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Fear

Here’s a question to ponder: What’s the difference between destruction and transformation? (I’ll let you noodle on that for a bit.)

When things feel dangerous, difficult and dark, I long for the miracle of a transformation. I love the idea that change, even radical change, is possible. Not only over glacial eons but real-time, witness-able change.

Take the classic: caterpillar to butterfly. Especially after a long winter, that’s what I’m all about. Until relatively recently, here’s how I thought about the caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis:

  1. Bumpy, lumpy caterpillar gorges herself on leaves.
  2. Bumpy, lumpy caterpillar gets more bumpy and lumpy.
  3. Bumpy, lumpy caterpillar cleverly makes a chrysalis. Like I Dream of Jeannie’s bottle, this chrysalis is a groovy little apartment with a little makeup table, velvet pillows and nice-smelling lotions.
  4. As she rests comfortably on her soft sofa, the caterpillar’s sticky, knobby feet elegantly turn into delicate, slender legs.
  5. Out of the bumpy, lumpy caterpillar’s back iridescent wings gently unfold while her body lengthens and narrows.
  6. She gingerly cuts open her groovy little apartment, hangs out for a bit to get her bearings, and then off she flutters looking for lovely flowers to sip on.


As nice as it sounds, it actually doesn’t happen anything like that. This is how Scientific American describes it:

To become a butterfly, a caterpillar first digests itself. But certain groups of cells survive, turning the soup into eyes, wings, antennae and other adult structures.

Digests itself?? Caterpillar soup?? What about the glamorous apartment with the comfy couch and the cute pillows to rest on? What about the calm, organized process of changing from one thing into something else? The science of it sounds like a complete mess and incredibly, unavoidably uncomfortable.

Think about a time of change in your life, when something big was happening. You have a baby (or want to have one and don’t). You get a new job (or lose one). You move to a new city, go on big trip, get a divorce, or your kid moves away. Whatever it was, think about it. Was it neat and organized with soft music playing and a cashmere shawl around your shoulders?

Nope.
(Not for me, anyway. If it is for you, please start writing a blog so I can read it.)

It’s nerve-wracking and crying and fear and mud tracked into the living room and maple syrup spilled in the fridge and pickled herring on the floor. It’s a mess. It’s a life soup. And it’s out of that that something new emerges.

So, back to the original question: what’s the difference between transformation and destruction? On the surface of it, the two seem to be made from the same ingredients. But the difference? Resistance and intention.

Things are going to change. Everything is going to change. Sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly. Resisting change, wanting it to be different than it is, is a recipe for suffering. Intentionally flowing with change, seeing possibilities for growth, is a recipe for metamorphosis soup.

It’s not neat. Or pretty. Or organized. There are rarely velvet pillows. It’s better than that. It’s a miracle.

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I told myself not to say it. I think I actually bit my tongue. But suddenly, I heard the unkind, impatient thing fly right out of my mouth. I saw the words, sludgy and dripping, hang in the air between us and immediately, I regretted them.

I saw his face and shoulders fall. He responded with his feelings and I did my best, I really did, to feel my feet and my breath, to reflect back what he’d said, to be present.

Instead, I was swamped with pain and regret and a mind-flood of talk about what a bitchy jerk I am and how I always do this and how the people I admire would never say such a thing. In a heart beat, in a breath, the discomfort was so strong that I unplugged and split from my body.

Embodied presence – connecting mind and body, being in the present moment – sounds simple and easy enough. We’re living in these bodies all the time, after all, so how tough can it be to be in there? The truth is that it’s a huge challenge for most of us even when we’re sitting quietly on a cushion with sunlight in our hair and flower petals falling around us. When we are upset, angry, tired, hungry, in pain, afraid, or uncomfortable in any way, the practice of keeping body and mind in the same place at the same time can feel utterly impossible.

In her two dharma talks about Embodied Presence (which you can find here and here), Tara Brach invites us to explore the unpredictable wilderness of the body. The mind does what it can to control the uncontrollable and tuck in all the loose edges but that neatness is a false refuge. The body in all its messiness is the only place to connect to empathy, love, freedom and unfolding of life itself. The only place. She suggests that whenever we leave the body, when we vacate the premises, it comes down to one thing: there is something we are unwilling to feel. We find ourselves disconnected and separated from direct experience because there is something that feels scary or dangerous or uncomfortable and on some level we think we can’t handle it. So we run.

Last week, we focused on Embodied Presence and the practice of getting body and mind in the same place at the same time. This week, we continue this exploration by looking at the ways we take ourselves out of the body and how to get back in.

It’s such a common state, to be up in the control tower of our heads that we might not even realize we’re doing it. Tara Brach offers four signs of being in trance and out of the body:

  1. obsessive thoughts on a loop often as a way to prepare to avoid something bad,
  2. negative judgment about myself or others (see above example of me thinkingthinkingthinking about being an impatient jerky pants),
  3. distraction of any kind especially on screens or online (like habitually reaching to check my phone when I feel nervous, for example),
  4. speeding around and rushing, as if getting more done will keep the difficult feelings at bay

When you see this list, do any of these feel familiar? Perhaps you’re like me and they ALL feel familiar. When we are in this auto-pilot, sleepwalking state, we are intentionally (although often subconsciously) avoiding feeling something edgy or uncomfortable. Mindfulness – in movement, in meditation, or in the moment – invites us back into the lush wilderness of the body.

Brach teaches that the intensity of any of these states is in direct proportion to our unwillingness to feel what’s in our bodies. In order to come into embodied presence, we have to make the courageous and intentional choice to wake up. She teaches that first, we must notice what’s happening (ah, I have hurt someone’s feelings and that feels wretched), then name it (pain in my heart and heaviness in my stomach), and breathe (amazingly difficult when I’m suffering) and interrupt the pattern – even briefly – by allowing ourselves to feel whatever it is.

