The Uses of Joy

Yesterday morning, I met my dear neighbor on the sidewalk as she came out of her house to go to work. I was walking my dog home from a little golf course jaunt, in a sunny mood having seen a bit of sunrise and heard the birds’ voices.

“I am so glad to see you,” she said, in tones that told me something was wrong. I hugged her and asked what was up. Her beloved cat has been sick, but that was just the start of it. She had gone into a sort of panic fed by news stories of imminent global food shortages, water crises, violence–on top of the suffering of one adored creature who depends on her utterly. She cares so deeply, my neighbor-friend.

“It’s a lot,” I said in sympathy, knowing my own despairing times.

“It’s real,” she said of the bad news.

“And yet,” I said, “life is so good.”

She smiled at me with great affection, perhaps a bit of wonderment, saying, “And that is why I’m so glad to see you this morning.”

“See how beautiful?” I said, gesturing to the day at large: birdsong, sycamores, blue sky, happy poodle winding the leash around us. I admired her shirt, which was emblazoned with Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles.

She had not known the identity of this elephant-man and was pleased to learn that he’s the Hindu god responsible for removing obstacles. (Also, he “creates obstructions in the path of those whose ambition has become destructive,” which seems like a timely duty given the “leadership” we currently endure in this country.)

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Ganesha, by Craig Moe, via Flickr Creative Commons

She hugged me again before heading off to the office where she counsels people in ill health and financial peril, people no one else listens to.

I could never do the supremely important work she does, but perhaps by fortifying her in this way that comes naturally to me, I have made a small indirect difference with her clients.

Possibly my privilege makes it easier for me to hang onto my joy (despite being rather anxiety-prone myself). Possibly I’m just extremely sheltered and unwilling to fully face up to the bad stuff. Yet it seems radiating joy can be of use to someone in pain, if it flips the script in some small way.

Now, did this encounter change the fact that later that same day someone was shot at a nearby gas station? Did it change the fact that mass shootings have become horrifyingly commonplace in my country? Did it change any dire predictions about the world’s future?

No. Still: I believe that the more inner resilience we cultivate, the better equipped we are to be there fully for each other, to anchor the shift, to hold a higher vibration, and to act from that expansive state, instead of out of fear and contraction.

I could fret about recent mass shootings, localized violence, or future projections, and go down a rabbit hole of information/commentary/outrage/worry. Or I could allow all my emotions to flow and shift, attending to them gently, and return to a steady place, in touch with my fierce joy if possible. Then I take whatever action calls me. (I used this script to call my Senators and demand universal background checks for gun purchases. I donated to Everytown for Gun Safety.)

Some resources: Rick Hanson’s lovely “Take Heart” post is all about cultivating inner resilience in troubled times. Jen Louden’s recent “When You Feel Powerless” speaks to the feeling of “what I do is a drop in the bucket,” specifically in the face of mass shootings. Also see my “Tips for the Anxiety-Prone.”

Morning Incantation

I scribbled out this prayer/wish/invocation in slightly messier form a while ago in my journal. It was early in the morning after a week or two of insomniac nights, and I wrote what I needed, in no particular order and with little forethought. I’m posting it today in case it is of use. 

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May it rain today, enough so we don’t need to water the garden, enough to loosen weeds.

May my workday go gently, with breaks to close eyes, take a walk, widen focus, breathe a yogic breath.

May I be nourished by my food choices.

May the morning walk be sustenance for both me and Opal.

May Judy feel restored by the night that was so fraught for me.

May I enjoy my writing time, exploration time. May I lower the pressure level yet stay committed. May I submit my work to places that will receive me well.

May I be brave and gentle. May I be fueled from unseen sources, sourced by underground streams. May I source others from inexhaustible Source. May I be a light even in my own dark times.

BodyMindSpiritEarth

I had a realization at the close of yoga class, while resting in savasana (corpse pose), eyes falling back into their sockets, head heavy on the mat. It’s just this: I have a skull.

Oh I knew that of course. In theory. But it’s weird to think of this thing—used as symbol for poison, or to provoke ghoulish fright, the bony remains of a human—being embedded under my skin RIGHT NOW.

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Photo by Kate Bunker, via Flicker Creative Commons

Maybe this is not so revelatory for you. Well, I’m the girl who recently discovered, to my amazement, that the bones of my pelvis start way higher at my sides than I had previously pictured. When I thought “pelvis,” I thought “sex organs.” I thought “hips.” I didn’t think “bony parts at my waist just a few inches below my ribcage.”

