What You Think You Want Versus What You are Given

My yoga teacher always said that you must “digest your experience!” By this she means that it is essential to take time to fully digest the events and feelings of our days. Process. Integrate. Digest. And then, let go and move forward. In a culture that sways towards a fast-forward pace, this is good advice. So much happens in a day (or over weeks or months) such that undigested experiences can accumulate and form repositories of stress, tension, angst, anger or sadness – left  untended in our bodies, hearts and minds. If we don’t return to sift through what lingers, the flow of our energies and emotions can be thwarted. For me, writing helps with this important digestion – and not only to sort through difficulties but also to clarify lessons learned as well as to revisit what has been beautiful, significant. As Anais Nin says, “we write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

In my own retrospective process, I have been through one hell of a month. There was the flood. There was selling our home and all the surrounding logistics. There was packing. There were home repairs. There was new house searching. There were long late night conversations with my husband about our life vision and what is next. There was the ever-present wall of financial limitation. There was finding a rental along with the thousands of displaced flood victims. There was moving into the first rental we could find. There was a trip to Nashville for work and giving a presentation at a conference. There were tantrums. There were fevers and illnesses. There were cavities to be filled. There was a contract signed on a new home. My husband turned 40. We found out we are having another son!

All of this adds up to a very condensed experience of life – with major life events and transitions all culminating in one short span of time. There were emotional breakdowns amidst holding so many moving parts together. And finally, we are settling again. And now: true digestion where insights can emerge.

Amidst all of the on the surface descriptors of life’s changes and happenings, there are also the undercurrents of life doing its work on me in deeper ways. While flying back from my work trip I randomly sat next to a former co-worker I hadn’t seen or spoken to in over five years. At the end of a three hour flight he told me he’d been reading Sri Aurobindo and asked something along the lines of how I rectify what is seemingly predetermined versus what we can control in our lives; how I make sense of the mysterious forces at work in the world versus what our will can effect. At first I laughed and said “I have no idea!” I was exhausted. I didn’t feel up for dissecting Sri Aurobindo. And then I slowly felt into my answer. Thanks to his question I was able to relate the seeming conundrum to my own life and clarify an insight I might otherwise have missed. I shared that actually he was pointing to what I was ultimately grappling with on deeper levels with my huge life transitions underway: the impending birth of my third son, and the impending move into my next home. I said I was used to feeling empowered by moving towards what I want in this lifetime with willfulness and clear intention, but that with the revelation that I am having a third son I was profoundly humbled in the face of what I ultimately can’t control. I had been desiring a daughter. I always thought I would have a daughter – and yet, here I am: life dishing up my third precious boy. I had been wanting a home with outdoor space to garden, have chickens, create magical playscapes for my children. And yet, again and again we were confronted with financial or distance conundrums that made fully realizing what I thought was my deepest vision elusive. Instead, life was handing me a different plate. A home full of sons. The opportunity to take the leap and buy a new home that looked very different from what I had been imagining and ‘wanting.’

Then I said, “I don’t look at it as an either/or situation. There is both will and mystery. I experience it as swimming in a sea of conversation with the Divine. I can move towards what I think I want, and when I don’t get it, I can relax into what is being given to me. There is nothing to be done. There is nothing to do. I can be humbled in the face of what is ultimately beyond my understanding or control. And then, the next layer after relaxing into what simply is: to really love it, despite reality looking different than what I was expecting or desiring…”

I realized that the major lesson of this time is to rectify moving towards my desires with intention while also being humbled again and again by those numerous moments when reality is utterly out of my control. There is nothing to be done about anything – just be in a conversation with what feels Divine in this Life. No moving towards anything graspingly, but rather relaxing into reality and embracing what is. Then loving what is. Right now life is serving up this lesson: the key is to let go of attachments to what I think “should” be any particular way – and instead embrace (again and again) what is arising in the form of presented opportunities. Relax! Settle into a new place and form! And then, find and feel the perfection in what is. Find fresh eyes that know how to live outside of previous attachments.