This practice leads to what is sometimes called The Lion’s Roar which is the ability to be with, to roll with anything, ANYTHING that happens. The Lion’s Roar is the fearless proclamation that everything that happens is workable and that I have the ability to handle and feel anything. Imagine the freedom of trusting in our capacity to be with whatever life delivers.

Notice that this state of presence is not called “The Roaring Lion” which feels startling, fierce, and threatening. Instead, the Lion’s Roar is the energy of confidence. It is the knowledge that this power is available no matter what arrives. When we practice, The Lion’s Roar is a strength that infuses life like an aura, a light that allows me to face anything.

Few of us will be able to claim the Lion’s Roar as our way of being all the time, but the practice of noticing, naming, breathing and interrupting the well-worn sleepwalking pattern offers glimpses into the possibility of freedom.

The next time you find yourself caught in one of the signs of being out of the body, ask yourself, “What am I unwilling to feel?” This question alone is the first step toward finding your Roar.

“When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, like armor that imprisons the softness of the heart.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

Has anyone ever told you that you’re too sensitive?
That you’re touchy? Or overreacting?
Or that you shouldn’t feel as much as you do?
Whenever I’ve heard this, it was never a compliment.
It was a judgment. A criticism.

Too sensitive?
I say there is no such thing.

 In a world that moves fast, rewards hardness and runs roughshod, the willingness, the choice, the ability to be soft and tender is extraordinarily courageous.

The softer we can stay in the face of everything that life gives us, the stronger we are.
It’s a paradox of living that most people never even consider, let alone practice.

Many of us were told to toughen up when we were kids. We were taught that the world was a mean place and you’ve got to grow thick skin so you can take it. But what if the opposite is actually true? What if, in a mean world, the way to make it through is to stay tender and open and willing to feel? What if bullying and lashing out is the ultimate weakness? What if sensitivity is the ultimate strength?

In the body, we can start with the skin. Experiment with feeling details and nuance with every cell of your skin. Feel not just with your palms and fingers but with the backs of your hands, the spaces between your fingers. Feel with your wrists and the backs of your knees. Feel with your cheeks and your shoulders. Feel all of it with all of your sensitive skin.

Practice sensitivity with your imagination: let your dreaming mind explore and create something. Draw or write or sing or dance or just think up something you’ve never thought up before. It’s a tender place, the imagining place. Spend some time there, it’s a seriously brave move.

In every day, there are opportunities for softening your heart. Talk to a friend who’s struggling. Watch the aching ebb and flow of Nature. Read a headline or two. Whatever you choose, stay open and soft and take it in. Without trying to fix it or change it or look away or pretend it’s not happening, stay open and soft.

It’s challenging stuff, sensitivity. Most people armor up and build a hard protective coating around them in an attempt to avoid the discomfort of staying tender. The paradox is that only softening strengthens us to live deeply and fully.

“When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times


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.


What’s the difference between falling and flying?

My intention?
My ability?
My landing?

Recently, I’ve had Grace Potter & The Nocturnals song, Falling and Flying playing in my ears and in my head. I can feel that both falling and flying are full of energy. Both falling and flying can be scary and unsettling and both can be exciting and eye-opening. So what’s the difference?

Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestault Therapy said this about that:

What if the difference between falling and flying is breathing?

Breath has the power to nourish and cleanse, to energize and relax, to ground and empower. Let your breath flow and you convert falling into flying, fear into excitement, panic into peace.

This week, whenever you feel the grip of fear, go to your breath. Do whatever you can to breathe into the tight, stuck places. Let the energy move rather than be held rigid.

Breathe and transform falling into flying.

At the opening of a class at Hot Yoga Charlottesville not long ago, my teacher, Julia von Briesen read this by Roshi Joan Halifax:

All too often our so-called strength comes from fear not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open, representing choiceless compassion. The place in your body where these two meet – strong back and soft front – is the brave, tender ground in which to root our caring deeply.

Right away, I recognized the false “strength” of a brittle, defended heart that strikes out in an unskillful attempt to protect.
I do this a lot in traffic.
And while reading the news.
And otherwise being a scared judgy-pants.

Since hearing this quote (and subsequently printing it out and reading it daily), this has been my practice: (1) when I find myself snapping out at someone
(as in “what do you think you’re doing, pulling out in front of me in your enormous SUV with a bumper sticker I don’t like?”
or as in “what kind of heartless, thoughtless, short-sighted politician are you?”
or any other snarky, angryness that pops out of me),
(2) I pause and say a little metta (or loving kindness) for myself
(as in “may I be safe, may I be loved, may I know peace”)
and
(3) I say a little metta / loving kindness for the person I just snarked on
(as in “may you feel safe, may you feel loved, may you know peace”)

When I do this, I feel a little taste of the choiceless compassion that Roshi Joan Halifax tells of. It’s not much, I grant you. But it’s a start.

What can you do today that will strengthen your spine, your core, and soften your heart?

At 5pm, my office window looks onto nothing but blackness.
In these so short days, I can easily slide into seeing nothing but darkness.

A favorite song for decades, I’m reminded of Cat Steven’s Moonshadow.
The simple light melody tells the ultimate silver lining story.

“And if I ever lose my hands, lose my plough, lose my land,
Oh if I ever lose my hands, Oh if I won’t have to work no more.”

So on the week of the Winter Solstice, I’m allowing myself to be followed by a moonshadow.

Even the darkest of days aren’t only dark.

Listen to Moonshadow here. Maybe put it on Repeat.

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