The peace that is always here…

So the holidays are here and maybe the stress is starting to settle in a little deeper.  For me there is the hustle and bustle of the gift-buying and preparations and the general collective stress that sets in, there is the excitement and anticipation of the kids hoping for wonderful presents, the holiday lights and the darkness of winter and Nature’s stillness that underlies all of this activity.  All this is available right now in this minute – all at the same time.  So, since I get to choose where I place my focus, I choose to place it on the peace – the stillness and silence – and sometimes I’ll chose to focus on the excitement and anticipation. 

Even though I’ve had a sense of this underlying peacefulness, to focus on it is a big departure for me this year. Usually I just get stressed worrying about travel plans, what to get for whom, whether the receivers of gifts would like their gifts, and on and on.  This year, everybody gets tie-dye (my kids’ idea) and the kids and I are excited to get started on this make-at-home project.  They’re already picking out which designs for whom and which colors.  It’s fun.  Hopefully people will appreciate their gifts, and the love with which they were made and offered.  But none of us can control what others think or feel.  All we can really control is that we do our best to love, we place our focus on what nurtures us and those around us, and we give ourselves a break, every so often, to check in with the peace that is always here.

Not sure how to check in?  Try this:  Notice that you have a body, and that your body is breathing.  Begin to follow the flow of your breath.  Notice that each time you inhale and exhale, the breath comes from stillness and goes back to stillness.  You may also feel that it arises from silence and goes back to silence.  Just notice the rising and falling of the breath, from stillness and back to stillness, from silence and back to silence.  Now instead of focusing on the breath, focus on the stillness, or the silence.  You might begin to feel that it is always there, and that your body begins to feel more peaceful as you focus your attention on the stillness or the silence – the peace that is always here.  Doesn’t take long to check in, but it feels pretty good, and you can even do it in line at the mall!

Happy holidays!

Taking Responsibility…

One of the teachings of A Course In Miracles is that, like a hologram, our external world is the reflection of our inner world.  Said another way:  the challenges you face in your external world are essentially the externalization of your inner world.  This outer experience gives us the opportunity to take responsibility for our world.  It gives us a mirror with which to look at ourselves more deeply and begin to welcome and work with the parts of ourselves that we have hidden from the world and even from ourselves.

So, as an example, there is someone at work who is so arrogant that you can’t even stand to be around them.  Yet it seems you can’t avoid them no matter how hard you try.  This is an opportunity for you to look inside to see whether there is some arrogance or intolerance in you that you’re not admitting to.  This is an opportunity to take that out, look at it, stop resisting or hiding it and maybe even come to terms with it or let it go.  But this will only happen when you stop blaming the other person, and take responsibility for your own part in the creation of your world.

It is easy to blame our behavior as a reaction to other people, “society,” the economy, or even as caused by Satan.  It is not so easy to look at the parts of ourselves we most despise.  The truth is that until we look at those parts, they will keep visiting us through other people, and we will continue to be revolted or angered by them. When we take responsibility for what is being triggered in us we have an opportunity to stop being victims and actually make a change – since it is really only possible for any of us to change ourselves.

Of course, it might be difficult to see the seemingly ugly parts of ourselves, and this is where it is helpful to proceed with patience and gentleness.  Cultivating loving-kindness towards ourselves helps us to see ourselves honestly.  The Metta practice is one way of cultivating gentleness and kindness towards ourselves and others.

The Metta practice uses 4 phrases.:  May ___ be free from suffering; May ____ be healthy; May ____ be happy; May ____ live with ease.   You start off repeating these phrases for yourself (May I be free from suffering… etc.), then you do them for a loved one, then for a friend, then for a neutral person or a stranger and then for a difficult person.  In this way we begin to soften towards the difficult people in our lives and also toward ourselves.  We do not say these phrases with artificially contrived emotion, we just offer them as they are – no strings attached. 

As we soften towards ourselves we do not need to run away.  As we soften towards others we can see that they are us, and we can begin to take responsibility for our own part in this play we call Life.

May you be free from suffering.  May you be healthy.  May you be happy.  May you live with ease.

Namaste.