IMG_1523It reminds me of forward bends in my yoga practice. There is the willful gesture of reaching towards where you want to go, while also surrendering into exactly where you are. There is the gesture of letting yoga do you rather than you doing it. There is the interplay between being and doing. First be, then do. There is the energy of reaching while also simultaneously surrendering. And what needs to be the greater force at work? Surrender. (*Angst arises when our resistance to reality attempts to override the capacity to surrender…)

During transitions of any kind we can practice surrendering into accepting the blessings of what is being given to us. We can exercise the power of our capacity to choose our perspective: how we place our attention dictates what our experience becomes. We can count our blessings or we can pile up the complaints. We can make friends with the new places we find ourselves in (both literally and figuratively). Life is full of surprises and it serves us to befriend new, unexpected surroundings. In this, we can slowly find ourselves freer to relax fully into letting go of what we think we want, or how we think things ‘should’ be, versus unabashedly embracing what is being given to us.

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Be In Conversation With the Divine

Maybe it is the third child in utero. (What? Yes!) Maybe it is the accompanying exhaustion and nausea. Maybe it the impending move next month and the uncertainty of next steps. Maybe it is the relentless house searching. Maybe it is the simple truth that the householder, parenting dimension of life absolutely devours you such that writing and reflection take a back burner to completing the necessary functions of daily life.

Whatever the truth, my practice of writing and reflection has been harder of late. I’m reminded of a post I wrote several years ago on Practicality and Practice, where I realized that the realm of the practical is indeed also the realm of practice (the words even share the same etymology). It isn’t that spiritual practice, creativity, self-expression or “realization” of any kind is any less important than it always has been and is. It’s just that the practical, logistical domain of life is so all-consuming at times it is difficult to see outwards from this place.

Subsumed. Consumed. Devoured. Annihilated. Submerged. Gone into temporary hiding. Practical life somehow has eclipsed me. It can sneak up on us, and all of the sudden a year (or ten) has passed. Instead, daily life practice becomes waking with some semblance of grace at 5:45am when the stars are still twinkling, making breakfast and school lunch, going to work, closing on the house, changing diapers, mitigating sibling conflicts, getting on the floor and playing legos and dinosaurs, cleaning the kitchen, picking up said legos and dinosaurs, making dinner, cleaning up after dinner, (oh, and dealing with the fruit fly pandemic), bedtime routines and then voila: wake up and do it all again! (Oh, and don’t forget to eat 65 grams of protein a day and take your folic acid, too).

The trouble is without something to come back to over and over again in myself (aka the ballast of a practice, the relief of clarity that comes through reflection and writing, or the act of creativity) I begin to feel groundless and unsettled, missing the restfulness and peace of living from a clarified center of intention and attention. In the midst of The Practical and The Logistical, there is the less rational and less logical realm of soul, psyche and spirit calling, where the home of my dreams is more wild – and I’m called to swim without goal in a vast, deep ocean.

My husband reminds me to “settle into the unsettledness.” There are no problems to solve. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with this iteration of our existence. Different than expected, yes. Exhausting, yes. How I imagined mid-life? Perhaps not fully…But regardless, when I finally do sit down with the pen and journal and ask the simple question, “Where to go from here?” An immediate answer arises: “Be in conversation with the Divine.” 

What does this mean? For me it means that it doesn’t matter what I do (or don’t do), where I live, how many hours sleep I get or how late I am for work or that play-date. It doesn’t matter that a month has gone by and the pen hasn’t hit the paper or the body hasn’t met the meditation cushion. What does matter in this light is to be in conversation with the Divine, and to be merely present with what is. Every ordinary interaction in a day, whether it be with dish-washing soap, the garbage can or my precious (but sometimes frisky) sons, can be experienced as part of an ever-present holy portal, always present, beckoning my full-bodied entry. I can be in relationship with this holy portal. I can stand there and feel into it. I can move swiftly to keep my son from tripping and still feel into it. I can clean the drain and still feel into it. Its not a conventional ‘dialogue’ but more a relationship through feeling, from the experience of the whole body. 

Being in conversation with the Divine means that I am paying close attention to what is arising, both internally and externally. And I am paying attention in such a way that my presence is surrendered to an awareness of a mystery at work greater than myself and beyond my understanding. I can choose to submit myself to the present realm of what is required as a mother and rest into a divine abiding with what is. Then I can reside in a truly non-discriminatory state of mind and heart: where bliss can blend in with moments akin to drudgery, and gratitude can dominate the landscape of duty.

Each of us can stake a claim to our own definitions of Divine. But be clear: move beyond the cerebral, beyond Merriam-Webster defining. Then, whatever the task, whatever the situation, we can feel full-bodily our participation in That. We can live fully in the practical, logistical realm of life, but rather than let ourselves be consumed by only this, we can practice making ourselves available to the possibility of being overcome by an experience of a Divine holy portal, always waiting to devour us into an experience of deeper Love.

