June 22, 2017

Holding Opposites Within Us

opposites Life is complex. It's not just one thing; it's many things all at once. Part of my meditation practice is making room for everything. I've noticed how opposites arise together: love and sadness; fear and freedom; grief and wonder. When I love from an unguarded heart, I open myself to loss. When I experience fear but move through it, I feel freedom and ease. When I'm cracked open with grief, I see the world anew.

Our well-grooved habit is to resist painful feelings and cling tightly to what's pleasant. This creates tension in our bodies and minds. Elizabeth Lesser wisely notes, "How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change. And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be."

It's possible to hold these opposite within us. Hold them lightly, with spacious curiosity. Opening our heart-minds in both directions allows us to more fully inhabit this ever-changing life. We have far more capacity than we realize. Building awareness takes persistence and patience, but it's possible. You can start right now:



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June 15, 2017

End of the Day

found Evening comes. The day is done. If I stay aware, I do something that settles and nourishes. If I'm distracted, I often do something that overstimulates and depletes. (This is a life-long practice.) Either way, I'm met with thoughts as I lie down to bed. When I follow my thoughts in their endless loops, I stay awake. When I transform my thoughts, from blah-blah storylines to heartfelt gratitude, or when I move away from thoughts and gently into my body and breath, I fall asleep. Letting go at day's end is a powerful practice. Letting go of things undone or plans for tomorrow; letting go of tension, bit by bit; letting go of the copious methods we use to control the uncontrollable.

Short, regular pauses throughout the day—connecting with body, breath, and awareness—help us rest and sleep more easily. But we don't always remember and life interrupts. Whenever you feel anxious or unsettled at day's end, come here—to this post—and listen:

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June 4, 2017

How a Baby Raccoon Saved Me

intimacy Late Tuesday night, biking home from a friend’s house, I spotted a furry object on the sidewalk. This surprised me, as most critters flee when a person approaches, but not this one. So I stopped right there and met the eyes of a distressed baby raccoon. He looked at me, mewing and peeping. I spoke in a gentle voice: “What’s going on, little one? What do you need?” He clambered up my bike tire and clung for dear life, peeping in earnest: a direct cry for help; a situation I could not ignore.

I called my friend Miriam, whose house I’d just left, knowing she was awake and knowing she has a compassionate heart. Quickly, she researched our options and said she’d be by my side soon with a box and blankets. The raccoon retreated from my bike and laid in the grass. I sat cross-legged next to him, singing a loving-kindness chant. (A chant I’d just taught in my mindfulness class that evening.) He calmed, tucking his face into his fur, cold and scared.

Miriam constructed his evening nest, and we hoped mama would return for him that night. When we stood, about to part ways, still wide-eyed from these events, Miriam spotted a different baby raccoon in the street, recently killed by a car. A sibling of our little friend. It's no surprise he emphatically asked for help: he just witnessed a traumatic death. In life, we don’t often see the backstories of others, but they’re there and they're important, and this particular backstory was clear.

After little sleep, I awoke and readied to teach meditation at the Y, but first needed to check with my raccoon. When I approached the box, his eyes were open. He was alive and okay, but not retrieved by mama, so box and baby came home with me: sat on my back porch while I taught. 
treasure
I cleared my day to find this little raccoon a refuge, trying to embody the words of Mary Webb: “If you stop to be kind, you must swerve often from your path.”  In beautiful weather, I drove to Green Bay, where the Bay Beach wildlife refuge was teeming with kids and adults. I unloaded the box and walked inside. The setting felt strange, like a hotel lobby, people milling around while I attempted to “check in” my animal—a process I expected, somehow, to be more intimate. And in this sea of humanity, I was told, “We only take raccoons from Brown county. We don’t have room for others.” My Outagamie-county puffball was turned away—no room at the inn. Though this was disappointing, I understood the situation. My parting gift: two more numbers to call. The first shelter only accepted squirrels. A sinking feeling spread through me: what ifdue to limited resources—I must send this baby back into the wild? I tried to stay present: make the next and last available call.  

Sue, from Wildlife of Wisconsin, answered the phone and wanted to hear my story. Where did you find him? She listened with care and compassion. “Yes, we’ll take him. I can meet you at a gas station in Reedsville later this afternoon.” (By the end of this day, I’d drive 3 hours during my “swerve to be kind.”)

