These Are My People

The phrase These are my people has become a mantra of sorts for me. I suppose that it might sound odd, but I find it helps keep my heart open. I first found myself repeating these words during my work with seriously mentally ill individuals. I saw over and over again how the public showed disdain and disrespect for them. Comments and exaggerated looks to convey distance from them – to show that they are different and less than. In many cases this attitude extended to the professionals charged with their care. Somehow the power differential inherent in the treatment relationship can make it easy for some to slip into mocking and belittling behavior.

At some point I found myself saying These are my people – meaning that I felt a connection to them that extended beyond their symptoms and behaviors, relating to the shared humanity between us. I experience this as a form of metta (lovingkindness) practice, maybe a combination of metta and karuna (compassion) – both of which sustain my sense of being grounded in the real world. Without it, I may lean into the judgmental arena where I focus on the differences among us.

We are swimming in a challenging political atmosphere where the door is open to acting out one’s deepest fear and hatred of anyone deemed as “other” and where these actions are encouraged by the leader we would normally look to as an exemplar of moral decency. I’m suggesting that we take a step back to consider the bigger picture of who we are and what connects us. I’m sorry, but the thought of wanting a world where we are all the same color and think the same narrow thoughts is repulsive – not to mention boring. And from what I’ve seen in my life, preserving this sameness and exclusivity doesn’t mean that we live peacefully either. Actually it’s a position that inclines individuals to violence and countries to war, reinforcing a paranoid posture that is constantly fearful of what is designated as “other.”

These are my people is a reminder that what connects us is stronger than what separates us – while respecting and appreciating our different experiences, thoughts and emotions.

These are my people is a reminder to ground yourself not in your thinking mind or reptilian brain but in your open heart.

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World Views

Our World Views are closely tied to our perspective on reality. We really do go through life believing that what we see as “real” is in fact real. That what I see, hear, taste, smell, feel is the same as what you and everyone else sees, hears, tastes, smells and feels. Somehow I think if that were true we wouldn’t be so preoccupied with our differences. We’d probably be much more accepting of each other

Each of us walking around in this shell of human skin. Each struggling to be the person we assume we were born to be. Consider how much time and energy is spent developing the individual personality that we hope will serve us through adulthood. 

It takes a lot of effort to define an identity and to a large extent it is an individual identity. Even if we grow up in a culture with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Within such a system we essentially create boundaries that separate those within from those outside. In that case, the differences of outsiders help solidify the identity of those within. It can be easier to know who you are by comparison to who you are not. 

The clearer the demarcation between me and others not like me, the harder to imagine how it might be to be the other. It’s more comforting to live in the certainty of your own culture or belief or social system. After all, our ancestors’ survival benefited by staying connected to & accepted by the tribe we were born into. No going off on your own in those days – it wasn’t safe.

Fast forward to today. We still seek comfort in being with those who share our world view. This may be family and friends. Or a community sharing religious or political beliefs. Are we more relaxed when interacting with those who see, hear, taste, smell and feel within the same world view? 

Perhaps the most powerful effect of living in this shared view is that it lends itself to a conviction that what “we” are seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and feeling is the right or correct view of reality. By definition then those outside my circle of shared perceptions are living with an inaccurate view of reality. It’s not a big leap to go from there to attaching other judgments to those who are outside. They may be viewed as ignorant, stupid, dangerous, evil, deplorable. At the least they are unwelcome.

So here we are. And where do we go from here?

I wonder what it takes to be motivated to reach out beyond our boundaries. Is it necessarily a question of being dissatisfied or restless? Is it having a glimpse of the bigger picture? Or does it require the equivalent of a bolt of lightening to open our hearts to one another? Maybe we need to be more curious to appreciate what lies beneath appearances, but we can only do that if we are willing to expand our world view. How do we come to know that staying within our boundaries is often more of a risk than moving beyond them or allowing the outside in?

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Expanding and Contracting

Of late I have noticed an interesting phenomenon happening in my body. Expanding and contracting seem to best describe what it feels like. It’s a shift that originates in my core – in the center of me. My whole being expands, feels lighter, taller, fuller or I contract, fold in, release. It’s not a change in moments but in larger units of time and space. I don’t know if it’s perceptible to anyone though it’s bigness may be eye-catching. More than movement – this change inhabits my whole body and my attitude as well. Maybe it’s a different me. Is this what shape shifting really means?

What I know is that I can’t always identify a trigger for the change. And it doesn’t happen in an instant but more gradually over the course of hours or so it seems perhaps because I don’t recognize it right away. I try not to attach judgments either way – being contracted is not good or bad, expansion not better or worse. Each serves a different purpose – each is another way of being that serves me.

