Adapt Or … Be a Lousy Houseguest?

A picky eater? Me? Never.

A woman who needs her sleep? Oh, me? No way.

A creature of habit? Who, me? No, no, not at all!

Well…

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I never realized how dedicated to my routine I have become until the last few weeks when I have been off visiting friends and family.

Ensconced in my beloved house, it has been relatively simple to establish healthy new patterns. Problematic foods avoided. Vitamins taken on time. Blog updated daily. Meditation practice observed. House maintained. (Ok, the last two are things I intend to throw into the routine, but I am honest to a fault).

I am beyond blessed to have people who love who take the changes that I have undergone in stride. They enable my gluten free imperative: we eat more Mexican (they have corn tortillas, right?); we make eggs rather than pancakes (no, please don’t worry about buying the extra expensive GF mix). Heck, we even sip herbal tea rather than opening a bottle of wine since I have sworn off drinking for a while as I get my body back in balance after years of troublesome yeast infections.

I used to eat anything any time and wore my barroom credentials with pride after a couple years keeping up with the lads in more than a few Irish pubs. I slept only when absolutely necessary and shunned the predictability of a daily routine.

And then I guess I grew up. Or maybe I wised up. I am not always certain whether those two experiences are mutually exclusive.

Sometimes I wonder if my transformation is stranger for my friends or for me as I offer to be designated driver and stifle a yawn past 10:30. I guess it is stranger for me since I am writing about it tonight.

The reasons I write about it at all are twofold: because I am grateful to have people who support the decisions I have made about my health (and so rarely make me feel like self-obsessed health nut who’s allergic to everything) and because I am learning a lot about the art of being adaptable.

There is a time for discipline. There is a time for tending to the self. There is a time for inwardness. There is a time to craft a life according to perfectly chosen criteria.

img_2224And then you realize that those perfectly chosen criteria are a lovely illusion that can be sweet and gentle for a while but invariably must fall away when we accept that we are not in control.

I had a perfect weekend with friends that took me out of my element enough to show me how I was getting perhaps a little too accustomed to my routines. I stayed up late and ate some weird food and guess what? I had a wonderful time.

I needed to remember that as much as much as I have changed and as hard as this journey to health has been, I am now far from fragile. There were days when this new incarnation of me was far from established when I might have had trouble deviating from the “safe” routines I was trying to create, but I live in steadier times and must realize I am strong and, yes, adaptable.

All this work I am doing is almost meaningless if I cannot carry it into the world and enjoy life all the more. Spiritual work and listening to the body are about training myself to live with a sense of completeness both within my own soul and throughout my outer experiences.

I am not training to be a monastic; these skills are not shaped and honed so I can be the perfect hermit.

Are you living within safe patterns that nurture you right now? Are you instead stuck in some sort of rut?

Can you step outside of your routines and still feel supported and healthy?

What would it take to both create positive patterns and yet still maintain the flexibility to adapt and to be a good houseguest even if you have to say “no thanks” to the main course?

The Dance with Difficulty: Learning and the “Hard Stuff”

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“I’m just glad to hear that someone else is doing something that’s hard.”

My dear friend Lady Bird said this to me in one of our many conversations in which we hash out the contents of our souls and describe the decor of our interior castles. She was responding to a comment I made about how challenging it was to practice all I was learning in my healing artists’ school. This healing work was asking more of me, mind, body and spirit, than I had ever imagined.

As an English major, I remember being envious of my friends who were studying more technical things. I longed to be immersed in brand new concepts in the way that the biology majors learned about obscure physical processes and the psychology students learned about the activities of the brain.

It wasn’t that every poem and novel didn’t offer new gateways into knowledge – in many ways it was much more limitless than the structures of scientific theories. It was just that everything was so open ended and there were so few “right” answers that I sometimes felt a little at sea. We would all read the same books and compose completely different papers that flowed in countless directions. I was full of free floating thought (isn’t that what liberal arts educations are supposed to give you – the ability to think?), but I felt that I was getting little concrete information. My brain was learning expansion, but not necessarily discipline.

As my days as a student become a smaller and smaller percentage of my life (funny how that happens – when I was 22 I could say that I had spent 10% of my life in Ireland – I don’t want to do the math to know what it is now!), I look at that legacy of how I learned to learn.

What is my relationship with gathering and retaining knowledge now?

And, what does it mean to embark upon learning something that’s hard?

dsc00095So much of life is already “hard.” Finding work that sustains you economically, mentally, emotionally. Taking steps to be physically and mentally healthy. Maintaining relationships and finding the balance between caring for ourselves and others. Monitoring all of the suffering in the world and making whatever small steps we can to alleviate it. Coping with pain and death and debt and loneliness

Getting through the day is so often challenging enough, why take on any more stuff? We have so many practical and emotional battles to fight, why add more information and “to dos” to the list?

