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Sunday, April 28, 2013

How It Works

Here's the scenario that makes the meditative yoga I practice makes sense.  It goes like this.  Human beings are souls residing in physical bodies.  And because our spiritual energy is tethered to the physical world, like all things in the physical world, we lose power and strength over time.  We get tired, and we have to get rest and refreshment to function well.  This is true both physically and spiritually.

We know about getting a good night's sleep or eating healthy on the physical side.  On the spiritual side is meditation.  There's the kind of meditation where you let your mind rest, your thoughts slow and relax.  But there are other approaches as well.  There's the kind of meditation that not only allows you to rest, but actually connects you to a source of energy that restores you to your original positive and powerful spiritual qualities.

The idea is this: G*d is the source of all spiritual virtues and qualities, like love and peace and compassion and generosity, and connecting to that source, to G*d, enables you to fill yourself with those qualities as well.  And once you fill yourself up, these qualities become yours to share.  We know how awfully we can behave when we're hungry and tired, and we can see the impact of spiritual depletion all around us.  So many of us are drained of the energy we need to be our best, or even our good selves, and instead we act bratty and self-indulgent.

Imagine you are a light bulb, designed to shine and illuminate darkness.  You are made to radiate light, the light of the soul, but you have no energy source, no place to plug yourself in.  How bright does a light without a power source shine?  It doesn't.  Not because it can't but because it needs a connection to do so.  And we are the same.  We are designed for that connection.  It's the most natural thing in the world.  But we are used to the darkness - our own and that of others.  We are used to trying to shine, but failing, blamings our own shortcomings, but really all we need is the connection.

Spiritual work, spiritual practice, is a lot of common sense, a lot of simple effort around plugging yourself in the source, eliminating the distractions that keep you from doing that, and giving yourself a chance to fully illuminate in the way you are designed.  Your effort is just to make yourself available and capable of receiving what you actually require to shine as brightly as you were made to do.

You can complicate this.  You can question if you have the capacity to shine, or the ability to connect, or spend all your time analyzing why you haven't done that up 'till now.  Or you can just get on with this, with creating some new habits and practices around filling yourself with spiritual light, and letting it illuminate whatever darkness surrounds you.

You don't have to have it all figured out to give it a try.  Just start somewhere.  You don't have to know the science of light, or electricity or optics.  That's just another excuse to not get started, that you have to understand everything before you can move forward.  But you already know how good it feels to be at your best, to feel refreshed and capable of meeting even the toughest of life's challenges with confidence, compassion and clarity.  And if you don't, I'm sure you've imagined it, because this is what we can be.

Give yourself a chance to be your best, and see how good it feels.  Instead of fighting all the negativity, all your limitations and shortcomings and weaknesses, begin to develop your strength.  Y'know - it's like switching on a light.  You don't have to think about how to light up the room; you just have to flip the switch and the magic happens.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Speak Your Truth

It's easy to go along feeling as if everything is fine, because it pretty much is.  And then someone says or does something, or you see or hear something that triggers a memory or a feeling or reminds you of the ways that you are not exactly fine.  And sometimes that experience is shocking in its intensity or depth or even its existence, as you just didn't know you could or would still feel the way you suddenly do.

We have memories and wounds and sorrow that we think have healed or receded, faded into neutral, and suddenly they emerge as bright and clear as the day we first encountered them.  Like the grief from loss you were certain you had moved through, only to find that the emptiness can still open like a canyon inside of you.

It's not that these things magically disappear, or that if you have the right advice or counsel or support, you just get over them.  But you can learn about the room they occupy inside of you, about the ways you have changed because of your experience, and instead of trying to avoid the feelings, trying to dampen the experience, you can learn to express the truth of it, to let it become part of your story.  And to own the story - how it's told and what it means and what you reveal and what you conceal, and how you begin to heal by telling your story.

You can tell it out loud or in writing or in whispers to a friend, or through your tears or through your laughter.  It's up to you.  The important thing is simply to speak it.  To acknowledge it.  To recognize what has changed you and how, and to honor that experience by giving it a rightful place in your story.  It's not the only story or the whole story.  It may not be the biggest or most important story.  But it's yours.  So speak your truth.

