And First I Promise to Look Within: Healing the Self to Heal Others

Lugano, Switzerland

“Physician, heal thyself.”

I never actually understood what that meant, and until just now I did not even realize it was a proverb from the Gospel of Luke.

What sort of medicine people was Jesus addressing? How did the middle eastern doctors of 2000 years ago approach their craft? Would I recognize the roots of my own energy healing work or were they the precursors of the conventional western practitioners of today? Was it about getting deep into the causes of dis-ease or were they offering pills to treat the symptoms?

Undoubtedly, there are countless excellent, compassionate MDs out there, dedicated professionals who look at their patients as entire beings and not just a chest cold or an infection or a bout of depression. At the same time, the grueling nature of medical school and a health care system that is focused on quantity and expediency rather than quality and attention must make it impossible for most modern physicians to really focus on their own well being.

This is not intended to be a rant about the state of modern medicine or any claim that what I am learning and practicing is any better than anyone else’s path. Instead, I play with this quotation because I am considering how I must heal myself before I will ever effectively heal anyone else.

If I ever make any claims to have arrived as a healer or as a conscious individual, I am deeply sunk in a damaging illusion. This is not the self deprecating cry of a person lacking confidence. It is simply the awareness that I am new here in the world of healing and wisdom and faith and have more to learn during every moment of every day. I can only pray for an open heart and an open mind and the love of patient people who will help foster this new rush of passion I find growing within me.

Today I found myself growing frustrated by some whom I love and respect .  She just can’t seem to quit sweating the small stuff. I just wanted to ask her to evaluate the steady stream of complaint and reaction that kept flowing from her lips and help her realize how unhelpful it all is – both to herself and her audience.

Even as this urge welled up inside me and my look of disbelief began to play across my face as she continued to speak, I knew that I was listening with ears of judgment, not of compassion. I climbed up on my spiritual high horse and began to pity her for the ways she squandered her energy and let every setback shake her to the core.

Later, worried about my own reaction to the situation, I described it all to a kind and generous friend who helped me talk through it all until I realized that I was not really upset with this woman’s behavior, but by the shadows of myself that I saw in her. The moment I allowed myself to sit behind my eyes and toss my enlightened mane, I was not greeting her with healing energy, but instead with the cold detachment of someone relieved that she knew a better way to live.

I needed to feel this flash of shame so I could step back and remember that I am a novice at this pursuit of living a wise and graceful life. The good work I can offer to the world must first flow through me, body, mind and spirit. Only when I have drank deep my own medicine can I reach out and confidently offer it to others.

A Deer on the Sidewalk (Or, Wisdom Against the Odds)

Driving through the streets of Poughkeepsie when I left work at the unusually early hour of one o’clock, I became the first in a long line of cars to stop for a buck casually prancing across College Avenue. This regal creature only seemed vaguely aware that his four antlers were no defense against the four wheeled beasts barreling towards him.

Here was an animal so out of his element, his dark coat no camouflage against the yellow lines down the middle of the road, his forest wisdom so easily lost in the cracks in the pavement. At the same time, since we find ourselves in the middle of the New York hunting season, he was a clever lad, testing his luck against the visible rush of oncoming traffic rather than the more clandestine attack of flying bullets.

For these weeks when guns and bows rule the woods, the deer’s natural habitat becomes a house of danger, and he must risk these ever closer brushes with humanity. The world is turned upside down as home and safety must be traded for an unknown civilization that plays by mysterious rules.

I cannot help but think of those moments in life when the foundations shift, when people who promise to always be there end up following a divergent path, when the plans that were meant to offer a secure future refuse to materialize, when the homes we have created for ourselves cannot be a refuge.

This deer could have panicked in the face of suburbia and left hoof prints on the hoods of the parked SUVs (I am working this metaphor based on the belief that he is not some cervine street rat, fat from the neighborhood petunias). Instead he crossed the road to munch another house’s shrubbery and was not shaken by the passing cars. Adaptability was the secret of his survival (at least on this particular Thursday afternoon). He was willing to brave unknown dangers in order to increase his changes of surviving against forces that would almost certainly be his doom.

Though a brief emotional bust-up this week threatened to upset this castle of peace and equanimity that I have been blessed enough to construct, I am still fortunate enough to be free of those dreaded calamities that drive us from our places of comfort. Still, I want to learn from this beautiful animal what it is to walk through unfamiliar territory with proud head held high, maintaining essential poise even when nothing is working as it should.

