town.

When we returned to Glasgow, I moved into his apartment, but things had shifted.  I saw how growing up with precarious privilege in a third world country had fueled Drew’s ambition to prove himself.  The boy who had ventured across lines was growing into a man committed to ruthlessly defending big business.  I began to feel like a trophy of American power, daughter of a NASA engineer, gaining my satisfaction from perfectly playing the role of housewife:  cooking his dinner, ironing his shirts, and giving him pleasure.  One evening I sliced my finger while preparing dinner alone and, watching the blood pour out, I panicked.  I had no phone and no idea where to get medical treatment.  I felt isolated and vulnerable, suffocated by someone who didn’t see me for who I really was and paralyzed by the effort of trying so hard to live a life that wasn’t mine. I would wake in the middle of the night with the most beautiful spiritual writings pouring from me, but I had no idea what to do with them or where else to go.  When 9-11 closed Heathrow for a week, I realized that there may come a time when I couldn’t leave, even if I wanted to.  It was now or never.

I left Drew holding me with open palm a third time, flew back to the west coast, and took a train up to Portland, OR to start a new life near an old college friend.  Drew visited me once the following spring for an awkward weekend of mixed messages – my enduring sense that he was wrong for me overcome by my guilt and loneliness.  He returned to Glasgow determined to find a job in the States so he could be with me, and, frightened by the idea of being trapped in endless ambivalence, I finally ended it for good.  Two years later he contacted me to say that he was leaving a two-year relationship to take a promotion in London, and that he had only just gotten over me.

I hope there are special guardian angels for those who wound and are wounded in deep places as they stumble over each other’s hearts trying to find their way.  Drew has become increasingly vivid to me over the past few weeks as I find myself remembering the wisdom of holding with open palm.  Some might say that Drew, and my husband too, were foolish to continue to hope when I was restless and ambivalent from the start.  And all of my best friends would say the same to me now – that those who are meant to share their lives will not send mixed messages, will not inspire feelings of jealousy and insecurity, will instead fill each other with an enhanced sense of calm and connection and purpose.  That is, indeed, how it would work if we were all healthy and whole.  But the journey toward healing is rocky and winding, full of fears that block our affection, full of anxieties that leave us hyper-vigilant and doubtful, and full of longings that veil and distort the essence of what we receive.

We heal through the cosmic generosity of receiving what we have given – for better and for worse.  I am now experiencing viscerally what Drew and a handful of others must have felt to let me go over and over, to long without fulfillment, to feel vulnerable beyond reason to something we do not see clearly.  It is said that the strongest drug for a human being is another human being.  This serves as a perfect battlefield for the ultimate human struggle: the mucky wrestling about of blind desire and selfless love for another’s well-being; of the stubborn search for fulfillment in a specific way and the willingness to appreciate the myriad tender ways we receive divine love all the time.  The epic is riveting because these forces are nearly equally matched.  Every moment represents a choice of direction, delicately balanced and maddeningly obscured.  If we understood how to navigate it, we would not have chosen this human life.

Practicing holding with open palm enables me to give others the same freedom I long for to explore and fail and simply be myself. It acknowledges my longing to receive a connection with spirit that is intimately human, while also surrendering to the reality that nothing that comes from outside us is certain or eternal.  What lands on my fingers can fly away at any time, but it is not the source of my security, my purpose, or even my love.  It is simply something mysteriously beautiful that visits us and stays only as long as its heart desires.  For nothing anyone says or does can make the natural love of the heart anything other than what it is.  Through this new test of patience and discernment, my palm is slowly opening in a vulnerable act of both giving and receiving, one moment after another, breathing deeply into the stillness, waiting for the truth to reveal itself, and reminding myself that I already am everything that I love.

