Rising

On International Women’s Day, I’m thinking about what it means to be human.

We are in the midst of a rebalancing. The old patriarchal systems are groaning under the weight of their own corruption and perversion.

So we rise. “We are the leaven of this land, and we are on the rise,” says the marvelous artist/activist Jan Phillips.

And this is what it means to be human: to rise, to integrate. The feminine principle is ascendant not just in women, but in all genders. I know this is true because more and more hearts are awakening to our interconnectedness all the time.

We know intuitively, as women have from the beginning of time, that we are all connected. This is why we feel pain in our own bodies when we encounter the pain of the world.

When we hear of record numbers of immigrants crossing our northern border into Quebec seeking asylum, it hurts. When we read of a white rhino killed by poachers in a Paris zoo, our hearts break. Photos of clearcut forests, news of oil pipelines spilling into waterways, awareness of “mother nature on the run” as Neil Young put it—painful.

Our hearts break, over and over. We mend them as best we can—through touch, conversation, nature, meditation, prayer. Only to break again.

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Guan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, female Buddha, photographed at a temple in China

We can move swiftly from pain to outrage, which distances us a little, gives us back the upper hand in a way. (If I can find someone to blame, then I don’t have to dwell in heartbreak as long.)

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has this to say about that painful place:

When we don’t close off, when we let our hearts break, we discover our kinship with all beings.

Our challenge is to not close our hearts even to those who would do us harm, or do harm to the people and places we love.

I heard a story of an Afghan woman who works to educate girls in Afghanistan. Fundamentalists dislike that, and she’s subject to death threats. One day at a checkpoint she was recognized and pulled out of a car by a group of bearded, turbaned men with guns. The people in the car worried for her life. But she walked back after a half hour of talking with the men, saying, “We can go.”

She stayed open, and refused to see the fundamentalist men as her enemy. It turned out that they wanted an education, just like the young girls she worked with. They had made arrangements to meet outside the mosque for lessons.

The feminine principle is strength and love, strength IN love.

We’ve been schooled to think that the only way to make change is through force, whether physical or psychological or financial. But as the feminine principle shows, change happens in more mysterious ways. Ways that can’t always be predicted or explained.

And if we know that there is truly no separation, then our small human lives have meaning beyond all measure. Nothing we offer in love is ever wasted, no matter how small, because we nourish the new world with our deeds, thoughts, and hearts. What we do (are)—strengthens the good in ways we may never know.

I’ll Meet You There

“It’s been a long time since I felt that sense of wholeness,” she told me. “Just to reconnect to something spiritual feels incredible.” I’d just talked her through a grounding and expanding meditation, one that I use myself to connect to Source.

Sunlight. Revisited.

Photo by Rishi Bandopadhay, via Flickr Creative Commons

This young woman was one of about 30 I worked with Tuesday night at a collaborative “Art and Insight” event. Other participants, upon opening their eyes, said they felt themselves floating, or they gained perspective over their petty concerns, or they felt as refreshed as if they’d had a nice long sleep.

Guiding people to spaciousness was a gift to my own energy. I thought I might feel drained afterward, doing so many consecutive mini-interventions—but instead, I was on a high. (The only thing that would have increased my high? If I’d had time to enjoy my beautiful collaborators’ offerings—spirit animal readings by Elizabeth Camp of Zen Within and reiki from Amy Barr of The Healing Room. Not to mention henna by Carrie of Eastside Gypsies. Next time!)

This work makes me so happy. I never expected to find a vocation that felt as natural as writing. But I love sharing ways that people can regain their footing in a rocky world.

So many of us are walking around in trauma these days as we face up to our collective shadow. Nothing seems certain anymore; institutions that once appeared solid are crumbling one by one. It can feel, as intuitive Lee Harris once put it, like we have lost our handrail.

In troubled times, it’s so helpful to reach out to each other, reach down to the earth, reach beyond to the cosmos, and experience ourselves as intertwined with All That Is.

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That sense of interconnectedness is what helps me return to a space of possibility and openness instead of shutting down.

I used to consider this kind of thing “self-care,” which seems to relegate it to the “optional, somewhat privileged” category of activities, on a par with green drinks and Pilates. Certainly not mission-critical, like the shovel-in-dirt projects that remake the world.

However, I see now that the world is made up of people on a path, and that clearing out and opening up on an individual level is absolutely critical if we want to thrive here. Before the remaking of the world comes the reimagining, which can’t happen with eyes that see the same old way.

So how do we build a new world—safer, saner, more compassionate, more just, peaceful, resilient? There are so many problems, so many slippery arguments. There’s so much shouting, so much pain.

We can start by opening our hearts and looking into each other’s eyes.

Or in preparation for that, we can look at a flower, or a beetle, or a cat, or a tree.

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Or in preparation for that, we can feel the marvel of our lungs filling with air as we draw breath.

We can start anywhere. Sweep our little corner.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

—Rumi

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This is Humanity

Charles Eisenstein, in this interview, challenges me to something more radical than empathy. What if we believe everything we read and hear? Not in the sense of “That’s Absolute Truth,” but in the sense of: This is what’s real for this person.

