For weeks now, in the face of an ongoing global pandemic, and in the wake of the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery (and so many others), I have been sitting with and feeling into how to best respond to what is happening in our world. The mindfulness teacher in me is called to offer a response that is comforting, supportive and calls us to action. But the human in me feels like I just need to be honest: I don’t actually know what the most appropriate response is yet (this is literally the 8th draft of this newsletter).
I don’t know how to respond yet, because there is so much that I am still learning - About systemic injustice. About how to be a supportive emerging ally to Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). About how my heart and mind relate to my own and other’s suffering. About how to be fully present without turning away from discomfort or what I don’t understand. And how to let it be okay that I Don’t Know.
In a group call* the other morning with Resmaa Menackem, author of My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, he reminded us all (though speaking very specifically to the white bodied people in the group) that it is our responsibility to learn to fully hold (with full accountability and responsibility) our own experience, so that we can engage in the necessary work of healing the unjust systems that continue to harm Black and all People of Color.
Though Resmaa was speaking very specifically about the role of white people in dismantling racism and unjust systems, his statements speaks so powerfully to the work we are doing in our mindfulness practice. On the most basic level of our practice, we are learning to be present with and fully hold our own experience. From my own practice of mindfulness, I’ve learned this requires listening, listening deeply to the nuance of what is arising in the mind and how I am relating to my experience at any moment.
In this way, mindfulness brings us closer to the truth.
As I continue to listen to those more advanced in their understanding of injustice, in particular those who are working at the intersection of trauma and social justice, the other primary message I keep getting is to keep pay attention to what is happening in the body (which I take to mean, feel and connect with what is happening in the body). So the invitation in our mindfulness practice is to continue to listen, feel and connect: to get curious about what arises in our own hearts and minds; to understand and take full responsibility for our own trauma; to explore what happens in our nervous system as we come into closer contact with our direct experience; to take a closer look at our own unexamined beliefs, views and biases and how they potentially impact the lived experience of others; to keep seeing what is true.
Mindfulness brings us closer to the truth.
I see this as one of the most foundational teachings of mindfulness practice, and the invitation at the center of this is to learn to see and hold the truth of things, as they are. Not as we wish them to be. Not as we believe them to be. Not as we have learned them to be. But just as they are. And then to grow our capacity to bear witness and remain fully present.
Inherent in the teachings of our mindfulness practice, in the practice seeing the truth of things just as they are, is the invitation to recognize the truth of our interconnection - that we live in relationship. The practice of mindfulness and healing our trauma is not for the sake of our own liberation alone, but a path of liberation for all. If our practice of mindfulness does not directly address the root of suffering in our own thinking and our participation in the suffering of others, we have misunderstood an essential point. When practiced with curiosity and an open heart, mindfulness should point us toward the profound recognition that our lives have something to do with each other. That the Bodhisattva's Vow has no sub-clause.
Or, as my former classmate, Buddhist teacher Jozen Tamori Gibson said one day in class, “Mindfulness is social justice.”
In upcoming mindfulness events (see below) the focus will be to ask and explore these deeper questions, to practice seeing the deeper truth of things just as they are, and to explore the truth of our interconnection - that mindfulness is not in service of our own liberation alone. We are practicing mindfulness for the liberation of all.
I celebrated my 43rd birthday a few days ago, and as is often the case around the anniversary of my birth, I found myself in deep inquiry about various aspects of my life. Where do I want to live? What in my life is not alignment with my deeper values? What will need to change in my life in order to live with more simplicity? were among the many questions I entertained as I walked through the woods on my birthday hike. I am not a stranger to asking deeper questions, but as of late, in response to the ongoing uncertainty of life as we now know it, I find myself a bit more anxious as the big questions arise. It is no surprise, my life (and just about everyone else's) is in transition and I feel myself on the verge of something new. While it feels exciting and right, it also feels uncomfortable, and a little scary.