Nancy

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Stepping Aside

I invited her to let go of her body, to search the darkness inside herself in the way one who is blindfolded would sort through a pile of dried beans – feeling the shapes she encountered with the fingers of her mind, imaging their color, engaged and curious.  The pattern of heat she described scattered throughout her torso merged into one sensation, cooling and rising with each inhale until it reached the point between her eyebrows and we slipped out of the body with the dark and smoky wings of a giant bird.  We soared over the cliffs we had previously stood before timid and unsure.  We condensed into cloud and battered the hardened earth with our many droplets until it yielded.  We nestled beneath its crust as tiny seed, gently uncurling towards the surface with each breath until we stepped back onto the earth with human feet, reborn.

I have always felt as though I lived two lives.  One is worried about whether people like me and what to be when I grow up; thrilled by new adventures and ideas; disturbed by changes and criticism.  The other remembers, barefoot on a cold, dark street under the stars that my soul is timeless, embodied in every form.  I sleep under the marsh, draped across the sky and know that in every eye I look into is my own awareness looking back.  I am never better or worse.  I simply dwell in this body until it releases me.  Intertwining both these lives is the human mission.

Sharing this perspective with others has become the core momentum behind my days.  I meditate so that I can regenerate myself and slip between lives more fluidly depending on what each situation requires.  The fact that I feel fully unprepared deepens my surrender to the host of guides surrounding me.  They took me deep into myself.  Now they are inviting me to take others deep inside myself so that my sight can reveal to them a world within themselves that is ever-present, ever-nourishing, and ever-wise.  I haven’t had a proper day of rest in weeks, but I feel moved by the energy flowing through me, suspended between its unseen, seemingly inexhaustible origin and the point where it roots in the outer world each time I offer a word, a touch, a smile, an act of service that is openly received.

After my time being trained as a meditation teacher at Ananda Village, I returned to this community guarded.  I saw signs everywhere that I was not being received or nurtured.  I clung to the visions I had seen on the road of what was possible for me.  I stuck with the habits I had built around rising early, daily yoga, silent meals, time alone.  I avoided those who agitated me and sought out the few who understood my discontent.  In this way, I built a wedge between what I believed I was and what I was not.  And it exhausted me.

A few weeks ago, I co-facilitated my first meditation training as a three day retreat.  The week prior had been busy preparing for new interns arriving to our community, responding to an unusually high number of inquiries, hosting tours, scheduling events, covering kitchen shifts, and preparing for the workshop. Following the lead of my co-facilitator was inspiring and disorienting.  I guided meditations and responded to questions in the way I felt best, but was preoccupied with how he might be judging my responses and whether the participants were receiving what they needed.  At lunch on the second day, I walked into the dining room feeling deflated and saw the tables filled with guests from a large group retreat.  I wanted to be available to participants in my workshop, but they were filling small tables in the back and I opted to sit with some friends to recharge.  At the end of the meal, I was still feeling unfulfilled, and when I noticed my co-facilitator had squeezed into a table with our workshop participants, I felt ashamed of my withdrawal.  I dropped my dishes in the bus tubs and headed out the door to hide in my room, giving myself what none of these people could.

On the threshold, I heard my own voice say to me gently, “Don’t isolate.”  I saw myself hiding under the covers in my familiar way, washed by a sense of sadness and separation.  I understood how surrendering to that movement has so many times in the past created a mood that lasted for days, perpetuating itself as my withdrawal caused other to withdraw from me.  If I pulled away out of shame and unworthiness, I would have to push through those same feelings in order to return.  I turned around, walked over to the table of workshop participants, and let them know that I offer personal sessions in guided visualization and was available by text anytime that afternoon.  One participant who had captured my attention with her anxious and downcast affect accepted my offer.  We soared over cliffs, fell as rain, and were both reborn.

