A Season for Forgiveness

One of the things that I enjoy about organized religions is the way religions honor the extraordinary magic of life through ritual. These ancient, universal customs transcend individual beliefs and encompass the basic human elements that forge all relationships. They say to participants,

You are the fabric of this existence.

You are integral to the workings of life.

Notably, the season of Rosh Hashanah is upon us. It is a time of inner renewal and atonement for Jews. On a spiritual level, observers rest and remove stagnant energy from their psyches. Essentially, it’s a time to reflect on the past year, find peace with your life and loved ones and seek forgiveness from those whom you may have wronged and to grant it in turn. Obviously, these are not required practices for a non-Jewish person; however, for me, the benefit of honoring the practice brings peace and light into the world outweighs my allegiance to my particular faith. Central to these upcoming High Holy Days is a compelling call to harmonize with the self and one’s extended community, and it is a practice, which I wholeheartedly embrace.

JasonReyes
AJ‘s “Untitled” for Living Artist Project //  IG/FB:@agesimagery

When I first celebrated Rosh Hashanah with my Jewish friends in New York during my twenties, I remember being caught up in the spectacle of the ritual of a festive meal, chanting, and the lighting of candles. Now Rosh Hashanah holds significance for me that I treasure beyond those sacred memories of being welcomed into the intimacy of a private celebration. Rosh Hashanah is a time for me to get right in my soul. This period is a gift to me, a time to ask forgiveness from the people I’ve wronged, a chance to reflect on my words, my intentions and impact on the people around me. It’s also an occasion to atone for the unintentional harm I may have caused another, for even in innocence we can sometimes offend. It’s a habit that leads to grace—it helps me to say I’m sorry more quickly or more easily the next time around. It’s an invitation to hear when someone is struggling to make right with me. Rosh Hashanah allows me to let go of the outcome, release my ego and do my part to leave a blessing behind. The process makes my steps lighter, my heart ever more capacious.

Because we can’t change the past, it’s crucial we take the time to be present for our loved ones and atone for mistakes in an expedient manner. The unexpected death of my sister has taught me this lesson. The effort to seek forgiveness is a calling that requires humbleness, compassion and introspection. It is work done with a sincere heart; it is an observance with profound implications for everyone around us. There’s more room in our lives for tender moments when we don’t insist on carrying grudges. We can give and get forgiveness.

I still celebrate the Western calendar New Year on January First but find that Rosh Hashanah enriches my life with its heartfelt redemptive and renewing capacity. I’ve invited this ritual into my life in order to grow and expand my ability to love and co-exist with people who may not see the world as I do, which in an increasingly diverse world is becoming ever more critical. As I struggle with the right words and conditions to ask for forgiveness, I look to role models whose compassion and tenderness provide a guiding light. One source of luminous guidance for me is a mentor in the Order of Interbeing, who sent a beautiful email to her extended community. As I read her message, the words sank into my heart and touched the wounded part of me. I breathed in her words, and I let go of my hurt. Afterward, I filled that space with a tender hug and a salty kiss from my nephew and inhaled the sweet scent of my niece’s clean hair as I sent her to school. This I want to hold tight. The rest I’m willing to let go.

Agesimagery
    “A walk through the woods with Wootan” by Jason Reyes for Living Artist Project    //         IG:@heyjayrey

It’s clear that we could all use some tenderness and gentleness in these times of disaster, strife, misunderstanding and tension. In the spirit of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I share some of her words and intentions with you, my readers and extended community.

Let the healing begin with me. On this wonderful day, I offer you these words:

Hello Dear Ones!

During this month of September we honor the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In the Plum Village Community there are several mindfulness retreats, both general mindfulness, and those with specific focus on engaged awareness practice for racial equity and inclusiveness, and for caring for the earth, our planet home. May we find these trainings to be of nourishing support. 

Some of you I have not seen in awhile. Please accept my beneficial regret for any harm that my actions or inactions may have unintentionally caused. I ask your forgiveness with all my heart, and if I got it wrong before, I will do my best to get it right in the future.

With love on the path of Interbeing,

Edissa

 

 

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The Uses of Visual Images as Envisioned by Douglass: The Necessity of Art (Part VII)

 

Art is a visionary’s tool (among others). For a long time artists have used the medium of photography to foretell, criticize and reimagine the way we see, what we see, but also why we see. Take the great reformer, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who in moving from images of Black poverty and nakedness to dignified and well-dressed statesman, understood and recognized that art could liberate Black men and women in the consciousness of the viewer. Douglass embraced photography in the form of Daguerreotype and used his own image to bombard the social media of the era. What had easily become a keepsake token of affluence, the portrait became a force for transforming consciousness in the hands of a powerful Black American, who used it to define himself and a people. With his actions as a writer and a subject of the gaze, Douglass used art to change America.

