When Greeting the Limits of Strength

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…

 

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Despair v. Intimacy With Reality

Some context: I’ve been searching for a new childcare provider for over seven weeks. During my last interview I told the woman (who I’ve since hired thankfully!) that the whole experience has been so uncannily difficult that I can’t help but believe in a greater force at work trying to teach me something. Again and again the women I’d lined up to interview didn’t show up nor did they call (I have had at least 4-5 ‘no shows’). Another called in sick 15 minutes before her interview. I offered the job to another who then promptly changed her mind the night before she was slated to start. Another woman didn’t speak English and asked me to chart out her bus route to my home for her interview. And yet another woman applied from Turkey (!?) and said she wanted the job so she could learn English. It had become a comedy of errors. Meanwhile, I desperately needed to find innovative solutions so I could get my job done. I maintained staff meetings while pushing a stroller. I worked while Braeden slept. I cracked open the laptop at 9pm. It has been *ridiculous.*

The overarching theme in my experience since the turn of the seasons: exhaustion and the feeling of an absence of adequate support to relax into. It isn’t that help isn’t offered (because it is – thank you, friends!) It is simply that I am seven months pregnant and my body is tired and my nervous system is frayed. No help seems enough. Again and again I greet my wall of challenge that has become a familiar friend since becoming a Mother. This time the situation is amplified by my trying to patch together child care amidst failed attempt followed by failed attempt. Some of it bad luck. Some of it perhaps divine intervention.

This particular period has given me the gifts of illness, injury and this strange karma with not being able to find adequate childcare help on top of the baseline of daily responsibilities.  Parenthood has gifted me with feeling my own profound confrontation with the limits of what I can often bear. It isn’t enough for me to just “survive” – and that is what many of my days have felt like as I’ve settled into balancing work, motherhood, laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning and generally maintaining Home and Family (amidst near constant bantering and rough-housing amongst brothers in the foreground). The responsibilities of being a householder and parent seem to augment as the months go by. There are food allergies to tend to. Emotional outbursts to sit with. Complex feelings and questions to tend to. Meanwhile, the laundry pile becomes the size of Kilamanjaro and dinner needs to be cooked… Then I ushered in a shaky, queasy stomach virus and a showering of vomit. It was a perfect expression of how I’ve been feeling. Nothing to relax into. No rest to be found. Behind in everything. And yet, I write knowing too that none of this is a problem. None of this is “bad.” I’ve little to complain about AND something about vomiting for the 20th time allows me the privilege of being pushed into a realm of choice: Despair (and the accompanying loneliness of that experience) OR Intimacy with Reality, Intimacy with What Is.

Which brings me to the essential question: What is there to relax into when support and safety nets feel frayed along with your own inner and outer resources? The answer: Reality.

Let me explain. The experience of loneliness/aloneness/lack of support/depletion while parenting presents two options.

1. Despair, depression and an exhaustion that annihilates, even pulverizes the capacity for joy and appreciation. Along with this experience comes the specter of moving functionally through life without joy and vitality.

OR

2. A pressing of oneself lovingly into deeper, more heartfelt relationship with Reality (or God/the Divine).

And this revelation is exactly what my recent life circumstance has pushed me to realize. What is there to relax into when all systems are bust? For me it is what I am pressed into  – forced into – when other mechanisms of support are thinned (including my own inner resources). It’s the reminder of the moment of imminent death – where the journey into that new form is mine alone. It’s a reconnection with my capacity to be in love with anything that is arising, and a reminder to stop looking for something “other” – particularly in the form of “help.”

Yes, there is the practical domain of needing help in order to work (not to mention cook, clean, take out the recycling and get some self-care in!). But regardless of “practical” or “external” factors at work, there is the underlying basic relationship with and in Reality/Being Alive: and that is what can truly sustain us. Those exuding the greatest sense of peace are ones rooted in an experience of communion with that which is beyond Self and Ego – an experience of divine submission to a Mystery called by many names. So it is here that I am driven by an essential force in my times of fraying sanity and when I feel alone in my role as a Mother – where body and soul are, yes, depleted, and still: the aches of parenting and all the associated work and emotions aren’t the absolute Truth. They are real and I feel the ache, yet each time I greet these hard places I dip in and out of the choice to become greater bound to Reality and Life as it is, with Love – or not, and suffer as a result.

