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I had a dream that I died. Or that I was about to die. I had gotten some kind of diagnosis and (true to my food-centric, vegetarian form) the plan was to eat my lunch salad, then take a pill that would end my life.

This might sound like a bummer of a dream but it wasn’t. First, I was overjoyed to wake up. Then I was intensely aware of the unspeakable sweetness of living…and of its impermanence.

Since The Dream, I’ve been renegotiating my relationship to time. I’ve been paying attention to when I rush through, scrabble over, gobble up my life. I’m doing my best to slow down, savor more, embody presence.

Sometimes it goes better than others.

Last week, I was having a rough go of it when I came across two dharma talks by meditation teacher and author, Tara Brach. Her words often inspire me but these connected straight to everything I’ve been feeling about transience. The two talks are Impermanence: Awakening Through Insecurity, Part 1 & Part 2, and I strongly recommend them both. Listening to them brought me to tears and to laughter. Her stories and words reverberate in my heart and mind still. (These two talks have planted seeds for a whole slew of focuses for our movement together, so stay tuned for more on them in coming weeks.)

In the second talk, Tara tells the story of a woman who’s been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer with the prognosis of one year to live. She has a 2-year-old daughter. Her mantra, her mission becomes this:

No Time To Rush.

When we are truly aware, not in an intellectual way but in a heart and soul way, that our lives will one day be over, what becomes important? What matters? Perhaps counterintuitively, all my hurrying to accomplish things, all my squeezing as much as I possibly can into every single day suddenly seems like the opposite of what is important.

Yesterday, at the busy, noisy grocery store, I waited in the cashier’s line to pay for a cart full of vegetables. When it was my turn, the cashier hastily picked up my reusable bags, “I’m sorry, hold on, please,” he said as he set them up on the counter, “Let me get your bags ready to load.” With the dharma talk words moving around in me, I looked at him and said, “It’s no rush. Take your time.”

He stopped propping the bags up and look straight at me.
“Did you say, ‘It’s no rush’?” he asked.
“I did.”
“Well, let me take a sip of coffee then,” he smiled and stopped long enough for a swig from his travel cup.
He took a breath and so did I.

Rushing is contagious. I wonder about the countless times I’ve impatiently checked out of grocery stores, silently urging the cashier to go faster. In all those hurry-up encounters, the humanness of the moment, and actually, the moment itself was lost. In our Get ‘Er Done culture, it is a gift to give each other a little time, a little breathing room, a sip of coffee.

It’s been a curious exploration to slow down my rushing. Coincidentally (if you believe in those things), I am reading Sarah Susanka’s book The Not So Big Life. In it, she invites the exploration of priorities, questioning of choices and an examination how we spend our time. She writes,

Now is experienced not as time but as presence and although we are aware of flow, it’s as if its duration is incidental, it barely touches us, much as a leaf floating along on a stream would barely be aware of the water’s movement. (p. 147)

This is the dance of No Time To Rush. Allow time to be a flow rather than a commodity. Allow myself to be the leaf floating effortlessly rather than the dam trying to control it.

It is inexpressibly precious, this life. Even with all its messiness and pain and confusion, it is exquisite and worth savoring. None of us has time to rush.

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In this season, it can be easy to get caught up in the things, the activities, the expectations. I know I get focused on what am I going to give, cook, do? Who will we see, what are the plans, what will I wear and do I have everything? But the truth is, this season — and this life — is about our ability to show up. It’s about our presence.

Take some time every day, especially in this week, to drop into the sensations of your body, to notice with your full attention whatever is happening. Make the choice — especially when things feel familiar and are full of memory — to really smell the spices, to taste the cookie, to hear the laughter, to see the faces, to hold the hands. Make the courageous choice to really BE with the people you are with — including yourself.

Presence is the real gift.


ONE WORD 2018 & 2019

As the year comes to its end, it’s a great time to find One Word for 2019. For the past many years, instead of making a resolution, I’ve been choosing one word to guide me through the year. I often think think think about it for a while and then when I stop and ask myself how I want to FEEL in the coming year, the word finds me.

These are the words I’ve lived with for the past several years:

2011 – OPEN

2012 – RELEASE

2013 – SPACIOUS

2014 — WORTHY

2015 — FREEDOM

2016 – heARTful

2017 – AWAKE

2018 – HEALING

Living with one word for a year is a simple way of creating a year-long focus to guide and inspire choices. Now is a great time to open your attention to the word you might like to be with for 2019. And if you had a word for 2018, now is a great time to reconnect with it.


