Anxiety, My New Friend

I went to a class called Taming Anxiety to deal with the residual feelings of being threatened, anxious, withdrawn. Fear still resonates at a very high frequency in my body. I am filled with debilitating self-judgments. I am searching for community. I have come to listen to my body and my emotions. I have come to follow my breath.

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Goddess Morrigan by Luna A. Hosepians

Some years ago, ordinary nervousness grew into full-blown anxiety attacks: increased heart rate, tense muscles, cold sweat, nausea and the urge to scream gripped me every morning. My body provided clear reasons and visible signs, the type that even the doctor could not dismiss. I no longer wanted to leave the house.

“May I be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.”~The Four Divine Abodes

Sometimes people interpret symptoms of anxiety as a heart attack. I perceived it as insanity. I could not trust my body to stay dry after getting dressed. My perspiration was activated with proximity to school and the classroom. Where once my formerly steel resolve and confidence were paramount, encountering the violence of colleagues unnerved me completely. I was not only falling apart, I was imploding, feasting on my own nervous system. There was no peace to be found in or around me.

I would rather define self as the interiorization of community. And if you make that little move, then you’re going to feel very different about things. If the self were defined as the interiorization of community, then the boundaries between me and another would be much less sure.

~James Hillman

Through a Buddhist lens, the loss of balance has overwhelmed me. Using this frame, there is a connection between the mind, experiences and society. In this context, heart and mind are the same.

“May I be filled with loving kindness.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes

My falling apart was not gradual but exponential. Trembling became customary. For a time, I could not drive. My eyes averted from those of passersby. My hair thinned as I looked in the mirror. My beautiful complexion lost its shine, morphing into a waxy and irritated skin. I attempted to hide so that no one would see me dissolving. Isolation was the only safe place. The violence of my professional life eroded my joy.

The more recent manifestation of my anxiety is milder, habitual, unfounded.

Rev. Keiryu Liên Shutt gives us a Koan, a question repeated verbatim to a respondent, who answers each time. Rev. Liên insists that we ask it again and again. The Koan works. It leads me back to myself, to the limitations I have imposed on myself by following my thoughts out of the present moment. The Koan challenges the beliefs that I’ve held for some time, that I am responsible for my expulsion from the academy. I have constructed a narrative that serves to form my diseased state, and results in a burden I  carry, alone, in silence.

I think we are indebted to history—and not just familial history, but cultural history, political history and economic history—for our understanding of ourselves.

~Gary Greenberg

How does my anxiety limit my happiness?

While I perform zazen, concentrating on my breath, I feel myself moving around inside my skin like a small animal in a burrow. Once in a while I will sniff the air at the opening to see if I am safe.

“May I accept myself just as I am.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes

After a time, the Koan makes me laugh. It is as funny as the absurd games I play on myself. It becomes clear to me: Anxiety has pushed me out from the unsafe world into a space I have cultivated with compassion and care. This new place is good for me though I am slow to adapt. The tools I need for my serenity are provided by my anxiety, a sounding board in my body, leading me to a world where I can breathe without hyperventilating,  without erupting in stress-inducing illnesses.

“May I be peaceful and at ease.” ~The Four Divine Abodes

I only have to learn the signs and see the pattern to understand the hot burning is not healthy. My anxiety has liberated me from the bondage of suffering, given me the courage to confront my reality. I would never have willingly walked away from my livelihood. I was too fearful to face the consequences without a strong push.

The tools offered by psychiatry are intended to attack the symptoms of emotional suffering, not to promote emotional flourishing. Other emotions do not destroy equilibrium or the sense of well-being as soon as they arise, but in fact enhance it—so they would be called constructive.

~Daniel Goleman

How is my anxiety valuable to me?

It’s so easy to internalize dysfunction, to own and embody a condition that reduces our sense of self to ourselves and within our communities; it limits our ability to navigate in the world. We are less comfortable with looking at the external forces that play a role in our well-being or lack of it.