Being contracted is, of course, a more inward stance. My energy withdraws into my core and pools there. These are the times when I may be mulling or maybe not. Could be that the ideas or feelings need more space to rub up against each other. Sometimes it seems like a time of planting seeds and paying attention to what’s germinating. Never dull or numb but a place of richness and potential.

Then again there are definitely times when I choose the contracted way of being in order to conserve my energy. I told a friend recently that my body is keeping me honest – meaning that I pay attention to the messages my body gives when leaning into depletion. Checking in so I don’t push too hard. I’m past the youthful mindset of believing my actions won’t have permanent consequences. But I do realize that there can be a tendency to make up a story to rationalize my actions or contribute to the anticipation of potential outcomes that may not happen. And I’m old enough to be aware that fear can take up residence and give unhelpful advice.

What of the other way, that of expansion? It undoubtedly has intention in it as well as a sense of going forth. Stepping out and being fully present to the action undertaken. The quality of knowing, or at least knowing that you don’t know, and not letting that get in the way of acting. There is an ease and clarity of purpose, though stories can be made up here as well.

Both are equally significant and must be accompanied by awareness. I cannot live  only in one way or the other. Expansion and contraction – It’s my life that hangs in the balance between these two.

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The Big Impermanence

This is another blog post in what has become a Cancer Trilogy and the most difficult of them to write. What helped me to finally step into this realm was a quote by Larry Rosenberg, the American Buddhist teacher who founded Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts. “We harbor a huge amount of unfelt fear about sickness, aging and death, and that fear robs us of vitality, partly because we expend so much energy avoiding and repressing it. Bringing up this fear and facing it [—] is a great enhancement to our lives.”

There are many lessons to be had about impermanence. I’m not talking about day to day changes or even shifts in the larger circumstances of our lives. I mean the Big Impermanence – the final shift away from what we know.  Or at least from what we think we know.

Often I believe when we experience events on the continuum of sickness, aging and death, we see ourselves as victims. It may seem that there is no other option, however, there is some choice in this. Being a victim takes away not only a sense of responsibility but causes us to collapse in on ourselves. It’s often a place from which the seeds of anger and bitterness can easily grow. When early on I shared my cancer diagnosis with others, many times the response was to suggest that what I must be feeling inside was, “Why me?” And I would find myself thinking in return, “Why not me?” Did I really believe that I wouldn’t get sick or old or die? While it may not have been part of my plans for the near future, I might have figured that, at some point, one or all would certainly show up.

What we generally feel in that experience is a form of shock that takes us out of our mode of business-as-usual. Facing unknowns has us then falling from the shock platform into anger or fear, both of which revolve around wanting our situation to be different. If there is no one to blame for what’s happened to us, no answer to the question “Why me?,” then we are left with the fear.

Fear is a slippery creature. Even when you check in with the bodily sensations that accompany it, assigning the label “fear” to what you notice can be scary.  In our culture we are supposed to handle fear, push through it or close the door on it – turn the energy of fear into productive action.  Even those who exhort us to turn and face the fear generally seem to assume that we will power over it. They don’t actually mean to invite fear in and give it a seat at the table.

Yet that is exactly what we must do. Fear is a part of who we are, like it or not, so why not get to know it better. Especially if fear is the lens through which we anticipate the changes that accompany old age, sickness and particularly death. In these instances, fear is the inhibitor who clings to the way things were. The stronger the fear, the more enticing is the desire to hold on to what was. So how do you let go and allow the shift into what’s happening now?

How do you open to fear without being attached to or overpowered by it? I believe the only way to open sufficiently is to turn away from the judgments about what’s happening and and allow compassion to hold the fear. Compassion has a steadying influence when we face the unknown and when that door leads beyond aging and illness to the possibility of death.

I  find the more I allow fear to sit beside me, the more I can see past the fright to the point where what I receive are in fact gifts and opportunities. Qualities of richness are present and a chance for me to be fully who I can be at this point on my path toward the Big Impermanence. And that makes me smile.

 

 

 

 

 

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Moving Forward

Lately I have been feeling as if I have a label tattooed on my forehead that says: “Fragile: Handle with Care.”  Perhaps it’s actually that I feel the need to alert others to my fragility.

When I walk down the street, the process has been “one step at a time” for months. I cannot be focused on my destination because I have to summon the energy to take the next step. I can’t worry about whether I will get to where I am going; my whole being is taken up with moving my foot forward. It could be that the label seems an extra layer of protection since it wouldn’t be obvious to anyone looking that my self-experience is the way it is.