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Today selfies are a widespread phenomenon misused by young people all over the world. The intoxicating image of the self has us giddy with self-absorption (you can even by a stick for this). For his part, Frederick Douglass employed the power of the portrait that few of us seem to value or recognize today because of the proliferation of cameras. Yesteryear, however, Frederick Douglass, the original selfie King, sat for numerous portraits as an act of liberation, intending to shatter static notions of Black identity using his own changing image. Given that he did so well before the advent of cell-phone cameras, the selfie king had to make deliberate efforts to make his image available to a 19th-century populace, many of whom eroticized the African body as a side-show attraction, or relegated them to an exotic sub-human status unworthy of the lens. It was under these circumstances that Douglass envisioned a narrative that could only be told through the camera’s eye—a story he would repeat dozens of times to become the most photographed figure of his epoch.

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Pillar in Print

For Douglass, art in the early manifestation of the selfie, the portrait, was a vehicle used to normalize Blackness. By sitting for portraits wherever he went, Douglass realized that the image of a free Black American would provoke the viewer to consider his personhood and, thereby, challenge the perceptions of White Americans that he used to gain a kind of social currency, an invented algorithm inserted into the mainstream dialogue. Douglass did so in the struggle to abolish slavery; Douglass knew art had power, whether by creating it, starring on the canvas or generating a frequency of sound; art’s power was undeniable.

Frederick Douglass was able to harness the power of art and use it to reframe an entire narrative about Black identity. Later artists of the Harlem of Renaissance—writer, painters, poets, dancers and sculptors—would continue his legacy, crafting a movement of empowered self-expression that would begin to heal a people from a history as a formerly enslaved people. Art and change are not separate. One births the other and the other fathers the revolution—more on that later.

 

Centuries in the Making: The Legacies of New Orleans, A Retrospective

Skirting the mighty Mississippi River, a formidable body of water that enabled the trafficking of millions of Africans to her rich fertile soils, New Orleans is a city of traumatic memory, iconic history and idyllic diversity. A treasure trove of American Culture, rooted in Spanish, French, African and Native American traditions, the city compresses a rich diversity of language, food and identity demarcations into its communities. New Orleans is the ultimate Jambalaya, which over the centuries has had vast and consequential shifts of political power on a geographic territory of 350 square miles. From a large enclave of German settlers who farmed the land, and early generations of British and Irish settlers to the numerous enslaved African men and women, who generated the greatest wealth the New World has ever seen, NOLA is cosmopolitan to the core.

Sanctioned by the Catholic Church’s Pope Nicholas V, slavery gave license to white men to enslave any so-called pagans, and the ensuing trade proved prosperous to the entire world, but especially America, who continues to be a global economic leader; the slave trade gave birth to the most historically damaging and painful episode of dehumanization civilization has ever known. Like any birth, our nation’s is bloody, ugly and beautiful, simultaneously.

In the Treme, a jewel of African-American heritage and culture, and the pride of many local inhabitants, the many sides of the conflict have played out in the lives of the people impacted by the slave trade. With Spanish and French Colonial heritage, the large number of Catholics in the area, people of every color, is explained. St. Augustine, a popular tourist destination because the congregation of free blacks sponsored pews so that enslaved blacks could sit and worship, and where forgotten souls of Africans who perished under slavery’s iron fists have a memorial resting place in the courtyard aptly named, The Tomb of the Unknown Slave, made it one of the most integrated congregations in the city, but today seems haunted by the weight of years.

Around the corner from the shrine is Sister Delille Street, a street named after a black, creole woman famous for purchasing her own freedom and working tirelessly to help the sick and infirm, and who also just happened to own slaves. A short distance from the church, to the elation of thousands, is Louis Armstrong Park, which celebrates the immeasurable contributions of African Americans to the creation of a myriad of musical legacies and wherein sits the legendary Congo Square. New Orleans is not to be taken lightly. Its history is seeped into every corner if one has the eyes to see it.