“May I have inner and outer safety.” ~The Four Divine Abodes

The myth of happiness is woven into the American consciousness. This ideal has not been designed for women and people of color, yet we allow the myth to enter our framework of self-identity and suffer for the shortcomings of that comparison. Until we learn to see ourselves as products of an oppressive society, individuals, who are ill equipped to bear the weight of these burdens, we must carry the imbalances that arise from the pervasive oppression under which we toil.

“May I hold my pain with mercy.” ~The Four Divine Abodes

There is a demand, an artificial one, that insists that we show up in society at 100% at all times. The sense that we cannot fluctuate from that norm is pervasive. With my students, a deep sense of failure was often articulated over an inability to master a technique that is only being tried for the first time. My answer was always that Doing one’s best on any given day is not the same as being perfect, operating at one hundred percent every day of our lives. That impossible goal is overdue for demystification. Aiming at that kind of perfection is not only impossible, it is also detrimental to our health and the health of our communities. It’s a myth that insists we show up as something other than our real selves. It is a myth that perpetuates anxiety, guilt and shame over our true selves rather than fostering a foundation of compassion wherein we can strive and grow into our evolving selves. It is a myth that breeds fear and isolation, components of anxiety.

“May I be undisturbed by the coming and goings of situations.”~ The Four Divine Abodes

The anxiety I feel is useful as a warning system, reminding me to stay in community—to seek it out if necessary. My anxiety pushes me to get help and to find the courage to move beyond the limits of my emotions and to examine the root causes of my dis-ease.

At the height of its grip on me, my anxiety was activated by the unhealthy racial climate at work, which was established over many years, designed to alienate me, and anyone who looks like me, consistently and strategically in overt and covert ways. The absence of friendliness and kindness took their toll on me. After ten years of absorbing toxicity from those in power, my body and my mind worked together to awaken me from my torpor. I could not ignore my anxiety if I meant to survive.

“May I hold my joys and sorrows with equanimity.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes

Ten years is long time to not belong. I had to get over the shame of not succeeding in an environment that never wanted me. Next, I named the climate that actively dehumanized me and treated me as inferior, made me feel out of place in the academy. I abandoned my systematic willingness to enter the war zone, crossing boundaries littered with landmines, peopled with hostile agents, looking for my happiness. I relearned compassion for myself and my oppressors.

“May your happiness increase and never leave you.” ~The Four Divine Abodes

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Goddess Blodeuwedd by Luna A. Hosepians

I can see that during the entire episode, my anxiety guided me toward safety. My anxiety acted as a warning system, alerting me to the changes needed to ensure my well-being and happiness. I may not have caused my anxiety, but I am responsible for the state of my life. With this awareness, I’ve set new intentions to listen to my emotions with a heartmind toward Justice, Peace and Healing, and to foster the conditions under which I thrive. I don’t want to dwell in negative emotions, but I do need to investigate them and use them as catalysts to avoid self-harm, because I am fully aware that I am worthy of love and compassion. Three and half years ago, when I had my first anxiety attack, I never imagined I’d be on friendly terms with this emotion. Now I see anxiety as my friend and teacher.

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Video: Walking With Our Parents (A Tribute to the Survivors of Slavery)

 

Walking With Our Ancestors is a collaborative film, created as a tribute to the survivors of slavery and to all of our ancestors. Walking With Our Ancestors contains video and still photographs from the 2016 Roots Retreat to New Orleans and features a reading of Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Walking With Our Parents,” performed by Jaydon Galindo Lovell.

Walking With Our Ancestors is dedicated to our parents and the children of tomorrow.

Enjoy!

Plus, here’s the URL, just in case! https://youtu.be/nKUXc0pXwek

A Crash Course in Aikido: Living a Healthy, Memorable Life with Martial Arts

Most of us don’t start thinking about health and longevity until an unexpected death occurs. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for bad news to make changes. The challenge for most of us is to balance lifestyle, diet and family history with physical ability. A great way to take care of the externals is to join a martial-arts school. It’s easier than you think, and with rewards like new friends and mental and physical agility, Aikido may be perfect for you.