The people who don't get it or judge you?  They don't matter so much.  And that's part of your story too.  Seek the people who do. There are always people who do, and it's a great comfort to find them.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Our contemporary American culture sows the seeds of discontent in every aspect of our lives.  We are found wanting by the media and advertisers every day.  We need to lose weight, gain weight, change our hair, get new makeup, bulk-up, slim down, make more money, live more simply, please our husband/wife/children/boss, worship more, work less, seek more balance, shop smarter, spend less, have a bigger house, follow fashion, reject trends, increase savings, and live like there's no tomorrow.

No matter what message you are hearing, there's always another one, the exact opposite message, from some expert who wrote a book or blog or was on Oprah or in the Huffington Post.  And he or she KNOWS what you need and is giving you the keys to happiness if you just have the courage to follow their advice, which is usually contained in 3 or 5 or 10 easy steps, or achievable in 30 days, or some other memorable integer. 

And I know it's very possible that you do need to lose weight or live more simply or increase your savings.  But that's not really the point.  Contentment isn't about what you should or must or need to do in your life.  Contentment is about finding the very center of who you are, learning to steady yourself there, and becoming comfortable and joyous right in that space, right in the middle of yourself and your life.

You need to make changes?  Go ahead and make 'em.  You need newness?  Go ahead and create it.  But it's a myth that you have to hate yourself or let disgust or guilt or shame or any of the awful stepsisters of discontent goad you into change.  You can actually love and accept yourself with some real compassion, you can own all the things that have led right up to this moment, and absolutely decide that it's time for something new - and still be content.

Contentment isn't complacency.  It's not pretending that everything is fine when it's not.  It's not ignoring the needs in your life, financial, emotional, spiritual, physical..., for the sake of appearances.  It's not lying to yourself or others about the true state of your heart and mind.  Contentment is acknowledging, with the humility of honesty, who you are, at your best and worst, without the violence of self-judgement, and with at least the same amount of compassion you would show to any other struggling human being who had the courage to confront bottom line reality.

There's a certain kind of self-respect in contentment that says I have value, and there is meaning to my existence.  And if your life isn't an accurate reflection of this truth?  Well then - make some changes.  Not because an advertiser wants you to have more hair or firmer thighs or longer-lasting nail polish.  But because you recognize who you are, and you know that you, like every single one of us, has something to give, and no one else can stand in your place to give it.

Like most things, the power of contentment is very simple and very human.  When you are content, when you sit right at the center of yourself, there's no distraction and there's no waste of energy trying to manipulate yourself or others into believing a lie about who you are.  You see yourself clearly, calmly, and with love.  And the biggest secret is that once you see yourself this way, you start to see others the same way too, and without even trying.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Shift in Perspective

Sometimes all it takes to go from suffering to peace of mind, from sorrow to joy, from anger to love, is a change in perspective.  It's so easy, and oh-so-human to be certain that the way I'm seeing and feeling and understanding something is the ONLY way, and the offspring of that certainty are many, from anger to resentment, from disappointment to frustration, from fear to confusion.  But illusion is also the offspring of certainty; it's your certainty that prevents you from seeing the illusion.

If you're certain - absolutely certain - that you're seeing things the one right way they can be seen, but your own ability to be loving or compassionate or helpful is missing, then there's a really good chance your premise is wrong, or at least limited.  Because when you see through the eyes of truth, even if you're not getting what you want, you'll have enough perspective to maintain the best in yourself and be at least a little generous with others.

Try it next time you're angry and frustrated and shut down.  See if you can't shift your perspective a little, be a little more open to other ways of seeing and understanding, and being generous with yourself first.  You might just find that all the internal suffering your own frustration is creating is a bit of an illusion, and that there's so much more that is real and worth your attention and energy.

For more cool street-art illusions, visit Julian Beever's website at

Monday, April 22, 2013

Give It To Me Now!

Do you remember Veruca Salt?  She was that awful spoiled brat from the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie with Gene Wilder.  And Veruca wanted a golden ticket, and she wanted it NOW and she didn't care how she got it.  She just knew she wanted it...NOW.

I feel the same way when I feel discontent or unhappy.  I want change, and I want it the way I want it, when I want it, how I want it, and I want it NOW.  And I'm grumpy and out of sorts and irritable and demanding, of myself and others, needing, wanting, and expecting something new and different.