It’s a difficult assignment, because it requires giving up being right. But practicing it would open up the potential for new learning.

What life circumstances could I imagine that would give rise to the various stories I hear? What enculturation/emotions/experiences underlie people’s opinions? Or the scenarios being played out, which are expressions of the stories people know to be true?

What stories must be firmly in place for so many African-Americans to be brutalized and killed at the hands of authorities, so often with impunity?

As this writer posits, “America has conditioned society to regard us (African-Americans) as beasts, superhuman, faster, and stronger. So when we are killed, it’s easy to rationalize and accept.”

That’s one possible story. A painful one. Giving rise to the need for all of us to say, unequivocally, Black Lives Matter.

This morning in meditation I saw a flower with countless small petals. One bloom, many petals: This is humanity. A flower doesn’t have to be told that it’s insanity to pluck out some petals. It is all one whole, one body.

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From my journal after one such shooting:

Is it possible that I carry all the permutations of humanity in my cells, in a more literal way than I ever imagined?

What if: I am the police officer who killed the black teenager. And I am the teenager who died. I am the crowd that formed. I am the mother. I am the judge, the jury, the media, the Facebook storm, the Twittersphere.

All of these are within me and I must must must love them now. The young woman wanting to smash up stores in anger. The older folks grieving. The Fox News people spinning. The truckers in the truck stop, the teens at the mall, the babies in wombs ready to be born into a quaking world. The deflection. The pain. The heartache. The horror.

The fear. Everywhere fear. I am that. And I must love that.

I am the return, too. The opening.

Can we imagine a story that would solidify our shared humanity, and our mutuality, and our need for everyone to feel safe and respected as they walk through the world?

To Radiate

Sometimes it feels like so many words are written and said, so much bandwidth devoted to opinions and theories and arguments, that adding more verbiage to the hubbub is a worthless activity.

The word “radiate” came to me this morning. As a writer, I’m prone to writing, of course, but sometimes it seems more important to just…radiate.

Consider the migrant crisis. It hurts to look at it. I don’t know what to do. I feel guilty for the comparative triviality of my day-to-day concerns. In the wee hours, at my worst, I sometimes wonder if it’s shameful to feel happy and carefree when so many are suffering. I sometimes feel ashamed of the worries that plague me, because my life is as easy and free as anyone could imagine.

When this happens, as soon I remember to, at 3 or 4am, I take up a spiritual practice based on a Hawaiian system for healing. It involves holding suffering people in my heart while mentally repeating the phrases: “I take full responsibility. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.” I learned about this process first from my friend and mentor Dawn Ryan, then from a book called Zero Limits, by Joe Vitale

The idea is to take responsibility for everything in our lives, because everyone is connected. Some say “I’m sorry” instead of the first phrase, but I prefer “I take full responsibility,” and it’s how Dawn originally taught me.

This mantra gives me somewhere to channel my concern, at the very least. At the most, it clears the way for new insights and promptings to action. Or perhaps just for a few more hours’ sleep, which puts me in a clearer space to do my work in the world. (Which I so question in those dark hours, wondering about its value.)

Saying these words and sending light? It’s not nothing. Though it’s impossible to quantify, I suspect that the shift from guilt/shame to love/light has a real impact, and not just on me. IMG_20150717_110506238In any case, these last few days, riding my bike or walking my dog in the sunshine, I can’t hold back a sense of exhilaration, pure happiness. I don’t want to. A friend told me that my happiness lifts her when she’s hit a rough spot in her own life.

So here’s to radiating.

A Hollow Reed

Years ago when I was untangling the emotional roots and antecedents of fibromyalgia, I saw a counselor, a lovely 60ish-year-old man with round spectacles. I kept hoping he would hook me up to his biofeedback machine and fix me. I would sit in a chair in front of him and look over at the biofeedback station significantly. Kind of like my dog points his nose at the treat bag, with great hope and impatience.

On our initial phone call I had told him that biofeedback was what I needed. I figured I would force my beleaguered body to relax, and boom, all would be well.

Instead, he asked me to close my eyes and breathe. How did my body feel, sitting in the chair? Where was the pain, where was the tiredness? What did it want to say? He’d ask me to play witness to the tumult inside me. “We are present to this discomfort,” he would say.

Eventually the witnessing came around to breathing in openness and ease. I was never long in his presence before I felt it: the touch of the Divine. I breathed in and invited it. The ache in my chest might grow more pronounced, but with each inhalation, I felt a lightness flood every cell, until the ache transformed into something softer, like a blossom opening to the sun.

Sunlight

I don’t remember specifics from our time together, except the way my breath would flow the length of my body. I drew it in from my feet and exhaled it out my crown, an old yogic practice.

“You see how this is right there for you, as soon as you invite it?” I remember him saying. “This is your gift.”

It didn’t seem like much of a gift at the time, even though those meditations brought the rare sensation of settling me fully in my body. The grounded feeling never lasted; one step out of the haven of his office—that luscious sweetgum tree outside the window!—and I would leave my body again.

One thing stuck with me: He said once, “I am not the doer here,” with his long fingertips pressed to his white canvas shirt. “I am not in charge.”