Softness and Strength, In the Soul and On the Job

Hanging up the phone, I stretched and sighed and immediately got up to fill the office teapot. I had to get back into my body and find peace in my rapidly beating heart. It had been a success – I had just convinced a vendor whose faulty service had disturbed the smooth flow of a conference I had organized to cut our bill in half. Mixing firmness with resignation, verbal gymnastics with pregnant pauses, I had gotten my way and saved some of the grant money that I badly needed to apply to other causes.

This is one of the things I am good at – making the person on the other end of the phone realize that he is dealing with a redhead who knows what she wants and what her organization needs and refuses be denied. It is a valuable skill in my professional life and was essential when we bought our house, but sometimes I wonder if it is a liability as I search for a deeper connection with my soul.

Swagger and confidence are treasured commodities in so much of the world, and I know that I have cultivated more than my share. These qualities have been a fine shield that have insulated me from that dreaded vulnerability. Thing is, such a shield blocks a lot more than just a few guys who seek to swindle a poor defenseless maiden. Walking around with an acquired tough girl attitude has made too many people believe in my callousness and irreverence. It is awfully hard to convince someone that you are a healer interested in affairs of the spirit when you just threatened (oh-so-hollowly) to make somebody come to the library to fix the leaking pipes.

At the same time, there are rings in this steely suit of chain mail that have their own spiritual purposes. Schools of thought in the world of energy healing differ about whether or not the healer can take on her client’s negative energy, but regardless, it is necessary to establish boundaries between practitioner and recipient. I know that I have an ability to say “no, I am sorry, but that is not acceptable” when I am staring down a contractor, and I can do the same if something comes up when I have someone on my table.

In the same vein, it requires a great deal of strength to be the firm hand that guides people through the places within that scare them. A healer encounters a great deal of resistance when she tries to help someone break their deepest patterns.  Even as she listens to the needs of the client, she must have the confidence to take a stand in the battle against a person’s well constructed – but essentially harmful – defenses.

I fear the extremes – weakness on one side, stridency on the other. If I become a completely spiritual being, will I lose that edge that can be so useful in the world? If I indulge the parts of me that dare someone to mess with me, am I making this endeavor for wisdom nothing more than empty rhetoric?

There has to be a way to marry these aspects of myself, to cultivate supple strength and mighty tenderness. It is a vital sort of balance, one that permits me to revel in my humanity and yet still linger with the Divine. Dancing, always dancing, with these seemingly opposite drives…

Caring for the Self: Selfish or Selfless?

“The work you are doing on the mat is a gift to everyone you love because it will make you strong and supple and allow you give the best of yourself to the world.” So many yoga teachers have offered this sort of encouragement and I have drunk it in greedily during many a long shoulder stand.

My cynical little shadow laughs that teachers who want to fill their studios at dinner time have to say such things in order to convince the class that it is better to focus on breath and form rather than whip up some pasta for the kids. The rest of me that understands the essential truth: we must nurture ourselves before we can ever offer authentic comfort to anyone we love.

Many of us have internalized this wisdom and understand its weight and worth. It brings us back to the mat and to these blogs and to countless other sweet habits that sustain us every day. To talk about these things in a space like this is just so much preaching to the converted.

At the same time, we constantly encounter those who do not make the choice to care for the body and the spirit. They don’t see that correlation between tending the self and being able to support for those we love. For me, “these people” who constantly put business and housework and the needs of others before their own are not disembodied, rhetorical devices: they are many of the people I live and work with every day.

I think it is obvious which path I believe is most effective, but I do not mean to stand in judgment over this other camp – they are doing the best that they can with the tools that seem most obvious to them. The dark circles under their eyes and their mysterious chronic pains are proof of their dedication to being all things to all people. All people except themselves, that is.

When I dodge out of work a little early to get to the chiropractor even when I know my colleagues suffer from much deeper back aches than me, I can’t help but wonder at how my choice may be perceived. Am I a self obsessed hypochondriac who puts her own spine before her career and getting dinner together? Am I judged for my weakness, for being a childless flibbity gibbet who spends her time and disposable income on new agey foolishness?

For the most part, I realize that analyzing actions that I know to be vital and necessary through such a cruel, hypothetical gaze is a useless game that serves no one. I just worry because I know my path is not the commonly accepted approach. It is often challenging to stand against the “do it for profit, do it for security, do it til it hurts, there’s no crying in baseball” American way, especially when family and friends seem to subscribe wholeheartedly to that maddened creed.

I suppose all we can do is dedicate ourselves to self healing that is free of selfishness.  I think this is only possible when such deep work is not focused strictly on the individual, but is dedicated to the good of the community and the good of the sacred within us all.

