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It’s no surprise we fail to tune into our children’s essence. How can we listen to them, when so many of us barely listen to ourselves? How can we feel their spirit and hear the beat of their heart if we can’t do this in our own life? When we as parents have lost our inner compass, is it any wonder so many children grow up directionless, disconnected, and discouraged? By losing contact with our inner world, we cripple our ability to parent from our essential being in the way conscious parenting requires…

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When we deny our children’s ordinariness, we teach them to be enthralled only by exaggerations of life. They come to believe that only the grand and the fabulous are to be noticed and applauded, and hence constantly pursue “bigger” and “better.”

In contrast, when our children learn to value the ordinary, they learn to inhabit life itself. They appreciate their body, their mind, the pleasure of sharing a smile, and the privilege of relating to others. It all starts with what we as parents teach them to appreciate.

- From: The Conscious Parent, Shefali Tsabary

“Conflict and tension are as much a part of the human condition as interdependence is. There are times we have to have conflict, and tension has to exist to bring something else into being. But they have to coexist with a deep sense of connection and shared destiny.” -Ai-jen Poo

I’ve been reading Dr. Laura Markham’s Aha! Parenting updates. She signs off each of her columns with “choose love.” I of course want to choose love. And, I’ve been reconciling what has felt like a dichotomy between the traditional expressions of loving-kindness and anger as a parent. You see, the truth is: I get angry with my son. Some of his antics infuriate me. I’ve been practicing with how I respond, meandering clumsily on a journey towards integration. I’m riding along that border of choosing love and I want to know: what place does anger take? How can I express the energy of anger from a place of union, connection and integration?

The Hindu goddess Kali comes to mind. She is the fierce consort to Shiva (upon whose body she often stands). She is black in honor of being the first creation before light. She is often said to be “beyond time.” She often has blood dripping from her mouth and wields a sword for lopping off heads. Her fierce, forceful energy isn’t relegated to shadows. Instead, she points to the dynamic aspect of creation: the consort to “being-bliss-consciousness.” For me, she points towards a creative integration of seemingly conflicting energies. She is a protector. She can still be fierce. If something needs destroying, or if a boundary needs to be set, she’ll likely wield her sword while dancing.

I too do a daily dance with my son. My anger with him is rooted in the energy required to set boundaries. Sometimes, when I look carefully, there is a deep sadness beneath it. There is also sometimes a texture of indignation: the interpretation of my son’s actions as a personal affront. How can he be doing these things? Why does he keep pushing boundaries? How can he keep hurting his brother? There is also confusion. How should I respond? What does he need? How on earth can I keep ‘choosing love,’ even when I’m being kicked, scratched or spit on?

One thing I’ve landed upon is that choosing love doesn’t mean rejecting anger and all the accompanying subterranean emotions. Choosing love does mean prioritizing equanimity as often as possible and holding a space for all emotions arising. Choosing love also means staying intimate. It means staying connected, even when setting a fierce boundary. Choosing love does not mean altogether rejecting forceful energy (although beware: force is too often misplaced and misused).  As the images of Kali conjures, dynamism is an appropriate response to certain tensions. The key is to be in a dance of integration of opposing energies – the primordial dance of creation and destruction. This is the ultimate ground of union. (Which is likely why some  gravitate towards fighting in order to be “close”).

When I pay attention with the above insights in mind, the dance with my son reveals a different narrative. Through his constant testing of boundaries I hear him asking for reassurance. Will you love me even when I am anxious and confused? Will you join with me even in these sticky places? Will you stay with me even when I push you away? Do you still love me even when I am a horror to myself? The answer must be yes – even when coupled necessarily with the energy of a forceful self-protection or protection of my other children. (By this I mean a firm holding back of kicks or hits, or firm words of redirection). Some things do require the energy of destruction. We can always begin with a peaceful and patient joining, rooted in our equanimity – as well as be prepared to dance into the more tricky realm of fierceness – holding the proverbial sword that slices though ignorance: not to harm, but to stop the rise of nonsense and needless suffering.