The only thing is, is that it never, ever successfully works out that way.  Simply demanding that the universe, and the people in it, suddenly create a new reality for me, doesn't seem to yield a new reality for me at all.  And after a while, after I've had my internal tantrum, certain I deserve more and better and easier, and I've exhausted myself  by flying to the land of expectations with nothing but my dreams as wings, I calm down like a little kid worn out from the drama.

And then I start actually thinking about my life, and the discontent I feel, and what I might actually do about it.   I can think of plans and changes to make, and details I can shift that might lead to a different outcome.  But I try not to do too much of that.  When my life is full of discontent, I try, after throwing my fits, to go within, and sit with myself, and understand the seed of discontent.

What seed has taken root in the garden of my heart and mind, my life, and why is it bearing the fruit of discontent?  Why have I nurtured this seed and given it room to grow?   I don't try to simply eradicate it like some unwanted weed.  Because it is there, and I have nurtured it and I have given it room to grow, and I want to pay attention, follow the fruit back to the branches and back to the seed and back to the roots.  Because it's not an accident or mistake that it's there, and it requires my attention.

And the big question: what do I do about it?  Do I cultivate this plant, eradicate it, treat it with pesticide or pull it up by the roots? I have no idea.  And I'm surprisingly ok with not knowing .  I'm fine with not being the absolute expert on every thought and feeling and even every word and action that shows up in my life.

But I do know enough to know when it's time to sit down, and shut up, and open myself up to G*d's wisdom, and to simply seek guidance and comfort.  It's not the kind of seeking where I ask G*d to do something specific, or offer supplication or praise or any of the standard approaches of religion.  It's simply sitting in G*d's lap and being embraced by love, being bathed in G*d's light, being quiet in G*d's presence, and let whatever needs to come, come to me.

It works for me every single time.  Every time I'm uncertain or unsure or agitated, I come back to this place, and everything seems to sort itself out.  I know surrender isn't a super-popular concept, being perceived as somehow weak or psychologically lacking in strength, but surrendering in this place of great comfort relieves my own internal discomfort.  And it's in that healing experience, having been relieved of my discomfort, that possibilities re-emerge, that opportunities become clear, and that the right kind of change reveals itself to me.

The gifts of the spirit must be received, not demanded, and developing that spiritual posture, of being receptive to G*d's love, comfort and wisdom, is more effective than Veruca Salt ever was.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Why Meditation

The popular conversation around meditation is that it's good for reducing stress and developing a calm and relaxed state.  Which is true enough.  But that comes from a particular perspective on meditation, one that derives a lot from Zen Buddhism and the translation of that into a Western-oriented and Western-accessible practice.

Herbert Benson, MD, a cardiologist and founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, especially moved forward the idea of integrating spirituality within medicine, and developed the relaxation response.  He popularized a holistic approach to medical care that transformed how patients and medical practitioners alike understood the healing process.

And much of the relaxation response thinking, in combination with a mindfulness approach defines the majority of meditative practices in America.  Guided meditation commentaries abound all over the Internet, and meditation instruction is a Google-search away.

But my experience with meditation isn't about relaxation or stress reduction.  My own experience with spirituality isn't simply about quieting or calming my mind.  Those are useful steps in spiritual practice, but my own experience is about moving toward completion, cultivating the qualities and virtues that lie within me but are underutilized or neglected.

Reducing stress and anxiety and all the negative feelings and emotions helps, but it's not nearly enough to nourish the soul.  It's like removing junk food from your diet: a good start, but not nearly enough to get you healthy.  You have to add in fresh fruits and veggies and all kinds of other good-for-you foods, and then you have a healthy diet.

My experience with meditation is that it sets the stage for not being distracted by my own limiting thoughts so that I can actually open my mind and heart to the unlimited power that is available from G*d...unlimited love and peace and joy, which are available to me when I plug myself in.

Lowering the volume on the noise and distraction inside my head isn't the endgame.  It's just the start.  It's just the beginning of tapping into a source of spiritual energy far greater and far richer than I can manufacture on my own.  It's just the beginning of seeing what I really need, the places I'm empty or lacking or what I'm missing, and letting that spiritual power wash over me and fill me up. It's just the beginning of acknowledging that, as an ordinary human being, I have potential, and a capacity for spiritual completeness, but that's not the place I am right now, and I'm going to have to do some actual work to get there.