I have written about surrender. I have contemplated purpose and service and faith.  I am now beginning to understand that at the core of this is the act of stepping aside.  I do not surrender.  I do not serve.  I step aside as an act of faith that my purpose is fulfilled when service happens through me.  In those moments, there is no pride or shame, no fear or certainty.  I leave a guided visualization feeling a deep sense of peace, ease, and simplicity.  I sense my mind wanting to blow trumpets and throw streamers and shout to everyone about how amazing and synchronistic and interconnected everything is.  But what came through me already knows that, already lives it in every moment.  There is no point in getting excited, in claiming it for my own, in broadcasting it to the world.  Identifying it as a wonderous phenomenon feeds the belief that we are separate from it and seeds a future backlash of disappointment, failure, and disconnection.

My task has become inviting that part of me that doubts – that fears ridicule and abandonment, that seeks security and praise and pleasure – to step aside.  Every time I think I need to withdraw because I am too tired, too scattered, too anxious I remember how it feels when that energy is flowing through me freely and I ask if it is possible to feel that again in this moment.  It is the tension and constriction, the attachment to myself as the one who must figure it all out and do it all that drains me and leaves me feeling overwhelmed.  And if I am living that way, it follows me on my walks, to my conversations with heart friends, into my meditations, and to my bed, and gives me no peace.  But if I step aside and let what is happening unfold around me, I find myself participating in a way that is strong and wise and generous and peaceful.  And in that way, I find myself able to show up fully for far more than I ever thought possible.

Nancy

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An Imperfect Orbit

“You have fungus in your brain,” she told me.  My arm had stayed strong throughout the muscle test of other causes, but collapsed pathetically at the mention of systemic yeast.  She had been sitting at an empty table during my dinner clean-up shift, so when I began to implode I sought her out instead of going inside.  Joking with him for the first time in months, on top of honey cornbread and five cookies, was too much.  She showed me a pressure point under my wrist for the heart, and as I dug into the soreness, the tears rose, but nothing she was saying connected.  I was pulled between a struggle to understand and a struggle to simply feel.

“It’s as though these states pass over me,” I began, “each with a particular flavor that infuses everything I think, feel, sense – a complete self-contained world that distorts everything it perceives.  And then in a moment it all evaporates and I’m back.  When I feel a state getting triggered, the main thing I feel is fear – fear that I’ll be trapped there and lose myself completely.”  That’s what tipped her off – a colony of yeast hijacks everything in order to be fed.  If I clear them, she promised, I will feel like a completely different person.

I went straight back to my room and started researching.  My on-line quiz for systemic yeast came back indicating a severe case.  The questions linked together everything that plagues me – irritability, depression, suppressed immune function, rashes, cravings for sweets and alcohol, fatigue, sensitivity to smells, being cold, digestive issues, weight fluctuations.  I eat one cookie or take one sip of alcohol and immediately feel a physical burn and a scattered, impulsiveness in my mind.  I always have and those who know me best see it.  The treatment to starve out the yeast is extreme, but I know I can do it.  I’ve been here before.  Nearly two years ago, it was SIBO.

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I often feel like a planet gliding through space in a wide elliptical orbit – pulled in, swung around, shooting off into infinity, only to slow and gradually curve back along that familiar path.  And I orbit not one, but many bodies, the pull of each feeling stronger or weaker depending on our relative positions at each given moment.  I orbit my health, one moment feeling attentive urgency to my discomfort, relaxing into trusting moderation as I heal, and then swinging back toward vigilance as my relaxed habits trigger symptoms.  I orbit this community, security shifting to boredom and frustration, and growing into rebellion and paranoia as I align myself with distant dreams and confidence takes flight.  Then I glance back in affection and gratitude for the blessings and perfect challenges, and return back towards the heart of our galaxy.  And I orbit men – drawn by the whispered promise of depth of connection, repelled by the fear of burning up in their atmosphere, then saddened that the momentum of my journey outward may destine me to a comet’s long and lonely path.

