“Busy”

 

Everywhere I go lately, this is what I hear, “I am so busy.” Underneath this statement seems to linger some veiled expectation on the part of the other that I should understand that because we are so overly occupied as a people that we should therefore be exempt from being responsible for certain things; like taking care of ourselves, like noticing, like making time for others, like living in balance, like paying attention to our kids. Observe this for yourself. How often do you feel, say or hear, “I am too busy to…” (Fill in the blank).

What is happening to us? When did “busy” become the very highest in what to go for in this Life? Even though most people would chuckle and say that is not what they actually think, not what they actually believe, it is actually how we are living.

In the yogic tradition there are two aspects of the Universe; that which is still and steady, and that which is flowing and moving. These energies move through us and through all of Creation. Unfortunately, we are too often weighted in movement that is extreme, chaotic, tense and blind. And too often, the stillness that we inhabit comes in the form of collapse and zoning out. At its best stillness informs movement and flow originates out of the steadiness. They contain one other. They seek one other. That is why these energies are depicted as Shakti and Shiva; the goddess and the god, the pairs of opposites, longing for the embrace of Union.

We have lost track of the necessity in our lives for balance. And we do this at great cost to what we love most. I will tell you that the very best and most important things that have ever happened to me have been born out of the space and the room for what really matters. No easy feat in a world that values speed and busyness and doing way too much. All the time. Even in our leisure pursuits.

On some level we know this, and yet too often it does not change our behavior. Change requires more than words or guilt or empty promises. It demands understanding what your actions mean to you. Why it is that you do what you do. So, what does being busy mean to you? What do you think it means about you? Why do you do it?

P.S. Change also requires including into the equation what it is that you lose out on when you do what you always do. In other words, at the very end of all of this busyness, beyond the reasons we tell ourselves for why we do what we do, what will you have lost that you cannot get back? Looked at in this light, what do you suppose our eulogies or tomb stones would read like? “Here lies so and so. Too busy to…”

Sitting

 

I am doing more sitting these days. Literally, just sitting. I am not meditating, making lists or planning anything. I am not writing, reading or praying. As years of engaging in a daily practice have passed before me, more often than not, sitting is serving as the entry point; a doorway into places that either sets the practice up, or takes me to where my formal practice does not. It regularly demonstrates to me the deep and essential importance of doing nothing, absolutely nothing. And even though there is nothing in particular I am searching for, or aiming for, a most organic and surprising platform for good health, a clear mind, and right relationship with self, others and Spirit continues to arise each and every time I submit to this thing called “nothing.”

Like gale force winds the outer world whips around me clearing and destroying. In the midst of this, my little corner of the world goes through its own tectonic shifts as next fall both of my kids will be out of the house putting me in the position, for the first time in over twenty years, of not being responsible daily for the care and well-being of human beings dependent upon me. And then, oh by the way, we are building our new home, and I am on the brink of sending a long-labored book out into the world. These shifts and opportunities are pressing me to grow up somehow in order to become the person that all of this both asks and demands of me. And while my first inclination typically would be to start running harder and faster, it is, in fact, just the opposite. It is the doing nothing that is allowing me to not only keep up, but to actually flourish.

Personally, I can see that despite decades of meditation, mindfulness, prayer and yoga, I too often find myself trying to get somewhere, as opposed to being somewhere. I do not even know where I am trying to get to. It is as if there is some infinite, cosmic check list, and if I can just get through enough of it, some day it will be done, and that will mean… I don’t actually know what that would mean. Lately I see that even if and when, for arguments sake, I actually could get through that list–my life would be done. Knowing that makes me feel like I am not in so much of a rush anymore. Because that is the truth; we will never be done. As some of my favorite teachings describe, we are the embodiment of Consciousness/Spirit/Life itself which is infinitely and always looking to create through us. It never ends.

