Friday, June 7, 2013

It's time for some selfishness

I see it with clients again and again. Relentlessly putting the needs of others before their own needs resulting in spiritual exhaustion and resentment. There seems to me to be an epidemic of the belief that one’s needs do not matter. Self-denial then leads to weariness and, often, depression.

For a nice southern girl like me, this argument is counter-intuitive. We are taught early on that self-denial is a virtue. And, in some circumstances, it is. But when we consistently do for others what they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves, self-denial is a soul sickness.

A few weeks ago it was a mother seeking to manage the family schedule, earn a living, teach Sunday school, be of service to some young women she mentors, get exercise, and work on her spiritual disciplines. The result was that she felt she wasn’t doing anything well. Over-extended, she sat in my office feeling depleted. “Is it okay for me to say no?” she asked.

This week it was a middle-aged father, providing well for his family, participating in the activities of his children, addressing the lengthy honey-do list handed him by his wife, and caring for his aging parents. “Is it wrong for me to want a little attention for myself?” he wondered.

At times like these I’d like to raise my voice and shout: Please say no! Please ask for what you need! How can we possibly give with any fullness of heart or any sense of joy if we are consistently putting the needs of others ahead of our own?

It is time, friends, for a little selfishness here. There is a vast difference between what I call “productive selfishness” and pathological, or morbid, selfishness. Productive selfishness is about developing one’s gifts and embracing pursuits which bring pleasure. These pleasurable experiences are really about living into the authentic self, developing creativity, and expanding natural gifts. Joyous selfishness is about living into the fullness of who you are.

Many of us have spent years taking care of the needs of others: our children, our parents, our spouses, our employers. While responsibility and accountability are necessary, there seems to be an over emphasis on self-sacrifice and a vacuum where self-fulfillment should dwell.

It is time now to receive the full self, in all its wonder, while embracing a kind of selfishness which our work-driven culture doesn’t recognize. This productive selfishness enhances who we are, giving us energy, vision, and hope. Ultimately, it enables us to give of our best self. This is very different from morbid selfishness which leads us to turn in on ourselves, always wanting more, a stranger to wonder and joy.

A bold embrace of self enables us to truly offer the whole self, from the heart, in service and love in a most freeing manner, unconnected to duty or guilt. Take some time, friends, for selfishness.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Live like a dog

I’ve written about living in the moment before and most likely I will again. It is a spiritual practice with rich rewards but it does take practice. The happiest people I know are those who have cultivated this skill, leaving the past in the past, forgiving themselves and learning from mistakes, and not projecting too far into the future. Sometimes I call this ability to live in the present, “living like a dog.”

Dogs are truly remarkable creatures. Loyal, non-complainers (unlike my cat who is capable of maligning my character to anyone in the vicinity), quick to forgive, I find they carry life lightly. My little dog Toto truly lives in the moment. If I ask him the time, he says “now.” Same food day after day? He’s delighted. Only water to drink? He’s grateful. Going for a walk? Best activity ever invented. On the occasions when I can take him off the leash to run, it is pure bliss for him, echoed in the electric activity of his little body.

When he is naughty and I scold him, he has forgotten the whole thing in ten minutes and is back to adoring his people. He makes friends easily, is slow to judge, and holds no resentments.

He even asks for what he wants (to play), and lets me know when he needs something (when he asks to go out).

For him, this all comes naturally, because he lives in the present moment. For me, most of this takes effort. The thing is, though, that I have a choice in how I will live and can choose to practice this living in the moment.

A few days ago I was with a client who was making himself miserable over something that might happen. What Buddhists call “the monkey mind” had taken over and he was obsessively thinking about scenario A leading to scenario B leading to scenario C and so on until, in his mind he had met with complete financial ruin. Was any of this true? Not so much. He has several successful small businesses, lives in a nice home, and provides well for his family. So I asked him if he was all right at this very moment. And he said yes. He was more than fine at that very moment; he was well taken care of. I reminded him that the singular moment was all he had.

And that is all any of us ever have. This very moment. I have the power to choose to live in each moment of each day. To notice what is around me. To choose to not go down the “what if” path and to choose instead to delight in what is. Just like Toto.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Here we are again

Here we are again. A stunned nation, mourning innocent lost, unnecessarily wounded, the stripping of our freedom to gather and safely go about our business. The images have become sadly familiar and this fact, too, offends deeply.