I have been slowly gaining strength over the past few weeks. But still the layer of vulnerability remains strong. That may sound like an oxymoron, yet vulnerability can be a powerful force. It can affect the interface between taking in experience and engaging in action. It feels like a cloak that I have been wearing without ever consciously having put it on. Now I can’t take it off, though as I write this, I am aware that it won’t come off until I am ready to move forward without it.

Such a way of being seems particularly at odds with the need for resistance in the face of current political and world events. Every day I feel called to act to help counter the actions that are feeding social injustice, isolationism and climate change denial. I feel diminished in myself as I see what others are actively doing. I am called to meet energies fueled by fear and anger, but meet them how?

How do you take a stand when standing in itself is sometimes more than you can manage? I remember past experiences where I was recovering from some trauma and impatient for wholeness. Always there was the issue of how much to push; how many steps forward can you take before being caught by as many steps backwards? It comes down to how to be with vulnerability in a way that holds the intention of standing up and being strong.

I recall some years ago being in warrior postures during my yoga practice and noticing how vulnerable I felt. This sense showed itself in an energetic backing off from a full expression of the poses as if the attitude and the physical postures were incompatible. At some point my awareness shifted to where I could see that vulnerability and strength were like two sides of the same coin. They can exist simultaneously in a person – in me! It doesn’t have to be just one or the other. I realize that insights can often appear to be simple as this one does but still represent a deep shift in attitude.

Going forward, I am hopeful that I can bring this insight to bear in meeting the events that are happening now. If I can remember the experience of being both vulnerable and strong then I can show up in a way that appreciates the soft underbelly of those who appear strong in opposition to the values I hold dear. This may help in preventing me from responding purely out of anger or frustration. Perhaps it will allow for some deeper listening on my part so that my response will be not be intentionally antagonistic. Maybe coming forward with this attitude will invite an openness that leads to dialogue instead of intransigent positions. I don’t know for sure, of course, but I am willing to see this as a next big step.

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Cancer and the Language of War

When we talk of cancer and its treatment, we speak the Language of War. There seems little way around it. We talk of the “fight” against cancer, the “battle” to win, treatment that will “destroy” the cancer cells. We use chemical warfare to eliminate the enemy and radiation to kill the invading troops, both of which involve much collateral damage to other parts of our bodies, not to mention the emotional toll.

If you’ve ever experienced these treatments, then you know what if feels like to have a battle raging inside your body.  There is no point at which it feels good. It’s an experience to get through or endure, hoping to come away a survivor. And often both the cancer and the therapy feel like enemies in the way they leave us depleted and beaten.

I understand the motivation that leads us to live this as a life and death battle. I appreciate what’s required to stand up to an assault on our bodies. But I also understand the power of words to affect us. The rage that we direct toward the cancer cells doesn’t act like a laser focused on a specific target; it affects other cells as well. Its energy invades our being in ways that we don’t control. The effect of the cancer and the ammunition used to fight it can definiteIy be compounded by our words, thoughts and attitude.

I spent weeks after being diagnosed trying to get away from the language of war. I summoned up alternate images thinking a kinder replacement might provide a stronger support. I tried to see the toxic medications as Negotiators of Peace in confronting the cancer cells. I tried to envision them all at the table but had difficulty seeing past that image. I couldn’t see a reason that cancer would even show up to negotiate.

Then I thought of the Survivor Tree – the one that made it through the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on 9/11. I thought about how it was cared for and nurtured to allow for new growth and finally returned home. But I couldn’t get past the horrific destruction that had caused it to nearly die as well as the death of so many individuals. No, this wasn’t an image that could serve me in shifting my relationship with cancer and chemotherapy.

I was beginning to feel defeated in my attempts to move past the Language of War, and, as a result, feeling bad in my body. Increasingly I was experiencing a shift in my relationship with my physical self. I was mistrustful of its ability to be well again, triggered by a sense of betrayal in allowing me to think I was healthy and suddenly discovering that I wasn’t. I was on the path to distancing myself from my body and taking up a judgmental, self-righteous stance. And not feeling good about where I was headed.

In my meditation practice I decided to spend more time on Metta or lovingkindness. Since I was already experiencing this separation from my physical body, I felt it important to direct the practice of Metta toward my body. My focus included the cancer cells as well as the parts of me that were healthy. My meditation practice in general had become one that was done lying down, since sitting often required more energy than I had. So, with my hands folded across my abdomen, I would repeat, “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free from harm, may you live with ease.”