The “low road” of parenthood shows up when we succumb to isolation and punishment. It is when the path of union has been lost (even momentarily). “You don’t love me!” my son says at times. I realize in these moments he points me to the places in my heart that have yet to relax into my infinite capacity to love. He shines light on the places within me not yet residing in ultimate union and intimacy with everything that is arising (particularly the messy, miserable, frustrating moments of parenting). I believe he will mirror this place to me again and again until I meet him from a place of no-separation, from a place of ultimate and unconditional acceptance, free of conditions.

And so, I dance my way into expressing the energy of anger from a place of union and integration. The only “space” taken must still be together in spirit – where time slows and response can be masterful. The only pain results from how close we want to be but haven’t yet grown into yet. As Ai-jen Poo says, “There are times we have to have conflict, and tension has to exist to bring something else into being. But they have to coexist with a deep sense of connection and shared destiny.” Aha! Indeed.

“Originally there were conceptual ideas and then they were cut through altogether so that you no longer regarded light and dark as light and dark. It becomes the non-dualistic state. Then negativity simply becomes food, pure strength. You no longer relate to negativity as being good or bad, but you continually use the energy which comes out of it as a source of life so that you are never really defeated in a situation. Crazy wisdom cannot be defeated. If someone attacks or someone praises, crazy wisdom will feed on either equally.”

-Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Myth of Freedom

My oldest son is teaching me about working with ‘negativity.’ He’s also teaching me about my own expression of anger in response. We often talk about how in our family “our love includes everything,” even the frustration and mutual mistakes. And, “mistakes” have been abounding. The stress of multiple transitions has affected each of us and wires are frayed all around. My son pushes the boundaries of my capacity to “positively parent” with patience and the face of love which feels most comfortable. I keep hearing the voice of my yoga teacher: “Real Hatha Yoga begins at the point of failure.” A mother recently said to me after she’d been yelling at her daughter: “Motherhood is a humbling series of failures.” I concur.

The question for me becomes: What do you do when you are standing at this humbling doorway of failure and mistake? How do you dance with negativity?

Chogyam Trungpa has an answer for me. “You must not make an impulsive move into any situation. Let the situation come, then look at it, chew it properly, digest it, sit on it….Frivolousness means reacting according to reflex. You throw something and when it bounces back you react. Spontaneity is when you throw something and watch it and work with the energy when it bounces back at you. Once you are emotionally worked up, then too much anxiety is put into your action. But when you are spontaneous, there is less anxiety and you just deal with situations as they are. You do not simply react, but you work with the quality and structure of the reaction. You feel the texture of the situation rather than just acting impulsively.”

Let’s break down what this looks like. My son throws his toothbrush. He does it again. He then pushes his brother. He now throws the toothpaste along with the toothbrush. (Mix in a bit of yelling and writhing on the floor even though we are 10 minutes late for school). “Are you trying to make me mad?” “Yes, mama.” And then, I do get mad, toss the equanimity out the door and resort to acting like a four-year old myself, raised voice, slammed door and all. Note: This IS reacting according to an agitated reflex. Note: This is NOT reacting with spontaneity. Note: This IS impulsive and I AM emotionally worked up. Note: Anxiety has definitely entered the picture. Note: Something along these lines happens daily right now. As parents, what do we do when we are consistently pushed to the edge of what feels tolerable in terms of ‘negative’ behavior? How to work with it? What to do? Where is my love when I fly off the handle? What do you do when it just feels like a continual, grueling mess?

Then, I remember what Dogen Zenji says: “Enlightenment is intimacy with everything.” I can hold all of this: the letting myself and my family down, the experience of failing, the loss of control, the dualistic mind that self-judges, the wrestling with shadows, the impatient mother in me who doesn’t want to deal with four-year old antics. And, as Trungpa points to: I can practice an integration of “negatives.” I don’t have to fall into labeling anything (including my own actions) as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Rather, this whole process of working with ‘negativity’ can be used as food for my dance in life, energy for my continued unfolding and relationship with what is. As in some Tibetan Buddhist images, I can use the ‘negativities’ – the painted demons or a crown of skulls – as ornaments of my own existence of grappling. I can remember that all feelings are allowed, and all actions can be danced with. I can remember to still set limits, while welcoming the full spectrum of emotions (including my own). Most importantly, I can stay close and connected with my child when ‘negative’ behavior is flourishing. I can do this because I have done the work of staying intimate with my own negativities. Not avoiding. Not ignoring. Not glossing over. Not pushing away. I can be angry, too. And still, I can work to restore calm, not from a place of this being ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ but from a place of spontaneous dance through whatever is being tossed at me in these crazy moments of parenting young kids.