So many thoughts have been going through my mind since hearing the news from Boston yesterday. I am a little familiar with the running community, not because I run but because my brother does. Paul has done several marathons. One of the things he loves about them is the running community. As he says, “runners are just good people.” An assessment from someone who would know.

People run for all sorts of reasons. Some run for their health. Others to raise funds for research. Or because someone they love runs. Or simply because they find joy in running. Another because they are good at it. For every one of those 23,000 runners making their way along the course yesterday, there is an engaging story.

But beyond the runners is the community of support around them. Family and friends turn out to cheer their runner, to replenish water, to feed them “goo.”

The atmosphere is festive, celebratory. People run around in tutus, rabbit costumes, as Elvis. I’ve seen multiple Dolly Partons run down the road during the annual marathon in Nashville. It isn’t easy to run 26 miles with balloons for breasts.

Nashville’s Country Music Marathon is in ten days. I can only imagine what the organizers are going through right now. The city turns out to line the streets; it is one big festival with countless opportunities for someone with an evil intent to act out. Fear looms.

And that is the point, isn’t it? The thing about acts of “terror” is that they have a vast ripple effect. “It could happen here,” we think as we look at our children. We close in, we look with suspicion, we pass unwieldy, expensive, and ineffective laws. We become smaller.

I long to see us collectively defy fear-driven behavior with love-driven choices. Celebrate community. Participate with joy. Choose kindness toward neighbor. This is the response to acts of such senseless violence which defy everything these acts are meant to provoke. Choose senseless kindness. Choose senseless joy. Acts such as these lead to real freedom and a nurturing of the kind of community worthy of the Boston marathon.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Time for receiving

I stood on the lawn with friends as the woman approached. She was tall, thin, and wearing a colorful scarf to cover her baldness. Undergoing cancer treatment, she remained energetic and dynamic. I’d spoken with her a few times over the weekend but standing there then, with the spring sunshine pouring over us, was the first we’d really engaged.

We were attending a retreat in Sewanee, up on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. We had just come from a healing circle. Standing, connected by our hands, the group of fifty or so formed a circle. As we sang an ancient Hebrew prayer for healing, a person would step into the middle with the circle closing around them. Encircled, the person was bathed in the song of healing.

As I stepped into the circle, I felt my own heart full of love. Instead of quietly receiving, I raised my hands, “beaming” the love from my heart over those circling me. I paused on those that I knew to be struggling physically, emotionally, or spiritually. This was quite powerful for me. I felt myself open and receiving divine love and I sent it on to others around me.

Afterward, when we were outside, the woman quietly approached me. She told me she’d been so moved and that she had felt loved in that moment. I spoke quietly to her, “you have no idea how profoundly loved and cherished you are. It is time for you to open your heart and receive it.” As a tear crawled gently down her cheek she said, “ but I thought we are supposed to love, not seek love.”

What I understood in that moment, and tried to convey to her, is that when we open ourselves to the enormity of God’s love for us, when we bathe in it and truly soak it in, then all we need do is show up. This love will pour out of us, radiate from us, naturally. We spend so much energy trying to figure out what we are to be doing, grasping at living up to some expectation of who we are supposed to be, we often don’t stop long enough to take in who we are. And that is this: a precious, deeply loved child of God. We don’t have to DO anything. Take it in and show up to give it back. Receive and be, in radical acceptance. The rest will flow from there.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A little perspective, please.

My friend Ginna is a spitfire. Shy of five feet tall, she has white-blond hair, wears black eyeliner, and speaks her mind. She’s from Lebanon, Tennessee (pronounced Leb-non) and speaks with a Tennessee twang. She is kind, has a heart for serving others, and is a warm, companionable friend. But when she is angry or indignant at an injustice, watch out. She is going to tell it to your face, just exactly as she sees it.

Ginna has, to my mind, been going through a rough patch. She’s just been through a difficult break up, struggled with a drawn-out sinus infection, and yesterday faced an emergency root canal. “Worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life,” she drawled last night as she rested in a cloud of antibiotics and Lortab. What did she do after the root canal? Went back to work. I would have been home on the couch with a bag of frozen peas on my face.