The key is to move through the pendulum of these spheres with an awareness that the backdrop, foreground, interior and exterior are inextricably woven into the fabric of Reality (or God/the Divine). Despair, depression and annihilating exhaustion can be true – as is the specter of moving functionally through life without joy. If not awake to our experience, we can all of a sudden fall prey to a tendency of habit which marries us to misery and drudgery. Our own storylines can be interpreted as a truth which prevents seeing beyond our limited egoic experience. But, with careful attention we can peel away the layers of loneliness, despair or exhaustion that prevent joyful seeing and press ourselves lovingly into a deeper, more heartfelt relationship with Reality. This is the ultimate gesture of relaxation and surrender. And the beauty of it is that there is nowhere to go, nothing to attain – only Reality itself to greet as if settling into the presence of an old, supportive friend.

 

A Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto

 “Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting.” – Brene Brown

It isn’t often I am struck by parenting ‘advice.’ My husband sent the below parenting manifesto along today as we grapple with how to parent our children in ways that foster being real as well as being kind. Rather than only nagging our children with the edict “that’s not nice” we’ve been reflecting about the importance of honoring feelings of anger and jealousy that may live beneath the unkind actions or words. We’ve been reckoning with anger ourselves. One morning when my fuse snapped and I yelled that I was feeling angry at my son, I was being hard on myself and feeling like I was not parenting well because I hadn’t responded with patience and kindness as my primary operating principles. It was a moment when Rowan had pushed my patience to the edge and I felt he’d gone too far. I expected my husband, who witnessed my outburst of anger, to agree that I had let Rowan down, that I had not acted mindfully. He instead said, “at least our son sees that it is okay to feel angry. At least he sees what is real for you. He knows the very real effect of his actions. You didn’t sugar coat anything. You were authentic with your feelings. You showed him too that moms also need space and a break.” (After my blow up I promptly said “Mama needs a break” and went into the bathroom and locked the door).

More than anything the incident reminded me that I’m not perfect, but that “perfect” is also not perfect. Nothing is perfect. Perhaps a more useful way to look at any difficult situation with my family is whether I acted authentically. This doesn’t mean letting myself throw tantrums just because I feel like it, but it does mean owning my anger, exhaustion and intense frustration when it arises. It means not turning away or glossing over the complex emotions that surface in any given day raising two young boys. It means modeling accountability by acknowledging what I could have done differently and apologizing if feelings were hurt. It means being present to what is – and truly seeing myself as well as my family through the eyes of authenticity, returning to appreciation and gratitude as soon as I am able. As Brene Brown says below in her Parenting Manifesto, “I will not teach or love or show you anything perfectly, but I will let you see me, and I will always hold sacred the gift of seeing you…”

——————-

The Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto

Above all else, I want you to know that you are loved and lovable. You will learn this from my words and actions–the lessons on love are in how I treat you and how I treat myself.

I want you to engage with the world from a place of worthiness. You will learn that you are worthy of love, belonging, and joy every time you see me practice self-compassion and embrace my own imperfections.

We will practice courage in our family by showing up, letting ourselves be seen, and honoring vulnerability. We will share our stories of struggle and strength. There will always be room in our home for both.

We will teach you compassion by practicing compassion with ourselves first; then with each other. We will set and respect boundaries; we will honor hard work, hope, and perseverance. Rest and play will be family values, as well as family practices.

You will learn accountability and respect by watching me make mistakes and make amends, and by watching how I ask for what I need and talk about how I feel.

I want you to know joy, so together we will practice gratitude.

I want you to feel joy, so together we will learn how to be vulnerable.

When uncertainty and scarcity visit, you will be able to draw from the spirit that is a part of our everyday life.

Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.

We will laugh and sing and dance and create. We will always have permission to be ourselves with each other. No matter what, you will always belong here.

As you begin your Wholehearted journey, the greatest gift that I can give to you is to live and love with my whole heart and to dare greatly.

I will not teach or love or show you anything perfectly, but I will let you see me, and I will always hold sacred the gift of seeing you. Truly, deeply, seeing you.

– Brene Brown

Joyfully Surrendering to the Mess

Thanks Leigh for offering up Adi Da’s profound insight below in response to my post on the difficulties of adjusting to a family of four.  Yes: there are times to let go of all programs, “solutions,” life rafts, methodologies, philosophies and “answers.” Beneath the ceaseless attempts at “right action,” I can witness and participate in life’s unfolding with a loosening of my grip on any agenda towards particular outcomes. A striving towards and desire for ‘gentleness’ or familial harmony may serve life in some way, but it ultimately doesn’t reflect the raw truth of life’s underlying messiness. And, striving for and desiring anything other than what IS is exhausting, and counter to a deeper calling to simply love what is arising wholeheartedly in every moment.

