Getting and Spending

“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

A long time ago, when I worked in a corporation, I kept this William Wordsworth quote on my cubicle wall to remind me of what I knew—that my life was about more than producing and consuming.

Now I see that this statement doesn’t go far enough. Not only does endless productivity and consumerism crush our personal power, it destroys our planet.

Witness the fires devastating the Amazon. Deliberately set, left to burn until God knows what point of no return. Why is Brazil’s rainforest burning? In part, to feed consumer demand for paper, lumber, soy, and beef. (That’s not even taking into account the impact of mining minerals like copper, tin, gold, iron ore.)

We could blame the people who set the fires, but the more we buy into capitalism, the more complicit we are. Not to say that we don’t need to hold companies and governments responsible for the greedy policies that encourage slash-and-burn deforestation. But when something “out there” disturbs me, I try to to look within to see what is being reflected back to me. 

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Photo by Katja Schulz, via Flickr Commons “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” —The Dalai Lama

Curiously, I started this blog post wanting to talk about doing nothing. In her new book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell reframes doing nothing as a potent form of resistance.

I have yet to read the book, but a review of it in Yes magazine piqued my interest. It is not a call to passivity, but an invitation to true transformation.

Odell writes that our constant activity and stimulus-addiction keep us from imagining the bold action that would truly change the world.

If we keep trying to feed a bottomless hole with products or busyness or information, we just heat the globe more. But if we step back and get quiet, allow ourselves to feel, we might get in touch with radically different possibilities. Like undoing capitalism.

The master’s tools will never bring down the master’s house, as Audre Lorde put it decades ago. We’ve got to make new tools, and to do that, we’ve got to dive deep.

What of the need for urgent action, to fight the powers that be? Charles Eisenstein has suggested that our urgent scurrying from problem to problem (along with our shame-and-blame culture) are symptomatic of a bigger cultural story driving the intertwined problems of our age. Not only symptomatic, but propping up that story, which is one of alienation, separateness.

We are part of this world. By getting quiet, concentrating ourselves, choosing to stop doing from time to time, we heal a little corner of it. We don’t always know the extent of that healing’s reverberation, but it’s real.

Now, if I stop there, I could use this truth as an excuse to never make a move that feels scary. Worse, as license to let injustices ride and exploitation continue unabated.

Without some measure of self-awareness—and a willingness to act when needed—“doing nothing” becomes self-indulgent. But sitting still, without input from screens or other media—isn’t that the cradle of self-awareness and compassion, a place that can spur inspired action?

A friend posted this quote yesterday along with her rainforest-inspired commitment to a vegan diet: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” —The Dalai Lama

Where does it arise from, the deeply committed, maybe-small-but-world-changing action? From a spacious, quiet place, in touch with the deep pain of our time, and in touch with infinite possibility.

How to help the situation in Brazil: This Newsweek article lists some action items and organizations to support.

Three Hours North

I was born the same year as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

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Oh of course, we both were in existence long before this birth, but 1966 was when our current recognized incarnation began: When my soul consolidated into this body, and the Dunes were designated as National Lakeshore.

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I’m only three hours south of this incredible place, something I allowed myself to forget for way too long. Recently we became reacquainted. Exploring the trails and shores for a couple days, I felt restored.

Walking the beach you might see trees pressing down across the sand and into the water. The brushy ones make it look like you can’t get past, till you arrive and find: Here you can walk under the tree, or here you can go up higher on the sand, or here just hoist yourself over. Or go a little deeper than you mean to, out in the water.

Or here maybe you just want to savor standing on a downed tree and feeling its smooth skin with your feet. The water doing its dauntless polishing, tempting a toe.

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To the east or west from the beaches lie the trappings of industry. Lakeshore and I were both born under the shadow of human folly, which continues still to this day.

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But there is peace even in the smokestacked encroached-upon existence. (Not-so-fun fact: Lead pollution, like that of the steel mill described here, fed into my health problems a dozen years ago, when high levels of both lead and mercury were found in my body.)

Still: These waves. Their power feels truer than anything. Sitting here you can’t hear industry, you can’t hear vehicular hum, or any of the ubiquitous noises of civilization that just.never.stop.

The waves are like breaths—sometimes slowing, sometimes racing each other but constant, the sound of moist, fluid, rhythmic life. Every single wave and breath its own experience.

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The answers are within, say the sages. Sit still long enough and you will find your answer. Or at least find a newer more pregnant more potent version of the question.

Sit still long enough and you contact something like eternity, the thing that goes on long before and long after this small understanding of a life.

The Alchemy of Yoga

Sometimes, looking at the horrors of our present age, my thoughts run to “what is the ever-loving point of any of this?”

It’s a heaviness that gives despair the reins. In the wee hours, my brain chatter runs to the bleakest possible things. Teachers I admire and love, young people I care about are attempting to teach and learn… while fearing they might be the next victims of a school shooter? Devastating, terrifying. Unthinkable.

And what of the shooter, of shooters-in-the-making? How deep does our alienation go, that we continue to look away while people tumble into darkness? Would a life-affirming culture continue to produce people with little respect for life?