There are so many ways to understand G*d and so many discussions that can be had about theology, but my experience is that G*d is this unlimited light, unlimited love, and an unlimited source of all the things I need to fill myself with.  And meditation is simply exposing myself to the warmth and light that's being offered, and letting it transform me, which, by its very nature, it's designed to do.

Time DOES Matter

We all know how pressured we are about time - to maximize the use of it, to move through it as quickly as possible to get onto the next critical thing requiring our attention, to squeeze as much out of or into each moment as we can.

But when it comes to developing a spiritual practice, taking your time matters.  Because it takes time to quiet the mind, to let the overwhelming amount of stuff occupying our thoughts settle and rest, and to get comfortable with disengaging from the world.

We are so used to being pulled by all the urgency around us, consumed with to-do lists and schedules and deadlines and critical news stories, and (fill in the blank of what's constantly pulling you).  We are so used to this that it's not just an external demand, but it's also an internalized habit.  We are familiar with the stress of needing to get things done, of never having enough time, or meeting more demands in less time.

So to step away from that, and let different thoughts and feelings emerge actually takes some time and practice.  It doesn't happen simply because we will it, and it cannot be forced.  Spiritual focus is a creative process, and like all creative processes, space and time must be made for that energy to unfold.  You can't simply demand peace of mind, or calm and centered mental energy.  You can't manufacture penetrating insight in the 5 minutes you've got between meetings.

Cell phone batteries are more powerful than ever before, and they charge much more quickly than they used to, but they still stake time to re-charge, and so does the human spirit.  Give yourself enough time to move beyond the usual habit of hurrying and rushing, and let the natural easiness of your mind emerge, even for a little while.

We are wired for slower thinking, and for calm and clear understanding, but with all the reinforcement around the habits of moving faster and faster and faster, it takes real intention to slow down and think clearly.    Give yourself some time.  Take a walk, go off by yourself for a little while, whatever you need to get to slower.  Some is better than none, and more is even better still.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Anxiety Is Not The Destination

When there is turmoil all around, anxiety is a pretty natural response to the unknown, unknowable, uncontrolled, and uncontrollable.  It's a very human emotional response, and it acknowledges our fragility, our dependence and our humanity.

But it's not a great place to stay.  The cost of anxiety is high.  The price?  Peace of mind, calm, clear thinking, good decision making, a state of relaxation, the ability to maintain perspective.

So even if the automatic response is worry and anxiety, remember you don't have to stay there.  Focus on what you can do, not what you can't.  Think about the help you can offer, even if just in the form of good wishes or prayers.

And remember how powerfully important it is for there to be someone who can think clearly and not be upset when everyone is under terrible stress.  If you can be that person, the one who calls on spiritual strength in the midst of crisis, that alone is a huge help to everyone else who maybe can't do that for themselves.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Change is Hard Work, but So Is Suffering

Fear, shame and guilt are the Three Musketeers of negative emotion, traveling together, bound up in each other, each one building off of and tied into the others.  Where there is one, inevitably another follows.

And the result internally is suffering.  It can be suffering in the obvious form of fear, shame and guilt, but so often these feelings are cloaked inside something else.  They are cloaked inside doubt, insecurity, anger, irritation, judgement, coldness, emotional over-reacting - all the ways we disappear inside ourselves, and separate ourselves from whatever or whoever might be triggering the fear or shame or guilt.

We have so many ways to protect ourselves, to buffer ourselves from this pain, but this appearance of protection is only an appearance.  If the seed of suffering has taken root within the soul, and you tear off the leaves or the fruit, or even try to rip it from the ground, but the roots are still firmly planted, then the suffering continues.

Any gardener knows that to fully extract weeds, roots and all, the soil itself must be softened first.  And it's the same with us.  When our hearts have become bitter and dry, the deep roots of fear, shame and guilt cannot be eradicated through sheer will, no matter how forcefully we work to remove them.

We have to soften our hearts first, to acknowledge and accept that there is internal suffering, and that we want the suffering to end.  And we have to mean that, to be truly willing to release it, to give up defining ourselves by this suffering and our relationship to it. and our relationship to others through it.  It means letting go of bitterness and resentment and taking full ownership of our thoughts and feelings.

If you hold onto all the things that others have done and said to upset you or cause your suffering, you'll certainly feel justified in suffering, but YOU will still be suffering.  If you can approach your own suffering, your own limitations, with even some of the compassion you would have for a loved one in the same situation, then there's real hope for change.