This morning I started looking back on the last few years of my life. There have been countless challenges that have forced me to grow as a person and I know I have learned thousands of essential lessons.

I have read hundreds of books and meandered down countless avenues of thought. And yet, I have enjoyed the luxury of being my own teacher, putting the book down when the prose got too thick or the philosophy deviated too much from what I thought I wanted to absorb.

Last week, I mentioned that I still thought about how I had decided against pursuing my PhD. Though it is still in the back of my mind as a path not taken, I treasure the freedom I have had to pursue whatever wisdom strikes my fancy.

Now, I find myself in a completely other kind of study. It is wildly open ended as I use all of my creative powers in service to another’s healing process, and yet there is groundwork to be laid and structures to be learned first. I find my brain needing to adapt to a whole new sort of discipline that can let me fly free and stay grounded at the same time.

dsc001831We are still in the time of a year’s fresh new thoughts and dreams. Maybe this is a good moment for you to consider how you learn new things and how you engage with stuff that’s “hard.”

Is there information that begs to be absorbed in a new way? Are there challenges that ask for a different sort of attention?

What new territory is asking to be claimed and explored?

Wisdom’s Messenger

I am still very much excited and energized by the word I have chosen to be my theme this year – align (I better be, the year isn’t even twenty hours old yet!).

And yet, the more I contemplate the ways I will practice “align” the more I understand that this is just a tool that will get me through my year. A single word cannot hold all that aspire to, all that I expect from myself in my journey through 2009. It isn’t supposed to, after all, since this is supposed to be an alternative to those cumbersome and cruel new year’s to-do lists.dsc00613

Align is the daily breath of inspiration that will help me fly toward my larger vision – aligning with my soul’s purpose.

I didn’t exactly expect to receive the gift of a goal that was annunciated any better than that, but as I sat down in the meditation chair tonight, I was offered something slightly more concrete.

This holiday break has allowed me to pursue the activities that my heart dreams might occupy my every moment: writing, reading, meditating, healing myself and my beloved, tending to our home, and being present to watch the setting sun and the waxing of the moon. It has given me the courage to whisper to the Universe that I have so much work to do in this world that I am ready invest all of my energies in these creative pursuits.

It’s the old tension between vocation and avocation rearing its troublesome head again (or perhaps I should say still). As much as I have tried to crush it under the heels of my boots every time I walk from the car into work, this lingering conviction that I am meant to do something else, something more, still persists.

And so, tonight I was asking for guidance for the year to come and I was given this new way to frame my identity, my sense of purpose:

wisdom’s messenger

It seems the Universe sees fit to offer me a fancy title in answer to my question of who I am meant to be in the year to come. All I need to do is live my way into fulfilling such a promising offer. I have been graced with this thirst to know, this desire to serve, this yearning to connect. (Pair that with this Gemini’s love of writing and communication and call me a mortal Mercury!)

dsc005502009, please help me to walk across your pages as

a seeker of truth,

a gatherer of visions,

a messenger of wisdom.

And you, dear readers, are there any insistent messages that have blown in with the new year? Any shifts so powerful they refuse to be contained by a single word alone?

Life, A Constant Process of Remembering

Going through my notes from my healing class from a week ago, I came across another little sip of wisdom that is opening up a new universe of thought for me:

Life is a constant process of remembering.

Anna's shot, the lawn

Either you look at this idea with a belief in reincarnation – that we gathered this wisdom in past lives and are trying to re-collect our thoughts in this next spin through life. Or, it has nothing to do with how many times you might have walked the earth. If we all came from the Great Source, then we once sat beside God and had access to all transcendence. To live is to try to get back to that place of Oneness.

Striking out on a spiritual path can be frightening. We are shaken from our slumber when we leave behind the malaise of daily life and look at the world with wide, fresh eyes that seek the sacred in everything.

It may have been a restless sleep, full of nightmares and cold sweats, but the bad dream of an unexamined life is at least a familiar one. To abandon those chilly, but accustomed nights can be nearly impossible when the alternative is a lonely walk into the undiscovered country of the spirit.

We know that leaving behind our ties to the pedestrian and the limiting have to be dissolved, however, if we want to free ourselves an experience a new way of being. The routines that bind us to stunted dreams and unrealized potential have to be dissolved.

How might we open ourselves to the possibilities of a journey into consciousness if we think of it not as a rush of brand new spiritual revelation, but as a process of recalling that which our souls already know? What if it is not a leap into the unknown, but a gentle process of sinking gently into the loving embrace of the Mother?

Suddenly, a thought strikes me:

We go through the process of being human so that we can learn to be more divine.