As I talked to her I said, “Wow, you’ve really had a rough time lately with the break up, needing to move, being sick, and now this.” This was Ginna’s reply: You know, I have had a little bit of a tough time but I have this friend who is going through treatment for breast cancer. I bet she’d take a sinus infection and a root canal any day. I have and will have a roof over my head. I have the means to pay for this root canal. And doctors who can help me get better. I’ve got nothing but gratitude.”

That, my friends, is a spiritual life. It really is about perspective, living in the moment, and gratitude. And I thank Ginna, in her energetic way, for reminding me. I’d still be home, horizontal, with the frozen peas on my face if I’d had that root canal. But I hope I’d follow Ginna’s example into gratitude for the peas, for the doctor, and that my tooth could be saved. And the couch I’d by lying upon, and the roof over my head, and the loving little dog by my side. Gratitude. And perspective.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Wintertime blues

As I watched the blizzard Nemo roll over the Northeast and bury it, I was grateful, once again, to live in the south. The winter in Tennessee is about as much as I can handle. We’ve had only one snow this winter, which accumulated about an eighth of an inch and melted away by 2pm; enough to enjoy the prettiness, not enough to cause the community to struggle.

Winter is a sluggish time for me. I do not enjoy the cold. A sun lover, I feel oppressed by the many dreary, overcast days, the shortened daylight hours, and the chill damp. For years I resisted my low energy during these months and criticized myself for my lowered productivity, creativity, and dulled spirits. The refrain in my head went like this: “what is wrong with me?”; “where is my motivation?”; “I am so lazy!” As a substitute for productivity, I spent time in self-flagellation.

A few weeks ago my friend Frank said to me, “you are just a very seasonal person.” And I thought, “He’s right!” So instead of resisting my winter doldrums, I’ve decided to roll with them. I’d like to borrow the wisdom of the trees, the animals, the earth itself, which quiets in winter. It doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. It is just a quieter, softer activity the earth enjoys in winter, rejuvenation for the natural order of things. And I found myself in that peaceful place of acceptance of what is.

My natural cycle is to slow in winter. Spring brings new energy and creativity. By summer I am trying new activities or launching a new project. Autumn naturally brings a time to clean out. You’ll find me rummaging in closets and giving things away. And then I’m shutting down again.

Winter months are for reading and knitting. I find it very important, on sunny winter days here in Nashville, to get out for a walk, to feel the sun on my face, and to take in the fresh air. My lower energy, this year, is meeting acceptance from me as the natural order of things. And already, just barely into February, I’m feeling some stirrings of creativity and movement. Last week I saw the sun a little more. And was greeted one morning by little purple crocuses waving to me from my friend Kathy’s khaki colored front lawn. My heart stirred with joy. Spring can’t be far off now.

For those of you who wrestle with the winter aversion blues, you might try embracing them instead of pushing them away. Take naps. Cozy on the sofa with a blanket and book. Spring is around the corner and energy will return. Choose with me a kinder, gentler winter.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Breathe in fear, breathe out compassion

Many of us struggle with self-judgment. I sometimes say that I am meaner to myself than I would ever dream of being to anyone else. The things I sometimes think about myself, the negative self-talk, can be terrible and rude, words I would never think about another human being. Yet, if I want to cultivate a compassionate heart toward others, the practice of compassion must begin with me.

A few days ago I was talking with my friend Ginna. She was mentioning her struggles with the behavior of someone we both know, a “difficult” person, and speaking of how judgmental she felt. “What is wrong with me?” she asked. “Um, nothing is wrong with you. It sounds to me like you are human,” was my reply. Ginna had been, in that moment, quick to judge herself. This is oh-so-familiar territory for me.

Like Ginna, I long to be free from the judgmental mind. I despise that icky feeling I get when I am in judgment of others. Yet, the truth is that a heart of compassion must begin with me, with compassion for myself.

Because human experience is so universal we find that when we make friends with ourself, we make friends with the world. When we cultivate compassion for our own weaknesses, we find compassion for others in their weakness. This doesn’t mean we excuse our weaknesses lightly. We still pursue freedom from our foibles. But we do so with kindness, which I think makes our efforts more productive.

Unfortunately, it is our natural reflex to want to push our weaknesses away. When I am lonely, I just want the loneliness to go away. When I am afraid, I want to magically be fearless. When judging another, I simply want my negative thoughts (and also the annoying person) to vaporize. You can see I have a lot to work with! And as counter-intuitive as it sounds, the way to diffuse the power of my loneliness, fear, or judgment is to embrace them. As Pema Chodron writes, “the things that really drive us nuts have enormous energy in them. That is why we fear them.” We are drained when we try to push our fears, our anger, and our jealousies away. We are energized for compassion when we find the courage to embrace them.