Sense of Place

“I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one…” – Scott Russel Sanders

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The Goat Farm

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The Source

IMG_1804IMG_1806IMG_1822IMG_1820IMG_1809Photos taken at the source of the Hot Springs near the Big Horn and Owl Creek Mountains in Thermopolis, Wyoming. The Springs have been active for some 70 million years. It was where my mother, baby and I landed for a few days of much needed quiet rest and nourishment right after Mother’s Day. It was where I reminded myself  of my own sources of wellspring and well-being: rest, a bit of solitude, a step back from routine and  habit, quiet time in the outdoors, and a moment to relish the Earth’s beauty and generosity…

For those of you who know me, you can attest that I am not a drama queen: which is why when I thought I was actually dying  a few weeks ago you know that it must have been serious. The past several months have had me dabbling in a complete physical breakdown, immune system and adrenal fatigue, and nervous system burnout. There was the cough, the flu, the stomach bug, the sinus infection, the strep throat, the month of antibiotics. Then there was the 4am wake up with rib pain and shortness of breath. Was this just a nervous breakdown or was motherhood actually killing me, I wondered (literally)? It turns out the rib pain was either stress induced (acupuncturist’s conjecture), or a pulled muscle (doctor’s conjecture). Whatever the cause, the culmination of so many repeated illnesses and physical rarities has shown me the absolute limits of my strength. A trip to the doctor was like a visit with a prophet. “No – I’m not worried at all,” she said, even after I listed the above maladies and she checked my ribs. “I see this type of immune system lapse and extreme stress all the time with mothers of three or more children…Some years are just harder than others.”

What!? This is “normal?” Apparently so, at least here in America. I pondered over and over again how I got to this place of ultimate burnout. I took it upon myself to conduct experiments about whether the 24 hour needs cycle of young children was really true. In 10 minute blocks I began tracking needs, requests and necessary interventions (i.e. for safety). The exercise helped to infuse some humor into the situation and indeed confirmed that burnout is perhaps a predictable response when you are responding on average to 5-9 needs and interventions in any 10 minute period. There is the crying for milk. There are the poopy diapers to be changed. “More nuts!” “Water!” “Help!” Then a head bonk with tears, then the toy yanked from a hand by older sibling, then a smack on the head from the toddler to said older sibling. Today I tracked four needs in less than a minute. It is usually about water, food, sleep, poop, pee, help up or down, comforting a fall or mitigating a conflict. And, it’s all day long.

So yes, some years are harder than others. And yes, this period of motherhood is showing me the limits of my strength. But what to do in the meantime? Beyond rounds of antibiotics, doctor visits and trips to the acupuncturist, how to cope? How to function and do what needs to be done without getting sick every other week? How to enjoy my life again? I’ve looked outwards to what supports I can put in place, but I’ve also recalled the importance of looking internally. Most importantly, I’ve remembered the essentials of practice. Here are a few insights that have emerged over the past few months as I’ve reckoned with my limitations.

First, slow down the whole orientation. This is primarily an internal gesture and requires taking my time responding to everything. I’ve been practicing using less energy talking and moving in general. The degree of exhaustion I’ve encountered has actually been a gift in that each time I’ve been in process of recovering, I’ve been able to assess what personal habits contribute to wearing down my reserves. We as women reach our limits at different times in our lives. I’m learning for the first time what its like to live from a place of depletion, and how unsustainable it is. Slowing down our orientation helps shed light on what we can do with more ease. Where are we unnecessarily depleting our reserves? How can we move and speak in ways that reflect parenting from a calm, resourced center? For example, raising my voice depletes me (and actually when I slow down enough to pay attention to the subtlety of my experience, raising my voice actually hurts). So I’m making it a practice to find a quieter and slower way to parent.

