March 22, 2017

Opening to Vulnerability

be who you are

Earlier this month, Mark and I traveled to the Porcupine Mountains where we spent 3 nights in a rustic yurt on the Lake Superior shore. We hoped to snowshoe during the day, but the conditions changed rapidly. During our long hikes through the woods, the ground was unsteady: snow then ice then slush then flowing water then snow. This kept us focused on each step. When we reached solid ground, I noticed palpable relief: Ahh, I can walk naturally and easily. Immediately, I saw this as a metaphor for life. We seek solid ground; we crave certainty. Instead of viewing ground as a relief, ebb, or oasis, we start to expect it all the time. And this creates suffering.

It’s helpful to realize that life is always uncertain, though we pretend otherwise. We often feel alarmed—like something is “wrong” or a “problem” —when it’s just life. A different route is to flow with life, whatever arises. Life isn’t a problem to solve, it’s an experience to be lived.

Pema Chödrön writes: “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

Walking on uncertain ground—letting things fall apart and come together—is a brave path. It requires honesty and gentleness. It asks us to remove our armor and feel the raw vulnerability that is life. This doesn’t happen all at once—it happens gradually with patient and persistent practice. Peace doesn’t just arrive: It’s cultivated. Small steps have big impact.

You can begin right now. Listen to this short guided meditation:



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March 17, 2017

Our Core Wound

fragments

Over the years, I've interacted with diverse groups of people: accomplished academics, endurance athletes, prison inmates, college students, service workers, recovering addicts, and meditation teachers.  Within all these groupswithin methere's a core wound: an underlying feeling of "not good enough." Our mental narratives come in different flavors, but the wound is similar. It's a soft spot of vulnerability; a place where we wonder: "If people see this part of me, will they still love me?"

To protect these soft spots, we use varied strategies: achievement, judgment, busyness, blame, and fierce independence. These strategies work for a while, but eventually they exhaust us. In our own time, we realize: it's easier to feel vulnerability than to resist it.

Though we're all connected by this core wound, we apply strategies that make us feel more alone. The healing comes when we unveil our soft spots, and this takes bravery. We live in a culture that values mental toughness and individual accomplishment. Yet our healing asks for a vulnerable team effort.

As part of our global team, I'll begin. My wound calls to me through outward signs: striving to be perfect and save the world. These actions make me feel "good enough" for a while, but they don't cover my deeper ache: what if I'm really not good enough? What if I'm unlovable? This is a painful, lonely feeling. Through practice, I've learned to stay in meditation with the pain and notice how it changes. Gradually I apply self-compassion and restore my perspective. Yet I realize this medicine, though helpful and necessary, doesn't connect me to others. It keeps my story hidden.

So, if you feel alone and caught in some version of "not enough," please know I'm beside you. Daily, I feel this same uneasiness. We're connected in far more ways than we realize. Most of us feel like we're not enough, but the truth is: we are enough, as is; we're perfectly imperfect; we're flawed and lovable.

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March 3, 2017

It's Okay to be Happy


Two months ago, I wrote a post entitled, "It's Okay to not be Okay." This seemed an important recognition both for me and the world. We needn't pretend we're okay when we're not. Be messy, real, raw, vulnerable, lonely, or sad. Be however you are. And try to meet others there, too.

Now it feels important to share another message: It's okay to be happy. Life is complicated, heartbreaking, and uncertain. If I'm not careful, I'm pulled into heaviness. Though outwardly I exude light and compassion, my heart gets heavy. At a recent meditation retreat, I felt—in a visceral way—the holding back of my heart: there was a tug, a slight tightening, in my chest if I allowed for happiness and ease. My mental chatter created tension: "Joy, you shouldn't be happy, because Patrick just died," or "Joy, you shouldn't feel ease, because our country is in crisis." 

By staying open and aware during that 3-day silent meditation retreat, I rediscovered lightness. I could feel a pull toward darkness (blame, anger, grief) and chose a different path. The red string around my wrist reminds me daily: enjoy my practice; lighten up; laugh and sing. It's helpful to realize that things change. For months, I felt heavy. Now I feel lighter. It's okay to not be okay, and it's equally okay to be happy (or to flow between the two).

In difficult times, it's a radical act to be creative and happy; to step away from darkness and move into the light. That's the kind of radical I'm trying to be: a superhero of kindness, joy, presence, and light. There's plenty of kryptonite in my path, but I have hope. Not blind hope, but hope as described by Rebecca Solnit: "We don't know what's going to happen next, and that gives us room to act. Hope is active engagement with uncertainty and the possibility that it holds."

Active engagement with uncertainty. Room for anything to happen. Allowing for pain while equally allowing for joy. It's okay to be happy.

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February 28, 2017

The Straight Scoop on Mid-Life Crisis


While in academia, fresh after tenure, I remember walking with my dad and asking the question, "What is a mid-life crisis, really? What's it about?" He responded that as people reach middle age it's natural to reflect on life; to notice if their lives are meaningful and fulfilling. I paused, then blurted: "But if your career and your values are inline, then everything should be okay, right?" In hindsight, I felt defensive when I spoke these words, as if making the case to myself. Indeed, my core valuesthen and noware to teach, express, connect, learn, grow, help, and serve. Ostensibly, my career and values were inline. 

Years later, I sat with my husband in our favorite Mexican restaurant. It was the first week of classes and I felt soul-tired. I described my feelings in raw detail. He looked at me and asked, "Is this your mid-life crisis?" Again, I felt defensive: "No. It's more like mid-life deep reflection." He looked at me in that knowing way, and I smiled even through my tears.