My husband is building us a house. It’s a big and exciting project full of details and a dozen workers. When I tell people about it, the one question that nearly everyone asks is,

“When will you move in?”

Sigh. Who knows? Maybe December. Maybe January. Maybe March. There are so many variables and so many things that are in flux and changing. We have no idea. But that’s not the answer anybody wants.

Our culture is addicted to attempting to know what will happen. Whole industries have been created around predicting the future.

Polling for elections.
Odds-making for sporting events.
And everyone’s favorite: weather forecasts.

These predictions have varying degrees of accuracy. (Hurricane Florence and the Trump presidential campaign are two good examples of predictions that looked pretty certain and then swung wildly and suddenly at the end.) Which begs the question, Why do we keep listening to them?

Fear.

We are afraid of not knowing. It is uncomfortable to live in uncertainty. So we create illusions that we know what will happen that give our brains a false sense of solidity and clarity.

Instead, what if we practiced getting comfortable with not knowing? What if we focused on allowing ourselves to relax into uncertainty? What if we were willing to embrace the bigger truth of complete groundlessness, as Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron calls it?

Experiment with letting your body and mind relax and let go of their grip on wanting to know. Soften into not knowing.

And when we move into the house, I promise I’ll tell you.

When I’m looking to make changes in the way I do things, I need to know what’s actually happening first. Otherwise, I’m working from faulty information.

Recently, I’ve been playing with going deep into what I’m actually feeling.
Not what I’m thinking about what I’m feeling
or what I’m afraid of feeling
or what I plan to do about what I’m feeling
but what I’m actually feeling.

A freaking revelation.

Here’s my habit. I feel a little something and quick-like-a-bunny, I wrap an idea around it.

Instead, what happens if I look at what’s under the blanket?

When I do this, I can respond and take care of what’s actually happening instead of the blanket idea I’ve wrapped around it.

This happens a LOT with hunger.

In an effort to avoid the feeling and the fear around getting hungry, I quick wrap it up and go eat something. Or a bunch of somethings.

Instead, I can determine if that’s really what’s happening. Or if I need to support myself in another way. (Often, I need water.)

This “blanketing” habit happens with lots of feelings.

Distraction is sneaky and can draw me away from something I want to avoid. If I find myself doing something mindlessly like a zombie, then it’s a pretty sure sign that I’m wrapped up in the blanket.

Again, looking under the blanket tells me more about what’s actually happening and what I really need. (As in, “Ah, I don’t want to do my taxes. If I just get it done, then I will free up time and energy to do what I want to do and not mindlessly scroll through Instagram.” OR at the very least, I know why I’m doing what I’m doing so I have a choice to keep doing it or not.)

The best place to start is in the body. If you feel the blanket descending, take a moment to feel whatever physical sensations are arising (including numbness or “no feeling”).

When I drop the blanket, I can make real choices for change that get to the heart of what’s really happening.

This week’s post is about intensity. More specifically, it’s about the benefits of mindfully choosing intensity. Even so, the topic can be a little, well, intense. So I offer the post in illustrations and color with a black cat on the side…

I know I find myself doing this. Avoid riding my bike because it’s easier to drive. Avoid doing another back bend because GAH! Do you do this, too? If so…Click here on the link to the research. It’s kind of amazing.

You can do that right now. Take a moment to take a deep breath before you keep reading. Okay, two more reasons to mindfully choose intensity.

To be clear, mindfully choosing intensity does NOT mean to beat yourself up, push yourself to exhaustion or anything like that. This is about feeling the urgency of intensity and allowing yourself to find the place where you are challenging yourself and able to keep breathing, stay balanced and present. Mindful intensity is an opportunity to offer kindness and strength to yourself. SO…

Meow, y’all.


P.S. Let me know what you think about the illustrated post!

ice-to-water-to-steam-012217
With a new administration taking over in the US this week, I thought it would be a good time to revisit this post about expectations from December 2014. “From Ice to Water, from Water to Steam.” – SJM

Melting Expectations (originally posted December 7, 2014)

“Expectations are resentments under construction.”
~ Anne Lamott

‘Tis the season of expectation. I mean, honestly, it’s practically what December in the U.S. is about. What with the Christian season of advent (complete with an expecting mother and expectation of salvation), children everywhere writing lists of expected gifts, and all of us expecting the light and warmth to return to our side of the planet, expectation is woven into everything.