Second, make nourishment a practice. This means drinking enough water, eating good foods, getting enough sleep. For me, it also means lighting a candle nightly, becoming best friends with a heating pad, and making time for yoga and walking. The key here is making time. We can make time for what is important – and as cliche as it sounds, self-care has to be up there. Since the moments of extended self-care and nourishment are scant with a newborn (and during other phases of parenthood at times!), the practice becomes the smaller gestures of nourishment. Relish drinking water. Make sure to drink enough of it. Relish the 2 minutes of lying down. Take time washing your face. Eat slowly…

Third, relinquish desires for anything beyond what is arising in the present moment. I’ve noticed that my suffering is greater when I’m pining for something other that what is. Since I’ve been so short on restfulness, I’ve been grasping for early bedtimes and longer naps. Rather than settling into the work and joys of the days, I’ve been reaching for what lies beyond the moments of parenthood when I can “finally get some peace of mind and time to myself.” Warning: this is a trap! In fact, this habit of assuming something more restful and desirable lies on the other side of the present moment is in fact what slowing erodes us. Instead, in order to be more present and fully surrendered into any given moment I have been practicing relinquishing all desires and ambitions for anything beyond what is arising. This means my personal agenda of what I’d love to do when the kids are sleeping has to be set aside. If I cling too tightly to the hope that I’ll get a moment to read, write, call a friend, finish any of the projects I’ve started, have time for “me” in general, I’m trapping myself into a passing of time that isn’t rooted in the present; I’m succumbing to grasping. So I notice that and come back again and again to just giving myself to the present moment. It doesn’t mean my desires for self care are invalidated. It doesn’t mean that my “ambitions ” to accomplish anything else beyond parenting are forgotten or made subordinate. It means that instead of holding on too tightly to a hope that I’ll get to do any of these things, I can instead just be open to what is constantly arising with my children and let that be enough. When another moment presents itself where my needs and desires can be tended to, I can embrace that too with a non-discriminatory acceptance. If we get stuck in thinking some ways of passing time are “better” or more desirable, this can yank us from settling into what is in front of us. So, I let my personal preferences be true and I absolutely do not forget what fills my cup of inspiration and nourishment – and I hold these preferences and desires in a way that doesn’t interfere with a full giving over of myself to the present moment with my children, with love. If I’m living with a “if only…then…” I suffer. I can’t settle in. And this subtle pattern fosters a restlessness that only serves to further wear me down.

Finally, don’t over-identify with any given emotion or feeling. Yes, some days, weeks, and years are harder than others. I keep remembering gratitude for past spiritual practice and teaching that sustains me always, but particularly during challenging times. Instead of becoming fully identified with any emotion related to challenge or difficulty, I find that resting in a loci of observer or witness reminds me that my Self is greater than any current emotion or experience. The practice of simply observing my breath and observing my thoughts and emotions serves to keep my perspective broad and rooted in possibility and freshness. Depression, sickness, stress, frustration, anxiety, and fear can all can be observed like the passing of slow clouds overhead. We don’t have to become only sick or tired or stressed. We can practice feeling and being these things in their truth – but also witnessing their sway from a part of ourselves that is beyond and before all of the drama of life.

In these hard days this is where I rest: slowly witnessing, still loving, remembering that this too shall pass – but not wishing for it to pass. Instead, this is the present moment life that merits full embrace…

 

How to raise my children? It is an ongoing exploration, particularly how to raise them in the context of a religious tradition or spiritual practice. For now, it is a mystery that comes up blank, an ongoing conversation over the span of many years with my husband. And still, I want to bless my children in more formal, ceremonial ways. I want to find root in ancient traditions. I want to reconnect with the ancient Greek roots of ‘baptizein:’ to immerse, to ceremonially wash.