The more I write to you, the more I become aware that I’m telling the same stories over and over, sharing the same struggles with minute adjustments in circumstance and insight.  Sometimes I feel certain a pattern is coming to an end only to find myself right back in the middle of it.  I worry that I bore you.  My pride is embarrassed that my victories seem superficial.  I wonder if this process of reflection is helpful or if I would be better off just sitting alone in silence, feeling, setting aside the need to describe, explain, find a thread of sense for comfort and direction.  Nothing in reality is linear except our stubbornly misguided minds.  So many things are in orbit around each other that nothing is fixed, nothing is predictable.  I can know there is a harmony inherent in it all, but do I need proof?  Is there any point in trying to navigate my course when my path is influenced by so many things beyond both my control and my understanding?

The only point in the universe that seems not to move is the point at the center of my core.  Everything I perceive radiates outward from there.  I can be at any point in an orbit, with the bodies around me in any position, and I am still composed of the same elements.  Still.  And composed.  Why focus on where all these stars and planets came from and what their fate will be when I can simply acknowledge I am surrounded by a dazzling display?  When I can realize we are all caught in this matrix of movement, together – disoriented, frightened, restless, amused, amazed?  All of us regard one another from our core as we sail past – whatever we think or feel about the approach and parting is irrelevant.  It changes nothing about the dance.  It merely becomes part of what we carry with us or what we leave behind.

My orbit is imperfect because I am not alone.  The force that pulls me away from what I love one moment is the same force that brings me what I need the next.  There is no judgement in it.  We are simply adrift in an ocean of abundance – the tide carrying us along towards and away from whatever we focus on.  One moment regarding a body from afar and the next realizing we have taken its place.

After almost a year of believing this community can’t honor my grief or my darkness, I watched her cry through a whole kitchen shift.  She was vacuuming, moving chairs, softly sobbing.  Her heart was breaking in my same way mine did, but she didn’t hide it.  She simply floated, beautifully fragile as dried leaves and tumbling pebbles, red-eyed and dignified and subtlety yielding.  I caught her gaze and felt the empathy rise to my throat, and told her she is not alone.  We each acknowledged her in our own way because she had surrendered.  My grief rages resentful against my weakness, my ignorance, the injustice and inconsistencies of the world.  And that energy sends comfort and connection scattering beyond my reach.

Everything in the universe, I’ve been told, including us, tends to become denser and heavier unless we stay buoyant, keep moving, open ourselves to what is coming through us.  While I was distracted by guarding my heart, my physical body was colonized and overrun by something that wasn’t me.  During these early days, the yeast will do everything they can to make me believe I need sweets and simple carbs.  It is an archetypal battle of wills – the gravity of their orbit set against mine.  It is simply the nature of the physical universe.  But it isn’t the only reality there is.  Inside my core, I am remembering what it means to feel vital in body, mind, and spirit.  What it means to not just be drawn along through space, but to make a choice from the strength of knowing we too repel as well as magnetize.

Nancy

“When I run after what I want, my days are a furnace of stress and anxiety; if I sit in my own place of patience, what I needs flows to me and without pain.  From this I understand that what I want also wants me, is looking for me and attracting me.  There is a great secret here for anyone who can grasp it.” – Rumi

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Running Away

“Every time you talk about that place,” she shot across the table, “it sounds like you’re in a bad marriage.”  It was the morning after our celebration for completing Meditation Teacher Training at Ananda Village, and we were talking about what it was going to be like to return home.  She later apologized to me for her candor, but she was right.  The moment she said the words, I realized why my heart had felt so closed off during our 10 days of intensive training despite this being a very bright, affectionate, and dedicated group of peers.  To admit how starved I felt for this sort of community, how energized and willing I felt amidst the rigorous challenge, and how much I value the gentle, gracious solidity of the long-time residents would be to admit that I’ve compromised myself back into another situation where I continue to give in hope of receiving what doesn’t come.  And that despite all I know, all I say, all I have sacrificed in order to live a life of greater attunement with my deepest self, I still don’t love myself as much as I think I do.

Jenny taking a serene break from protecting the goat herd at Ananda Village.