Desire and intention are one thing … but expectation has teeth. Expectation has an edge. There are inevitable consequences if expectations aren’t met. An expectation means that somebody is attached to an outcome and as a Buddhist teacher once pointed out, “Attachment to outcome: BEEEG problem.”

Especially at this time of year, it seems we have expectations for everything. We have expectations for meals and decorations and celebrations. For the way our friends and families should behave. For the way our children should respond. For way this time of year should feel. And Lord knows we have expectations of ourselves: to give a certain kind of gift, to look a certain way, and to be calm or cheerful or reverent or jolly.

Expectations are tricky and sticky. Trained as we are to gain approval and love from outside sources, most of us are programmed to do whatever we can to live up to expectations. But striving to get love for meeting someone’s expectations (including our own) is the prelude to resentment.

“The genius Taoists constantly give their full presence to scanning their whole body, locating any blocked or hard-to-describe discomforts, whereupon they say ‘Ice to Water, Water to Steam’ and literally use their imagination to SEE that place dissolve and the steam leave their body”. ~ Jamie Catto (see his full post here)

Expectations are the way we think things should be and that feels tight. There is next to no wiggle room in an expectation. Expectations are breath-holding brittleness and they are such a part of our lives that we often don’t realize they are there.

Expectations create tension in our activities, our meals, our parties, in our bodies. Expectations constrict. Something that started out as “I like to do it this way” (or “our family/religion/country likes to do it this way”) can morph into “I always do it this way” and then can mutate into “I have to do it this way.”

Stop reading for a second and notice anywhere where you feel tension in your body. Tension is where energy is stuck. Whether it is in your hamstrings or your heart, your thighs or your throat, tension is the body’s way of signaling to release and let flow. Release tension and more energy is available.

Especially at this time of year, our bodies and our minds can feel tight and dry. Mindful movement is a way of melting the dry tightness and introduces more liquid warmth to our experience. Whether mental, physical, or emotional tension, movement can allow the bristly edges of expectation soften.

Physicality affects the mind and emotions. Even just getting up from your desk to stretch and clear your mind can break up and melt the brittle hardness.

Our thoughts and imaginations affect the physical body. Imagining breathing space around you or light and love in and out of you can relax tension wherever it is lodged.

Sweat and tears and imagination all lend themselves to melting the hard edges of expectation and by extension, reducing the inevitable resentment that follows.

Let your intention be the hot skillet to icy expectation…Ice to water, water to steam.

noncomplementarity-121016

One of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever had was on the streets of Boston’s North End. I wasn’t mugged and no mafia bosses wanted me to sleep with the fishes, but it scared the life out of me just the same.

On a Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend and I were double-parked in front of our apartment so we could unload our car. As much as Bostonians love hockey, football, and baseball, their two favorite sports are double parking and yelling at each other for double parking. So it was no surprise that a man in a Jeep pulled into our street and yelled about how stupid we were for parking like that. What was surprising was when my boyfriend, John, said something back to him, the guy jumped out of his car, flew across the sidewalk and smacked John in the face.

As scary and upsetting as this was, it was only then that the truly terrifying thing happened: I. Lost. My. Mind.

In a flash of white hot rage, I ran up to the man, got inches from his face, and screamed at him about his cowardice and lack of intellectual acuity (not my actual words). I bumped his chest with mine. I told him what a craven loser I thought he was. I dared him to hit me. He didn’t. Instead, he spit some hot words and drove away.

What terrified me wasn’t the angry Boston driver. It was me. I had no idea I had a lunatic living just under my skin. No idea about the fire in me that could be released so fast. It wasn’t the fight with a stranger but my own explosive fury that scared the bejeezus out of me.

Compare my story with one of my favorites from “Flip the Script,” an episode in the latest season of the Invisibilia podcast*: two families gather on a summer night on a backyard terrace for dinner and celebration. In the midst of their happy evening, a man walks into their midst with a gun. He points it at one of the women and tells them that if they don’t give him all their money, he will shoot her. But the group was outside, having a meal. No one had any money. None. The gunman didn’t believe them and ramped up his threats.