So: this week, my father (who is a Lutheran pastor) and I are planning a baptism ceremony for my two youngest boys (my oldest had a similar ceremony a few years back). It will not be a traditional Lutheran baptism, but a home-grown baptism rooted in showering blessings of welcome and love. There will be moments of traditional liturgy and there will also be a reading from the great Christian mystic Theresa of Avila. There will be the sharing of blessings that we invoke for them as we dab water on their sweet, small bodies: May your senses be receptive to the beauty of the world. May your eyes be soft and full of love. May your heart be open and compassionate. May your hands be gentle instruments of healing. May your feet walk lightly on this Earth. May your soul embody the highest potential of the sacred masculine and feminine…

And, there will be a moment of sending forth. What do I want my boys to remember? What do I want these blessings to remind them of? What do I want this ceremonial wash to impress upon them? Yes, Love. Yes, Grace. Yes, God as Divine Presence. Yes, Mystery. Yes, relief from the deeper meaning of ‘sin’ – which is actually separation from God. Yes to remembering our interconnectedness! Yes to no separation! Yes, welcome! And still, there is also a seed of responsibility I want to plant. A charge to remember our divine origins…

We’ll read Joy Harjo’s poem, Charge to the Child. I re-encountered it tonight and was myself reminded of all that I wish to remember in this lifetime. Like a splash of water across a tired face, we can be re-awakened through ritual – and the careful words inscribed throughout time that serve as sacred signposts on life’s journey…

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Remember the sky that you were born under,
Know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn that is the
Strongest point of time. Remember sundown
And the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
To give you form and breath. You are evidence of
Her life, and her mother’s and her’s.
Remember your father. He is your life also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
Red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
Brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
Tribes, their families, their histories too. Talk to them,
Listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice.
She knows the origin of this universe.
And that this universe is you.
Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember that language comes from this. Remember the dance
That language is, that life is.
Remember…

-Joy Harjo

Spring’s New Life…

IMG_1751IMG_1756One of the three new colts that I pass daily when I go into town…Just like my new babe, this one naps several times a day – with his mama relaxedly standing guard next to him (usually snacking on grass)…

“The Women’s Health Initiative found that more than 34% of women in the U.S. with a uterus had significant cystocele (bladder prolapse). The figure of 50% of all women who have given birth (experiencing some form of prolapse) is published widely in gynecologic literature. These statistics show that prolapse occurs far more often than any other women’s health disorder.” – Christine Kent

Let’s put it right out there: I have a postpartum bladder prolapse. Three vaginal births and a 14 inch head coming down the birth canal last month did the trick. A month-long chronic cough also helped pave the way back in January. Don’t get me wrong: Life is good, nonetheless. I’m one of the lucky women with no symptoms and a positive prognosis for healing. And, there have been challenges. The chronic, debilitating cough. The whole family sick again right after birth (including my four-day old newborn). Then there was the stomach bug (mine) in postpartum week three. Then there was another cold this past week (week four). Oh, and of course there was the high blood pressure news delivered up by my midwife alongside the newly acquired retroverted (tipped) uterus revelation. (Perhaps that is why those afterbirth pains were so excruciating?) Oh, and yes, the bladder prolapse. Did I mention the bladder prolapse?

Wow. Did you say prolapse? Yes: “a slipping forward or down of one of the parts or organs of the body.” (Although it actually isn’t a falling forward but rather a falling backwards). WHAT? There was dismay. Confusion. Distress. Even despair. I cried. Was my body failing me? There was worry. My husband tried to reassure me (based on the midwives’ assessment) that prolapse after a third birth is ‘normal.’ (But really, death and disease are ‘normal’ too and that doesn’t make it any easier, right?). Luckily, my midwife handed up sound advice: “Worrying is the worst thing you can do. You are sending negative energy to the very part of the body you are trying to heal.”

But wait: Why hadn’t I heard of this? Why was nobody talking about this? I vaguely recall hearing of prolapse occurring in older women. But 50% of all postpartum women? Me? According to the NAFC, one in five women will go through prolapse surgery in her lifetime. One in five?! NAFC also estimates that the number of women undergoing surgery to treat pelvic organ prolapse will increase by 48 percent between 2010 and 2050. Furthermore, 27 percent will have repeat surgery. And so it appears I’ve stumbled upon a quintessential women’s issue. A motherhood issue.