In the weekly Monday Morning Sangha and The SisterWell Circle, in my individual client sessions, and in many of my everyday conversations with friends, family and colleagues, I hear so many people expressing this same uncertainty, discomfort and curiosity about how to navigate the transitions and changes in their own lives. Across the board it seems to be a mix of excitement and fear. Which makes so much sense. While it can be very exciting to be on the verge of something new in life, and it can make us feel alive when we come closer to what feels true to us, it can also be scary to ask the deeper questions, the very questions that bring us closer to these truths. Because, when we first ask the questions, we don't know yet what the answers will be.
But no matter how uncertain the answers may be, or the degree of transition asking the questions may usher into our lives, there is wisdom in asking them. There is wisdom in being willing to ask the very questions that may open our lives into a deeper, richer expression of what we love and value, even if those questions turn our lives inside out. There is wisdom in having faith, that no matter the outcome of the questions we ask, we have the ability to be present with what arises. There is wisdom in being curious, for its own sake. This curiosity and willingness to ask deeper questions inevitably always bring us closer to what is true.
To support this exploration of curiosity and asking deeper questions, I am offering a series of upcoming events:
I write to you on this warm and humid, late summer afternoon here in Kansas City. I recently made the slow and steady 3 day/2000 mile journey along the I-80 from California, through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska and down through Missouri into KC. The drive was long, and at times felt endless, and by the time I arrived my butt hurt like you wouldn't believe. There were times on the long stretches of highway through WY and NE that I often wondered, almost hearing that impatient 10 year old voice in my mind, "am I there yet?" And then I would pass by a mileage sign only to see that I still had 452 miles to Lincoln, and from there still another several hours to KC. But I kept my eye on the road and my hands on the wheel, as present and patiently as possible.
In a meditation session that I facilitated last Monday morning, I shared with the fellow yogis that until last weekend, Nebraska had only ever been conceptual for me. It had only existed in movies and John Cougar Mellencamp songs about the heartland. So when I pulled up to the Motel 6 in the little town of North Platte and was greeted by a young girl, who spoke with a slight twang, working the late night shift, I had all kinds of ideas of what Nebraska was all about. Small town. Country folk. Different people than I relate to. Presidential campaign signs supporting a candidate that I don't support. You can imagine where this goes. Because, I suspect, if your mind is anything like my own (and frankly, like any other human mind on the planet), it judges. Even while I know I am judging, and I attempt to bring awareness to the judging, I am still judging. Because this is what the mind does. (But remember judging itself isn't the problem, how we relate to the judging, or what we do with the judgements is. If we can see a judgement and let it go, no problem. But if we believe those judgments and let those beliefs run amok causing harm to ourselves or others, well, then we have a problem).
So the next morning, 60 miles or so outside of North Platte, tired and groggy from not sleeping well on the Motel 6 mattress, knowing I still had 6 hours of butt hurting driving ahead of me, I pulled into a Pilot Flying-J truck stop in the middle of nowhere to get gas. After getting a "here, let me help you honey" from trucker who grabbed the diesel nozzle right out of my hand, and pumped every one of my 14 gallons for me, I went inside to get a snack. Waiting in line at the cash register, while country music blared in the background and 50% of the gas and snack buyers were not wearing masks, I had some more ideas floating through my mind about what Nebraska folks were like. I was tired. Cranky. Hungry. My mind wasn't at it's best. But that is no excuse... I was judging. Until Loretta at the cash register -whose gravely drawl told anyone who could hear her voice the likely story of a lifetime of smoking- started chatting with Bob in line behind me, a disheveled middle aged guy with a toothy grin, who looked like he had been shoveling muck all morning. "Hey Bob, good to see you. Did you know your mom came over the other day. She brought some tools over, and it was really good to see her..." Bob and Loretta carried on about farm tools and his mom in the kindest, neighborly way, signaling that universal familiarity among people who share community, connection and even family. And it was then, in my tired state, that something in me shifted out of judgement into presence. In that moment, I felt briefly, not just the connection between Bob and Loretta, but my connection to them (and even the trucker too). Because you know, I have a mom too, and even a shovel and a pitch fork in my garden shed, and here we all were, three people among many others at a truck stop in Nebraska, standing there in our humanness. And what I saw more deeply within this was that in the same way that the I-80 is this long asphalt through-line connecting me to the many people in the many towns along the way, PRESENCE is the through-line that connects me to others, however "different" from them I might be.