Making friends with yourself

What would you do if a friend confessed to you that she felt really badly about something she had recently done, or really didn’t like something about herself?  You would probably feel some compassion for your friend and try to think of something to say to help her feel better, right?  And yet what do you do to yourself when you feel badly about something you’ve done?  What thoughts come about when you think of the things about yourself that you don’t like?  For most of us those thoughts aren’t about being compassionate! 

It’s not a secret that we tend to treat others better than we treat ourselves, often to the point where we can offer compassion to others, but have difficulty offering it to ourselves, or even receiving it from others.  How much we are able to love ourselves, I think, is directly related to how much we can allow others to love us.  If we beat up on ourselves, on some level we begin to think of ourselves as inherently flawed and unlovable.  This breeds suspicion and disbelief when others see us differently. We might even back away from people or relationships because we aren’t used to allowing the light of love and compassion into our hearts.  To be loved or lovable is unfamiliar.

A few months ago I told someone that I felt I had made friends with my mind.  The person responded first with surprise and then with disappointment. “I wish I could do that,” she said.  In our culture we tend to think it unlikely that this could ever be possible.  Instead we believe that we need to control, cover up, pretend, medicate and distract.  And yet, it is possible.  In Buddhism, this acceptance of self is called ‘maitri.’  Pema Chodron, a wonderful Buddhist teacher describes maitri on this youtube video as “unconditional friendliness toward oneself.”  She describes maitri as “the basis of compassion.” 

Think of it, what if you were able to just think of yourself as being okay?  What would your life be like if you were able to cut yourself some slack and just love yourself as you are without trying to be more perfect, more knowledgeable, more attractive…  How much stress do we put on ourselves trying to be more or ‘better’ because we are so dissatisfied, so averse to what we are now?  And yet, have we even looked to see what is actually here or is it just an assumption that what we are couldn’t possibly be enough?

So, how to go about cultivating this self-compassion?  I think the first step is really to welcome the possibility that you could be unconditionally friendly towards yourself, that you could be worthy of loving.  From there, I’ve found that the universe is only too happy to lead you into more and more lessons and revelations.  Sometimes the lessons are easy and sometimes not.  It is not that life suddenly becomes a bed of roses, but that you begin to see the difficulties as more ways of deepening in relationship with yourself and with others.  Any relationship takes effort and most relationships work better if the focus is on the other person’s positive qualities vs. judging their flaws.

In my experience, a simple way to begin to cultivate self-compassion is to spend some time acknowledging the aspects of yourself that you actually do appreciate.  Since we have such a tendency to judge things as good or bad, let me be clear that the other aspects aren’t bad per se.  It is just easier at first to love ourselves based on those things we perceive as ‘positive’ qualities.  It might take some time (it took me days the first time I tried to come up with one thing), but just finding one thing you appreciate about yourself is like clearing a little hole on the grimy window of our past perception so that the light can begin to shine through.

Make a phrase with your one ‘positive’ quality (or more if you have more than one).  For me it was “I am compassionate.” Notice how your body feels when you say this phrase.  And when you find your mind going into the place of self-judgment or self-criticism, let this phrase be your ray of light. Once that tiny ray of light is experienced, the shadows become less dense and the darkness begins to give way.  Repeat your phrase whenever you think of it.  Eventually you might find it pops up on its own! 

In the next few blog entries I’ll be offering more tools that have helped me to bring light into my shadows.  If you have other tips, comments or experiences to offer, please feel free to share those as well by clicking on the Comments link below.

Until next time, may you live with ease ☺

Fear as opportunity

After the last blog entry I had a question from someone I love dearly that touched me deeply.  To paraphrase her question:  What if when you start to bring your fears to the surface it seems that there is nothing but more and more fear, and you realize that you’re living your entire life from a place of fear?