Unified Soul, Unified Self

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The elusive it we are seeking has so many different names. Union. Wholeness. Oneness. Balance. Wisdom. Enlightenment. Love.

All are shades of a desire to feel complete, to feel as if we can quit hoping and striving for Truth and just experience it.

An idea that keeps cropping up that I think helps us to get closer to this better place: non-duality.

Andrew Harvey was the first person I ever heard talk about having a non-dual relationship with the Divine. He offered the line by Sufi mystic Al Hallaj:

Between me and You, there is only me
Take away the me so that only You remain

The simple mathematics of this wisdom always stays with me. Meet the Divine by removing the only barrier that stands between us and God: the human ego.

Harvey talks a great deal about recognizing that we are not separate from God, but that we all carry the Sacred within us. We are all containers that hold Divine love and so we are always in union with God – if only we can allow this infinitely intimate relationship.

This idea of non-duality is also a beautiful way to look at the relationship that we have with our own true selves.

When we try to fool ourselves and the world that we really are several different people (the work self, the home self, the practical self, the creative self), we are setting up another set of barriers between us and happiness. We pretend that we can be productive and accomplished only if we can create a cast of characters who manage different aspects of life.

But, where ever you go, there you are – right? We need to lose the illusion that we can ever actually splinter ourselves or get in the way of our relationships with the true self.

What would happen if we all realize that the true sense of who we are does not have to be kept separate from the real world because we feel like we need to wear masks of protection?

How sweet could life be if we stopped living according to the dictates of the fragile ego and started living through the wisdom of the soul?

Between false self and true, there is only fear
Take away the fear so that only truth remains

A Smooth Landing Back in the “Real World”

When we stepped from the cozy den of our teacher’s home, with its great bellied wood stove and the incense flavoring the air, the coldest winter wind of the season tried to steal the breath from our throats. Naked trees shivered and swayed in the frosty air and the taste of December settled on our lips.

One of my classmates sighed and said, “Back to the real world.”

Buddha in the snow

I swear I spoke from a place of truth deep inside of me, and not from any false optimism when I replied, “But that was the real world.” I meant that though our three day healing artists’ class had been transformational and downright otherworldly, it had actually happened and it was part of the reality our group has been blessed enough to know on this earth.

This feeling carried me through to the moment, a little over twelve hours later, when I walked into my office and managed to still wear a gentle smile. My previous weekend-long classes had spat me into Monday mornings with a sense of dread and discombobulation. Meditation and healing work had nothing to do with balancing budgets and book shifting projects and I had felt lost between the two worlds.

Today, however, I was amazed by the blissful sense of integration that bore me through the day.  I had managed to bring the healer that I know myself to be through the doors of the workplace. At last, I felt a sense of wholeness that was almost always lacking when I sat down at my desk and interacted with colleagues.  I’d had enough of leading a life that was disconnected with itself.

It is time to stop believing that we are more than one person, that we can effectively slice ourselves up into little pieces and give our spirits to God, and our love to our families, and our practicality to our work. We are all complex, multifaceted creatures with our fingers dripping with all different colors of finger paint, but that rainbow is all unified by one hand, one arm, one being who dances in many different worlds.

I have been struggling with a sense of desperation because I felt like a fraud in every part of my life, especially as I tried to reconcile my professional/working self and my healer/writer/seeker self. No piece of me could get my full attention or dedication because I was so busy slicing myself up into discrete portions.

Many months ago, a dear friend counseled me that all of my worlds did have a sense of harmony and did make sense because they all had one essential element in common: ME.

Her wisdom did not take root in my heart until I walked through this workday and realized that my true self really was the fulcrum that balanced my two worlds.

I cannot manage people and projects if I do not come to everyone with an open heart and a belief in the interconnectedness of all beings. I cannot thrive as a writer and a healer if I do not use the organized, disciplined parts of my brain. My different identities have always colored the others in my closet of characters. The diversity of my experiences and abilities have always been a source of power for me, however untapped and unrecognized.

We all carry around an entire universe of possibility. How many of us have trouble finding the compatibility that truly does exists between the different corners of that universe? How much more powerful can we be if we stop drawing lines in the sand of our consciousness and embrace true integration?

What new forms of harmony and understanding might thrive in this world if we can first find a way to create such a sense of balance within?

The Exploitation of Mining for Inspiration

During a long ride this weekend I came across a new Public Radio International program, To the Best of Our Knowledge. They were doing an entire show about sadness and depression. The final segment was dedicated to a San Antonio artist, Michale Nye, who created photographic and audio portraits of sixty homeless individuals troubled by mental illness.

After profiling many of his subjects, the interviewer asked “If you could wipe out mental illness tomorrow would you? … Is there a function for this sort of sadness and pain? Do we need these people in our culture?”

