Unwrapping Gifts

unwrapped giftI often think about situations as simply the “condition that is arising.” Whether it appears “good” or “bad,” it ultimately is a condition in which I can observe who and how I am. I have a relative who was recently diagnosed with cancer. It has been a roller coaster type of situation – from dealing with something unexpected to thinking that it was going to be a quick, terminal illness to the current information, which appears to be a cancer that is quite curable and straightforward to deal with. The person also currently has a a positive attitude about it, which supports our ability to reflect and not just to react.

Over the past few weeks, I have observed that this “negative” situation has already had many positive results as the condition itself has provided those around this person with chances to grow and to connect in new ways. It has had, in other words, some gifts. I am not saying this glibly – in other words, the situation includes pain and uncertainty and suffering, but as a neutral condition, it has also included love and vulnerability and connection. If someone says to me, “I’m sorry this is happening,” I cannot truly receive that sentiment. Is it something for which to be sorry? It is more useful for me to inquire within to understand the message of what is arising. In this specific situation, I have noticed that my fear of death is still stubbornly surfacing. I have observed that another person in the situation has found ways to provide nurturing and tenderness in ways that are new and rewarding. I have experienced the joy of direct communication and of being able to be with fear and despair. I have learned more about the medical system. I have noticed my ability to have compassion for all involved. I have practiced calming my racing brain – sometimes without any success at all!

The “gift” in any particular condition is not always easy to see or trust, and, with credit to my mother for this analogy, I have been thinking about how a gift has to be unwrapped. And sometimes there are layers and layers of wrapping paper and knots in the ribbon, and sometimes even twine wrapped all around the gift. Sometimes even when you unwrap it, you might not be able to tell what it is or understand its purpose. Sometimes you are focused on saving the paper and keeping things neat, while you unwrap. And sometimes, it is something you already have received in the past, so you are a little disappointed to get it again!

In any situation – illness, a change in relationship, a new job or job loss, a child leaving home, a flat tire, a sudden downpour – there is the opportunity to observe our reactions. Are we willing to be with our feelings, however uncomfortable? Are we able to notice our desire to escape discomfort? Can we be open to noticing something new about ourselves? I feel committed to learning more about receiving each situation as a condition with gifts to discover. And hope for myself and others balm and patience with whatever snags and obstacles arise as the gifts are unwrapped.

Early bloomer? Late Bloomer? Just right where you are?

Rhodedendron May 2017

Look at this picture of a rhododendron in the Arboretum. On this particular day, this plant had everything – tightly wound buds with but a tiny hint of pink, a cluster of blossoms with one flower section bursting out and the rest still closed, a bunch of blossoms nearly fully in bloom, and everything in between. Is this plant an “early bloomer?” A “late bloomer?” The more I studied it, the more I felt nurtured by its multi-faceted presence. It held everything – all the stages of blossoming – just like us. “Early” and “late” have a qualitative connotation – one is deemed as positive and the other as at least slightly negative. Looking at this plant the other day, I could not imagine judging any single part of it – it simply was responding to the particular mix of sun, rain, soil, and other conditions in its own unique, beautiful way. The first buds to blossom were no more deserving of attention, admiration, and nurturing, than the ones yet to come. I felt compelled to embrace more deeply the fundamental truth that we are all “mixed bags.” Different parts of us mature at different times — and just as we can hold in wonder a baby’s first steps – at nine months, one year, or seventeen months, we can offer ourselves and each other that same tenderness.

I have always been responsible, “mature for my age.” At least that’s what I thought. I took care of my younger siblings, did lots of chores, read early, marched through all the expected academic stages steadfastly and well, provided emotional support to my parents, and didn’t “cause any trouble.”

However, I entered my 20’s without many skills in the area of relationships, especially romantic relationships. I was scared, selfish, and unconsciously reacting from a trigger-ready bag of hurt and confusion. It took years and years before I truly understood my behavior and before I could have a healthy, mutual, unconditionally loving, life partner relationship. On the other hand, I was a fairly mature mother right from the start; I had a lot of skills and understanding about parenting. At the same time (on the third or fourth hand?), I had plenty of missteps, was unskilled in certain areas of mothering, and am in an ongoing, unending learning process, as I continue to grow as a parent of young adult children.