I wish I had a quick and easy answer to that question, but fear is such a huge issue.  One thought that kept coming up for me was the judgment of fear as being pathological. I was reminded of this by a comment to my last post.  Rather than being a black hole of despair, the recognition of fear can be an opening into a place of seemingly deep mystery – your own mind, heart and soul.  It can be opportunity to see the ways we have taken on other people’s ideals and judgments and made them our own without questioning their validity.  Recognition of fear gives the opportunity to question the fears themselves and chose whether to continue to live with them, or just let them be.  It gives us the opportunity to love & be compassionate toward ourselves because we are fearful, not in spite of it.  At the same time we are able to cultivate compassion for all those in the world who also feel overwhelmed by fear.  And rather than becoming caught in our fear, we can recognize it as part of the tapestry of life that also includes success, joy, courage, compassion, love and expansiveness.

Of course frightening things do happen and fear arises as a natural response.  Many people – maybe even a neighbor or a friend – live with a real threat of physical harm, sometimes from the very people who are supposed to care for them.  For them, vigilance is necessary until a safer environment is possible. Recognizing our own fear and feeling compassion for the fear of others we might see opportunities to help those who suffer from the constant threat of physical harm.  From the yogic perspective, the body is not the totality of who we are, and its destruction does not mean our annihilation.  But even from this perspective, death or harm of the physical body is one of the last & most difficult fears to be released – and for the sake of human survival, I’d say thankfully so.

For many of us who have the blessing of living in physically safe circumstances, however, this fear of harm still exists – though perhaps on an unconscious level.  Often, regardless of contradictory evidence, there is the fear that we are unable to handle life’s challenges as they arise.  At a deep level there is the fear that the threat will lead to death of some kind: “Oh my God, if that happened, I’d just die!”  or “It would kill me to not get everything done.”  Though we might express it casually in words, this is often not a conscious fear, and yogis would say that what is actually threatened is the “I” or the “ego” – our own perception of who we are, or how we think other people see us:  If I don’t succeed, other people will think I’m a failure – or even worse, I might think that of myself; if I loose this job, maybe I’m not good enough to get another one; if I let go of blaming someone else for my fears, I’ll have to take responsibility for my life…

Years ago I got really tired of being afraid all the time.  I was tired of always feeling powerless in the face of life’s challenges.  Though fear or itself isn’t “bad,” I doubt anyone would claim it as their favorite emotion!  Living from a place of fear can feel like being in prison, knowing you have the key, but still unable to leave.  So I sat down and made a list of all my fears and prioritized the list based on level of difficulty.  Just the act of naming the fears and making the choice to do something about them diffused some of their power over me.  Putting them on paper gave me a chance to question their validity.  Deciding to be rid of them offered the possibility that they could be temporary. 

Yoga and meditation continue to help with this effort. Strengthening my body, working with the chakras, noticing the ways that I hold fear in my body and learning tools to work with this held energy have also been very helpful. Meditation helped me recognize the difference between presence and avoidance and acknowledge the fleeting nature of emotions.  It has also helped to cultivate a witness consciousness – the willingness to view the rise and fall of emotions from a place of stillness and choose whether to stay “caught up” in them or let them go.

I believe that once you decide to go on an adventure like this, the Universe (God, Source, Higher Self, whatever words you use) supports your intention and the help comes in ways you might not have expected – a chance word, an article in the paper, a book suggestion from a friend or an ad that jumps off the page.  Of course it takes courage to acknowledge your fears, and sometimes your hands will shake and your heart will pound as you decide to “just do it.”  Fear arises, but since we’re here (on the planet in these bodies), why not explore the possibility that just as a smile passes, fears could pass too – if we let them?

May you be healthy.  May you be happy.  May you live with ease.

From Resistance to Appreciation

Yesterday I took my 4 year old daughter son and 9 year old to my meditation teacher training.  I couldn’t find a babysitter and my teacher was gracious enough to suggest bringing them and letting them stay in a room close to our meeting room.  Her suggestion brought an immediate feeling of resistance and fear.

For some parents the thought of bringing their kids is a non-issue, but not so for me with my disciplined Caribbean upbringing.  I had visions of my daughter laughing out loud in the middle of a meditation segment; of people in the class being annoyed by these pesky kids; of having to constantly leave class to attend to them or quiet them down; of them trashing the room they were staying in and in the end of my teacher being displeased with them being there. 