When I see that I am drowning, I want to run away.  I want to prove I am bold enough to do whatever it takes.  I don’t want to risk being sweet-talked away from my inner knowing.  I don’t want to give fear time to convince me yet again that I am the one who needs to change in order to make it work.  I don’t want to fall asleep and forget how it felt to be gracefully powerful.  I did a visualization with my inner child a few weeks ago, and she was in the dining room crying.  I offered her gentle acceptance, and she began trashing the place with the strength of one possessed by a tornado.  With her tiny body, she hurled chairs through the windows, splintered tables with her high kicks, clawed the walls, smashed every last container and salt shaker.  Then she huddled next to the cold bar, trembling, dreading my response.  I welcomed her warmly into my lap and she cried about having no friends and why I make her stay.  So in my mind I picked her up, carried her into the night, tucked her into the back seat, and drove her away.

We’re both still here.  There is the fear, the sense of obligation, the belief that if I can just make myself strong enough or generous enough I can make it work.  But there is also the understanding that I create my reality.  A new home and new friends is blissful for a time because we see them as they truly are – light and lovable and full of promise.  But with the comfort of familiarity comes all the projections that gradually replace the truth with the play in my own mind – the actors and props and lighting all poised for a perfect repeat performance of Nobody Really Loves Me, Everyone Is Just Using Me, I’m Not Safe, I Can’t Handle This.  I feel threatened, I get defensive and stingy, and I hate myself for it.  And because I don’t love myself unconditionally, I can’t feel love from anywhere else or even think about giving it in an authentic way.

Michael Brown tells us in the Presence Process that love isn’t something we qualify for, it simply is.  If you remove all the people from a war-torn area, the first thing you will notice is a pervading sense of peace.  Joy, peace, love, wisdom, power are all inherent qualities of the universe.  If we aren’t experiencing them here and now, there is no place we can run to find them.  They come into our awareness only when the tornado passes – when we still our bodies from constant motion, quiet our minds from compulsive thought, and release from our hearts all turbulent feelings.  Then we can touch that ocean of peace and the wisdom of our own intuitive knowing coming through to soothe and guide us.  It’s called a meditation practice, because building a relationship with stillness is a constant practice, but it is the only place we can run to that offers genuine and lasting relief.  It soothes us in the moment with unconditional love, and it sends us back out into the world with clarity, creativity, and conviction.

This doesn’t mean that in order to be truly spiritual we should passively remain in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, or adopt contrived outer behavior of serenity or forgiveness.  In my experience, even very recently, this just builds to inner revolt, depression, addiction, and general drama. We lose our inner relationship if we aren’t acting on the insight and guidance we receive.  And whatever virtuous qualities we embody must spill over once we are authentically full of them ourselves.  Sometimes acting enthusiastic or serviceful can shift our energy to a more connected and uplifted place, but acting “as if” is not a sustainable way to live, especially if it suppresses our intuition or ignores a part of us that is needing unconditional love.

So what does one do when they find themselves in a bad marriage to a person, job, community – one where they notice themselves getting passive aggressive, harboring resentment, playing the victim, seeking attention, neglecting self-care?  There is no set answer because we are all on this earth to learn different lessons at different times.  Some need to hunker down and commit.  Some need to run away as fast as they can.  Some need to get vulnerably honest with themselves and others.  Some need to start developing a gradual exit strategy.  I can berate myself for getting into this situation again, but that feels unkind and unproductive.  I can reject this place, but that feels like a defensive reaction founded on blindness to all the blessings of life here (including a rare group of people aspiring for greater good) and a misguided belief that I am a fragile victim that needs ideal external circumstances (which don’t exist anywhere) in order to cope.  But I also cannot ignore the fact that I have rapidly expanding responsibility without peer support or adequate space for stillness.

The deep stillness of Ananda Village’s Lotus Lake.