He replied,

I see them as teachers, not as people with mental illness. They are helping us, there is a function. They are helping us understand more about ourselves and humanity. We need them for understanding, for insight, for courage. I found myself being inspired over and over. We need to listen to people challenged in their lives. I remember Virginia Woolf in her diaries said that we need to look at the landscapes of our lives and see that pain and sorrow reveal some truths.

Since Woolf published the descriptions of her suffering and they became part of the literary canon, it seems completely ethical to draw those sorts of lessons from the difficulties she had with being human. I am not so sure that it is fair to speak from a place of mental health and say that people’s whose lives have been ripped apart by unstoppable inner turmoil are necessary to teach the rest of us courage and offer inspiration. Isn’t this the height of solipsism, of deepest egocentrism that maintains that the rest of the world exists purely for our own edification?  Is the artist seeing his subjects as inspirational opportunities rather than real people caught in tragic circumstances?  Is their suffering being justified since it can be made into a chance for us to contemplate the nature of pain and sorrow?

I listened to this story through the filter of a conversation I had with my sister last week. I was trying to comfort her as her childhood friend lay dying of melanoma, but I was failing miserably since there are no words when a twenty-six year old’s life is being stolen away by cancer. Trying to help, I offered the possibility that she had touched countless lives in a special way with her early passing by teaching us life can be woefully brief and that we must revel in each moment we are granted on this beautiful earth. My sister reacted bitterly to this statement by declaring that there was no way that her friend was dying to show a bunch of stupid people that life was precious. She was finding solace in the belief that her friend was blessed to have spread all the love she needed to in a quarter of a decade, that she was a perfect enough soul that she didn’t need as much time on the planet as the rest of us.

Clearly, my sister was looking at the situation with a much finer wisdom than I could summon. Now, I am beginning to recognize the degrees of selfishness that are involved in everything from coping with death to creating art to thanking our lucky stars that we have clear, obedient minds. The stories of others can certainly color our perspective and enrich our own experiences, but we must never reduce another’s truth to a simplistic cautionary tale.

How can we learn to understand the deepest realities of the lives of the women and men who share this journey with us? How do we begin to recognize the fullness of others’ experiences so that we never keep those who suffer from illness or poverty as distanced figures, there only to teach a little something about the treacherous road of life?

My sister’s friend passed away on Thursday. I want to remind everyone to worship the sun at dawn and dusk, but respect its fiery, deadly glory at noontime. But I also ask that you think on a sweet Cape Cod girl who left this world too soon and realize the hole left in the fabric of an entire tapestry of lives.

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.

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?

My Witness is Shaped Like a Bottle of Guinness

A new visitor, Lauren from Earthy Yoga Mom, made a brilliant comment on my post from yesterday about the “Woman at Head of the Table.” She offered that this Woman, a being she has met in meditation in the form of her “inner Buddha,” actually is transcendence. Lauren says that this transcendent force “has all of the wisdom I need to respond to whatever random challenges my mind is manufacturing.” Perhaps she was telling me that I don’t have to discount the Woman at the Head of Table as a mere human resources lady just because I want to connect with an other-wordly part of myself that talks to God. This is a comforting concept, and one I am very grateful to consider.

With all of the different sources of spiritual knowledge out there, it is easy to be overwhelmed by which strategy or symbols or prayers I should employ on any given day. I tend to forget that so many of them are using a different vocabulary to move you to a similar point along the spiritual journey. Once I allow the Woman at the Head of the Table to be like an “inner Buddha,” then I can associate the Woman that helps me in daily life with a seemingly more sublime power, the Witness, the being that presides over the dialog of my soul.

Stephen Cope talks at length about cultivating the “Witness consciousness,” the pure awareness that is always there, watching, and which serves as a calm in the mind’s worst storms. I conceptualize this Witness to be like Lauren’s little Buddha. It’s meant to be a metaphysical entity, not a person or a place. The thing is, I always picture my Witness as a bottle of Guinness. Yes, Guinness, as in really dark beer.

When I was studying in Ireland in 2001 a huge music festival called Witness was being advertised everywhere. Guinness was the sponsor and every beer mat and bus stop was plastered with advertisements that featured the silhouette of a bottle and simply the word “Witness.” I worry about the queen who rules my mind and instead turn to a container of stout for spiritual guidance! (I am sure that Guinness has surely lead to its own sort of spiritual revelations, but that is for a different blog on a different day).

It seems that it may be more important to look at the end rather than the means as we try to move along the spiritual path. I could spend all sorts of time critiquing the vehicles that get me into those places of stillness where real wisdom can be gathered, but maybe I should use the symbols that I have been given and trust that they will fall away when I actually arrive in that transcendent state to which I hope I am headed.

Or maybe I should just relax and buy the Woman at the Head of the Table a pint…