Late in the afternoon, on my way to meet Sue, I saw multiple dead animals on the road, including raccoons. I knew I wasn’t “saving” this one—who knows how long he’ll live—but I was answering his call for help; making a small difference. He purred, chattered, and moved around the box. I drove, feeling fear—the uncertainty of life—and also feeling focused and aware. At the gas station, Sue was in the midst of a hectic day and still attended to us with care. She transferred the animal to her car, saying, “We’re only supposed to take 60 raccoons, but I always take more.” I was teary-eyed with gratitude, thanking her both for her work and her kindness. She replied, “We need people like you who really care. Imagine how many people just walk on by.”
beauty of the soul
I returned to my van and sobbed. Big, heavy sobs of relief, love, gratitude, and grief. (My friend Miriam, who tended this raccoon with me, recently lost her husband—my dear friend—to cancer. This was all interrelated in a raw and powerful way.) Seeing more roadkill on my drive and listening to a dharma talk on death and impermanence, I knew I hadn’t done anything grand. My actions were a small drop in the kindness bucket. I can’t save all raccoons, but I could support this raccoon, who so clearly asked for my help. It seems that's the most important thing we can do: Help the person right in front of us. When someone asks for help—in either a straightforward or hesitant way—we can stop to be kind; we can swerve a little from our path.

When I got home, exhausted and relieved, I walked around my yard. The previous week, I saw only weeds in my flower beds, which reflected the resistance in my grieving heart. But on this evening, I felt joy and wonder. I saw only flowers and abundance. I felt love, gratitude, and happiness. And slowly I realized: I didn’t save that raccoon; He saved me.
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May 24, 2017

Small Steps

self-kindness Over 15 years, I've made huge leaps. Yet each leap contained countless small steps. The path from self-aversion to self-compassion is gradual. It's hard to pinpoint a single moment, but eventually I had appropriate tools and enough practice, and my heart shifted. When I revert to old habits, I trust there's a safe space within me: I re-connect with breath and awareness.

In last night's mindfulness class, I shared a story about my journey. For years, I looked externally for approval. I asked my loving husband repeatedly some version of "Am I okay?" His reassurance was never enough, and not because he wasn't genuine, but because I was looking in the wrong place. What I neededin the core of my beingwas my own approval: my own love and acceptance. And once I found this, I stopped asking him those questions, because I trust that I'm my own anchor; my own friend.

One of my students responded, "How did that transformation happen? Can you describe it?" These processes are difficult to pinpoint. There were many small steps along the way, and the way is zig-zagged, not straight. But I made a commitment: I truly wanted to befriend myself. My tools were meditation, journaling, therapy, self-portraiture, gardening, mindfulness, listening, and being. During one of our unplugged sabbaticals, I went out for a run to the end of the island, not a single person in sight. I sat on a rock and sobbed, feeling old and new wounds. This experience didn't provoke shame nor did it provoke external focus: I didn't want to hide nor did I need help. I could stay with myself. I trusted that everything I need is inside me. As my meditation practice deepened, so did this sense of trust. (I still need human connectionlove, hugs, and supportbut my true ground comes from within.)

Small steps have huge impact. Small steps pave paths of great awakening. Each person has their own journey; their own deepest intentions. What's most important is to listen to our own heart and then begin: take the next small step and then the next. Forgive ourselves when we falterwhich we willand have the courage to begin again. Bit by bit: this is how we change.

With this in mind, I created two short guided-meditations. Small steps toward awareness:


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May 9, 2017

Tend and Befriend Yourself

eternity I'm deeply grateful for my new career: As a mindfulness teacher, I can’t escape my own crap. I’m continually called out, not by people but by awareness itself. When I prepare a class on self-compassion, I see multiple ways in which I’m harsh or judgmental, and then I choose differently: I practice forgiveness. When the topic is gratitude, I notice many ways that I protect my heart, and then I choose differently: I practice generosity.

I forget and remember hundreds of times each day. Earlier, I had three projects going and felt anxious about time. As part of my workflow, I edited a guided meditation and then listened to my own words, which returned me to awareness: What’s most important? I focused my attention and softened my heart. (I also smiled at myself: met my own crap with kindness.)

We often push ourselves, past exhaustion, when what we most need—as people, businesses, and society—is rest, creativity, compassion, awareness, and clarity. Yet to have compassion for others, we must first have it for ourselves. It’s okay to rest, laugh, and play. It’s okay to make mistakes. Life requires honest effort; it also requires gentle forgiveness.

If you want to practice a different habit—a habit of self-compassion—listen to this short guided-meditation: 


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May 4, 2017

Lessons from My Garden

closer look Yesterday, I spent two hours in my yard. I made new flower beds last fall, using compost and cardboard. I worked in one bed: digging out dandelions (how do they still exist in no-light conditions?), cleaning grass from edges, and loosening soil. It felt good to place my hands in dirt; to connect with the earth. It also felt good to be outside: to hear birdsong and talk with neighbors.