It is like frying oneself in a frying pan: the quest for ‘perfection,’ the attempts at avoiding messes and mistakes, the labeling of love as one thing and not another. “AH! OUCH! WAIT, THIS SUCKS!” is the mantra that surfaces. What entraps many of us in suffering is a belief that there is a more ‘perfect’ way to be. Until: the reminder that what serves life at the deepest core is love, and who am I to judge what that ultimately looks like? The mystery of a life’s unfolding is far beyond the unraveling of a given ‘difficult’ day in my household. There are lifetimes of karma being wound and unwound…There are eons of contractions and expansions to be lived. Just like the cosmos pulsing its ebbs and flows, we too dance this dance of contraction and release. And what can we do in the midst? Surrender to processes greater than ourselves.  Let go into the pulsing movement of life, and surrender with a joyful disposition – just like the dive into the mud…

——-

“You are disturbed, you are uptight, you are not surrendered bodily, and you are working on internal programs for ultimate surrender. The truth is that you are simply afraid, not surrendered. Those programs are what you do when you do not surrender emotionally, when you cannot see that you are simply contracting and cannot release the contraction and allow whatever is happening to happen. You must trust the process of your own life, whether it is to go mad, to become ill, to work, to succeed, or to die. Be free of fear…Trust the Divine altogether. Give yourself up emotionally to God. Practice complete devotion and absolute surrender. Do not just tread the path of gradual attainment in your emotional and ceremonial approaches to God. Give yourself up completely in this moment. Give up everything at every depth and in every area of your life. Allow life to be the theatre of God, in which what seems to be appropriate and necessary in your case will be accomplished spontaneously. Allow all of life to be God’s business. Whatever arises, high or low, such a life will be simply surrendering to the point of happiness, giving up to God completely…You need not know anything. You need not become convinced of anything except that you are suffering a contracted state of existence. Feel the force of that contraction, its emotional force, its physical force. Feel the quality of contraction and realize it is your own action. Realize you can exist in a totally different condition merely by recognizing your own separative activity and transcending it in each moment. Just surrender emotionally and completely.” 

– Adi Da

A Whole New Normal & the Wonder of Mid-Life…

Being as I am, I’m always alert for lessons and opportunities for growth. Being an optimist, I’m generally looking to the bright side. Nonetheless, recently I’ve come to wonder “maybe this is just hard and there’s nothing else to face…” Maybe this period of life is just that: challenging. Maybe the search for the abundance herein is a varied form of self-deception or denial of a truth about my current adaptation. Then I snap out of it and something akin to “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” surfaces. It is as it is – and we imprint our own stamp of reality into it. I can live a “this sucks” mantra or I can live a mantra of “Wow!” What an eye-opening medley of aches, pains and wonder!” Quite often I vacillate – although recently I’ve settled into a graceful acceptance of being sick and run down, with a taxed nervous system and beleaguered sense of energy. Vitality is at a low point – and this simply requires greater measures of self-care and mindfulness.

I often feel my motherhood journey is akin to a marathon. The endurance test feels never-ending. Just when I think I’ve crossed a hurdle, mastered a lesson, or entered the realm of sleeping through the night again, I’m thrown a curve ball and instead of catching it head on, I find I’m ducking with an internal dialogue of “no…really…this can’t be happening again!” Into my 6th month of pregnancy, I keep getting sick. Over and over again. Literally. One illness falls, another rises. Just like the passing of empires, so it is with my immune system. There is no supreme ruler, no greater order. All systems in chaos and collapse, I try to regain my footing and health only to find another invader in my midst. My husband and I have taken to laughing as we imitate being stuck in a boxing ring with punches thrown. “Wait! Is this really my third respiratory illness this month? No, it’s the 4th! Wait! I’m finally better! Oh no – is that a stomach bug coming on?” Like a comedy of errors we fling through our days, pans clanking, dishwasher running, laundry becoming a mountain that Rowan likes to practice summiting (then destroying), we accept our lot and marvel it takes sometimes hours to help our toddler slow down for the night… The amazing thing is to find that I’m even too tired to reach a breaking point. Coughing up a lung, I somehow manage weaning my son this past month (in all its painful and emotional complexities). Limping down the stairs (the pregnancy back and body pain has set in) and carrying a stroller, I somehow manage to catch my son while he is falling head first. The full grocery cart careening towards the car and off the curb, I somehow catch it before it both crashes as well as sends food flying. These are truly small wonders. I’ve taken to marveling that any parent can somehow hobble through a day with any degree of sanity, patience and grace with a 2-year-old who never stops moving! The other balls to juggle don’t stop flying at us, and meanwhile we have to be sure our children aren’t going to run into the street or fling all boxes of cereal bars off the shelf!