It seems to me that our minds have somehow confused the infinite creativity of Life itself coursing through us with busyness and endless lists of things to do. It puts me in mind of the accounts I have read of indigenous cultures who had to work daily for the necessities of life like food, water, shelter and protection, and yet still had hours each and every day for doing nothing. How might we do the same? How much of our running around is in fact, some kind of a defense against living? What exactly would happen if we all just sat  down, and not in front of a screen? Our lives are all moving so fast. Too fast. In our speed there is much that cannot be seen. Or felt. Or experienced. Gandhi once aptly said, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

That is exactly what I am aiming for these days; a discovery of what that something more is. What does it feel like? How do you get there? What’s it all about? And while we may all get glimpses at times, mostly we relegate the “something more” to a small section of our lives. If at all.

 

 

The Way

 

“If I could show you the way” is the chorus that keeps repeating in the song that is playing in the background. The music is serving as the backdrop for an exercise in developing an intention. I am about to write mine out and then stop. I find myself drawn to write down the words, If I could show you the way, I would… Then, I go on to author my heart’s desire.

I have been mulling over this phrase ever since. If I could show you the way feels like a map for being in the world. It feels like instruction around the call to walk my talk, to show and not tell. It feels like clear and balanced guidance around how to be of service. It feels like a teaching around how it is that we can live standing for something in the midst of others doing and believing very differently than we do. And it feels humbling and respectful as in if I could do this.

Interestingly enough beginning with myself takes me to exactly what the world most needs. Every single time. And it does it in a true way. By that I mean it is never about starting outside of ourselves for a solution. It is never about doing anything to anyone. It is never about convincing, managing, forcing, coercing or cajoling. It is instead, about showing the way. Being The Way. Which will always be far more difficult than trying to get anyone to do anything.

Essence

 

Last Monday morning I opened the curtains to see everything coated in white. What a welcome surprise! I moved quickly through preparing my son’s breakfast and lunch, eager to be done so that I could make my way into the woods. I was yearning to be part of those early, unmarked moments; “first tracks” as we used to say in skiing. Only, I didn’t actually care about laying down the first imprint as much as I cared about the experience of everything being covered, quiet and untouched. More than anything, I needed the deep, deep quiet and the way that the external stillness holds me and reminds me of a place inside.

Winter is the time of the Kidney in Chinese Medicine. In this tradition, organs represent both the physical health of the body, and so much more. The Kidney is said to be the home of our deepest essence. This is where our truest nature resides. This goes beyond a job, the roles you play, your history. And while it includes all of this, it is transcendent of this. To line yourself up with your deepest self is to slow your pace, do less, retreat more. Now is the best time of all the seasons to go inward. This is the time to turn in. To slow down. To semi- hibernate. To nourish the roots. To take stock. It is the time to listen more deeply than we usually do.To do this requires that we learn to say “no” more often as a way of creating room for tuning in at this level. It means saying “no” even to the things that we enjoy, or feel we must do. Where is an easy place in your life this week that you can begin practicing “no”?

Without unstructured and open time in our schedules, we run the risk of creating more of what we do not want. Pressed beyond our limits because of stress, lack of sleep and busyness, we erode the health of the kidneys along with the very best in our nature. We know this. Somewhere inside we do understand that there are ways that we live that take a toll on us. And yet we continue. Why is this? Maybe we are so caught up in keeping up that we lose sight of what is truly happening. Maybe we have created a story in our minds about what it means to be busy; it means we are important, safe, not lazy. Maybe the busyness itself is a shield against knowing what we would rather not know.

While Winter is the dormant part of the yearly cycle, it is far from a time of nothing happening. To the contrary, this season is the essential precursor to the time of more creativity and outward expression that comes in the Spring. This is the lull, the hush, the void, the pregnant pause that precedes birth and growth. To change course or to nourish well for the next season of our lives demands going in. Without this level of contemplation we doom ourselves to create over and over again what it is that we do not want, but have always done. And so keep doing.

Non-Violent Activism

 

A friend of mine is out at Standing Rock in North Dakota supporting the tribes in their actions to protect the waters of the Missouri. On the other side of the equation are the people behind the Dakota oil access pipeline who have brought in militarized police using pepper spray, rubber bullets and more, despite the peaceful nature of the protests.