Rather than simply pitying or becoming exasperated by those who don’t understand the idea of slowing down, of investing in the power of deep stretches and even deeper breaths, perhaps we can think more about how to share the inner peace that we are cultivating. How can we figure out how to make pure-hearted attention to the Self an epidemic that everyone wants to catch?

A Spiritual Midwife During a Dark Spell

Now that I am alert to this November chill, these late autumn doldrums, I see lives being eked out in the shadows all over the place.

It is happening on a global and national level as economies falter and threaten to fail and we come to realize that capitalism might have been some sort of cruel joke. This gathering darkness even after all that shiny hope of only a week and a half ago (can you believe that the elation over our new president has slid into naked financial fear in only eleven days?) is crippling everyone to some degree.

I am watching it happen to the people in my own circles. Relationships are changing irrevocably or are falling away. New illnesses are emerging and some are losing in their battles for wellness. The ability to pretend everything is fine is dissolving. It is time to admit that life cannot continue on this twisting track, at this breakneck pace.

Like I said, I am watching this happen to those around me right now. I find myself wrapped in a blanket of blessing and abundance that I thank the Gods for every day. My friend BlissChick talks about how such good fortune can set us questioning this luck, and sabotaging ourselves because we fear we have been granted “too much blessing.” I completely understand that impulse to throw on the hairshirt and deny ourselves the joy of what we have been given, and have fallen into that trap countless times.

This time around, however, I am able to look at my blessings and comfort as a divinely given shield and solace. I am so well shrouded in a soft cloak of peace that I can stand beside those who suffer and absorb their stories without the interference of my own fears and losses. None of this is to say that I am cleansed from all of the selfish whining that I regret occasionally mars my conversations, but I recognize that I am free of the deeper dramas that others need to be supported through right now. I can strive to be a vessel that takes in tears and offers them back as different brew of solace and hope.

For all that we are all marked by the wheel of the year, but the ebb and flow of nature, I think that we are occasionally chosen to stand outside of time. With all humility, I admit that I am caught in a time of joyful midsummer even as the skies turn a dirty pearl and wasted wet leaves choke the walkways. I give thanks for this role as spiritual midwife, a candle burning in the fog for those who are lost in the early evening gloom.

Have you been given a warmer coat to ward off the first frost? Is it big enough to wrap around a friend who needs it?

Carrying Around Your Own Universe

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To spend much time considering the soul and the inner workings of the self is to recognize that we each carry around an entire interior universe.

It is so hard to understand the limitlessness that is inside of us, the expansive intricacies of the psyche and, even more importantly, the infinitude that is the Divine within us all. What can be even more difficult to grasp is that a similarly limitless universe exists within all people, even those we believe to be ignorant or cruel or uninspired.

I know myself to be someone who strives to be aware of every seismic shift in consciousness, of every tremor of new perspective that passes through my life. All too often I find myself baffled by the behavior of people who seem to live unexamined lives, marked by monotony and routine and something I perceive to be a lamentable narrowness.

Of course, the first problem there is that I am allowing myself to be swayed by my own perception of their stories. There are times when I decide that people who are not digging around in their own heads like they’re on some sort of archaeological are somehow getting less out of life than I am. If they do not show me immediate glimmers of their own interior universes, I start to believe that there are people out there whose stories are somehow less complex and vivid than my own.

Working on the development of one’s soul can make a seeker a terrible snob. I know I fall into this trap when I forget that all people are fellow journeyers through the mystery of life. When I allow myself to forget this truth I allow myself the luxury of disrespecting the people around me. My often tarnished version of who they are burns more brightly than the truth that they are fellow humans walking across this earth, doing the best with the tools that have been given to them.

One gets weary of trying to be a saint though, trying to be kind and understanding in the face of people who are set on acting out the darkest parts of their nature. I have tried the sainthood approach, and I find it just makes me nervous and repressed and worried about my own inadequate, non-canonized future prospects.

I am finding, however, that I can deal with those difficult creatures who cross my path if I remember that, just like me, they have an entire universe inside of them and all sorts of possibilities I might not be able to see. A universe goes on, well, forever. And in something the size of forever you can store a whole lot of beauty, as well as a whole lot of ugly. You can keep great vats of potential, as well as vast sink holes of worthlessness. There is light and there is shadow and there is that wide space in between that informs the way that most of us live.

And, like I said, the most important resident of these inner infinities of ours is God. I may find ways to despise the behavior of a lot of people in this world, but I am pretty sure I could never figure out a way to disregard the divinity that they all carry about.

Little Bits of Bliss and Balance

Christine Kane is collecting intentions. She is inviting everyone to contribute their dreams in delicious sort of group effort to manifest their hearts’ desires. I threw my wish for balance into her Great Big Prayer hat. I want to be able to dance more effortlessly between all that I want to be and all I want to do, and yet still live in accordance with the plans that the Universe has set for me.