The emotions accompanying the reality of this experience swing all over the map. Two things I know as a constant truth: This is hard. And, this merits practice. This is about my body, our bodies. This is about shedding light on what wants to remain in the dark: personally and culturally. This is the very literal expression of depth, right here in the organs at the base of the body. First, there is the uncomfortable process of acceptance. Then, there is the confusion about what to do. There is the conflicting information. The surprising revelations. “Kegels are the only thing that will make it better,” my midwife says. But wait! The kegel actually might not work? In fact, it can make prolapse worse? But wait! What do you mean the field of gynaecology is based on a faulty 500-year-old understanding of female anatomy? Wait! Squatting regularly like our ancestors did helps? Oh, and carrying heavy loads on our heads like indigenous women serves the feminine lumbar spinal curve which keeps organs in their proper place? Oh, sitting on couches can make our pelvic muscles weak?

After several weeks of mulling, inner work, research and a trip to a physical therapist, I come away with several insights that I hope will serve the women and mothers reading:

1. Knowing our own bodies is essential. This shift in my body has elucidated how little I really know, and how much I take for granted. Each woman’s body is different. We need to find out for ourselves what is true of our own experiences. Believing everything we are told about our bodies doesn’t always serve us. Cultural patterns of disconnection and dissociation from the base of our bodies fuels bodily complications.

2. It is important to tend to the deeper emotions embedded in bodily experience. Our bodies are home to long-held psycho-emotional patterns and habits, either our own or inherited genetically. Birth too comes with its own imprints and associated bodily ‘traumas,’ even for peaceful, non-complicated births. Prolapse has pointed me to the ways in which my own body has been adversely affected as a result of my three births: pelvic bones out of alignment, tailbone tipped to the side, tissues rubbery from stress…

3. Self-reliance and trying to “hold it all together” is a bust. Tucking the tailbone, sucking in the stomach muscles, overly contracting the pelvic floor and trying to “hold it all together” doesn’t work. One vein of research addressing prolapse points me to the practice of softening the belly, deepening the breath, loosening the tailbone, and reconnecting with the natural feminine curve of the lumbar spine. Apparently the force of our deep breath coupled with good posture serves to maintain the proper position of our organs. As Christine Kent says, “Part of the graceful curvature that makes us women is the pronounced curvature of our lumbar or lower back spine. It is this curvature that allows our organs to stay to the front.” Instead of trying to “pull in,” stay “strong,” or “hold it together,” we can instead let the belly relax (postpartum pooch and all), be okay with ‘softness,’ and let go of trying to overly control situations in our lives. We can practice a relaxed trust in the female body’s natural alignment, even when that alignment is out of balance and things are asunder.

4. “Letting go” is key. My physical therapist tells me to ditch the kegels. “You don’t need more strength here. If you contract the pelvic floor muscles too much you will shorten them and eventually weaken them.” And – you guessed it: this can tip our organs out of place. “What you need is release.” We need to remember lengthening, letting go, releasing and relaxing, just as much as we are told to practice the contracting strengthening exercises. (Of course!) Kara sums it up well: “It’s easy to see how we heard Dr. Kegel telling us to squeeze, but we ignored that bit about releasing…who among us has an easy time “letting go?” That, right there, is what childbirth is all about: letting our body open up and let go. Open up and let go? Huh, what? No, letting go just doesn’t come naturally to us in our society. We can clench and squeeze and get nice and tightly wound, but ask us to let go?…The exercise of letting go is always a good one to practice in any aspect of life.” 

The experience has ultimately led me to ask essential questions about my body and my broader existence. What is true of my own body and experience? What habits need tending so that I can be healthy into my later years? What do I need? Where do I need more support? Where do I need more strength? What is out of alignment? Where do I need to let go?

Once again, motherhood and birth deliver life-altering challenges that ultimately move me to new perspectives and make it impossible to ignore or dismiss the deeper layers of my human condition.

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