Before my friend left her home in Vermont, she spent time being trained in non-violent activism. The man who trained her is a seasoned activist and was well aware of the potential dangers she was willingly walking into. He knew just how easily things can get out of control in times like these. The instructions he gave her feels like guidance for us at this time for all of our encounters with “the opposition” Here is what he told her:

Stay Neutral. To me this equated with the art and practice of mindfulness; our ability to learn to be present moment to moment without judgment. When we can learn to be the observing witness, we are more readily able to respond as opposed to react. And from this place truth reveals itself and life-affirming solutions become possible.

Remember that there is a human being standing in front of you who has needs. It is so easy to dehumanize and demonize those on the other side of the fence; those who disagree with us, those who hold different truths.

Why are you here? Know what it is that you stand for and be able to articulate that to the other side-not through demands and accusations, but through thoughtful questions and discourse.

Be helpful. To this I would add, be kind. Even when the one before you feels like the enemy, can you offer basic human respect? Recognizing the value of their life in no way means you condone what they are doing. It is, instead, the recognition that all life is sacred, separate from what it does or does not do.

Know your rights. This one reminds me of a powerful personal example of mine. I was at an outdoor concert and not far from me was a man smoking cigarettes, repeatedly. It was making it hard for me to breathe. I could see that this was going to continue all night long, so I took a walk to gather my thoughts. In my walk, I noticed signs at the entrance prohibiting smoking. To be sure I checked in with an organizer. Same answer: No smoking allowed. Walking back I went over to the man and introduced myself. I told him that I was sorry to bother him, but that the smoke was really getting to me. He was immediately defensive saying there was no way I could smell his smoke. He demanded to know where I was sitting. Right before I got indignant, I remembered; the law is on my side. Instead of trying to prove anything to him, I merely told him that smoking was not allowed in the venue. Immediately, he backed down, said he had not been aware of that and apologized. When the appeal to human decency fails, knowing your rights is your ace in the hole.

Two closing thoughts: There is always a good reason why people behave as they do, whether we understand it or not. And despite what we see modeled all around us, real change does not happen through guilt, blame, shame or punishment. As Rosamund Stone Zander wrote, “People change in an environment of love.” Perhaps the litmus test of these times will be how much love we can generate.

What Kind Of A World?

 

It is so very, very easy to look out at the world and to believe that all of the difficult and horrible things that are happening are due to someone else. Some other group of people. Some set of circumstances beyond our lives. So, not only do we find ourselves in the position of feeling afraid and overwhelmed, simultaneously we can feel that it is beyond our control to do anything about what is happening.

Every semester, with the college students I teach, we do a group think exercise at the board. I divide the white board up into the following categories; physical, social, emotional, mental and spiritual. Then, we collectively brainstorm on all of the costs associated with living stressed out. As you might imagine, the list includes things like headaches, insomnia, illness, irritability, anger, isolation, poor judgment, anxiety, depression and lack of faith. Just to name a few. This is nothing new. We know this. What we don’t know or think about is how this personal experience of being so out of balance is impacting the world we live in.

What we do next is to imagine what kind of a world we are creating by living in a state of chronic and habitual stress. Words like “unsafe, unhealthy, unnatural, scary, pessimistic, dark, bad and toxic regularly make the list. It is always a sobering moment to be in a group of people realizing not only what their behavior is costing them, but how it is creating the very things that they loathe and fear in the world. Before our next class, their homework assignment is to catch themselves in a stress response noticing what kind of a world they are creating when they live from a place of tension and overwhelm.

If we have any hope of things changing for us collectively, we must begin to connect the dots between our personal choices and the state of the world. And we must do this not in theory, but in practice. Daily practice. So, what do your stressed out behaviors and choices cost you? What do they cost the world?

Direct Experience

 

Every time I go away on retreat I have only one intention, prayer, hope and focus: “May I be faithful to my experience.” What this means to me is, may I be able to recognize what is actually happening for me in any given moment, as opposed to seeing my experience through the stories I have amassed over a lifetime. Stories that run beneath the surface of my awareness. Stories that tell me what I need to do and say and feel in order to belong, be safe, be me. These are stories that I have told myself for a long, long time.