From the shameful inheritance of slavery, a fierce resistance and tenacity is steeped in the people. Long-suffering under torture and from fractured psyches, the descendants Africans have birthed a relentless ingenuity, musical elation, spiritual triumph and American Culture at its best. Yet, the roots of slavery extend far into the Deep South and deeper still into the hearts of Americans today, 150 after the Civil War and over 60 years since the start of the Civil Rights Movements with its modern day manifestation in the Black Lives Matter Movement; we are a nation profoundly conflicted over our own history, grappling with a conscience that cannot rest easy, that is too effortlessly transmuted into hatred and violence. Over the loss and memory of chattel slavery, too many speak too softly or not at all. None of this is as readily felt as in places like New Orleans, where the legacy of slavery manifests as its closest descendant: Institutionalized Systemic Racism. Insidious, overt and entrenched, the legacy of slavery can best be witnessed in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Historically populated by a 98% black community, the Ninth Ward is still in a state of devastation 11 years after Hurricane Katrina. As the swamp and river reclaim the land, it’s our duty to remember that many of the displaced inhabitants wish to return to their homes. As witness to our collective amnesia, I dedicate this post to the residents of the Ninth Ward.

Forays Inward: A Preliminary Report on Mindful Peacebuilding’s 2016 Roots Retreat

 

“In my own case, a fuller awareness of what I needed to find out about people and their lives had to be sought for through another way, through writing stories. But away off one day [traveling] I knew this anyway: that my wish, indeed my continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.”           ~Eudora Welty

 

On the surface, a passage from Eudora Welty may seem an unlikely place to start an essay about ancestral inquiry. Although I have never met the famous Southern White woman, and my aspirations as a writer notwithstanding, it is to Welty’s legacy as a photographer that I have an affinity to her and claim her as a cultural ancestor. Welty took many wonderful, candid photographs of people in Mississippi, her home state, during the 1930s. But it is Ms. Welty’s photographs of black people, men, women and children captured in their authentic splendor and with their dignity and humanity intact that most reveal her compassionate heart. When I consider an inquest into slavery, into Southern culture, into our collective ancestral roots as a nation, it is with just such a generous heart, that of the non-judgmental witness that I wish to document my excursion into historic New Orleans in search of peace.

On the eve of embarking on the first-ever Roots Retreat to touch the earth in New Orleans with five Dharma teachers, I find myself looking at my existence and my particular station in life with fascination: As a Dominican-American woman in the land of the free, I can’t help but imagine some parallel version of myself if my parents had not emigrated from our small island to the United States when I was a baby. What if I had been left behind with extended family, or connected to the island of my origin in any significant way as I grew up? Marked as odd the length of my childhood for the many discernable cultural differences to those around me, the idea of roots for me is a source of profound curiosity. Until the recent past I have drifted between worlds, unsure of my foothold in any one identity. Like a leaf on the wind, a life of adventure, moving geographical location frequently, I’ve only just begun to feel tethered in community. In the trajectory of my life I am only beginning to comprehend my past as I work to remember the land that raised me, as I glance into a murky past in the hopes of seeing where I come from.

Destiny Manifest

These are difficult times: much of what we read and hear on the news has to do with conflict and pain; hate-filled presidential hopefuls get more press than compassionate socialists; civil unrest and economic inequality are polarizing our communities. There is a good deal of violence and suffering, but there is also, I believe, the space to transform the energy into something good.

To change the climate in our nation takes awareness and the willingness to look within ourselves as the source of answers. This interior space may well be the true final frontier of civilization. Though for some this inner quest may be a fearsome prospect, there is much to gain from sitting in silence with what ever arises, witnessing without judgment. Understanding the past is yet another tool for change.

Working with and thinking about what our collective and unintended inheritance may be, I carry my own history delicately, an object of fascination of which I know too little, leading to questions that may never be answered. In truth, there is a kind of freedom in knowing I don’t know. It allows me to seek and coax out stories. It is from this gentle holding that my inquiry flows: Who am I? Who are my people?

Lifting the Masks of Shame

If writer Tobias Wolff is right that “Unacknowledged shame enters the world as anger,” so much can be understood about what we carry to and fro, unaware of the explosive emotional storehouse within, undaunted by the burden of awareness. Even unexamined, the weight and presence of shame can be transmitted inter-generationally—the shame need not be immediate—we need not own it for it to do its work within us. Because o the way humans internalize shame, and all negative emotions, is powerful, trans-generational trauma can destroy individuals, families and societies, acting like a corrosive agent; we can carry shame for things we can do little to change, as well as for our own actions and behaviors. Ignorance is no remedy; nor is denial. All shared history—the shame, the pain, the trauma and the joys—must be touched for the healing process to begin.