It’s not that I don’t see all this in context. How utterly easy my life is compared to the woman with seven children in the Congo, pregnant and carrying 50 pounds of water on her head for a 3 mile walk from a clean water source (not to mention civil war looming). How absolutely marvelous it is to be pregnant while taking care of a toddler! How easy it is to get in a car and drive to a grocery store or turn on the faucet or load the washer/dryer. When caring for another human being, life simply becomes a more defined melange of pleasure and pain, joys and hardships, the peaks and valleys of a day so unpredictable that I am forever alert, awake and on my toes.

And what of all this? We choose (most of us) to parent – so why all the fanfare per the usual travails? In my family its become a crux point for identifying the abundance in a time where it’s too easy to fall into scarcity mentality. “We’re so tired! There’s never enough resting time!…There isn’t enough time!…We’re getting old!…Why are we so sick all the time?…What? Another day with three hours gone by trying to facilitate sleep?…We need to go grocery shopping! There’s no food in the house!…Wait! We have no money either??…and forget about exercise!!” In a (rare) quiet moment of reflection a few weeks ago, Chris and I shed light on how utterly absurd we are, and what a danger it is that all of a sudden 10 years can pass in mid-life and you’ve missed soaking in the treasures of this phase of life. We can root ourselves in scarcity mentality and let this be our compass (which only bogs us down into a further degree of sludge), or, we can do that proverbial “counting of blessings” and look around with fresh eyes. We can keep our days in context relative to the whole (*and remember those with far greater challenges than we’ll ever know). We have it so deliciously good! A son who doesn’t like sleep is also a son with an unprecedented passion for being awake (smile). There is plenty of time for what is important. Time just IS. Its how we live it that is essential; Needs are met. Health may or may not return right now, but that is simply the order of things. We live. We die. Some of us choose a path of parenthood and throw ourselves into residual chaos for a period of time while we try to usher forth decent human beings in a cultural context where communal support simply looks different than it perhaps has from an evolutionary perspective. There is more work to be done outside of home and away from the household, but no less responsibility at home. Sometimes help feels scarce, but then I have to re-think the configuration of profound resources I do have. Some things have to go on the back burner: like sanity as I knew it before, like a pain-free back, a snot-free head. And, so what? Make way for a beautiful kicking newborn, the adventure of a toddler turning the living room into an obstacle course, and ultimately: a whole new “normal.”

It continues to be a slow process of letting go into what is. My son crashes a plastic tow truck into my foot during an attempted downward dog. He reminds me to not take myself, or any of this, too seriously. Yes, I’m living a unique and precious human, American life. My needs and feelings matter, but there is also something to the etching away of my attachments to “health” “sanity” “rest” “exercise” and all the rest. If I pay close attention, it’s almost as if the process of these years of parenting has made me more malleable, more fluid, less bent on structure and order and more opaque. Things pass through me differently. Sometimes I’ve interpreted it as aging, heaviness, a weight of continual and unlifting responsibility, where the air alone seems to offer more resistance for me to work through. Other times I feel I’m being set free into an unchartered territory of lightness, where my body, along with my patience, thresholds and norms, are stretched and pulled and worked on such that I feel ultimately my unavoidable, liberating, eventual decomposition into something new and unimaginable.

The wonder of mid-life is upon me: Abundance of a life stacked up coupled with turning a brilliant corner where I can choose to set myself free into the profound rite of passage journey that children offer up. Like screws coming loose, a new lid opens and a marvelous view prevails.

Too Much Yang, Not Enough Yin

A slow solitary walk under a bright moon and a blanket of soft, billowy clouds brings me back to an intimacy with myself hat has been in a waning phase. I’m like a pile of building blocks slowly coming back into order. Its no coincidence that we just turned the corner into Fall – a season of harvesting, slowing down, getting in touch with the ground through eating more root vegetables and grains…Its a time of greater introspection and inwardness. A time to embrace the darker aspects of the season and let go of living under the blazing energy of long, sun-filled days of activity. The fiery energy of summer’s heat and a more busy pace and tempo can slow down into a time of preparing for the bare silence of winter. For now, I’m infinitely grateful for a slight cooling, the nights lengthening, an invitation to reap what I’ve sown metaphorically and let go of what I don’t need moving forward.