Yoga is where I get a visceral sense of alienation’s opposite. Yoga means union. In yoga practice, I alchemize my despair, and hold space for the collective to heal. The dysfunctional culture plants its stunted seeds into me, waiting for me to curl inward, grow cynical, turn my back. Yoga grows a new plant entirely.

I go to yoga class to be with my people. My yoga studio welcomes people of all body types, ethnicities, ages, and orientations. (My teacher is one of a new vanguard of instructors extending yoga to populations that might not gravitate to it: veterans, people with addictions, older folks, people with disabilities.)

We roll out our mats, sometimes josh and tease, sometimes get serious right away. Our teacher guides us into quietness through simple breath awareness.

We don’t have to stop the mind from its prattling. Just notice where it’s gone and take another conscious breath.

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The movements may be slow and easy, slow and challenging, or flowy and strenuous, depending on the class. But always there’s the pairing of breath with motion, the sensation of really inhabiting the body that so often goes ignored. Union.

If tears threaten, we let them come. It’s all OK.

We are here to challenge our habitual patterns of mind. We are here for community and communion. We are here to find some silence in the fray. We are here to refill our wells. We are here to stretch bodies that sit too much, or ease bodies that work too hard. We are here to touch into timelessness.

By the end of class we’ve been rearranged a little bit. We might leave class kinder than we went in. We will go back to the fractious world, the intractable problems, contributing in whatever way we do, letting go of “what’s the point,” at least temporarily.

The closing invocation might fall into the much-maligned “thoughts and prayers” category, but for me it is a powerful statement of connection that does not preclude action. It invokes what can be, what must be if we want to survive and thrive as a collective.

“May all beings be safe. May all beings be happy. May all beings be healthy. May all beings know peace, be free from all delusion, and walk through their lives with ease.”

And the light within each of us grows brighter, so we can continue to hold others in Light.

Contracting

Recently I spent some blissful days by Crystal Lake in Michigan, thanks to a dear friend’s hospitality.

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This was the sunset that greeted me on arrival. Photo by Julie Stewart.

The reason for my trip was ostensibly research in nearby Traverse City’s 19th century mental institution. My original plan was to spend just a night or two in the haven of my friend’s company and then head out. (On the way home I wanted to tour a Michigan farm that specializes in teff, on assignment for Acres USA. And since the farm lies halfway between home and Crystal Lake, it made sense to find lodging midway.)

But it turned out that the teff farmers were unavailable during that time, so my grand plan fell through. And I’m so grateful.

I needed those restorative days and nights to rest, integrate, and incubate. After touring the asylum as planned, I turned to my project with a fresh eye. I wrote in stints between riding my friend’s bicycle, lying in the hammock, walking along the lakeside, floating in the crystalline water, and other general deliciousness.

In the mornings I sat at the end of the dock and faced into the wind. The wavelets on the lake and the constant breeze made it feel like I was on a boat, moving steadily forward.

I thought about how we can draw to us exactly what we need, even if it feels like we’re sitting still. If we’re aligned with what wants to be born, it’s less about effort than showing up and paying attention.

Driving home, I saw this truism played out again when an audiobook I was playing refused to work. I finally gave up and turned on the radio, just in time to find a program on NPR that spoke exactly to a dilemma I’d been working out in my story.

Now, this was in a semi-remote part of Michigan, where very few stations were coming through clearly. I marveled that I could hear this piece all the way through to the end as I drove along between the evergreens. The station faded just as the next story began and I came to a well-placed rest area.

When I got back in the car, I tried the audiobook again. You guessed it: This time it worked.

It struck me that this synchronicity was a symptom of alignment, proceeding straight from my placement at the end of that dock, where I had given myself the gift of sitting still.

I forget this all the time. Part of me still believes that I have to make things happen. I was taught to keep on pushing, no matter what. Never mind that time and time again—say in a client session or on a writing jag—I find a larger truth. The “I” that I so cherish steps aside for a bit and lets something bigger take over.

When I came back from Michigan, I longed to sequester myself with my writing. I took over the guest room with its sweet view of the garden out back.

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I have been spending some time each day there immersed in my work, it’s true. But I still long for more. As the magic of my little Michigan expedition wore off, the usual obligations and distractions started to intrude. I have found myself overbooked and overstimulated.

Earlier this week I dreamt of coaching a pregnant woman through labor. When I woke, I realized that I am in the midst of a contraction. I have thought of “contraction” as a negative, as in “contracted state” opposite “expanded state”—but I understand now that I need to honor my need to contract. I see that turning inward is critical to the process of labor, which is really about so much more than active pushing. I need to allow a natural rhythm to flow.

And I need to pay attention, so I can be ready for those helpful tidbits that come my way as I appear to be sitting still.

In order to cultivate more quiet in my mind and spirit, I plan to sign off social media for the better part of August. This contraction requires that I evaluate every invitation and activity carefully before saying yes. I might not blog much. But I’ll be back.

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?