Intimacy With Everything

“Enlightenment is intimacy with everything.”

-Dogen Zenji, 1200-1253

Even arsenic in rice?

The report was released in September. Arsenic is turning up in rice samples ranging from organic rice baby cereals to breakfast cereals to white rice and brown rice. Something about the indisputability of arsenic’s profound toxicity catches my heart and hits me with a thud. “There is no safe level of arsenic,” says the FDA. It isn’t that I’m surprised, or even aghast. Quite the contrary. I’m grimly accepting, albeit with great pain. For several days I look at my children through a different texture of gaze: seeing the food on Rowan’s plate in a renewed light. Even rice has become a potential poison and this time there is no disputing, no arguing, no escaping through the denial of endless industry funded studies. Arsenic is a poison and it is turning up in American rice.

How to be intimate with this news? It is ultimately the icing on the cake of a month of activism around the endocrine disrupting chemical Bisphenol-A and the floodgates of knowledge being open regarding the harmful effects of seemingly unavoidable chemicals inundating our daily lives through air, water, food packaging, couches, clothes, baby mattresses, blankets and the like. We’ve turned too much of our world into poison. There is nothing like the precious vulnerability of a baby to help me see the vast cruelty of our society’s experiments and there is also nothing like the unavoidable revelation that there is no escape. I often say being an environmentalist is a hard place to be. It requires open eyes and heart amidst the constant barrage of bad news as well as acceptance of the adage ‘what we do to earth we also do to self.’ We as a species still haven’t managed to get the memo: this too is interconnected. Arsenic in pesticides even 100 years ago comes back to haunt us today, creeping into grains of rice and kids’ juice boxes and infant formula.

My mind turns to the Hindu deity Krishna. When traveling in India I was told Krishna’s skin was blue because he ingested the poisons afflicting humanity and was able to transmute them. (Not only did he transform humanity’s poisons, he also drove venomous snakes away by vehemently dancing on their heads). His power to transform poison points to a lesson in integration: radical integration of what is, even what is profoundly toxic, as a path to transformation and healing. How much poison can we sustain? Perhaps that isn’t the question to attend to, but rather how much can we integrate in our hearts, minds and souls in order to be fully sane? If Enlightenment is intimacy with everything, how intimate can we be with our poisons?

Perhaps Krishna also points to the lesson of radical integration as a path to no resistance. Rather than resist, run from, fight and try to avoid what is ultimately unavoidable, perhaps we can practice a sane, relaxed response. As my husband tells me in the midst of my worrying spells: “Relax into the mess.” This doesn’t mean inaction or avoidance or denial. It doesn’t mean apathy or an “oh well” disposition. This means radical integration of the mess and radical intimacy with the mess. From a place of intimacy, with eyes wide open, we can make meaningful decisions from the heart. We can feel the pain and let it bruise us, and we can try to love the bruise. Instead of a “fight for life” from a place of fear, we can surrender into the flow of life, even life’s messes which cause both physical and emotional cancers.

As a mother I want to protect my children. The heartbreaking truth is that in many instances I cannot. Ultimately I cannot create an island that is safe from the poisons of our mistakes, especially the mistakes beyond my sphere of influence. I can however create an enclave of sanity, a launching pad of the relative health grounded in the understanding of interconnectedness and the accompanying intimacy of this perspective. And, I can choose to not cultivate fear and dread, instead moving beyond fear into the realm of integration, which is ultimately Truth. This situation is just True. This hell bending situation just IS. Pesticides dousing soil with neurotoxins and carcinogens, arsenic laden soil giving life and food but also a dose of wake up America reality.

Still, we are called to action and activism, even in light of living into a practiced acceptance. Intimacy calls us to love! And love calls us to protection and preservation. Beyond fear and avoidance is the realm of Love. So surrender. Let this break your heart. Look at your child and wonder what the future holds. Marvel that lessons of our interconnectedness are served up poignantly on your plate. No surprises. Fully integrated awareness, bestowing a calm authority, we move on, vowing to enact our own gestures of transformation.