After planting groundcover in the front bed, I walked into the backyard. My intention: obtain an overview of my other garden spaces. But my “overview” turned into a focused mission: get rid of weeds. I was hijacked by some primal part of my brain, and although I was tired, I went to the garage for a trowel and began digging out weeds. Once I started looking, I saw weeds everywhere.

I credit my mindfulness practice with bringing me back—back to patience, perspective, and gratitude. I dropped the trowel, stood up, and walked slowly around the yard. Having released my grip, both literally and figuratively, I felt ease and wonder. I looked at copious plants, in different states of development. I saw possibility: open spaces where I can transplant or plant anew. I felt satisfaction with my careful work in the front bed. 

Gardening provides me important life lessons. Here are a few from yesterday:

1. When I focus on weeds, I ignore beautiful flowers. Where I regularly place my attention becomes the habit of my mind. When I cultivate peace, compassion, and generosity, I feel better. When I feed resistance, irritation, and judgment, I feel worse. Sometimes I incorrectly believe there’s no choice: I see only weeds and work angrily to get rid of them. Most times, I recognize the choice: yes, there are weeds—in the ground and in my mind—which I'll never eradicate, but I can be with them differently, and I can also consciously savor the flowers.

wait patiently

2. Everyone has weeds. When I inhabit the small-mind of ego, I take things personally. My thoughts feel real but aren’t true: “My yard is the only one with weeds—it’s a personal failing; I'm the only person who feels shame and inadequacy.” These untrue thoughts isolate me when I most need connection. We all have weeds. We all feel pain. It’s part of our shared humanity. Deep connection comes when we show each other our “weeds” and accept one another as the beautiful, imperfect creatures that we are.

3. Persistent effort is important; patience is even more important. My garden brings me satisfaction, both in short-term effort and long-term results. Still, I get tugged by impatience: I want all the weeds gone now; I want all the planting done now. These are just thoughts. And they aren’t actually true. My true intentions: to enjoy my experience; to feel satisfied but not exhausted; to work, not from fear or anger, but from love and creativity. This requires patience. I need to put in effort, but I also need the gentle reminder that everything takes time. 

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May 2, 2017

Grief and Gratitude

return Four months after mom died, I began my volunteer work in prison. During our mindfulness sessions, we sit in a circle, volunteers and inmates together. We begin with meditation and then check in. The check-in is group meditation: each person shares from the heart while the group listens, in a spacious, deep way.

My first few check-ins were raw: the relationship between meditation and grief. I didn’t hold back; I let myself be vulnerable. After everyone shares, there’s time for general discussion. One inmate (I’ll call him “R”) looked right at me and told a story from his previous incarceration.

He went to a parole hearing, not expecting much but received wonderful news: he would be released in a week. He'd be released! R was beyond happy; he was giddy. When he returned to his cell, there stood “white shirts.” (Blue shirts are guards; white shirts are administration.) R immediately thought, “Oh no, something happened and they reversed the decision. I won’t be released.” But that wasn’t the news. The two men in white shirts said, “We’re sorry son, but your mom has died.” This took his breath away. His mom was his best friend. She was the first person he wanted to tell about release. On the very same day, two extremes occurred: he received freedom and his mother lost her life. Through tears, he said—still looking right at me—that for the next week he bounced repeatedly between joy and grief. And this juxtaposition helped him heal. He hoped that I could find the beauty and growth within grief. This was his genuine wish for me.

The whole group silently bore witness to this exchange. Both me and R in tears. Vulnerable, brave, raw, and real. A group wish for growth and healing within pain. A wish for insight within grief.

Only now, a year later, do I fully understand R’s words. I understand how sadness and gratitude exist in the same space of my heart. To love fully means to grieve fully. Once the heaviness lifts, there’s spaciousness, gratitude, and even joy. When I'm tugged by heaviness, I allow for tears—for sadness—yet I also allow for ease and gratitude. I smile as I think of mom (and Patrick and Mary and Grandma). I’m deeply grateful they were in my life; that I knew and loved them for even a short time.

I’m equally grateful for the compassion, wisdom, and vulnerability I witness in prison. In an institution that actively de-humanizes people, I observe humanity and caring in unique and beautiful ways. Greg Boyle writes, “Compassion is not a relationship between healer and the wounded. It’s a covenant between equals.” My prison sangha is just that. And this would make my mom smile.

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