Like many people of the African diaspora whose descendants were transported to new lands during slavery, my past holds many mysteries. As a woman who was born in the Caribbean, I know some things about my family of origin, but family stories are convoluted, riddled with holes, and bursting with secrets. It’s difficult to unravel the reasons I did not know my grandparents, or why our family is oddly scattered. To me this is rooted in our history in ways we have not yet begun to examine, but because I live in this country and my skin is dark, I am detached from the geographic reality of my birthplace. But if we are anything, we are where we come from, even if that origin is obscured.

For many African-Americans, who embody the site of subjugation, the unknown past, broken lineage, families fractured on auction blocks, the shame is visceral and deeply internalized. Yet the same identity is also an identity brimming over with resilience, creativity, ingenuity and self-determination. The triumph of their survival mirrors the intensity of the degradation of a people linked by a legacy human bondage, unnamed ancestors brutalized in the light of day in a carefully choreographed system of oppression. From that grotesque saga is born elegant music, spiritual fortitude, loving connection, personal reinvention and enlightened resistance.

But the people on both sides of this trans-Atlantic trade have suffered injury, injuries that must, first, be acknowledged, and subsequently, healed. We are caught in a binary of pain with a slippery narrative, one which no perpetrators wants to own, nor the millions who have profited from slavery’s stealth stepsister, White Privilege. To transcend this chronicle of pain, we must be willing to own the legacy, not just the most convenient parts.

I’ve noticed how many White Southerners champion the Confederate Flag as cultural heritage, embracing it publicly as beloved treasure bequeathed from father to son. But in that selfsame clasp of the Confederate Flag is stored the emblem of shame: the bloody war to continue to traffic in black lives for the profit and wealth of white people; the mortification of seeing a black child with a husband’s face; the remorse of imposing abject poverty, torture and bondage on the people who raise your children. There is no way to hold the flag as a source of pride without its shadow side inflicting deep discomfort and humiliation that is too easily converted to violence and resentment and calcified into unjustified anger.

I find it impossible to believe that knowing that one’s ancestors beat, raped, sold and trafficked in human beings for profit is not painful, shameful and denigrating to many White Americans. It is the other side of the pain, shame and denigration that African Americans endured and remember. So I see that the unwarranted hate of black people by white people is a mask to cover the shame. And a new question then arises. Is there hope?

Touching the Earth

The pilgrimage of compassion to a plantation in New Orleans with people of African-American, Vietnamese, white East European Jewish, white Northern European, and Caribbean ancestry to look and listen deeply into the heart of our nation’s history, to a geographic place of both the suffering and joy of slave and slaver, black and white, rich and poor is one of hope. Such an undertaking is only possible because healing is possible.

In the company of Dharma practitioners, who are committed to peace, the work of inner looking can unfold in a harmonious manner. The journey is a sacred pilgrimage into the heart of suffering that has given the world endless joy. We can cry there. We can laugh there, too, a the site of an institution founded with the intention of remembering and honoring that real human beings, black people stolen from their mother lands and transported thousands of miles away in dehumanized conditions, sold, hunted, bred, and shackled for centuries; we go to witness for their blood, sweat and tears, all absorbed into this our earth, our America, these United States, land of the free.

Dedicated to fostering peace in the world, Mindful Peacebuilding’s 2016 Roots Retreat is quietly leading a voyage to transform a society in pain. In the tradition of Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, traveling to New Orleans to “Touch the Earth” is a way to honor the memory of the victims of slavery; remembering is part of the work of healing historical trauma. Acknowledging the historical harm that transpired at places like the Whitney Plantation, is a way of embracing our collective heritage. Whether or not we have directly participated in those transactions is less important than simply bearing witness to the truth of our ancestors.

Even though I was born in Dominican Republic, I see a very strong connection with people, who like some of my ancestors, migrated centuries ago. This is a story of suffering, but it’s also one of triumph—one of power and transformation. Wherever I go, I carry my ancestors and the charge of my descendants. It is for that reason that a roots retreat is relevant to the study of my own history. We are not separate. We are bonded on the earth, witness to all, teacher for all times. The lessons are deep, and there are many. We go to listen.

Getting It Wrong to Get Things Right

 

Life has a way of giving us enough challenges to teach us to adapt quickly to situations by forcing us to pay attention to mistakes. Setbacks, missteps and shortfalls form the backdrop of our experience, shaping and contrasting the triumphs and achievements that are the peaks of a rich existence. Accepting mistakes, embracing them, even, is not only a life skill, it is resilience at its most optimal. Mistakes are our teachers—the bigger the error, the greater our potential for growth. I’m finally beginning to appreciate my own mistakes now more than ever, and I’m looking for ways to fall down with grace. If I scrape my knees often enough, I know I’m playing for keeps. Only benchwarmers escape scratches and lumps.