Because compassion begins to soften and melt the heart, and that lets the roots of fear, shame and guilt slip through the soil of the soul and be removed completely.  Because compassion is the beginning of healing, and the beginning of replacing suffering with love.

It takes time.  It takes effort.  It takes focus and determination.  It takes forming and reinforcing new habits around new thoughts and feelings.  It's hard work, and takes effort, sometimes second-by-second, to actually change.  It's hard work, but then again, so is suffering.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Why Awareness Matters

Mindfulness is a term that those even casually acquainted with meditation are familiar with. It's a concept that's been around for thousands of years and had made its way to the West with great flair.  It's at the heart of a lot of practices seeking to reduce stress and enhance calm relaxation.

But there's another, deeper reason for mindfulness, and that's the kind of acceptance and awareness that comes with it.  Begin to sit quietly with yourself, and non-judgmentally observe what arises in your thoughts and feelings, and you'll see it isn't all about calm relaxation.  Seriously - go ahead and do it.  Sit with yourself and see what comes up.

For a lot of us, there are thoughts and feelings we've put aside or hidden for one good reason or another, and to try now to accept them, without judgement or fear or even concern?  Not so easy to do.  We hide from ourselves for very good reasons.  Because there are consequences to acknowledging how we are thinking and feeling, especially if we follow those thoughts and feelings to their logical conclusions and see that they are asking for some kind of change.

What if, in the back of my mind, I know I'm unhappy with my (job, marriage, kids, house, weight, friends...), and now that I'm sitting without distraction, it's apparent that I've been avoiding dealing with my discontent?  Well -what if?  Awareness is the first step in transformation, and the second is acknowledgement.

But the wonderful thing about the meditative process is that it's not boot camp.  It's not forcing you to jump into judgement OR action, to suddenly find the solution to the problem that you've only just become aware of, and have maybe, for the first time, actually acknowledged.

Meditation says sit with yourself, sit with your discontent, sit with G*d, offer it up, and see what comes back.  Do you need to take action?  Do you need to do something?  Or maybe, just in this moment, you keep sitting with yourself, getting used to this level of insight and honesty, and just letting what's been hidden emerge before you have to do anything to fix it.

Try it.  For a minute or two or 10 or 20.  Maybe happy, easy thoughts and feelings will emerge, and it will be easy to know what to do about them.  But give yourself the freedom to move into awareness, and get to know yourself deeply.  Take your time.  The best reason to slow your thoughts is so that you don't miss the important stuff.   Don't just empty your mind.  Explore it, and learn to know it and have some compassion for yourself, and you won't be sorry for a single minute you spend this way. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Honesty Above All Else

So much of the spiritual conversation these days has a forced artificiality, a certain manufactured quality of peace and calm and serenity without the real thing.  And while I wholeheartedly seek to increase the presence of these profound qualities in my life and my nature, I know that spiritual practice (such as meditation) doesn't automatically remove my humanity, my frailty, my juiciness about life.  It doesn't limit my emotional range to only pure, positive and happy feelings.  

The real journey, the real work, has its own sort of brutality to it, a kind of gut-punch honesty that keeps you from being too precious or sentimental about the sacred.  There’s nothing spiritual about pretending to be something you're not, about trying too hard to be someone you're not, or manipulating or ignoring the reality of yourself, no matter what the intention.

The spiritual journey requires honesty above all else, and a willingness to acknowledge, accept and embrace every aspect of who you are, even the ones you want to change, even the ones about which you have guilt or fear or shame, even the ones you keep as your darkest secrets.  Or maybe it’s especially the ones you feel bad about.  If you can't face yourself, if you can’t embrace yourself, change simply isn't possible.  You cannot positively impact the thing you ignore.  Energetically it is simply impossible.

There's no easy way out, no shortcut around yourself, no escape from the you that you've created and cultivated over time.  But the reward of facing yourself, your life, your relationships, and taking responsibility for and ownership of them, frees you to possibilities you can't even imagine until you do this work. 

And once you do, you can't even imagine going back.  You can't imagine accepting limitations instead of liberation, or settling for compromise instead of cultivating cooperation.  Once you look in the mirror of your heart with honesty, you begin to see the beauty of yourself reflected back.