Essentially, I want to quit fighting with the fact that there are only 24 hours and I am only going to be functional for 16.5 of them. I want to quit worrying about all that I cannot do in a day (90 minutes doing yoga, 30 minutes meditating, 60 minutes writing a blog post, churning out 1,000 words of fiction, practicing as a healer, cooking dinner, cleaning the house, reading inspiring books, being a fully present spouse, talking to God) and just be content with what IS possible.

This morning, fifteen minutes of yoga to really wake up my hamstrings took me to a place of such deep breathing that it felt as powerful as a half hour on a mediation cushion. I was a couple of minutes late to meet my carpool buddy because I stepped out on the back porch to hear the birds and watch the squirrels.  I  was offering my prayers and setting my intention for the day more powerfully than I ever could if I had scheduled time for the Divine. Though I dislike being in  perpetual rush,  I know I was a better commuting partner and a better employee because of those few precious, stolen minutes, so it was a fair exchange.

We miss out on so much when we hold ourselves to all or nothing rules. How simple it is to limit ourselves by refusing to engage in all the activities that nurture and sustain us, just because we decide we cannot give them enough time or focus. I am not about to start advocating leading a half-arsed life, but I am rethinking my perspective on the fact that a little is almost always better than nothing at all.

There may not be time to make love, but there is nearly always time for a lingering kiss. I may not be able to immerse myself fully in the world of my novel, but I can at least add a few lines of dialog. These days I may not be up for a full speed ahead one and a half hour yoga class, but how can I expect to get back there if I will not reintroduce the postures a little bit at a time?

I was blessed tonight to steal away for the 37 minutes that a yoga podcast by Eoin Finn requires. It is a sweet little sequence of standing postures that reminds me that there is so much truth in the union that is yoga. Find this little gem, called “Honey Routine,” as well as several others at http://www.eoinfinnyoga.com/downloads.php or on iTunes. There’s my unsolicited free plug of the day!

So here’s to taking little sips of bliss and balance and walking in abundance instead of running ever onward in that torturous state of “not enough.”

The Girl Who Cried Feminism

After hearing the rave reviews, we just started watching Mad Men on DVD. After only two episodes I understand how compelling the show is, not just because of clever dialog set in a fascinating time, but because it is like watching a well orchestrated car wreck. Red meat, chain smoking, drinks before noon, these are nothing compared to the devastating treatment that every woman on the show endures. It is like watching a worst case scenario doomsday movie, but then you realize it’s not fantasy. These women could be my grandmothers and they were on the front lines of this seemingly impossible war against militant, but oh-so-gentile, sexism every day.

Discovering feminism in college was like finding out there were new shades on the color wheel. I was born in 1979 and have never withstood a fraction of what women fifty years ago met each day, but I took to the canon of modern feminism like that fish on a bicycle took to water. Exploring my identity as a woman gave me the Goddess, a sense of independence, and inspired my entire academic path. It also armed me against a few of the demeaning pitfalls that mark the experiences of most nineteen year old girls.

Almost a decade later, my feminist edge begins to dull and my sharp critique of the media become a little less strident. Removed from the sphere of activism and late night dorm room rants and now living with a man who teaches me to laugh at my own earnestness, I have shed most of my intense radicalism. Though my liberal backbone remains strong, I find that opinions intended to shock and exclude the uninitiated hold little allure now. I had to marinate in the purest feminist ideals so that I could eventually emerge a woman who could survive in a world that may not be as damning as 1960s New York, but certainly still nurtures chauvinism and enduring double standards.

I cannot be alone in this sort of evolution from blatant f-you feminism to a more internalized sense of power and presence. Two of the most important voices in my feminist education seem to have found themselves on similar path: Sinead O’Connor and Ani DiFranco.

No Man’s Woman” and “Not a Pretty Girl“? These were my anthems and I still need them sometimes to remind me of who I was, of the bits of steal at the foundation of this softer persona I now use to greet the world. Sinead has since had her own odyssey of faith and discovery and speaks to God rather than the men in her life in albums like Theology. Ani just released Red Letter Year, and though I will probably never love her newer music like I did those essential first eleven or twelve albums (yeah, she’s wicked prolific), I still respect what she is creating. The righteous rage still burns, but she looks at the world as a mother now, and as I near that phase of my life, I think I can understand how her anger smolders at a different temperature. The love of a lioness for her cub is much more evocative than rebellion for the sake of pissing someone off, and her music speaks to me in this new space

When I skip the feminist blogs I used to read avidly and instead seek sites about the soul, the environment, creativity, or the politics of race, am I abandoning the feminism that gave me freedom to engage in such topics? Or, instead, can I satisfy myself with the belief that the ideas are integral to my work and that women’s wisdom is working its magic at every turn? Can I find a way to follow my own path without worrying that I forget my sisters who redraw their feminist stripes every day so that the rest of us do not have to?