Along the way, I have felt ashamed of my immature parts. I have wanted to hide them, and spent way too many years judging myself and castigating myself for my imperfections. As I sit with people now, friends, clients, and family members, I often hear this same judgment. “Why am I still struggling with self-doubt at 37 years old?” “I can’t believe that I am still so angry at my parents; I am 45 years old!” “I still feel so embarrassed that I married that person, and we have not been together for more than ten years!” “We have been together for twelve years, but my wife and I have never talked about this part of our relationship. What’s wrong with us?”

What is this arbitrary map we set for ourselves? The things is, we are all beloved  – exactly as we are right now. There is an overflow of love, acceptance, and unwavering hope for each of us. Our human nature is perfectly in tune with nature itself. Some parts just starting to bloom; some parts not yet ready to flower, some parts needing some pruning or extra nourishment, and some parts in full, blossomy glory.

It takes courage, persistence, grace, and support to understand ourselves, to hope, and to change. It is not a linear path, and it is fraught with many obstacles of vulnerability, loneliness, and confusion. Gentleness is key. I celebrate the ways in which I have been able to heal, to let go of limiting beliefs, to forgive myself and others, and to feel alive and bursting with optimism. I am touched every single day by the people I sit with, who are willing to be honest about their path and are tenderly taking even the tiniest step forward towards fully loving themselves. Their blossoms – just like the mystery of each individual petal, leaf, and twig are an incredible teacher and inspiration.

May your own “mixed bag” nature continue to grow into the most magnificent expression of yourself.

 

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Dirty Laundry

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For a long time I labored under the semi-unconscious delusion that to “be spiritual” or to be a “spiritual teacher,” I had to be – well not exactly perfect, because I knew that to be human is to be imperfect – but somehow on the way to perfection. I have been admitting this to myself lately – and how this manifested in two main ways: 1) hiding parts of either my past or my present that seemed messy, embarrassing, and/or terribly imperfect and 2) holding back on sharing my fullest, most radiant parts. In a conversation with a spiritual companion recently, I recognized that I was stuck in a kind of dualistic paradigm – either I am a “good spiritual person” or an “imperfect fraud.” She offered the idea of polarity instead of dualism. I have been thinking about this, using the definition from Merriam-Webster: polarity: “attraction toward a particular object or in a specific direction.” Sometimes I am sitting squarely in my imperfection, and sometimes I am manifesting radiance. But perhaps it is more of a spiral or a prism – not two opposing poles. A prism that turns to reveal my messy, imperfect self and holds, at the same time, the parts of me that have matured and are flowing. Or maybe it is even less of an opposing tension than even this reveals. Perhaps our whole selves simply contain everything all at once, and if we could take a picture that revealed this, the mess and radiance would simply light up as it manifested, sometimes even at the same time!

To what end are these meanderings? Underneath all our “stories” – the family into which we were born, the history of our lives, the specific joys and pains, whatever our soul brought in this time around, and there is a whole, heart-centered, connected, pulsing being, who exists without striving or regret. It both seeks out and responds to experiences as a way to grow and, more specifically, as a way to recognize others’ inner, light-filled selves. The “awakened heart” of Buddhism or the “pure soul” of Judaism or the Hindu concept of “atman” or eternal soul, point us again and again to this interconnected web of being-ness.

In our attachment to our stories or our striving for improvement, we often miss the present moment of noticing what is. Even if what is is very challenging, the aliveness and vitality of being with can bring us to this pure, awakened, eternal inner self. More importantly, when we notice exactly where we are, we can become more aware of the ways in which we are attached to our “stories,” even when they no longer serve us. I was speaking with someone today, who said she is embarrassed to be receiving financial assistance from a family member because he is younger than her. Culturally and psycho-dynamically, this is considered shameful in her family. What if, I offered, you looked at shame as a coat you put on mistakenly? One that looked like it was going to fit but actually didn’t? What about trying on a different coat? It could be just a plain coat of neutrally noticing. Or it could be a shiny coat of gratitude. But whatever coat we put on, we have to notice it first before we can choose to either keep it on or try on a different one.