 

During office hours recently, a young lady came to see me to tell me about all the things that weren’t working in her life. Unable to produce work, she complained that she had no motivation and could make no effort. She was scared about failing her classes, rightly so. This particular young person has a great personality, a lot of energy and possesses a very chatty disposition. Even when she is completely unprepared to discuss the topic at hand, she still wants to contribute. Looking at her, I couldn’t help notice her need for guidance. Interrupting her rambling, I asked her to think about the advice she’d give a friend in her situation. Her mouth opened, but I didn’t want an answer—at least not at that moment. I wanted her to go home, reflect and stop by again. I could see that talking is too easy for her. She can talk all day and never get to the reflection and introspection she needs.

 

That’s a familiar response for many of us. We fill the silences with noise. We turn the volume up on the voices on the television or radio—anything so long as we don’t have to be alone with our thoughts. To her credit, she pulled out a battered notebook and a pencil stub and wrote down the assignment. I’m not sure I’ll see her again, however. She hasn’t been back, yet, despite her enthusiasm. But before she left my office, I looked her in the eye and told her she shouldn’t worry too much about making mistakes. They’re natural, I said, just make some new ones, too.

 

Contemplating her situation later, I couldn’t help but see myself. She’s been repeating the same errors for nine weeks, now, always returning to pick up where she left off, and I, too, have done the same things for years. It seems I easily get on the dreaded hamster wheel, naively expecting to step off in Paris, while merely circumnavigating the familiar perimeters of my comfort zone. I can’t grow if I’m not willing to be clumsy, to fall down a few times and keep trying. I’ve grown too careful; I don’t want to look foolish or risk too much, but security also has a price tag.

 

Reading the San Francisco Chronicle a few Sundays ago, I was so saddened by an article about the growing income gaps between blacks and everyone in San Francisco and California. It seems that every other group is making financial and economic gains, while African Americans are literally moving backwards. I walked around with the unsettling numbers on my mind for weeks. I searched my students’ faces for answers, but they don’t have any more answers than I do. I grieve as I look at the handful of African-American students out of the ninety in my sphere. I think about my part to play in keeping them from becoming the living statistics in the newspaper. I pray for them. I nudge them to stay vigilant so they can ride their star to victory.

 

A few days later, it hits me. An email about a full-time position in my department sent by our department chair is a historical first. It was the first time in my eight years as an instructor in the department that I learned about a position from an inside source. As my past telescoped through my mind, all the pain I’ve endured at the hands of my colleagues, of hiring committees predisposed to disqualify applicants who happen to be people of color, I suddenly recognized myself, the woman trapped by fear.

 

 

Despite being illegally disqualified from the applicant pool more than once, I repeatedly applied for a full-time post, steadfast and loyal daughter of the college that I am. Each time, my disappointment mounted heavily on my buoyant personality, weighing me down, etching away my confidence. It was only last year that I decided to stop applying, to stop torturing myself with the process. But there I was, once more drawn to the idea by an email even though I know I have try something different if I want to thrive.

 

I am the living statistic in the paper. This year I spent half the year unemployed, only to make up the deficit in a deafening whirl of activity as I unexpectedly accepted a temporary full-time position, while nursing a debilitating injury.

 

Noticing is my first step off the wheel.

 

For me, the task is to stay on course with my purpose and calling, to be willing to persevere and walk into the unknown. The temptation to stay comfortable is great. Even the squeak of the wheel is comforting—I know just where the bumps are, where to pause for a breath. Limping at high speed on the wheel to nowhere, I hurry to my stop, chasing a dream that has long since lost its opulence.

 

With these realizations, I am at last able to see that my student, the one justifying and stringing together excuses, the one who can do it all with her eyes closed like an expert beader, is me. I am my student. I keep making the same mistake. It’s safe and easy—predictably awkward, but not at all scary. Finally able to understand why the Chronicle article was so upsetting, I acknowledge that it is because the article is about me. I have to make a new mistake.