The night walk brings me back to a realization I’ve been carrying with me for some time now. “My life is out of balance. Too much yang, not enough yin.” It is a simple truth, one that reveals itself in moments of picking up after Rowan, trying to walk up the stairs carrying too many things, trying to cook and hold Rowan at the same time, balancing work and motherhood responsibilities, not resting enough. Its the kind of slow fatigue that sums up to the truth of an existence that understands the need for rest but can’t seem to integrate enough of it.

The original Chinese character for ‘yin’ meant ‘north side of the hill’ (facing away from the sun), while ‘yang’ meant ‘south side of the hill’ (facing toward the sun).  Yin is associated with the moon, feminine energy, reception, softness, darkness. Yang alternately is associated with the sun, masculine energy, creativity and doing, that which is hard and also bright. According to the earliest comprehensive dictionary of Chinese characters (ca. 100 CE), yin refers to “a closed door, darkness and the south bank of a river and the north side of a mountain.” Yang refers to “height, brightness and the south side of a mountain.” So it is for me; Exiting a phase of facing toward the sun and all its associating ‘doing’ and finding myself wanting to land behind a closed door, resting in darkness under the moon where there is nothing else other than stillness and the knowing that it is time to rest now.

Too much yang, not enough yin – a mantra I’ve been saying to myself for some time now, an ongoing reminder of my needs for less doing, more being, less carrying and juggling – and more resting and stillness. It is the perfect season for practicing more quietness within the walls of our homes and within the infinite mysteries of our own hearts and bodies. We can come inside, slow down, turn on the stove for a baking project and create coziness. We can turn our attention inwards and hold a clear mirror of self-observation and awareness in order to receive what is reflected back.

The yang quality of experience denotes a certain baseline of outward facing versus inward facing attention. As a parent so much of our attention must be rooted on our child or children. Our energy must be devoted to an outward order and flow that can often eclipse an inward order and flow. For me, the greatest periods of balance are when my outward world is a reflection of attention that is also directed within.

And, this is the ebb and flow of life. In and Out. Back and Forth. Up and Down. Inward, Outward. Light, Dark. Expansion, Release. Unfurling, Curling. We can become the great weavers of our own existence if we pay attention to the seasons and flow of our own lives and if we choose to dance the dance of life with intention and grace. As Patricia Joudry and Maurie Pressman write below, we too can move towards striking a dynamic balance between doing and being:

Yang is the initiating impulse, which divides and delineates; yin is the responsive impulse, which nurtures and reunites. Without yang nothing would come into being; without yin all that comes into being would die. Yang is mental activity in its forceful aspect, yin the imaginative and poetic, exalting the merely mental to the beautiful.

Yang goes ahead with things, yin contains things within herself and knows their nature without effort. Yang does, yin is…Yang is knowledge, yin the mystery that reveals itself and becomes knowledge…

Yang is will and yin is wisdom, and one without the other is neither, and together they are joy…

 

Gulping for Air

I’m trying to return to a sane rhythm and pace after the intense drain of what feels like an “over-responsibility” period. (How many of you have also been there before?!) So often we do too much in this world, particularly as mothers, some of whom hang in a balance of working and family life.  My roles come to a head all at once this month (hence the lack of posts) and I wonder how I’m functioning at all as I stand metaphorically on a balance beam, juggling 50 balls.

For a year now I’ve been conference planning for work – this on top of my usual job description – an added realm of responsibility that translates into an 8 page single spaced to-do list along with midnight wakings and list makings of things I can’t forget to do (the projector carts, the nametags, the adaptor cords, the conference schedule changes, will we make budget?, the volunteer delegation, the registration process how-to…you get the picture). I dive off a slide into the tumult of 15 hour work days and a long weekend of tireless execution.

Somehow I pull it off – a conference in Port Townsend, WA, a dip into one of my favorite parts of the world, the Olympic Peninsula – with Cedars and Madrones and the Puget Sound’s blue-gray lull of coast meeting clouds…Misty rain falls as I run from session to session, all focus on sustainable food and communities. Late at night I return to my room and sleep with Rowan and Chris, listening to the rain and hanging in the balance between being and doing, quietly marveling at Rowan’s small breaths and curved body matching mine. Craving quiet, I ride the wave of work until I crash.