How much more sense it makes to cultivate a loving attitude rather than taking up arms and waging battle. It may seem a small point, and I’m sure there are those who prefer the image of vanquishing the enemy on the battlefield. For me, however, Metta seemed the perfect practice to strengthen and support the health and well being of my body.

The good news, now that the chemotherapy is over, is that the cancer is gone.  And while I notice some impatience to move on, I appreciate that deeper levels of healing are happening. I continue to practice Metta and probably will for as long as I can.

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Stumbling in the Dark

IMG_1729The idea that our civilization follows a path of reason or logic or unfolding wisdom seems not unlike the trust we might have had as children in the adult world. That is, until we began to see and understand the consequences of adult actions. Yet even then, as adults ourselves, we so easily fall into the practice of imagining that there are intelligent, wise beings guiding us.  Or, one great and all powerful, wise and intelligent being…

I understand that it might be in some sense comforting to feel that way. But doesn’t that relieve us of some responsibility to dig deep and get a grip on what’s really happening? I appreciate that holding such a trust in the all-knowing or those who appear more powerful, stronger or smarter than ourselves may help prevent us from sinking into despair. And maybe that is the door you choose as you move through life.

I wonder sometimes whether such beliefs let us off the hook, not just individually but as a species as well. If I trust in a plan that is inevitably controlled by forces beyond me, then I am helpless to change what happens. My influence is limited, and whatever choices I make will ultimately have no effect.

There are times when I am able to take a huge step back and see the BIGGER picture of how we are living on this planet. That’s when I wonder how there could possibly be a PLAN for the way we have developed. Seriously! What kind of plan is it that we perpetually treat each other as trash? Is the plan that we war with each other until there is only a handful of us left, and then how will they live? What part of this plan dictates that we use up all the resources on this planet while expecting that we won’t suffer while waiting for someone/something to bail us out of the predicament that results?

I ask you, “What the f**k kind of PLAN is this?” Wouldn’t it make more sense to take a look around and find some common ground with the other beings on this planet? Seems to me we have a great deal in common.  We are more alike than not.  We breathe the same air. We all require sustenance in the form of food/water. We all want to be healthy and safe from harm. We all want to live peacefully. We all want to know that we are worth something. We all want to love and/or be loved.

So, listen up! As we stumble around in the dark on this earth, see if you can find a hand to hold and then offer your other hand to someone else. That’s when you may actually feel that we are all connected, that in order to make our way forward, we must depend on each other. We have connection to all livings beings and the earth, but as human beings, we alone are capable of the conscious awareness needed to change direction. We have a responsibility to do this or else we must take responsibility for failing, and that would be a tragic ending to this human story.

Don’t you agree?

 

 

 

 

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Meditation and Mirrors

IMG_0902Meditation is a door that is open to all of us. The way in doesn’t require a brilliant mind, a strong body, abundant income or a special talent.  It demands only that you show up, however you happen to be that day, at that moment when you begin to meditate.  As difficult as it may seem, there is really an incredible ease and simplicity to it.

Some aspect of the experience of meditating often reminds me of h0w it is to look in a mirror.  Think about your attitude when you step up to a mirror. What are you expecting to see? Do you focus in on one aspect of yourself or do you take in the whole person looking back at you? How many seconds before judgments or stories set in and take up space in your head? In what way does it seem that this image in the mirror is you? And is it the “real” you?

We might ask the same questions when we sit in meditation. We incline towards attaching judgments or stories to the experience of the self that is showing up on the cushion.  Who is it we expect to meet there? Do we limit what we allow in, accepting only certain aspects and not others?  Is there a sense of disconnect between the image and who we “see” inside? Are we looking for a constant core that shows us who we really are, finding instead that it shifts and changes?

I, myself, seem to be at an age where the image I see in the mirror is constantly changing and in the most unexpected (and, to be honest, often undesirable) ways.  How is this like meditation? You take up the cushion and expect to meet the same person you were yesterday or even years ago, believing that there is some consistent self inside. It’s rather amazing that we assume such solidity in this “self” but not so different from the sense we have that our bodies will continue to have our familiar form each time we look in the mirror.