He spoke of being a hollow reed, the Divine playing its music through us. “We just need to step aside, get our egos and personalities out of the way,” he said.

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I wasn’t sure that was possible, for me.

These days I find myself opening to that possibility, as I check in with guidance every step of the way. For the first time, I don’t plant myself so firmly in the driver’s seat.

I wrote about my tendency to push 18 months ago; rereading the post now, I see how I was playing with the idea of surrender, which had been enforced (again) by illness.

Only now is this starting to filter into daily practice. If life moves in a natural ebb and flow, as Charles Eisenstein suggests, then aligning my own activities with that natural movement brings a delicious serenity. Not only that, but cosmic forces line up to push me farther than I could ever push myself, and with much greater ease.

So I pause and ask: Is it actually time to do what the ego/driver in me wants to do? Or is it time to do something else? I’m finding more ease and joy as I move through life open to the possibility that it’s not all up to me.

Releasing the “Story”

A sycamore on my street in the process of shedding its bark

A sycamore on my street in the process of shedding its bark

When the sycamores in my neighborhood begin their annual shedding, I always ask myself, what do I need to release this year to speed my growth?

Perhaps I need to examine the story that constantly loops through my brain. I’m sure some of it can fall away like bark sloughed off a tree trunk.

The ground under the trees is strewn with their old skin.

The ground under the trees is strewn with their old skin.

Zen teacher Norman Fischer speaks to this point eloquently.

“We take our point of view so much for granted, as if the world were really as we see it.

But it doesn’t take much analysis to recognize that our way of seeing the world is simply an old unexamined habit, so strong, so convincing, and so unconscious we don’t even see it as a habit.

How many times have we been absolutely sure about someone’s motivations and later discovered that we were completely wrong? How many times have we gotten upset about something that turned out to have been nothing?

Perspective

Perspective

Our perceptions and opinions are often quite off the mark. The world may not be as we think it is. In fact, it is virtually certain that it is not.”

—from Training in Compassion

Resilient Communities and People: How Yoga Can Help

Guest post by Gaynell Collier-Magar

Hi everyone! I am so honored to be a guest blogger on Shawndra’s amazing website. Shawndra is one of my Irvington Wellness Center yoga students. She has a beautiful, thoughtful practice, both on and off of the mat. She personifies how yoga can help with resiliency in life.

Yoga is a 5000-year-old tradition of practices (the Eight Limbs) to reduce suffering and still the mind. It is not a religion. However, the practices have been incorporated by many religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, and contemplative Christianity to name a few.

The physical practice or “asana” (“seat”) is meant to create resiliency in the body and mind to enable sitting in meditation for long periods of time. Unfortunately, in the West, the physical practice is often perceived as the path to buns of steel, pretzel poses, and very thin 20-something bodies.

The first lines of the Yoga Sutras state: “Now, the teachings of yoga. Yoga is to still the patternings of consciousness”. The Sutras explain how our habitual ways of thinking create suffering and how we can remedy this.

When we are reimagining a future for our communities, yoga could be a useful tool.

Photo by Jenny Spadafora

Photo by Jenny Spadafora, via Flickr Commons

So how does this happen? In the physical practice, it begins with being in the present moment—in the body and the breath. To get a feel for what I mean, try this:

Notice how you are sitting now. Are you slumping? Good…notice how you feel heavy in your body. Now, sit up straight, feel your bottom sitting in your chair, feel your feet on the floor, and lift your chest. Do you feel any lighter in your body? Slump again and notice. Sit up again and notice. Now close your eyes, put your hands on the tops of your thighs and take three deep, slow breaths. Focus on the exhale.

What was your mind doing? Chances are it wasn’t making a to-do list, obsessing about the person at work who drives you crazy, or yearning after a piece of chocolate. You begin to get a glimpse of the mind becoming more still—an experience that increases in depth and length with further practice.

The practice is to notice what is happening in the present moment, practice non-reaction, and return to the present moment. Neuroscience is showing that these practices literally re-wire the brain.

Two of the liabilities of community work are burnout and lack of fresh ideas. Our ego-driven “monkey mind” robs us of tremendous energy and creativity. As we engage in practices that still the mind, we create a mindspace in which to think outside the box—and the energy to act accordingly.

Photo by TZA, via Flickr Commons

Photo by TZA, via Flickr Commons

We also create a mind that is equanimous and unattached, yet deeply caring. We create a mind that is focused and in the present moment. We create a mind that is resilient.

It is not a leap of consciousness nor faith to realize how resilient minds can create resilient communities. The Buddha said, “All that we are is a result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.”

Gaynell has been a yoga practitioner for over 14 years. She was certified as a Vinyasa yoga instructor in 2009 by Rolf Gates and is a registered yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance. She is certified to teach adaptive yoga to people with physical disabilities, having studied with Matthew Sanford of Mind Body Solutions. She has taught Vinyasa, adaptive, and 12-step recovery yoga classes in Indianapolis and Cozumel, Mexico in Spanish and English. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work and owns her own landscaping business, Growing Connection.

Join Gaynell and other terrific instructors at Shine Out Yoga Celebration, July 11-12 in Indianapolis, benefiting Mighty Lotus.