 

The decision to change is nothing new for me. I have been a transitional character all my life. This is my big chance to fall down while doing something I feel is critical for my own liberation. Ironically, it’s the best semester of my teaching career, because I am finally living from the very center of my heart. Releasing and opening to possibilities is more like disembarking in a strange land than it is like falling exhausted from a squeaky wheel. At least I know I’m heading toward the unfamiliar. When the alternative is to tighten up my laces, pop a few Advil, and keep spinning, I want all the more to take a chance. It can’t get any worse. I’m already at the bottom. Maybe I can kick off from here and make some of those mistakes I’ve been dreaming of, the ones that require faith, courage and support—the essence of what we must believe, ask for and risk to answer a calling.

 

Taking time to reflect on the last 15 years of my life, I notice some of my biggest failures have helped me to get quiet and reflect. In many ways, taking a risk to make a major change, such as a career shift, is an opportunity to be authentic. I can’t tell my students to follow their dreams and take risks if I live a safe existence, sanitized by fear. A life of meaning requires letting go and inviting transformation to happen; transitions require discernment and faith, a deep knowing that there is enough, that God will sustain us, and that we are meant to fall down and help each other up again.

 

Making Peace with Gophers: How Personal Transformation Can Transform a Garden

 

 

In May 2015 I went to a Mindfulness Meditation retreat in the tradition of Community of Mindful Living, where I was reunited with old friends and made some new ones. The road to Ukiah was a long one, as it led to the journey within, to an interior of long-untouched places. There were many surprises, many unexpected openings, and even more healing and flowering of possibilities. Among my awakenings, I learned to care for my inner child with both historic tenderness and fierce protectiveness, both long overdue for my little girl. In the fertile ground of introspective work born of being thrown into close proximity with many people, the idea of equanimity both challenged and unfurled in me, holding my attention as I grappled with the realities of the concept as it applies to my emotional, physical and mental bodies. The question arose in me, What is it to make room for the other, the beloved?

 

I borrow from Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s book, Embracing the Beloved, for their work of naming the conscious relationships that can unfold and are encompassed when one allows for and embraces the “beloved”. They write that the “Other is the basis of every cruelty, all bigotry and war” for it is a practice that permits us to dis-identify as connected, a state wherein we are “nonfamily, nonfriend, nonrelationship, nonhuman, nonfeeling.” Indeed, these are all the many ways we separate ourselves. We can see this behavior and thinking everywhere. It is the most terrible disease of our modern times. Yet, it is all too easy to fall into this casual Othering and judging. For one, I am the Other, and two, the Beloved is me. The Beloved is all of us, our neighbors and those we don’t wish to hold close or dear: The shooter and the shot. We cannot chose. We must hold all in our center. That is equanimity.

 

As I breathe into this new-found understanding, I touch hesitation and resistance, discomfort and relief. When we hold the Beloved, the precious one, we hold ourselves all the more tenderly: Our adorable screaming infants, as well as our well-behaved and compliant studious children, held with the same love. We don’t get to choose any more than we select our skin color, birth order or origins. When I get angry, I aim for a smaller tilt and less unraveling. I come back to myself with purpose.

 

The mindfulness retreat was a place to practice all the things I’ve been studying in Cognitive and Dialectical Behavioral Therapies for six months. With most of the day spent in silence, the focus turned naturally inward. I found myself utterly depleted after Dharma talks, crying uncontrollably after meditation, enraged by a benign comment. Could I really be carrying all that unclaimed emotion around with me? Yes. In fact, I have been moving in the world, unconsciously acting on a lifetime of unacknowledged feelings, sensations and urges. When feelings are not taken care of properly, they act out on our physical and mental bodies. They will be heard. They will kick, scratch, ache and strain to be seen. By opening the door and committing to my whole self, experienced in the full breadth of my existence on earth, I have felt more than I ever imagined. Part of my work was also attending to my needs: To cry and be held; To laugh and share joy; To risk shame; To open and be rejected; To stand firm in my own convictions. I had no idea of the degree of capaciousness in me, that I could feel so much and not explode, and I found myself alive like a newborn star, delicate, bright, precious.

 

This process is not surprising to me, since as the years pass, I’m more inclined to look for and invent the path of least resistance. That is not to say that I’m afraid of conflict and confrontation, for I’m learning to deal with both, as they arise, with skillfulness and tact though it is not and has not been easy, and they will doubtless continue to instruct and inform me as firm and loving teachers. Still I look within and without for solutions to the habitual patterns, some destructive, some not, that have kept me from growing spiritually and emotionally, and these are surely the treasure troves of my own renewal.