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

Pushing vs. Opening – And Shining a Light on Our Habits Through Practice

To open your body through a sacred and intentional spiritual practice is a precious thing. So simple, such an encounter with Self. Spiritual practice can hold up the mirror and shed light on where we haven’t been true to ourselves and where we obstruct free, open, loving flow of energy and attention through habit or via blind spots we have yet to see into. For me, the practice is Hatha yoga, where after a too-long spell of neglect I finally rediscover my legs, my hands and feet – and re-learn the essential practice of just feeling: just feeling full bodily into the vast mystery of life.

I’m reminded that to maintain a practice of opening the body in an intentional way is especially essential for those of us immersed in the radical shifts required of a woman’s body throughout pregnancy, childbirth and early motherhood. If we don’t attend to our bodies we become stiff, habituated in often imbalancing physical patterns, and generally less intentional with how we place ourselves in space as we shuffle between critical tasks. The practice not only becomes a critical means for maintaining a structure of physical and emotional well-being as we juggle life’s requirements, but it also becomes the vehicle through which we can open ourselves to fresh revelations about ourselves and our lives in an ongoing way.

We can choose to dip into a practice where we can literally plug ourselves into currents of light always available and at work in the body; Plugging into lines of light is ultimately freeing your energy and attention such that there is open, clear, free, loving flow between and within all parts, as well as extending outwards from this place of freedom and openness. It translates into a radiance of experience that permeates and embraces. It also translates into a shedding of light on and within our own experiences that illumines the interior world in all its vast mysteries and complexities. My yoga teacher Sofia always says the feeling of light is actually Love – and it is that experience of Love that is available too in our bodies when we dare to cross the threshold of depth and move beyond conditioning, habit and avoidance of discomfort. As we make ourselves available to the opening of new pathways in our bodies, we can shed light with our attention on the whole of our experience. In this way we bring our full selves further and further into the light of self- understanding and ultimately into embodying the full gift of a beautiful, loving self-expression in the world.

Certain yoga poses have the capacity to usher us down the rabbit hole into the realm of sustained transformation through a simple abiding with sensation – “difficult” as well as pleasant or even blissful. Yoga can take us to the gates of our own personal hell realms of self-avoidance and untruth – where we might tell ourselves lies to protect ourselves from pain and unwanted discomforts of growth. It is at this such gate that I recently realize the simple truth that many moments of my motherhood growing journey have been rooted in pushing, rather than opening. It happens often in a deep physical practice: the impulse to muscularly will, physically push yourself to the “other side” – you know a great opening is possible and in moments when you are taken to your knees with feelings of weakness, craziness or incapacity – you push through, rather than surrender and open – and then perhaps even dare to call it “strength.” Many of us do this kind of pushing not even for the sake of a great opening – but simply for the sake of “getting things done” or “getting to the next place.” It strikes me like a light bulb turned on in place I’ve never been; I catch a glimpse into a blind spot I’ve been living in.

And here is the next great opportunity of a spiritual practice that requires you to pay attention to the subtleties of your own experience: if you can stay with the complexity, a jewel of realization may emerge. It hits me that there is no strength in whittling away open currents of life force into exhausted collapse. I see so many women journeying this path and I hadn’t realized I’d joined the ranks. Surrendering into exhaustion can also entail a subtle (or not so subtle) shirk of profound responsibility. I am struck that a profound growing force in my life can also become the same means to fabricating an excuse to not further grow (think on this one: have any of you experienced this?). Said another way: for me, exhaustion coupled with the responsibility of motherhood has brought me to my knees in a way that crash coursed me into letting go of lifetimes of habits that don’t serve me while also gifting me with an impeccable opportunity to surrender into what is without resistance, and in the spirit of love – even when it doesn’t feel “good” and even when I feel as if I’ll fall apart. At the same time this growing edge I’ve been riding for two years can also stagnate me into shirking a responsibility for opening my body and my heart through consistent practice and self-care; (Why am I physically weaker than before? “I’m so tired.” Why won’t I practice today? “I’m so tired”). Yet with fewer inner resources and without an established structure of sustained openness through practicing, I end up further tiring myself from pushing from less authentic places. Reserves are thin and the undercurrent of awareness of participation in and with the Divine allows me to ride the waves of life with some amount of Grace, BUT, the subtle truth is that I’ve slowly been falling into the habit of “pushing through” rather than opening into Grace.