And then it struck me. Inherent in Presence, is Patience. The kind of patience that is steeped in grace. The kind of patience that is generous and accepting of things just as they are. And this feels particularly apropos as we enter into election season, against the backdrop of a pandemic, fires and injustice against our fellow humans. At times like this it can be so easy to lose patience with ourselves. With others. With circumstances. It can be so easy, for me at least, to lose perspective, to lose sight of the fact that while there are indeed some very big differences between people, communities and cultures, we are in essence, very much the same. Loretta, me and Bob. The same. You and the people who live next door to you but have different election candidate signs in their front yard. The same. Your family and families who live and love in different ways than you do. The same. Different thoughts. Different ideas. Different values. But, we are the same. The through-line being our humanity, the awareness of which arises more fully when we are present.
I know when I am not present I can easily become internally divided, caught up in beliefs about who is right (me) and who is wrong (others who don't share my values and beliefs). It can be so easy, however subtly, to want to find fault or identify with beliefs that only further reinforce suffering and more division. I can get caught up in ideas about how things should or shouldn't be, things over which I ultimately have no control. And I think we can all agree, right now there is SO MUCH over which none of us have any control. Often, in the wake of this I become impatient, wanting people, places and and things to change or be different than they are. When I am not present I become impatient with the lawful process of life.
So what happens, even in the face of massive tragedy (such as in the case of the California fires), or injustice (such as in the case of the recent shooting of Jacob Blake), or uncertainty (as in the case of the pandemic and upcoming elections), if we allow ourselves to be fully present? What happens to the impatience when we allow ourselves to connect with the grief or discomfort that may exist beneath it? With PRESENCE as the through-line of my experience, the impatience often transforms into compassion and understanding. It allows me to see more fully how much the same we all are, and how deserving each of us are of grace.
So my invitation to each of you in the coming weeks is to explore this through-line of presence in your own life. The invitation is to be curious about how this connects you to others, even those who seem different from you, and to see how this opening of the mind grows a wise and patient heart.
To support this exploration of presence and patience I am offering a series of upcoming events:
The greatest act of love we can show ourselves or someone else is to be fully present!
In a client session yesterday, a client with whom I have been working for about 6 months, whom I am supporting as he explores some very painful parts of his life which have led to almost debilitating anxiety, asked me "what are some of your darknesses, what are some of the hard challenges you have faced that you have had to work through?"
He was not prying, or distracting from his own processes, and because I am not a traditional MFT (which allows me more freedom to self disclose with my clients) I decided to share honestly and openly with this client, hoping it would help him feel less alone in his own suffering, and show that I am as human as he is, and that my gains have been as hard earned as his. I shared with him some of the ways in which my life has been impacted by severe trauma, incredible loss, fear, pain, chronic illness, abandonment, rejection, etc. It wasn't a sob story, but he asked honestly, so I shared honestly. I also shared that years of meditation and the kind of healing work he is doing with me in our sessions, are exactly what got me (and get me) through some very dark and painful years of my own life, and that as I have continued to unearth a deeply buried sense of self love, I became more and more available for my own healing processes. This self love has allowed me to be present with my own suffering, and being present with my own suffering has further restored my sense of self love.