 

Even before leaving home for the retreat, some calcified, implacable obstinacy in me had already begun to give way. Perhaps tired of the hunting, I had asked Hal to construct some cages from chicken wire we had in the garage. I had the idea to bury the cages to protect the dahlia bulbs and the broccoli roots in the garden, favorites of the gophers, who seemed to have voracious appetites and greedy spirits for my own favorites. As I returned home to my full self, the container of violence in me seemed to crack open, if only a hairline. I saw the chicken wire as protecting the gophers from me, from my need to control and contain the order of the universe represented as my garden, according to my plans. The chicken wire, then, has become the symbol for my own countermovement away from fighting toward boundaries that allow and invite. After all, what is an organic garden for if the gophers cannot roam there as well? Why has so much hate and violence been activated in me and directed to a creature whose own natural habitat I have cultivated with rare and delicious delicacies?

 

Through meditation and the observation of the land and my own habitual reactions, my own vigilance and anger have subsided, and I have begun to see fewer signs of the gophers’ presence though they’re clearly still in residence. The furious hiding, tunneling and unearthing seemed to have quelled into a gentle, beneficial tilling of earth and dirt. With less resistance, I have found that our gophers have eased up on their devouring, ravishing hunger and have become the tunneling resident foragers they’re meant to be. Could this all be my imagination? I don’t think so. I hope not. Hal now puts in shallower cages as we consider the needs of vegetable roots. There’s enough here, a whispering says.

 

I’ve stopped worrying that the dahlias will be eaten or that the blueberry bushes will disappear one morning. This is life, the very reason I garden, to witness the cycles of life up close, participating in the dance of seasons with the Beloved.

Laugh for Life: The Benefits of a Good Guffaw

 

“A vegan and a Big Mac walk into a bar…”

 

I don’t know the punch line for that joke, but I do know that laughing is good, and that most of us want to laugh when we can. For example, on a recent social call, we spent an afternoon with friends who made us laugh nonstop. For about four hours, we laughed at jokes, each other and ourselves. The afternoon left us feeling lighthearted, energized and glowing. Imagine my delight when I found out that laughter is better than an anti-depressant pill. Now I’m on the hunt for my next big laugh. I hope you’ll join me.

 

Have you ever laughed so hard that your face hurt and the skin behind your ears got hot and your cheeks ached? If you answered yes, endorphins were coasting through your veins, and you were happy, truly and simply happy—naturally. That is what laughter is all about. There’s a reason why people feel light, balanced and happy after a day with friends. Friends are awesome, especially if they make you laugh. What’s more, I’m convinced that laughing makes us look and feel younger and more vibrant.

 

As it turns out, this is not just my fanciful idea. There’s plenty of research that confirms that laughter really is good medicine. Don’t take my word for it, investigate positive psychology and see what you learn. And, there’s also such a thing as laugh yoga, which focuses on daily laughter techniques. Because of what I’ve learned, I’m adding laughter to my list of 2015 goals, and here’s why you should, too:

 

  1. Just look at someone who laughs a lot. What do you notice? Laughter peels the years off of our faces. When we’re laughing, we’re literally working countering gravity, pulling our face muscles up—they’re tightening, drawing up and flexing, and we’re shining and beaming like a porch lights. We are meant to do this. We are meant to be bright, our eyes cleared with tears of laughter.
  2. Laughing is great exercise. This is in intuitively true. Think about it. When we laugh hard for even five minutes, what happens to our bodies? First, abdominal muscles contract, and who couldn’t use some free sit-ups? Next, some might experience shortness of breath or other physical sensation caused by peals of laughter. This is like running around the block because it’s aerobic, only you don’t need to shower afterwards, unless you’ve been rolling around the ground in utter jocularity while at a picnic, which actually sounds quite awesome. During all of this, the brain and other muscles in the body are getting fresh oxygen. Clearly, this is a superior method of staying young. Simply laugh off the years.
  3. Another benefit of laughing is that apparently we can’t hold two emotions simultaneously. That means we must choose to be positive. We can turn the tide of our emotions by exercising the positive ones. When we do, chemicals in the brain and body are altered. We can’t hold grudges while we’re laughing. So we  essentially free ourselves with laughter. Laugh long enough and all your troubles will be forgotten. That sounds marvelous to me.

 

Now that I understand some of the benefits of laughter, I’ve been looking for more things to laugh at in my daily life. In dance class, I’m quick to laugh when I make a mistake, and it makes the time more pleasant, the learning easier. It also means I can bounce back more quickly from uncomfortable situations. I start looking for the humor in my actions and thoughts and take myself a teensy bit less seriously, because life is more fun when I’m laughing.