And crash I have. Or at least crash it feels like. All at once the hats I wear are too many and heavy, and I’m stretched to the edges of what feels possible to sustain. Recovery never happened. Conference ended and Rowan got sick, which has meant continued sleepless nights, tending to fevers and coughs. So my question is: How does one recover? The startling lesson for me is that I can keep going at all. I’ve written on it before: that mysterious reserve of love and purpose to be tapped into when the rubber hits the road and there is no brake pedal. Crashing is actually not an option. The impulse to crash may be there, but if we wish to rise up and meet each responsibility with fullness of presence and grace, there are no shortcuts and there is little reprieve.

Perhaps recovery isn’t the essential yearning after which I should be pining. Perhaps it is more about how to live reasonably in a period when more is demanded of me that I am comfortable with. Recovery as it has looked in the past may not come; Instead, how can I live with more balance when down time doesn’t seem to be at my beck and call? When the responsibilities do not seem to end?

The question points me to the proverbial downward facing dog pose in yoga: the pose that burns when you hold it for long periods of time. There is of course the choice of coming out with grace and intention – bowing out and bowing to our limits, but there is also the choice and possibility of conducting a different energy of strength and structure: staying in the pose because it is required of you, because you have no choice but to hold certain elements together in life, and you may as well do it while breathing deeply and opening your spine.

It is a lesson in endurance and personal sustainability. Each of us must find and know well our limits and maintain a sense of balance based on that self-understanding. For me, I often go too far and tend to forget my deeper self-care – testing those boundaries. So here I am: trying not to give my little guy any short ends of any sticks, nursing my second cold this month, up at night wiping Rowan’s tears and nose, trying to balance the work and motherhood conundrum, and realizing that for now it is a path with seemingly no reprieve. So, I remember the lesson of the downward dog. Gulping for air doesn’t serve longevity. Deep, slow, sustained breath does. Letting certain parts of one’s bodily system crash in exhaustion doesn’t serve the integrity and full-functioning of the whole; Maintaining awareness of the full body working in flow, even when tired, serves to foster a sense of cohesion and personal structure around which and from which many things are possible. An open heart and spine go a long way in facing life’s challenges with grace and acceptance. And, feeling ones hands and feet rooted into the ground provides a needed stability beyond oneself when one’s personal experience becomes harried.

The trick is doing more than we ever thought possible (when it is required of us) while finding rest in the midst of the downhill splash (or, finding rest in the midst of burning muscles in a really long-held yoga pose).  When there is no stopping, let go and surrender to the ride. Nothing to change. Nothing to resist. In yoga, we say “ride the wave of sensation!” Yearnings for rest and slowness may be ever-present, and that too will come one moment: a mysterious return to quiet, a pause of hanging in the balance between being and doing. For now, exertion calls, but so too does riding that calling with a slow breath of acceptance and peace…

Protecting Inner Resources, Remembering Beauty

Another sleepless spell overtakes me and I churn around in a strange fog of lopsided semi-clarity, trying to hold the pieces of sanity and joy in life together.  Sometimes, the truth is brutal.  This time, the truth absolutely stings.  When I squarely consider my condition, I am akin to a fish out of water or a dying ant on a sidewalk.  (Clearly, I need something to snap me out of this!)

“How far can I stretch myself before dissolving?”  It’s a recurring question for those of us who are tending from pre-dawn to pre-dawn again and again with no reprieve of sleep lasting longer than 2-4 hours at a time.  I often consider what keeps me going: a determination rooted deep in my heart and gut to do what feels unabashedly right for my particular child.  A profound love impulse to not turn away.  A muddling through confusion – but coming out with certainty that yes, this indeed is the right response for my child.  Up again, down again.  Sleep on the floor.  Sleep on the couch.  Midnight. 2am. 5am. 5:30am.  A day never ends.  A day simply blurs into the next day.

Given my parenting choices aren’t lending themselves to the perfect sleeping toddler (and I am not complaining, actually!), it is entirely up to me to delineate the markers of rest and recovery for myself – because they are certainly not a given.  Herein is a great lesson: We as caregivers with multiple responsibilities in life must take heed to delineate the markers of rest and recovery for ourselves.  With this in mind I work to combat the inner fogginess of busy exhaustion and find the following gems feed the spirit of sanity and joy.