In Jack Kornfield’s book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Kornfield writes: “…it is in a deep and honest listening to whatever has been feared or left out that our freedom will be found. And if we don’t choose to look, that which is unattended will come to find us; the lost parts of ourselves will present themselves, knocking even louder if we don’t hear their cries.” My soul is calling for me to notice that I have been wearing the coat of perfectionism, and it no longer fits (never really did, of course, but now I am noticing how itchy it is!). In removing this coat, I am actually picturing just standing upright without any coat at all – just me – sometimes embarrassed and sometimes proud; sometimes skillful and sometimes clumsy. Would you like to join me in this dance of just being?

 

 

I Am Not Broken

Image result for amazing trees winter

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

(From Mary Oliver’s When Death Comes)

I am not broken. You are not broken. Over the past couple of months I have realized that I do not 100% believe this, and I need to humbly re-examine some unconscious ways in which my beliefs are not living up to their potential.

Judaism teaches that babies are born with a pure soul. Buddhists also teach that we all have an “awakened heart;” a place inside that is cosmically connected and alive. Nature reminds us daily of the miracle of growth and rebirth – with no recriminations for the seed that takes longer to sprout or the tomato that does not ripen. These three teachers are my foundation, and yet somehow I haven’t fully accepted their wisdom.

Part of me does yoga and meditates and is vegetarian and teaches about mindfulness from a place of connectedness and aliveness. However another part of me has been doing all that with an unconscious belief that all this striving will accomplish something good. There is a fine line between “right effort” or “right action” and perfectionism or, as Larry Rosenberg teaches, there is no “spiritual Olympics. When I heard that phrase I joined the others in the room in laughter; yet my laughter was tinged with a bit of recognition that part of me is unconsciously looking for a “gold medal.”

What if I took another step in letting go of this limiting outlook? What if I – and all of us – already have all the “gold medals” we ever could need – in our pulsing hearts and expanding lungs and beautifully connecting brain synapses? What if, exactly as we are right in this moment, all we do is take the next step towards wholeness? Love as well as we are able? Notice our feelings with loving observation and not acerbic judgment?

Many traditions teach that our body is a vessel or a tool – provided for us to do sacred work in this world. We are the image of the divine or the expression of consciousness or the light made manifest. To care for our bodies – with respect, protection, and gratitude – is not supposed to be an action of drudgery or Puritanical restriction. What if the ways in which we move, eat, sleep, hug, cook, comfort, stretch, and bathe emanated from a place of self-love and remembering that we are partners of the divine consciousness? Yes we are imperfect – we make mistakes, act hurtfully, are stubborn and take a long time to change. But imperfection is not the definition of failure…and it definitely is not the definition of un-lovability.

This inner essence is always present; we just aren’t always aligned with it. Sort of like being out of focus in a camera lens….when we click into focus, all the parts are simply there – the ways in which we are skillful and the ways in which we are not. With patience this internal wisdom encourages us to reach towards alignment and focus, willing us to be vulnerable and authentic – and allowing that vulnerability to be the key to growing into our best selves.

 

Not Everyone Can Be The Director

Image result for film director

Lately, I find myself in many conversations, both internally and with others, about “what else can I do?” Although there was no lack of world suffering or vulnerabilities before “the election,” something about the intense dichotomies and increased visibility of hateful acts and language has increased the impetus to do more.

As I have contemplated this, I have found it helpful to think honestly about who I am. What is the best “Tracy-ness” that I can offer right now. It is hard to be patient with this process because sometimes it feels like complacency. But as I have sat with the question, little hints have bubbled up – that I feel called to help locally and to do more around food justice and using food as a way to support people. Not all the details are clear yet, but I’m slowly taking steps forward to figure out my path.