And wisdom is a butterfly

And wisdom is a butterfly
And not a gloomy bird of prey
– W.B. Yeats

When I first read those lines I thought image striking and I loved the way that “wisdom” and “butterfly” sounded together, but I never felt the power of the sentiment until recently.

So many have written with a spirit of elation and relief this week. The greatest potential difficulty that many of us have discussed is the need to take responsibility ourselves, rather than leave it all in the hands of our new national leadership. Many of us are swept up in the awe and the hope, but I’ve also read gleeful revelations of GOP infighting and Palin in a towel, the Black Snob’s awesome rebuttal to the sore losers and the conservative Monday morning quarterbacks, and Christine Kane’s reminder that there is a lot of potential ugliness mixed in with all this hope.

After eight long years of feeling like the victims of a war mongering regime run by a man whose intelligence we questioned at every turn, it makes sense that we want to throw our heads back and crow about our triumph. Unfortunately, just because it is human nature to gloat a little (or a lot) and point out the flaws of the fallen opponent, that doesn’t make such impulses alright.

We have lived in a nation ruled by hawks for so long, it seems that it might be difficult to remember that we never meant to learn their tricks, their addiction to fear, their recrimination of the “other.” This is not to assume that “Democrat” or “liberal” automatically means kinder or gentler or any more wise, but I can hope that these qualities are within our grasp.

I am not just thinking about the left side of the aisle lording over the right, I’m talking about our own reactions and intentions as we move forward. How do we carry our victory and our wisdom more lightly? How do we avoid slipping into those nasty patterns we have seen from others when they have tasted success?

Belief in the Nation, Belief in the Individual

“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Victor Frankl

I was introduced to Victor Frankl today in an article by Russell Bishop in The Huffington Post that discussed coping with the possibility that the “the other side” may win next week. Bishop was not picking sides – a rare enough feat these days – because he was crediting both parties with the passion and emotional investment that have made this such singular campaign.

No matter who wins, the world will not end and the country will not become unrecognizable (at least not right away). Sure, so many of us talk about moving to Canada if this one (as opposed to “that one”) wins, but we are the same people who threatened to do that back in 2004 and stayed on to realize that as much as we may differ with the guy in the oval office, our lives still looked pretty similar even if the news looked more and more grim.

Am I hiding my head in the consumerism-soaked, triviality-obsessed culture that watched American Idol as two wars dragged on? Am I too much a part of the nation that watched An Inconvenient Truth, wept, ranted… and then went to the air conditioned big box store to buy a couple of new light bulbs?

Must I believe that everything is going to be alright, regardless of who we elect, not because I truly believe that American is indestructible and her best days are ahead of her, but because believing anything else is just too damn terrifying?

Or is there actually hope to be harvested in this turbulent time regardless of who gets the top job? For all that we must be aware of the world around us and vote and care for the poor and question industrial pollution, what if all of our rhetoric is true and widespread change truly does begin at the individual level? What if we really are the change we have been waiting for and as amazing as it is to have an incredible leader sounding the charge, we actually have the power to make those changes ourselves?

Frankl’s work was indelibly marked by his three years in a Nazi concentration camp. For all that is at stake in this election, we are still going to wake up with a democratically elected leader (I know that the electoral college problematizes that statement, but bear with me) and we still have one of the best opportunities in the world to have a government we can be proud of. If Frankl could endure the greatest cruelties that one group of human beings have inflicted upon another in modern memory and emerge with this steadfast belief in the potential of the individual, why can’t we?

We have watched people from all segments of society rally around a candidate who we hope enacts the kind of change that he so eloquently describes. It is human nature to desire such figures with shoulders so broad and voices so powerful that they can bear the burdens of our dreams and sing the songs of our longed for freedoms. I can only wish that we can elect a hero and then awaken with a president who will recede to the edges of our vision so that we can recognize all of the potential that sleeps within each one of us.

I do not mean to introduce any defeatist notions into our push toward next Tuesday. I am confident that hope and reason will win out over fear and duplicity. Nor do I wish to tarnish the greatness of a candidate that I truly believe in. It is just that in the pursuit of being more accountable to the path of wisdom, I need to begin to allow myself to believe that we can walk in our own sense of greatness and then watch the ripples shape the rest of this world.