So, what is it you want to push away today? For me, I want am wrestling with a fear of failure. I have certain strengths, certain gifts. What if they aren’t all I think they are? What if my gifts themselves let me down? What if I undermine my talents with my own self-doubt? Rather than pretending I do not have these fears, how can I embrace them, look beneath them to what drives the fears themselves? Can I find a place of compassion for myself? Can I then have compassion on the fears of others?

I pause. I breathe in my fears. I breathe out compassion. This is why it is called “practice.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

New year, new list

At the turn of each year I like to pause and take stock. I’ve developed some habits over the years and thought I’d share them here. I would love to have you comment on your own turn of the year practices.

On New Year’s Day I do a journal review. As I page through my journal from the year just passed, I review highlights, make note of progress, and savor accomplishments. This can also be painful and trying as I relive losses and face stumbling blocks. Overall, I find this practice productive and satisfying.

The next thing I do is write down some goals and dreams for the year ahead. These are items as pragmatic as “get a new storm door” or as dreamy as “travel more.” As I write, I allow my dreams to run wild. Yes, I’d like to do a month long retreat at Spirit Rock retreat center. The chances that I’ll have the time or funds to do this isn't likely but that doesn’t matter here. I’m dreaming about my life, not laying plans. This is my big-and-little dream list for the year, so Spirit Rock is on the list.

I write about my hopes and dreams for my work life, my children, my relationships, my home, my spiritual life, my leisure time. Pretty much everything I hope for or dream of goes on this draft.

Once I complete this first list I take out a nice piece of stationery and I mold my dreams into an offering. I take the time here to whittle down the list to what feels true. Now the list becomes something I will look over almost daily as it becomes a kind of personal litany for my life over the course of the year. At year’s end I pause to re-evaluate it. What has come to pass from my list? How have I changed which, in turn, has changed the meaning of what is included on the list?

I find this practice instructive, guiding, and inspiring.

And there is one item that remains year by year: “may I be of service to others.”

I embrace this particular item once again for 2013.

What’s on your list?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Ten thousand joys, ten thousand sorrows

I spent the New Year holiday on retreat. Gordon Peerman and Kathy Woods, my teachers from Insight Nashville, hosted their annual New Year’s mindfulness retreat in the mountains near Sewanee. This is the second year I have welcomed a new year in that beautiful, rural setting. This year’s focus was upon the practice of compassion.

Buddhists refer to the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows of this life. Well, for me, from the first moments of the retreat-that first evening-well into the following morning, it was as if all ten thousand of my life’s sorrows came and just sat on me. I could barely contain the sorrow to sit in the meditation hall. And I really have no idea what that was about.

My sorrow did not ease until late Monday morning when Gordon, during the morning talk and in great vulnerability, shared his own pain and sorrow at what his younger brother is experiencing. The details of that aren’t important. What is important is that Gordon’s vulnerability helped my own heart break open with compassion. In some way, in that moment, I found joy again.

It wasn’t that I felt, “oh good, I’m not the only one.” Not at all. It was almost as if I felt Gordon’s love for his brother, felt Gordon’s own powerlessness at that situation and found it resonating with my own powerlessness. It was then that I could let divine love flow through my own heart.

There is a truly beautiful irony here: in Gordon’s vulnerability I was empowered to surrender to love and compassion. This has been on my mind since that moment last week. I so often hesitate to write about my most vulnerable moments. But I understand in a new way that my own vulnerability may help someone who reads this blog. And that is the whole point of the blog: to offer what I have in service to others. Maybe even my ten thousand sorrows. Don’t worry, though, I won’t write about all ten thousand at one time!

The good news is that, while we may experience ten thousand sorrows in this life, we also find ten thousand joys. I felt the heaviness of sorrow while on retreat but I also enjoy the fullness of joy. Gordon reassures me that all of this is perfectly normal, that on retreat our griefs often surface to sit with us for a while. Then they pass away and something new, like joy, arises. On retreat and in life, experiencing the joys and the sorrows adds to my awareness and renew my ability to be vulnerable with others. This is what I have to offer-my experiences-and the gifts of grace that come with the ten thousand sorrows and the ten thousand joys.