In this level of bodily cluelessness, I may be unusual, but I think not. Do we really know what goes on under our skin? Do we key into the intelligence of our organs all working together, our blood flowing, our skeletons? Do we connect to the slime and gore of our insides, cached away under the outer layer that meets the world?

It’s easy to forget all that stuff, in an age where we think a whole lot. We can end up experiencing ourselves as brains on a stick, using the body to move the big brain from here to there. This brain that will save the day! (That’s working great for humanity so far, as our “progress” continues to wipe out species and their habitat at unprecedented rates.)

On the other hand, in spiritual development circles, we experience ourselves as bigger-than-brain, as soul or Higher Self, and we know that we go on beyond the body and the body is just dust and ashes.

I submit that this laudable idea can be just as alienating, even dangerous, as the big brain idea.

Of course we are our intellectual capacity; humanity makes incredible use (and misuse) of our curiosity, our capacity for logic, and our problem-solving prowess.

Of course we are our souls; that bigger perspective feeds many a spiritual seeker, including myself.

But the bones, the blood, the viscera—they have their own story to tell, and they don’t just exist to tote us from problem-solving puzzle to enlightened insight. Divorced from the body, the mind is imbalanced, the soul unmoored.

The energy within the body IS us. The blood moves, heart beats, bones/muscles/organs support each other in an integrated system that boggles the mind AND spirit.

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Photo by Marco De Stabile, via Flickr Creative Commons

I am not a mind. I am not a spirit. Not only these. I am a bodymindspirit. I come to practices like yoga and qi gong because I want to experience myself as all three, integrated and invincible.

Like most of us I’m good at neglecting this body. I push it past fatigue, I feed it poor fuel, I ask it to digest too much too fast, I wish it would just sit down and shut up so I can do my real work, but what if my real work is…a dance? A prayer-in-motion?

What if my real work is to sink back into this body that is part of the earth, that needs me to care for it in a deep and loving way?

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What if, by disowning the body’s “ugly” innards, and ignoring its whispers and clues and shouts and cries, I’m only contributing to the disregard of our precious earth’s wisdom?

That’s the bigger picture: bodymindspiritearth. Could I experience myself as all four integrated, and what would that look like?

What dance would I offer then?

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.

Dances of Universal Peace

On the first day of 2018, I joined a circle of lovely souls in sacred movement and song. A friend took me to the New Year’s Day Dances of Universal Peace meetup in my town, and though I knew only a few people there, I felt a marvelous kinship with everyone.

In Dances of Universal Peace  (aka “sufi dancing”), I learned, participants make the music themselves, taking beautiful, mystical pieces from many spiritual traditions. We sang (and clapped and stamped), while members of the group rotated duties on guitar, drum, shruti box, and piano.

Not a cell phone in sight. What nourishment for my analog self. A couple songs in, I felt positively incandescent. It seemed like the other participants were aglow as well.

In the intro to one of the first numbers, I learned that the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas has a passage in which the disciples ask Jesus what is required of them. “Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give to charity? What diet should we observe?”

Jesus said, “Don’t lie, and don’t do what you hate.” (A succinct mantra for someone who craves authenticity and alignment in 2018.)

Some of the dances were energizing, some mesmerizing. In the sweetest ones, like “May the Lady Bless and Keep You,” we offered each other a blessing through our words and motions. With winter-chapped hands clasped to each other’s, we sang into each other’s eyes.

At one point I started to cry from the intensity of it. The joy of holding space for such a living breathing thing as peace. And how rare it is to really behold someone else’s beauty, and shine one’s own soul fully.

 

Here’s a rousing one we did, singing to Govinde and Radhe (Krishna and his beloved, whom I blogged about earlier this year). The video is from elsewhere but captures the spirit of Dances of Universal Peace. Note the big smiles. I can testify that it is nearly impossible to keep a smile off your face while singing, spinning, and slapping hands.

Watching this, I’m already itching for the next meetup, which I’m told will be a “Zikr,” a meditative evening: slow movement, singing the names of God. Trancy. I’m so there.

This is definitely an energy I want to keep with me in 2018. It seems more important than ever to find ways to connect with each other and Spirit, and to nurture both body and soul.

How does that look for you? Are you trying anything new this year to increase your joy and resilience? I’d love to know what you’re doing to nourish your sweet spirit.

Full Attentional Living

I’ve been experimenting with my attention lately. When do I want to distract myself? What just happened to make me want to reach for my phone or get on Facebook?
Is it boredom, is it mental strife, is it something I don’t really care to see in myself or my surroundings?