I am reminded of a famous Jewish story, that I call “The Zusia Story.”

Once, the great Hassidic leader, Zusia, came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear.

“Zusia, what’s the matter? You look frightened!”

“The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

The followers were puzzled. “Zusia, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

Zusia turned his gaze to heaven. “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?'”

His followers persisted. “So, what will they ask you?”

“And I have learned,” Zusia sighed, “that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the Promised Land?'”

One of his followers approached Zusia and placed his hands on Zusia’s shoulders. Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, “But what will they ask you?”

“They will say to me, ‘Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.’ They will say, ‘Zusia, why weren’t you Zusia?'”  http://www.hasidicstories.com/Stories/Other_Early_Rebbes/zusia.html

I have often reflected on this story from the point of view of easing people’s perfectionist selves, where they compare themselves to someone else and find themselves wanting. I remind people that they have to be their best self – not someone else’s best self. Lately, though, in thinking about the story, I realize that it is not only about not comparing oneself but to find the courage to identify my own next steps – to reach for my best self.

In this reaching, however, I still found the insidious internal ticker-tape comparing myself to others or not valuing what I give. My partner offered an analogy that I found quite helpful. I am calling it, “Not Everyone Can Be the Director,” or “Where Would the Movie Be Without the Janitor/Cook/Electrician/Gaffer/Etc.?” It goes like this: a movie has one director and a few stars, but it could not be made if the person operating the lights fell asleep or the crew wasn’t fed or if there wasn’t someone there to clean up or if the camera person didn’t show up one day. Our world needs everyone – the front-line activists, with all their courage and commitment, as well as the people taking out the trash. The finished product is often praised for just the director or the writer or the stars – the most visible people. However, if you stay until the end and read all the credits, which I have always been drawn to do, you see that scores of people were part of making that beautiful, moving, impacting movie. Almost always unrecognized and yet completely necessary.

Another part of the comparing trap is that we never know what someone else is dealing with. Perhaps someone is able to walk to the corner and back every day, offering a generous smile and open heart to all she passes. Someone else can run a marathon and raise thousands of dollars. Still a third person sits quietly in their room, praying for those who are ill.  We may not know that the first person has a chronic illness and is pushing herself hugely to get to that corner or that the marathon runner is mourning the loss of her father and honors his memory by running or that the quiet person is fighting a depression and is grateful to just have a moment to be able to think of others.

Even if it is difficult to maintain hope, and even if we get stuck in endless comparisons and “not-good-enoughs,” I encourage each of us to find our own “me-ness” and be the best “me” you can be. Maybe pausing and listening sincerely to our internal wisdom, we will have a sense of what is the next step in “doing” with compassion and vision.  Perhaps, in time, all of our “movies” will be filled with justice for all.

Mindfulness = Happiness?

Image result for mindfulness

I read an article recently questioning the purpose of the current mindfulness bandwagon… the author implied that present day mindfulness’s focus is on individual happiness, which upset her as it  gives us the idea that we do not have to deal with problems in the world, such as hunger, poverty, violence, misogyny, racism, etc., etc., etc.! I was surprised that this is part of the current take-home message about mindfulness…that it is a way to avoid dealing with issues by focusing on our own peace of mind.I was also chagrined because part of what I do is teach and encourage mindfulness, and it is painful to think that people believe that our individual happiness is the goal, when my understanding of the teachings is that one cannot separate our individual state from that of the world’s.

I see this path as much more of an interwoven dynamic – that to face the suffering in ourselves INCLUDES facing the suffering in our world, and vice versa. Ultimately, we need to expand our capacity to “be with what is,” whether it is to celebrate a joyful moment or feel the pain of the many disconnections that can happen or to be truthful about the injustices in the world or to recognize our own human limitations. In order to expand our capacity to be with what is, a regular practice of observing, noticing, letting go of judgment, and breathing can help. Once we are more comfortable being with what is, neither clinging to the positive nor pushing away the unpleasant, clarity can emerge about what engaged action we can take with whatever thorny issues we are involved.