 

Curious about how to get more laughter in your life? Check out Dr. Madan Kataria’s video introduction to Laughter Yoga: Laughter Yoga Video

 

 

A Newfound Farewell Ritual

 

 

Last year was hard on me. Karma was burning, consuming my flesh, both figuratively and literally. Lessons were compounded by emotional work, all of which had to get done. I experienced health problems, put on the weight that I had worked so hard to shed in the first half of the year. Stress seemed to be a constant companion. But this is not a post about pain. It’s about release.

 

Because of the difficulties I faced, I turned inward, reading, praying and listening for answers. Perchance I came across a suggestion in a book that said people should write all their disappointments down and release them in ritual form. That’s just what I did.

 

On my finest stationary stock, written with a very fancy pen and high-quality ink, I wrote out as many disappointments, betrayals, losses and failures that I could remember, after which I wrote a short paragraph asking for and granting forgiveness to all, named or unnamed. I sealed it in finery, befitting the occasion, and on New Year’s Day, I burned my “Good Riddance, 2014!” letter as I sat outside beneath the winter moon. Those ashes will forever be part of the soil in my garden.

 

And when I left the garden, I was definitely lighter.

Integrity and Grace: Lessons from the Cliffside

Devil’s Tower National Monument is a strange aberration, rising almost 1300 feet above the surrounding prairie. It’s a sacred place for several native cultures, but, outside of tourist season, prairie dogs and pronghorn antelope are more common than people in this windy and open landscape.

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Devil’s Tower is also a destination for rock climbers. And when you rock climb there, you better prepare to talk to the tourists. They usually notice that you’re carrying ropes and other climbing paraphernalia and some even ask you if you’re a rock climber. But most assume because you’ve got the gear that you are a climber and they almost always ask some variant of these three questions:

  • Did you make it to the top?
  • How long did it take you?
  • What’s it like on top?

As natural as these questions are, they reveal a misunderstanding of the difference between rock climbing and mountaineering. Mountaineers, or alpinists, sometimes climb rocks and rock climbers sometimes climb mountains, but the activities are very different. The primary goal of mountaineering is to get to the top of a peak or other feature and rock climbing started because sometimes mountaineers need to do it as they make their ascent. Mountaineers began to practice climbing on relatively short cliffs and sometime in the mid-20th century, rock climbing began to be something people did as an activity unto itself.

Unlike mountaineering, getting to the top is almost never the point for a rock climber, because there are almost always others ways of getting to the top. Sometimes it’s as simple as walking up the backside of a cliff on an easy trail. Sometimes you actually start at the top of a cliff and lower yourself down to the bottom so you can climb back up.

With Devil’s Tower, there’s no easy backside trail, but a rock climber doesn’t go there to get to the top. In fact, when you do get to the top, you enjoy the view for a few minutes, but usually for far less time than it took to get there. Instead, you go to Devil’s tower for the unique quality and size of the routes. DSC013201

Climbers like rock in ways that other people don’t. They speak of rock features in an entire specialized language – arêtes, dihedrals, faces, cracks, and specialized subcategories of each. Rock can be slick or friable; cracks incipient; handholds and footholds solid; routes have cruxes. Geometry and shapes are seen on rock walls, like glacial clouds. Devil’s Tower rock has cracks, grooves, and straight-sided chimneys that are rare elsewhere.

So the point of rock climbing is in the pleasure of seeing and touching rock up close and, more importantly, from moving over it. When all is right in your climbing world, you move fluidly over rock, feeling the exhilaration of a well-functioning body and mind. You feel confident and competent and ready for whatever comes next.

When all is right, there is no need for the 200-foot ropes and other gear that climbers use. The gear is there to protect you in case you fall, for those days when the holds feel small and tenuous and your body feels weak and incapable. You hope never to need the gear, but you bring it because you know you’re human and you know that there are bad days – and bad days, too, contain the satisfaction of safely negotiating your vulnerability.

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Rock climbing is about deciding how you will get to the top and staying true to your intention. Or if you fail that day, it’s about coming back another day and trying again. It’s as much about about process as product. Getting to the top is nice, but getting to the top with integrity and grace is a transcendent and transformative experience.

It’s hard to talk about transcendence and transformation. It sounds mystical and a long way from carabiners, pitons, and clinging to nubs of rock as you struggle up parts of a 1300-foot wall. So, when tourists at Devil’s Tower ask their questions, you try to smile and answer with the same integrity and grace with which you attempt to climb. Sometimes you fail. But there’s always tomorrow to try again.