This meditation teacher training reintroduced me to spiritual discipline and with it I touched back into both stillness and power – and the joy that springs spontaneously from them.  It reacquainted me with the power of my poise and articulate mind, and the security of knowing my resourcefulness, stamina, and adaptability are always present when I am speaking my truth and serving what I love.  It also reminded me that what we do matters far less than our state of being – as teachers and in life.  Once again, the vast majority of pressure I feel has come from within myself, from my own mistaken beliefs about what I must do to gain external love and acceptance.  In order to find these things within, I need my own permission to spend far less will on performance and far more time sitting in the silence and understanding what it means to be even-minded and calmly active.

Every marriage deserves honesty and a fair chance to reconcile.  There are some conversations I need to have.  Some things it is time to let go of and some things it is time to embrace.  I must move through my fear that these conversations will significantly erode my safety and security, but I have already learned that fear of consequences is far worse than actually living through them.  Speaking my truth and stepping outside of my role in the play breaks its hypnosis and pulls back the curtain to reveal what is really there.  When I am no longer transfixed, the story can change.  When I can love and forgive myself for the messy chaos inherent in my drama, and perhaps even learn to look on it with tender amusement as one would a child’s art room trashed by joyful experimentation, I know I will taste a new level of freedom.  As I grow to feel safer and more secure in that love, I will come to see more and more people in that same light of acceptance and clarity.  Then I will embody true wisdom regarding who and what to embrace, when it is time to run, and the certainty that the new world I find myself in is merely a reflection of changes that have already taken place inside.

Nancy

“The sky, infinite space, cannot be limited or hurt by anything.  We are a droplet of that Infinity, a little nest cradling the omnipresent Spirit.  I see this little body as frozen sky, and as I meditate… the body becomes a condensation of the vastness of space.” – Paramhansa Yogananda

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Removing the Bandage

It was my most precious memory from that whole year.  The dusk was falling on a summer afternoon under the tall oaks.  We sat on the front step, friends giving children piggy-back rides.  He had his arm round me.  Everyone was laughing.  I took a child on my back and felt powerful enough to lift the world.  I had longed for months for this moment, for a lifetime.  And then it was gone.  Just weeks later, I woke in his arms feeling a leaden sense of dread.  What had I done?  I was never meant to lie with this man!  I only wanted to hold his hand.  But my thoughts had gathered the momentum of their own agenda and swept me away into a deluded fantasy of enduring comfort that was soon flooded by a sea of painful separation.  This has been the tedious and exhausting story of my life.

Obsession.  A compulsion of the mind.  A reaction to circumstances that hijacks our ability to respond with clarity and intention.  Every time I feel raw, I look for someone to crawl inside for safety, but I also know this leaves me vulnerable and unfulfilled.  So I counteract this tendency by controlling what I can in an effort to feel free, self-sufficient, and mature.  My first reaction to anything outside my plan is “no”.  I shy away from commitment because I don’t want to be constricted.  I am most comfortable with everything at arm’s length – close enough to grab if I need it, but far enough away not to impede my dance.  When times of loneliness and isolation come, I long to recreate the moments I have felt most alive and connected – lost in an embrace, in a cause, in a moment of beauty or even in the agony of grief.  But the circumstances I mistake for presence are not my salvation.

When we become even slightly more aware, a separation appears between our compulsion and the watchful self, allowing for a small space of presence, and then everything changes.  Suddenly, this moment matters.  Not just the moment of laughter and embrace under the oaks, but every moment I wasted longing for something else, willing it to happen.  Freedom transforms from an action focused on creating a future experience of fulfillment to the act of embracing who I am and what is here, already complete and whole in this moment.  Even if it’s binging.  Even if it’s complaining or attacking.  Even if it’s choosing to let go of the one thing I’ve finally gotten within my grasp.  The sense of connection I seek doesn’t come from this person or thing or experience, but from full participation, full acceptance of now, full surrender to having no idea what’s coming next but somehow sensing it will be radiant and generous.