But what does this mean – to be with what is? My sense is the answer to this has as many variations as there are human beings and, at the same time, has some fundamental basics. Some examples of the possible variations: I might need to increase my ability to enjoy a simple walk on the beach – take in the sun and sand and waves and truly allow myself to enjoy the sensations without fretting about an undone project. For you it might be to leave the beach and tackle some clutter – to take in the sense of overwhelm and reach out for support so that you don’t get swallowed up by the overwhelm so much that you don’t do anything. For someone else, it might be to face a sense of helplessness at all the suffering in the world and to come to a place of knowing that their “small” contribution towards ending suffering is worthwhile. Being authentic with our next step in being our full selves is something we each have to figure out on our own – often in fits and starts and getting comfortable with doubt, ambiguity, and confusion along the way!

In terms of the fundamentals, the essence, in my opinion, is expanding our capacity for love – to love ourselves as we are and to lovingly imagine the possibility of changing; to notice the places our hearts are closed or judgmental or fearful and to patiently understand how and why we feel that way; to be vulnerable and risk opening our hearts in new ways – saying hello to a stranger, being honest about our judgments and being open and curious to learn about the “other.”

In my experience, mindfulness practices do not promise happiness per se but rather happiness that contains within it a journey of being with unsettledness, self-consciousness, and humility. Contentment that can be with the times that calm, patience, and tenderness are elusive. The joy of being alive – fully – to the suffering as well as the delight of this precious world in which we live. As Pema Chodron writes in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, “We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.”

 

Pin the Anxiety on the Donkey

Image result for pin the tail on the donkey

My beloved partner came up with this phrase after I had pointed out that anxiety is always seeking a story – a place to land. I appreciated the image as it helped me ground this lesson. Anxiety is a state of mind that arises with regularity – whether you have lost your keys, are waiting for the results of a medical test, or have not heard from someone after a natural disaster.

From relatively mild situations to intense and difficult scenarios, our amygdala (the part of our brain responsible for emotional responses/survival) gets triggered. Without intervention, feelings of anxiety can quickly grow from mild to intense regardless of the actual facts. As it grows, it looks for proof, action/inaction, and solutions. Imagine someone who has lost their keys and starts tossing things around the room or yelling at their child. Or waiting for the results of a medical test, imagining the worst-case scenario and being unable to enjoy the lovely dinner your friend has prepared for you and her to share, ending up with a tense and uncomfortable time together. Or even wondering if there is very painful and difficult news and forgetting to breathe and to reach out for support and instead eating a gallon of ice cream.

None of these responses is “bad.” Any of the responses may be the most one can muster at any given time. However, with practice, if you can “catch” the anxiety before you “pin it on the donkey,” spaciousness can arise.

The first step in all this is often to spend time noticing when anxiety is there – often our body is feeling anxious before we know it intellectually. When you know you are anxious, it can be useful to spend time getting to know where it is “sitting” in your physical being. Is it a tension in your shoulders? Or a cramping in your stomach? Your leg jiggling up and down? A clenched jaw? Notice any physical sensation with a gentle naming: “Oh, leg, I see you are jiggling,” for example. This information from your body is trustworthy – and noticing and naming is the first step in being able to create more breathing room.

As time goes on, you might notice the jiggling leg or clenched jaw and then wonder to yourself, “Does this mean I feel anxious?” Knowing how you feel can help you choose to activate support or other tools instead of unconscious reactivity.

Or, as often happens, you may find yourself in the unconscious reactivity, and you could picture your anxiety having been pinned on the donkey (meaning the “storyline” is off and running) and just name that. Once you name it, see if you can take a deep breath in and an even longer breath out, note the donkey and maybe you will remember you have room to breathe/get support/take care of yourself.

In all of this, please do not worry about getting it “right!” Conditions will arise that will give you plenty of opportunity to practice! Eventually, you may notice that the donkey has less pins and more smiles!