Why is this self-revelation important enough to share here? Because opening into Grace is a profound resource for all of us to relax into. Because these are times when too many of us are pushing too hard in our lives and losing connection to vital threads of practice rooted in paying close attention to detail and subtlety. Because to live as our best selves does not mean moving randomly through space and time and it certainly doesn’t mean sloughing off personal responsibility to succumb to the mass patterning of “I’m so tired and busy I can’t even deal with anything that is fundamentally important to myself anymore.” We can instead exchange a different kind of energy in the world. We can take care of ourselves by  surrendering into acknowledgement of what breathes us. We aren’t doing breath. Breath is doing each of us. Something greater than yourself is at work on you and will ultimately dissolve you in the end. Opening to this insight is profoundly liberating, albeit potentially unnerving at first. Opening into what is arising in any given moment means making oneself consistently available to wisdom, insight, being moved, stretched, worked on, yanked open, uncurled, unfurled…All we have to do is make ourselves available to transformation and grace. All we have to do is make ourselves available to mystery. And the doorway to this is through our own felt experience. This is opening rather than pushing. This is moving through our lives with a sense of flow and grace rather than resistance.

To live steeped in this awareness is a different kind of strength, and ultimately a feminine sort of strength, rooted more in the heart realm and less in the will and intellect realm. These are times where many of us are pushing rather than resting in a surrendered nourishment that does not hide or collapse, but gives outward from a place of relaxed understanding. These are times when shit has to get done and someone’s got to do it – and the key is to live each breath of the doing as if you weren’t doing it but as if it is doing you – whatever ‘it’ is for you. In this way we not only find a new kind of rest into what just is – we open ourselves to our interconnections with all life and light and we live more as our true nature, ever becoming clearer and less fettered – and more capable of the profound Love that the divine feminine force entails.

 

Practice Bell Equals Baby Crying

Dedication to practice is easier to access when rested and sane – not at 1:53am after a long day.  I keep feeling “I need a break” and “there is no rest in sight” (1:53am thoughts) and then proceed to self medicate with chocolate and toast and tea.  At 1:59am I finally come to face that the only break I need is from the parts of myself that resist the present moment arising, that resist staying with any given moment (for example the baby crying at 1am).  The ‘break’ needed is actually from parts of self not yet integrated, like the part that wants to toss myself out the window when Rowan won’t sleep (exaggeration, but you get the picture).  This part is completely devoid of patience.  Fed up.  Reached a boundary and can’t feel a way out.  The irony is that daily I work to eek out small spaces for other parts of myself (the writing, hiking, yoga parts) – but all along the hidden quandary is that I need more space for the parts that think they need a break and are at the edge.  In other words I need to spend more time with the moments of perceived “break-needing” in order to, through more intimate self understanding and acceptance, move through these spaces to a deeper freedom and peace.  This is the fertile ground of practice.  As my yoga teacher often says:  “The only way out is in.”

Earlier today my mantra was “practice bell equals baby crying.”  The idea was spawned by reading from Lama Surya Das’s book Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be, where he suggests choosing a recurring sound throughout your days and designating it a ‘practice bell’ in order to cultivate moments of greater mindfulness.  That of course was fine during the day but less fine at 1am.  The irony did break through as I recalled the practice bell mid-sleep cycle, yet instead of finding the dedication I went straight to “screw this!”

Rowan’s sweet confusion at my bad mood breaks my heart.  I leave the room after helping him to sleep, ready to face the parts of myself that ignore the practice bell and ignore the great pause before acting, ignore the vast reservoirs of love and patience that are truer than anything else in the world.  I am so exhausted and so ready to give up and give in to this realization.  Giving up means letting go into the lessons unfolding even in uncomfortable places. In this instance, giving up means surrendering into Truth of the parts of self less faced.

Rowan’s midnight cry is a mirror for where I choose to shut down or not.  The cry shows me my reserves of compassionate loving response as well as my edgy restlessness that has had enough.  Both are true.

2:12 am calls me to returned sanity through sleep and a closer examination of just what it is I am so “tired of.”  Really, when I sit here and spiral deeper into this surface truth of ‘I am tired.  I need a break,”  it is actually empty.  At the core I am actually tired of nothing.  It is all a story on the surface, and if only I remember to heed the practice bells of existence I will stay seated in heartbreaking love of this life – every precious moment.  I’m only tired of the parts of myself that can’t yet sustain this awareness of pervasive love recognition.  Without the delving this truth too would continue to be obscured.  Really, all of this is just profound light shed on parts of self that aren’t utterly dissolved in Love – even love in the midst of shrieking 1am baby.