Then a woman at the table spoke up. “Will you have a glass of wine with us?”

Her question disarmed him in every sense. He put down his gun, had a glass of wine, ate a little cheese and asked for a hug. He thanked them and quietly left, gently setting his empty glass on the steps as he walked away.

Psychologists call the woman’s offer of wine noncomplementarity or doing the opposite of what the other is doing. The most natural response in any interaction is complementary behavior: to treat the other person as they treat you. If they are kind, it’s most natural to be kind back. If they are aggressive to you, well, remember me and the Boston guy?

But sometimes, the most powerful thing to do is noncomplementary: to get out of sync with the other.

Noncomplemenarity isn’t easy. It requires us to override our natural instinct and intuition. And as the Invisibilia story (ans any nonviolent protest from Gandhi to civil rights) points out, making that unnatural choice can completely turn situations around.

Buddhists call it tonglen: a practice which Pema Chödrön describes as “…a method for connecting with suffering—ours and that which is all around us…. a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart.”
(read a helpful article about tonglen by Ani Pema here.)

Simply stated, tonglen is the practice of breathing in suffering and breathing out ease for that suffering. (Do a short tonglen practice with her here.)

My favorite description of tonglen and the one I return to over and over comes from the book How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach**. In it, we imagine suffering as inky black tar around the heart of another. As we breathe in, we draw the sticky black suffering out of their heart and pull it into the flame of our own heart which explodes the blackness into white light.

We can practice tonglen or noncomplementarity whenever we encounter suffering: in our own bodies or minds, in relationships with our nearest or with strangers, in our communities and organizations, and in animals and the environment, in countries and the world. Instead of meeting suffering with suffering, instead of turning away, meet suffering with the heat and light of the heart.

The fire that exploded in me on that Boston street was instinct and reflex. I regret it as it felt terrible and did nothing to put more love into the world. Although I haven’t witnessed that kind of attack since then, I see and am aware suffering every single day. I do my best to practice and breathe and use my flame as best I can.

It doesn’t always work. I can still get lit up with all kinds of complementarity especially when I see someone inflicting suffering on someone else. But I practice now with the intention of using my fire more skillfully to burn away suffering’s black toxic tar wherever it is happening.


* Did you click on the link to the Invisibilia show? The whole episode is great but at the very least, listen to the actual participants tell the story. Click here.

** I’ve included the complete passage from How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach here as it is visceral and powerful. May it be of benefit.

“’Inside your heart is a tiny red flame, like the flame at the top of a candle. This flame is the power of our selfishness – the habit we have of taking care of ourselves first, and neglecting what others need or want….Look into the Sergeant’s heart. Right there in the middle is a dark, rotten little pool of blackness. It is his sadness, it is his pain; it is the reason why he drinks, and it is his drinking….You want to take this pain away from him, forever. It’s the compassion we spoke about before; it is the real reason why you are doing yoga. And you decide that you want to take his black pain away so badly that you would even take it into yourself, if it meant you could save him from it….And so you begin to take say seven long, slow breaths. The first time you breathe in, that little evil pool of darkness in the center of the Sergeant’s heart stirs and moves; it starts to rise up out of his body, like an ugly cloud of blackness. And as you take more breaths it is sucked up out of his chest, up his throat, and then out of his nostrils. And knowing you would take it on yourself to save him from it, you take all his drunken misery in that little cloud of darkness and you keep breathing it in, and in again, drawing it towards your own face. And then hold it there, just outside your own nostrils….And now something will happen; it will happen a little quickly and so you have to concentrate well upon this part. In one breath you will suck the blackness in through your own nose; you will take it upon yourself. The blackness will come down your throat, into your chest and then slowly – very slowly – it will approach the little red flame of your selfishness: the part of you that would never even imagine taking away someone else’s pain, if it meant having it yourself instead. And the blackness floats slowly towards the edge of the flame, and then suddenly the black makes contact with the red, and there is a burst of beautiful golden light, like a bolt of lightning shining in the purest gold. And in that moment, because you are willing, in that moment, to swallow all the Sergeant’s pain into yourself, the crimson fire of your own selfishness is extinguished, forever. It is gone. And in this explosion too the blackness of the Sergeant’s pain is destroyed: destroyed for him, destroyed for you, destroyed forever. For this is the power, the power of the grace of selfless compassion for others.” (How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach pp 93-95)

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