Michael Brown tells us we have three paths for interfacing with our emotional lives: control, sedation, or integration.  When you come to an ashram, the most popular means of sedation are signed away on your contract – no romance, no drugs, no alcohol, no late night revelry.  And in such an environment, comparably tame behaviors like disordered eating, mindless internet searching, and general fantasizing gradually reveal themselves as more and more detrimental to our ultimate well-being.  Any efforts to control the routine, to control others, and to even control your own behavior increasingly break down under the exposure of constant closeness and the demands of ever-shifting, unavoidable, contradictory realities.  As a new intern beautifully articulated, living here is like having the bandage torn off.  Everything we have spent our lives doing to control the bleeding or to mask our rawness is removed, and we are left gazing at our weeping wound, wondering what in the world to do with it now.

Then there is the concept of integration.  I am finally open to the idea that the people and situations that trigger my suppressed and unresolved wounding are merely benevolent messengers telling me I am ready to embrace what I have previously avoided.  After all the minor slips of the tongue and subtle glances from others that have gouged me daily for nearly 40 years, I realize they aren’t doing anything to hurt me.  I practice taking my attention off of what they did, why they did it, and what I or they should do differently next time, and simply sitting in stillness with what in myself they have brought to my awareness.  Regarding it without judgment, without disgust or shame or anger, I allow each moment to unlock the feelings I am now safe and strong enough to face.  I let the sobbing erupt, the nausea twist, the convulsions roll, until they are done with me.  I follow that thread of sensation, of amorphous imagery, of forms lodged and shape-shifting in my core back down and as deeply inward as they go.

As I begin to let go of the victim mentality convinced of my own fragility, I discover a deeply entrenched belief that I must be strong enough to deserve love, and that developing the endurance to withstand all this pain on my own will enable me to keep my suffering from driving people away.  Sitting with my pain makes me feel lovable and self-sufficient because it is weaning me of the need to seek comfort or validation.  But at a deeper level, I know this isn’t about my relationship with anyone but myself.  After decades of needing others to help me recognize my strength and value and light, I no longer need that reflection.  To rest in someone else’s arms, to bask under their praise, is to limit myself by letting them do for me what I am now able to do for myself.

It isn’t a punishment to carry a tantruming child from a noisy restaurant.  It is simply a loving act of mercy for the child who cannot cope.  If I am to live anything but a dull and narrow life, repeating the same old tired dramas time and time again, I must sit with myself until the storm of previously unattended feeling passes so that I can see things as they are, and respond with clarity and compassion in my own best interest instead of reacting in self-defense.  I carry myself to safety, into a place I know without a doubt can nourish me, where I can hold every sensation with the gentle care it never received and rest in the spacious relief that follows finally filled in an enduring way I have never felt before.

The more people I meet who have been drawn to Laurelwood, the more gratitude and awe I feel for the ways life prepares us to embrace what’s coming next.  This is not a place one comes to begin their spiritual journey.  It is a place requiring tremendous fortitude that one levels up to when they are ready.  I intuitively sense I have plateaued to a point of no return.  I cannot go back to being the person in all those journey entries who pined, and sobbed, and sold herself cheaply for one glance of acknowledgement.  Old habits die hard.  Shadows still whisper.  My focus and endurance are still developing.  But there is nothing now I am afraid to feel.  And I am not lonely anymore.  The emptiness that once terrified me is now my nourishment.  The gifts of presence I have received have transformed my inner terrain into a far more loving and safer place than it has ever been, and given me faith to dive deeper.  I am finally coming to thank my addictive behaviors because each occurrence is a neon sign showing me the door to something that I have hidden away, something longing for freedom, something I am now ready to embrace.

Nancy

“Freedom from obsession is not about what you do; it’s about recognizing what sustains you and what exhausts you.  What you love and what you think you love because you can’t have it.” – Geneen Roth

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