These are questions I’m looking to incorporate into my daily practice of what I’m calling “full attentional living” (like intentional, only wider and more open). By full attentional living I mean: returning myself again and again, as often as required—fully inhabiting this place and time and body.

How often could it be said of me: “The light’s on but no one’s home?” I was a spacy child. Going AWOL (absent with open lids) was my special superpower.

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Probably thinking about horses.

I still value my dreamy drifty nature. But now I find I want to “space out” not by going elsewhere in fantasy, but by being in the spaciousness of my own self.

I find that I have more ease in my tasks and assignments if I regularly take time to sink into a state of deep relaxation and just…attend. Just be.

This might require couch time with zero stimulation. It might involve sitting in the back yard listening to the wrens calling back and forth. It might mean a consultation with a tree friend. Even a few minutes like that can restore me.

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Where you can find me most mornings.

The between-times, when I’m “on,” challenge me to stay in that state of flow and ease. Can I find more relaxation in my body as I go about my tasks? Can I release my eyeballs from their tendency to grip? And still do what I need to do? Usually the answer is yes.

And I’ve begun asking myself, Where is my attention drawn right this moment? What am I noticing? What is the meaning behind it? Where is my soul leading me? What experiences or lessons does my soul need next?

And more than that: What wants to be born in this moment, in this creation cycle of my life? Instead of feeling driven (my old pattern) and using all my willpower to make something happen, I’m playing with a softer way.

I don’t want to clench around my dreams anymore. Instead, I’m seeing if I can feel into an idea, hold it gently, and allow it to unfurl.

All this personal work might sound irrelevant in the face of all that’s unfolding on the wider world stage these days. Yet I don’t think it is. I think that the quality of our focus reverberates far beyond our little spheres.

Could full attentional living make change on a wider scale? I don’t believe, as one of my Facebook acquaintances suggested, that hurricanes and earthquakes arise in part because our collective focus is riveted on these disasters. I do believe, however, in the power of holding gentle attention on the hurting places in myself, on the planet, or in a client or loved one (all the same!).

To be clear for each other, we must clear ourselves, and one place to start is through compassionate attention.

Note: If you live in the Indianapolis area and this post resonates with you, check out my upcoming group: Full Attentional Living. I’ll be your guide to playing with these concepts in a supportive, respectful small group of seekers!

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The ideas in this post were largely inspired by Penney Peirce. I highly recommend her book Leap of Perception.

Contacting the Infinite Self

“No one’s noticing that I got MY hair cut too.”

I heard myself say this in a mock-petulant tone recently when two women friends were gushing over a mutual friend’s dramatic new haircut, the day after I had gotten my own locks styled shorter and cuter than before.

Never mind that I hardly ever notice such things on other people, or that her ‘do was incredibly striking. Dammit, I wanted some attention too!

Well this is embarrassing.

But I am learning something here: I often have this amusing need to be validated, complimented, seen.

I’m figuring out that this seemingly bottomless need is one only I can truly fill, by being with myself in quiet and care, by linking up to All that Is. It’s a need that surely stems from a dearth of self-love.

I don’t mean self-love in the aggrandizing sense of “damn, I’m the greatest thing ever (and so is my hair).” I mean self-love in terms of awareness that I am one with the Source. A Divine being of Light.

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I’m talking big-picture self-love. Turns out that it is no different from other-love, because in that expanded state I am All. There’s no separation, and no need to prove anything.

Anita Moorjani calls this the “infinite self” which has no need to please others or gain approval. Since reading her book Dying to be Me, I’m noticing how often I seek validation in even subtle ways. Like spending time obsessing over how to word an email or post in hopes of gaining a positive response. Or agreeing to do something that really doesn’t float my boat, just to feel worthwhile.

I’m not saying I shouldn’t pay attention to messaging, or only do things that please me (though how great that would be!). Rather, I want to look at the motivations behind my actions and decisions. Operating out of a sense of obligation or a need to prove something feels heavy, and it might taint the action, no matter how well-intentioned.

I’d rather act from a space of connection, feeling replete. Feeling light!

That’s the space that has no need of external validation, I suspect.

“A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.” A writing teacher once quoted John Candy’s line from Cool Runnings (a fantastic movie about the Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the Olympics).

My teacher was talking about publication, but we could easily substitute anything that we hold up as a way of gaining that elusive feeling of “enough.”

In truth, we are all more than enough, because we all—at a soul level—represent holograms of that gorgeous Whole.

Remembering that, acting from that place, is the tricky part—but I’m practicing! What else is life for?