In the ensuing weeks, as I made the decision to resign, Mark stressed to me, "You're getting caught on the wrong detail. Within the phrase 'mid-life crisis' the most important word is not 'mid-life,' it's 'crisis.' You are in crisis." I opened (again and again) to my vulnerability and realized his words were true. I was in crisis. My inner and outer lives were severed. I was trying to "solve" a puzzle by re-arranging pieces within my career. But this wasn't a puzzle to solve, it was a life to live, with intention and care. 

I no longer react defensively to the phrase "mid-life crisis." (In fact, it makes me smile.) After dropping my identity as an academic, I let go of many limiting beliefs that stunted my growth and narrowed my view. And I see this as an important, life-long process. 

To learn more about my transition from statistics professor to mindfulness teacher, you can read this interview in River + Bay: "Dispatch from Midlife." (Deep thanks to my friend, Joanna, who saw me as an interesting subject. Thanks also to River + Bay, which is a beautiful place to connect with community.)

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February 23, 2017

Fleeting


"A solid rock cannot be moved by the wind, the wise are not shaken by praise or blame." The Buddha spoke these words 2500 years ago. And they're still relevant today. We seek praise and resist blame. We're shaken, not unmoved. I find it interesting when we receive both praise and blame for the same action. This dissonancewhen we're "wise"tells us to take everything with a grain of salt. We grow from feedbackpositive or negativebut it doesn't define who we are. 

Social media is complex territory. It allows for connection across continents. And it also feeds into a primal part of us that seeks external approval. It magnifies our need for praise. What's popular becomes more popular, sometimes viral. And still we're not satisfied: we need the next thing to go viral and the next. This is being "shaken by praise."

I share my photographs on Flickr. Sometimes I post a photo with trepidation and everyone loves it. Other times I post an image that resonates deeply within me, yet doesn't resonate with others. There's no "blame," but the lack of praise has the same feeling. I see my craving for "favorites" or "likes," andif I'm wiseI step away, because I'm on Flickr for community: for sharing images, being inspired by others, and building relationships. When my focus moves from relationships to "favorites," I'm off track, not living by what matters most. Popularity is fleeting. Meaningful connection is lasting. When I'm not shaken by praise or blameI feel more at ease and my work rings true. 

When I gave the Lawrence baccalaureate address in 2013, I ended with words that seem appropriate to end this post: "My students will recognize this mantra: you are not your grade. You are also not your job or your title or your number of friends on Facebook. Your self-worth is not connected to these externals. You are all worthy, as is. And you decide how to live life true to yourself. You have choices—important choices. Because how you spend your moments is how you spend your days is how you spend your one precious life. Make it count; make it real; pay attention; start today, in this moment. Live your life, and know I'm living my own life right beside you."
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February 22, 2017

The Practice of Mindfulness


The practice of mindfulness has two important pieces: 1) notice when you're distracted, and 2) return to the present moment, with spaciousness and compassion. We can't stop our thoughts and judgments, but we can form new relationships with them. Noticing is the first step in any awareness practice. We can't make changes from autopilot, but if we notice, we make more conscious choices. 

Though sometimes we might notice and make judgments: "Joy, I can't believe you were lost in thoughts again. Pay attention!" Our return to presencethrough sensations of the body or sounds in the roomcan be gentle and still effective: "Joy, you've been ruminating. It's okay, come back home. Feel your breath." Letting thoughts rest, letting judgments rest, for just a few moments. This cultivates awareness and compassion.

Mindfulness is a practice, not an end result. It requires a willingness to begin again and again; to drop expectations; to pay attention in a spacious, kind way. And it's possible to do this practice in small doses. Small changes have big impact.

I encourage you to practice nowin this very moment. If you feel a tug of resistance or not-enough-time, that's a clue you might really need this pause. Give yourself permission to just be; to listen to this short audio:



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February 13, 2017

Commit to Yourself


While working as a professor, I remember telling a friend, "I'm not creative." It seems a strange statement now, but at that time it felt real. I viewed creativity in a narrow way: painting, drawing, or being crafty. Though I was a creative teacher, I didn't notice because it felt like science not art. (Upon reflection, I see art in science and science in art, but I needed a wider perspective.)

Gradually, I grew the dormant pieces of myself. I gardened, cooked, meditated, and started this blog. I took online courses: photography, poetry, and writing. This was an important leap. First, I prioritized time for myself and my personal growth; second, I tried something new: creativity.

We often put ourselves at the bottom of the list:
Work
Family
Required events
Laundry
Errands
Creative/personal practice that fills my soul

To connect with our passionsto live a meaningful lifewe must commit to ourselves. This can be in meditation, art class, a garden, a journal, the yoga mat, or a hammock in the backyard. If we don't attend to ourselves, something eventually gives. We get sick or fed up or become numb to our lives. A more wholesome path is to make time for ourselves now.

If you're like a previous version of me and think "I'm not creative," or "I'm not capable of being mindful" or "I don't have time for anything," please pause and consider your choices. Maybe you are creative, if you expand your definition. Maybe you're capable of mindfulness, if you have helpful guidance. Maybe you do have enough time, if you give up other things.

I welcome you (and a friend) into my e-course, "Coming Home to Yourself." But more importantly, I encourage you to take a leap: make one small step toward soul-filling activities. Carve out time for yourself. Commit to whatever practice feels right to you. Show up, just as you are. But show up: for yourself.

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