Protect your resources.  All that patience and grace and good will and love impulse: those are precious resources to be guarded with one’s life, lest we let them turn into more run-off for an even larger dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  It’s high time to start treating ourselves as the precious resources we are. The dire nature of hitting a wall peels me out of my habitual tendencies to leech my most loving, energetic life energy.  I have no choice but to regroup or dissolve. Without compassionate maintenance of our deepest intentions and inner resources rooted in spiritual practice and self-care, we begin to leech (albeit slowly, sometimes invisibly) our most precious gifts. It does one well to clarify (again and again) what it is we most want to cultivate in our lives – and then, do just that:  cultivate and protect what you’ve grown with intentional care.  

Remember Abundance.  An experience of abundance has a difficult time taking root from a place of depletion.  It feels I’ll never get enough rest, no matter what I do.  I get trapped in a cycle of ‘not enough this,’ ‘not enough that.’  Rather than dwelling from this place, cut back where trimming is in order. Trust the re-growth. Just like a houseplant needing to be trimmed, we can pare down and do less – remembering new growth often emerges only after we’ve cut away what needs lightening.  Abundance doesn’t mean more, it often means recognizing more in less.  An experience of abundance often means simply doing less. It often means shifting how we ‘get things done.’ Even in a simple breath we can experience abundance:  a slow, full breath accompanied by drinking in experience with delight (rather than snatching that sigh as if you can hardly manage to get that in!).

Be aware of beauty.  As Krishnamurti reminds me, “For most of us, beauty is in something, in a building, in a cloud, in the shape of a tree, in a beautiful face.  Is beauty “out there,” or is it a quality of mind that has no self-centered activity? Because, like joy, the understanding of beauty is essential…”

The experience of beauty is a sensitivity born from gratitude, curiosity and awe.  It is a quality of one’s entire experience that can transcend the so-called ‘mundane.’ Find the inner lens that recognizes beauty and practice seeing through it, regardless of external circumstances.  More importantly practice feeling through the lens of beauty.  “Whatever you encounter, join it with meditation,” the Buddhist Lojong cards say.  For me, the meditation is to simply remember to see and feel beauty.  The beauty of this life cuts through my fog like a gentle knife cutting back overgrowth.  It brings me back onto my knees, remembering my place in the divine order of life.  This too shall pass – and how poignant a truth!  So waste not a moment drinking in the contours of color, the sweet little hands eating juicy beets, the foggy wakeful moments in darkened rooms – a blessed chance to feel the hush of silent night and cool breeze bringing the smell of sage… What is the problem, really?  Nothing!  A tired fog is drenched in a beauty beyond comprehension simply waiting to be recognized.

 

Wearing Out the Lessons of Exhaustion, Weaving A Divine Thread

Every sound crackles into a worry that I’ll wake Rowan, who sleeps quietly near me.  Its 10pm on a Sunday night – late Spring dancing into Summer’s blazing heat, and I rest in the balance – a full moon pending just before Solstice. Everything is basked, baked, bathed in Colorado’s golden light, and I’m ever more aware of the places in my own experience that have yet to sprout from seed’s darkness.  Spring:  It’s a time of beginnings and unfolding – a turning towards light in new ways.

An easefulness has woven its way into relationship between Rowan and I – and I feel a sharp contrast to the resistance and struggles that have marked many periods in these first two years of his life.  All of the sudden it dawns on me that I am in a relative period of rest.  Perhaps I’ve worn out the lessons of this phase?  All that is left in this moment is a simple acceptance with a flair of zest, regardless of external circumstances such as sleepless nights or a worn down immune system.  Perhaps there is something to why we say “worn down” along with “worn out.”  All of the sudden we’ve worn something down to the point that the wearing has served its purpose of potential purification.  Like a stone thrown about in water, we can’t see the edges being smoothed while banging against what often feel like sharp, turbulent obstacles.

So too the periodic discomforts of parenthood.  Of course being ‘worn down’ feels lousy, until something therein is ‘worn out,’ burned up, smoothed out.  We wear something until we have outgrown it or until we have literally worn it out.  So too with our experiences and spiritual path.  If we can ride the waves of transformation, even through discomfort and relative ‘stress,’ – and if we can leave ourselves open to the possibility that we are being worked on in mysterious ways, all of a sudden we may notice we have moved through something akin to a rite of passage.  (The key is to pay close attention to the shifts!)

For some reason the silkworm comes to mind, with her ceaseless work (I’ve heard she only pauses to rest a handful of times before she spins her cocoon that holds her while going through metamorphosis).  She spins with little rest until she is ready for her transformation.  Meanwhile, out of steady effort one of the lightest, most beautiful substances is born.  Like a new cloak of understanding that is ultimately translucent, light, free-flowing like silk – we too can wear a new parenthood understanding that transmutes difficulties into a loving lightness of being when the parent-child relationship has finally struck a balance, found a flow (and when we’ve ultimately worn out the lessons of exhaustion). The work doesn’t stop and rest may feel scant, but the weaving goes on.  And sometimes we simply aren’t able to see the beauty of the weaving until a moment of rest is upon us.