This intention translates into a running dialogue with myself where moment by moment I am checking in to notice how things are actually going for me. I focus on what is happening at that very moment. I notice which  direction I am most inclined to move in. I notice when I am eating, not what my mind is pushing for, but the actual feel of the food in my mouth and in my stomach. When I leave a program session, I try not have to an agenda about what I do next, following instead wherever it is that my feet take me. Quite literally that may mean I get about 20 feet before I sit down, waiting where I am, until I feel directed to the next place. As for my mind and my emotions, well, I let them be too. I notice what is rising and falling like I am watching images on a screen. Instead of trying to fix or push away, instead of getting lost in a story, I try and just be with what is there, noticing as impartially as I can where it comes from and what it is linked to. For me it is like a game of connect the dots for my mind. I look at how my responses now come from then.

And while this is a tremendous amount of effort, exhausting even, at some point, I hit a critical mass, and it clicks over into a place where I just am as I am.  All my edges are worn off. The need to run incessant story lines is gone. And I am left with a softness and a spaciousness that far exceeds any story I could come up with. I tell you all of this because we are living in times where the pull from the external world is great, so great in fact, that it is pulling us out of the truth of what we are personally experiencing. We look  outside of ourselves to tell us what to think, how to feel and what to want. And we run our lives on memories from the past. This leaves us without the presence to know reality for what it is. And without that knowledge we will always, always suffer.

The body is such a great antidote to any story line. Over and over throughout your day, come back to any experience that the body is having, and watch what your mind has to say about it. You do not have to like it or want it. When you feel a sensation or a need, notice the stories the mind is telling you about it. For instance, if you are tired, see if you can let yourself just be tired without trying to make it go away. Watch what happens with the mind. Watch all the reasons you have for not being able to be tired. Watch all the actions you will take to deny that reality. Watch the feelings that arise when you are denying exhaustion, and then when you allow it. Daily we lose track of ourselves because we do not want what is happening with us to be happening; believing that it just has to be something else that is right, or better. When we do this, we deny our very existence. And to deny our existence is to say that what we feel and experience does not matter, or is wrong. Denying ourselves in this way is to create a kind of sickness inside for which there is no outside cure. Denying ourselves in this way is to collectively create all of the horror we see in a world bent on denying the existence of Life itself.

Do Something Else

 

In practice, I am contemplating old relational patterns that are not working for me. I write. I analyze. I breathe. I meditate. I engage all the practices that support me so well, and yet, my end of the pattern is still there. And then, a funny thing happens. As I go to put my pen away, clipping it to the side of my journal, the pen makes marks on the back cover. I think to myself that if I put it away like this I am going to have ink all over my bag. So, I start pushing the button down on top of the pen to make it retract. Only, it doesn’t work. I keep doing this over and over again to no avail. I am thinking; “What’s going on? This thing must be broken.” Frustrated, I finally pause long enough to notice that the button to retract the ball point is on the side of the pen. Oh. Suddenly the whole thing becomes very, very obvious and very, very easy. I was just going at it in the wrong way. I just needed to do something else. And it hits me– Yes, understanding what is behind our patterns is so helpful, necessary even. But in the end, it will always, always boil down to needing to do something else, if you want something else.

Demons and Goddesses

 

In Tantric Hatha Yoga, there is a model that breaks down our experience of life into two energies: demons and goddesses. Demons are those things which feel harmful to us, and goddesses are those things which feel like blessings to us. It is easy to see this split in our own lives. We all have experiences, energies, emotions, thoughts, circumstances and people which feel upsetting and threatening to us. And we all have those aspects of being alive which bestow upon us great calm, support, generosity and abundance. Mostly we believe that these two energies live separately from one another. Mostly we believe that it is best to avoid the demon and to curry the favor of the goddess.