Ah, the workings of the mind and the scenarios it creates to reinforce its resistance!  None of these fears were justified!  My children, though they can be raucous and challenging at home are generally very well behaved in public.  The class is full of other parents and gentle, loving souls who might actually enjoy the sound of a child’s laughter in the midst of their meditation.   And my teacher suggested I bring them!  So the fear, like most fears, was not logical at all.  In fact when examined closely, it was a manifestation of the ego worrying:  “What will people think of me?”  So of course I had to take them!  I also didn’t want to miss the lecture on Chapters 7 & 8 of the Bhagavad Gita (definitely worth reading if you haven’t already!).

Amazingly enough, pushing through my fear actually helped me appreciate my kids even more.  Neither one complained when I explained what was going to happen.  My son did a wonderful job of monitoring and helping his sister.  They occupied themselves with the activities we brought, and he was very quiet the two times he did need to come and get me.  We had to leave early to take him to soccer (especially since we were bringing snacks!) and he kept track of the time so that he changed into his soccer gear before we had to leave.  My daughter made lots of little foam crafts and cleaned up all her scraps.  She had pretty much reached her limit by the time we had to leave (in the middle of the lecture), but still they were both very considerate of being quiet as we left.  

Later that day after soccer, my daughter handed me a juice pack and straw, and sweetly asked:  “Mommy, would you help me with this please?”  In that moment I recognized again the sweetness of their presence in my life.  Even though there might be actual (rather than fear-imposed) limits to what I am able to do as a result of having to care for them, they are such beautiful beings and I am so blessed to know, love and be loved by them.

Habits of The Mind

A friend asked recently on Facebook whether our lives are predetermined or whether we have a choice over what happens to us. I’m not sure I can answer this question, but what I do know is that we have a choice over our expectations of what should be.

Many so-called “esoteric” traditions (which are becoming a lot less esoteric and a lot more mainstream now) teach that a thought is the precursor to its manifestation in form. So, what you think becomes reality – especially the more energy you put into it. At the very least, I believe that what you think makes an imprint on your body in terms of its energy levels and functioning. At the very most, I believe you can strongly influence the life that manifests for you by taking charge of your thoughts and perceptions and therefore your expectations. Can you control how other people react to you? No, but you can control how you react and interact with your world.

Yoga teaches that thoughts are powerful. It also teaches that we have limiting thought forms (samskaras) of which we are often unaware that affect and even dictate our ways of being and our perceptions of the world. These thought forms limit our experience of the world and we imagine that these thoughts are truths rather than just habits of the mind. “This is just how things are,” we tell ourselves, “Nothing is going to change.” “Love hurts.” “I’ll never have enough money.” “Work isn’t supposed to be fun.” And that’s what you get – more of the same. This becomes so habituated that we don’t even notice that we’re doing it. Thus begins a cycle, turning around and around on this wheel of life without knowing why we’re on the wheel or how to get off.

Where did those thoughts come from anyway? Who decided they were true? What if you could allow for the possibility of something being different? What if, without necessarily knowing how to change it, you could just entertain the possibility that things could change for the better?

The first step to making a change is mindfulness of these habitual limiting thoughts. Meditation helps with this, but I’ve found the most helpful thing is to listen to myself talk. Wayne Dyer talks about this in his DVD set “Excuses Begone.” The things that pop out of our mouths in everyday conversation can shed a lot of light on what thought patters are revolving in your head. For example in yoga practice I used to say: “Oh yea, that’s my bad hip.” Yikes! Poor hip. I wasn’t allowing it the possibility of being anything else. Have you said or heard people say: “Yea, life sucks and then you die.” Is that really what you want to manifest?

Some might argue that people don’t really mean it when they say those things – it’s just a saying. Check in with your body the next time you say one of these careless phrases and see if your body knows that you don’t really mean it. “Life sucks” has a totally different impact on your body than “I love being alive!” or “Amazing things happen all the time.” Close your eyes and try it – say the phrases and notice how they impact your body. You might be surprised.

If you don’t really mean it, don’t say it. Just like your thoughts, your words have power. If you say it enough you’ll eventually believe it. Repeat something that builds you up instead of tearing you down – make a habit of being open to amazing possibilities. You might be surprised at what can happen.