One thing I have noticed is that the more dissonant the mirror image compared to my sense of actual physical appearance, the more consonant is the sense of self inside with the shifting present moment self that simply shows up when I meditate.  An interesting divergence I would say…

 

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Skeptics and Deniers

While reading a recent article on denialism, I was reminded of two quotes by the writer Anaïs Nin. The first, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” clarifies for me the reference point for those who are skeptics or deniers regarding climate change and the causal aspects of human contribution. For them the determining factors are personal, not a lack of facts and figures. It’s not the science that’s the problem; it’s the idea that humanity could actually be responsible for what’s happening to the planet.  While we secretly want to be that powerful, when faced with the consequences of using that kind of power, we have difficulty believing we have made bad decisions. The industrial revolution and the burning of fossil fuels was all part of our progress forward, wasn’t it? How difficult it can then be to accept that perhaps it’s time to change course. So, it may seem that the actual determinants for skepticism or denial are grounded in the path leading to and then holding on IMG_1179to such a position.

Ultimately the drive to maintain the status quo, absent being in the maelstrom of an event undeniably tied to climate change, makes it easier to buy into the skeptic/denier mindset. Taking action in response to climate change means changing current business practices and lifestyles.  More than switching to LED lightbulbs or composting veggies, however, the actions required to respond to global warming are complex and have greater consequences.

This brings me to the second Anaïs Nin quote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” When faced with such an overwhelming issue as climate change, staying in the “bud” may often seem the better, safer option.  Ultimately, however, the “risk” to remain will pose larger and more difficult problems that we may not have the ability to solve. There is a point, often identified as a “tipping” point, when this risk of holding on to the skeptic/denier posture becomes too painful.  Actually, I wonder if “tipping” isn’t too delicate a concept – this point may be more akin to the realization that locking the door of your house to prevent a tornado from ripping it off its foundation really isn’t the best response.
Hopefully, the skeptics and deniers will come to realize this before the tornado hits.

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Holding Space

This phrase, “holding space” is a relatively recent addition to the lexicon of those who speak about interactions and relationships between and among people.  None of us grew up with this phrase in our vocabulary.  I’m not sure what I would have imagined it to mean if I didn’t already know. As I consider it now, an image comes to mind of throwing oneself onto the empty space in front of the curb along a city street in a vain attempt to keep anyone else from parking there.  Perhaps this isn’t an accurate picture, but the whole body energy required is not so dissimilar.  It can take a great deal of focus and energy to “hold space.”

My intention here is to consider the meaning of the phrase and what it looks and feels like when you are “holding space” for a person or group of individuals and their experience.  Behind that initial intention is the wondering about how we learn to hold space since clearly it is a learned skill or action, and frankly, most of us haven’t got it.

So, to begin, it would seem that you must be present to the person or group.  Does that mean physically present? I know what it’s like to hold space for someone over the phone, so it would seem that physical presence is not exactly required.  I do believe that you must be connected in some way through the senses of seeing, hearing or touching.  Tasting and smelling might be available but certainly not required.  And thinking or mind activity as the sixth sense is another issue entirely – one I will touch on later.  The point is that being present to a person or group means that you are connected in some way.  This connection also has some focus to it; it isn’t a casual flyby.  It isn’t a person you pass on the street or someone sitting across from you on the train, although it is possible that some circumstance shifts the focus of your interaction or relationship with that person and you find yourself holding space for him/her.

Once you are present in this way, perhaps the next consideration would be the nature of the space being held.  The qualities of this space help determine the qualities that you, as the holder of that space, must bring to it.  First it must feel safe, both on a physical and emotional level.  Second, The space must allow for the person to be heard and/or seen without hindrance.  Third, the takeaway must be determined by the person, not the holder of space.  These are seemingly simple requirements, but how do you ensure that they remain alive in that space?

One of the most critical qualities of the person holding the space is being fully focused on what’s happening with the person or group before you. No thinking of what you need to do later or of some incident that occurred the day before.  Your thinking or mind activity must be calm and open to the present moment.  It means relinquishing judgments, reactions and interpretations of what is happening so that all of your energy is available for witnessing.  In effect, holding space means being the best kind of witness – open, accepting, able to meet what’s happening with loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

If these seem familiar, they are known as the Brahma-Viharas in Buddhist practice.  One does not, however, have to be Buddhist to see that these might be beneficial to pursue.  These are not concepts to be understood but ways of being in this world.  How could they not serve us to be the best humans we could possibly be?  What I love about them is that they are not presented in terms of what NOT to do; they don’t have the sense of rules or laws.  They do not threaten or exhort. Instead they represent an inner grounded state of being from which speech and actions emanate.  They enable us to speak and act with the kind of intention that supports healthy and humane interactions.

I suspect by now you might find that exploring the phrase “holding space” has led us far afield. In response, I would invite you to imagine how your life might be different if you learned how to incorporate these practices into your relationships and interactions with others.  This is a path that can even help us accomplish a related and most difficult task – that of holding space for ourselves.  Allow yourself a moment to consider what that might look like…

 

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