Following my sharing, we sat in silence for a moment, both taking in what I had just said, being present with what was there in the room- his suffering and my own- and how we were both encouraged by each others presence. At one point, after expressing how helpful it was to hear my story, and how it really helped him remember he is not alone, he also said, "Wow, it is so helpful to see how far you have come. It is encouraging to know I could find my way there too. It gives me hope."
And what is so beautiful to me about my work with this client, and the many other client I am privileged to support, is how I see them learning to be present with the whole of their lives: who they are, their suffering and even their joy. They are learning to love and accept themselves, with grace, grit, courage and open hearts. This act of being present is their own greatest act of self love. They are writing their own self love stories, in the same way I have been writing mine all these years.
Simultaneously, this is the power of love, and the power of being present. They heal us!
I am excited to share that I was the featured guest on this week's episode of Healing Out Loud, an amazing podcast about healing and wellness with the very talented Jackie Shea. Have a listen...http://jackieshea.com/2018/08/13/39/
We talked about everything under the sun having to do with mindfulness, wellness and healing from chronic illness. Jackie asked some great questions and I answered them as frankly as I could, nothing censored... it was raw, honest, hilarious, and vulnerable... but as I always say to my clients, mindfulness brings us closer to the truth.
In this podcast I share my story about living with and healing three (thats right, 3!!) chronic illnesses. I talk about trauma (all kinds of it), and its affect on my health, and the importance of healing trauma as a prerequisite to healing my body. I also talk about how, as I often say to my clients, our power is in being present. As a mindfulness teacher who works primarily with women, I drive this one home a lot... being present with our lives is a source of power, wisdom, strength, healing and love. And I also talk a lot about the power of letting go and surrendering.
Healing comes from the surrender, not from the fight!
Two years ago while on a weekend getaway by the sea, I found myself standing alone at the edge of the ocean one night, under the full moon, and well past midnight. While standing by the water's edge, I was visited by two distinct and striking feelings: One, a feeling of total and utter aloneness…the kind of aloneness that lives below even the deepest sense of integration and connection, one that often rocks me to my core reminding me how tragic and how beautiful it can be to stand in the silence of one's own presence. And the other, a feeling of deep and pervading connection, with myself and all things, with my friends sleeping in a rented cottage not far away, the many people who had walked that beach earlier in the day, and the myriad experiences of an average day of my life.
Standing at the waters edge by myself, while my two friends slept inside the rented beachfront cottage, I was struck by the duality of connection and aloneness. In that moment, in spite of the fact that there was no one to share the beauty of the ocean and the glowing light of the moon with, I felt a deep and almost umbilical sense of connection to these two women, my dear and treasured friends, who were elsewhere and asleep. And yet, the sense of the beauty I felt of being alone in that moment was its own life force.
Emotional intimacy and connection are vulnerable. Aloneness can be painful. And I am struck by the ways in which we humans often use these two relational polarities to defend and protect ourselves from being entered and affected too fully by either. At times when the vulnerability of intimacy and connection are too much it is easy to step back into a pattern of aloneness and isolation. And when aloneness, even on the most basic level, evokes a pain we are not able to bear, it is easy to thrust ourselves into connection, so we don't have to meet or give attention to a very real pain that lives inside of us. And between these two something is lost… the competence of standing on and occupying ones own ground, fully, in all experience. We lose the intimacy of getting to know the winds of our inner turmoil and learning the strength and skill of this ancient navigation.
In his book Letters to a Young Poet, R.M. Rilke mentions this most beautiful relationship between solitude and connection….he suggests the that greatest love is the result of two solitudes standing next to each other, giving each other space for their own experience, yet always turning toward and relating to each other in their aloneness.
So let us be both solitudes standing beside each other. Let us find and learn to speak the wisdom in our vast aloneness, and let us welcome the connection of knowing ourselves and others fully. Let us stand in awe of being fully entered and affected by a single moment of silence, standing at the edge of the sea while those you love are elsewhere and asleep. And from there, walk into a wild love affair with the whole world.