From the Tantric perspective however, it is said that if we can learn the name of our demon, i.e. what that experience, feeling, thought or habit actually means to us, then we can transmute that demon into a goddess who  blesses us. To learn who the demon is is to learn its power and precisely how it is that it hurts us. This is the alchemical process of changing darkness into light.This approach offers a rationale for turning towards the dark, as opposed to hiding from it. This view offers a way to embrace the totality of what life brings to us while allowing us to be strengthened in the process And it gives the permission and the protection that we need to actually look forward to getting to know what we most seek to avoid.

I was away last week for my father’s memorial service. Anticipating seeing family of origin, while preparing for the day itself, brought up more emotions, and more combinations of emotions, than I could possibly list out. It was the equivalent of repeatedly being caught in a daily avalanche which ripped and pulled at me as I spiraled down and out of control. Every day I walked, ran, danced, did yoga, and meditated; multiple times on certain days because the demons had me on the run. It was exhausting. And when it was over, it was liberating. Why? Because I had learned the name of my demons. And they did not exist in others. They were, in fact, alive and well within me. While overwhelming at times, ultimately it left me with one unavoidable question; “Do you want to be free and happy, or do you want to continue to pull forward pain and suffering in the form of what other people do, or do not do?”

Every day we are all faced with some version of this question. And while we would all likely say we would rather be free, we often do not think or behave that way. There is a world of difference between wanting something and choosing something. To choose is to get to know your demon’s name, his real name. This is a very, very difficult thing to do. It requires that you be willing to see things differently. It requires that you be willing to put your attention to this. It requires that you slow down enough to feel some things you have been desperately trying to avoid.

Try sitting quietly with yourself taking long, slow, deep breaths. Allow an image of your demon to surface. What does it look like, smell like, feel like to you? What memories and thoughts arise in association with it? When you feel ready, ask it its name, and nothing more. Do not try and do anything to it. Do not try and make it go away. Instead, try listening. Just as you would introduce yourself to a new person and spend time getting to know them, do this with your demon. Be open to allowing the demon’s name to shift and change over time. Doing this will bring you closer and closer to the power it holds over you. From this place, it will become clear how what has harmed you can instead be what blesses you.

As I did multiple versions of this work across the week, my demon changed form many, many times. Initially it began as a person from my past, only to shift into “the governor;” that internal part of me that keeps tabs on me, making sure I do not step out of line. That part of me that references others to make sure I am doing it “right.” Not exactly the path to freedom I am yearning for. Ultimately, it presented as an essential protection that I required growing up, but that I no longer need. I had finally caught up with the change in my reality. Difficult as it is to do this work, once you know your demon’s name, you have something to sink your teeth into, as opposed to something sinking its teeth into you.

A Life By Design

 

Last week in a yoga class, the teacher invited us to see the practice of Yoga as a way to create a life by design; as opposed to one built on default. And there it is. That is the choice. Always. Each and every day. Will we allow the conditioning of the past, our busyness, our fears and anxieties, or the distractions of modern life to lull us into a kind of neglectful living? Or will we be intentional about our choices?

All around us, every day, we see the consequences of lives neglected and languishing in default mode. We do not have to travel far. It is in our homes. It is in how physically and mentally ill we are collectively. It is in our addictions. It is in the rape of the Earth. It is in the loss of innocence with our little ones. It is in money and machines mattering more than people. It is in our violence towards those different from us, and towards those we say we love. It is in our inabilities to make dramatic and sweeping changes as a culture for the collective good.

How is it then that we can move out of default and into something we create by design and through intention? It is not found in New Year’s resolutions. It is not found in a redemptive moment after hitting a rough patch. It is not found in reading or hearing something. It is found in this seemingly ordinary moment; the one that is with you right now. Here is the only place that you can decide not to do what you have always done. Here is where you choose to see the pain you are causing to yourself or another. Here is where you finally move your body, stop the emotional eating, choose a different approach to a loved one, drive differently, think differently, love differently.

As my teacher once said; “Consistency is the key.” To create a life by design requires choice after choice after choice; all tacking in a particular direction. So while there will be an ongoing series of adjustments, our aim towards something Greater is what keeps us on course. Do you have a something Greater that you are aiming for?