So when rest is available, bask in it – just like basking in the emerging light of the season, or wrapping yourself in the lightest, most beautiful silk scarf. Take those moments of rest in order to settle into what you’ve unfolded or discerned in your life journey.  Trust the weavings of a simple life:  the ebbs and flows of waking, breakfast, playing outdoors with no agenda, carefree.  A nap.  Lunch.  Laundry.  Dinner.  Green beans and raspberries.  There does not have to be anything more.  There comes a moment when you can do nothing but rest into the fullness of simply digesting your experience.  That is the lesson of silkworms, hanging in the balance between seasons – digesting mulberry leaves, weaving a Divine thread.

Balance of the Truest Sort

I opened to this page in my journal today, just after writing a card to my mother in law:  “Tiredness is not an excuse.  How can I be balanced when not sleeping?  Exhausted?  Find out.  Let the bottom fall out.  Balance of the truest sort transcends fatigue.  True balance exists regardless of external circumstances.”  I’d written those words for myself a few months ago and here I am again needing the reminder about the importance of finding balance not dependent on external circumstances.  Ironically, the card I’d just finished writing in said this:  Peace:  It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work.  It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. 

All of this a lesson I deeply need today.  On holiday after a grueling series of flights on a day when Rowan refused to nap, I have been downing vitamin C like a drug addict and coughing up a lung – feeling like the proverbial dog on a leash that can’t set herself free.  In spite of a self-identified practice of not pining after anything other than what just IS, I find myself groping along after the usual ‘quiet, sleep, rest, time for self, exercise, a hair cut…’ – the familiar ongoing litany of wants and needs churning below the surface as I chase Rowan at his grandmother’s house, trying to maintain some semblance of control amidst the cookies and cacophony of motorized toys.  I struggle with wanting so many things other than how they are.  A short sampling of a long list:  Why won’t Rowan eat vegetables today?  Why does he like tractors more than trees?  Why doesn’t he respond when I call his name?  Why does he have to smack me when I am hugging him?  Why does he still not sleep through the night when he is almost two? Why does it have to be so hard? (you get the picture).  What a humorous trap I can be lured into – the patterning that pines after something else.  Never has it been more apparent than now as I make my life’s work rooted in the care of Rowan.

At a certain point is becomes clearer and clearer to me that I am working too hard to control situations that are ultimately beyond my control.  I’m trying too hard to shape results in the direction of my preferences.  Most importantly, I’m efforting so much that it eclipses the quiet, abiding resting in any given moment that is always available to me:  that peace not dependent on external circumstances, the balance that transcends fatigue. (The revelation hits me as I loose a chunk of my hair prying it from the hook above the car door while wrestling with the car seat buckle, muttering profanities at the absurdity of the moment).

To leave behind the over-efforting in favor of a quiet abiding doesn’t mean that I don’t still maintain a strong center of gravity that directs and guides my toddler regarding right action.  It also doesn’t mean that I become lazy or laissez-faire.  It means that I hold my seat from a place of relaxation.  It means that rather than breaking connection and intimacy with my son because of vast frustration stemming from endless churning efforts  and attachment to the storyline of exhaustion and a restless sort of ‘staying in control,’ I instead do absolutely nothing. 

What on earth does that mean, you might be asking?  NOTHING?  How on earth can you parent and do nothing?  By resting in the arising of each moment, abiding in Reality as it simply is – with no seeking, grasping, pining, yearning;  With no adding of anything on top of pure and simple existence.  Moving from this place there is no need for mental anxiety, for worry, for angst, for questioning this and that…or for shouting profanities when your hair gets tangled in the car hook.  There is simple response to any given moment with peace and balance.  Peace and Balance.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Adi Da says it well:  “Every motive is seeking.  Every turning away is avoidance.  Every turning towards is avoidance.  All these things are seeking, for they are not abiding now in the Form of Reality.  Thus, to turn at all is to act.  And every turning will awaken the reaction of turning the opposite way in time.  The Truth is radical non-avoidance moment to moment.  It is to live this moment without conflict, directly.  Where there is understanding there is no turning, and every action turns no way at all, for there is only radical consciousness behind it, turning no way, knowing only great Bliss.”