There are some unique benefits to joining a dojo like Aikido SF. Aikido is a good way to reclaim health and flexibility, replenishing stamina and energy for doing things with the people who matter. Training with a robust group of children, adolescents and adults at all levels of Aikido provides community and emotional connection. Plus, most people place a high value on staying independent in their advanced years, when it will really count. Maintaining physical and mental plasticity are important ways to promote long-term resilience.

While you may think it’s impossible to train in martial arts after a certain age, it’s really not the case with some non-competitive forms, such as Aikido. And apart from the benefits of increased physical prowess, evidence that intellectual capacity, social intelligence and positive personality traits are boosted by an athletic lifestyle is mounting. The martial-arts community emphasizes community work, civic engagement, respect, participation, health and meditation as part of the practice.

Opportunities to learn in a dojo vary greatly. An example is the annual Aikido SF Seminar, where I watched skilled teachers and students from SF Bay Area train for a half day. There’s a lot to be gained from the venerable tradition of observation, disciplining the mind to understand physical principles, then applying those skills later.

Need more incentive? There’s ample evidence correlating a lack of exercise and poor diet to increased incidences of early onset dementia like Alzheimer’s. That’s evidence I’m not willing to ignore. Most of us want to call our spouses, friends and grandchildren by name. When the consequences of a sedentary life means risking the loss of precious memories, the idea of Aikido training gets even sweeter. After all, a sharp mind is critical to longevity. And, Aikido’s non-competitive discipline is a great habit to cultivate.

With huge gains to garner, like optimal brain functioning and a smaller waistline, Aikido is a big winner. Add caring instructors and supportive peers, and it’s clear that anyone can learn to take better care of her body in a nurturing environment, where physical and mental training are important aspects of good health. Of course, you don’t need to study martial arts to improve your health A small commitment to walk just 15 minutes a day could turn the tide enough to impact the rest of your life. Do it for you. Do it for your family.

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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.

Remembering My First Encounter with Master Thich Nhat Hanh

Some of you may have already been introduced to the great Buddhist master and philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh because Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for a Noble Peace Prize in 1967 for of his non-violent work with the Vietnamese people during the Communist Revolution that led to years of war in Vietnam and Hanh’s eventual exile from his homeland. Reverend Thich Nhat Hanh, the monk and activist, has only ever stood for peace, a human beacon during the most difficult times for his people. Fortunately, he continues to work for peace all over the world. Unfortunately, peace is not easy to obtain because it is not simply the absence of war and military turmoil. It can also manifest as an ongoing unsettled self. Too often there is war in our hearts and souls, and Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us how to relinquish the holds and perceptions that can prevent us from experiencing inner peace.

It was on just such a journey, while I searched for peace and quiet in myself, that I first encountered his message and his teachings touched my life. Twenty years ago, I was sitting in the lounge of a retreat center with the intention of eating a snack before going to bed. The front of the shop had chairs arranged for viewing films on a TV set. When the VHS tape was put into the player at the front of the row of chairs, a man with the softest voice you’ve ever heard began to speak. He was wrapped almost completely in a chocolate robe, a disembodied head floating on a cloud. Because of the softness of his voice, I had to sit very still and lean forward, abandoning my snack for his soul food. As he spoke, his words penetrated my heart, causing tears to roll down my cheeks, issuing from the wellspring of untouched emotion and pain in me. I understood that to change my life, to heal myself, I had to learn to love myself. I began the journey to know and love myself as my own precious mother, father, sister, brother and daughter right then and there. I didn’t have time to waste. I had to be present for myself so that I could love and forgive, especially myself. He was an answer to my prayers, the reason I had left my home for the ashram. Until this day, he continues to be a source of guidance and inspiration in my life.

Over the years, I have heard Thay, “Teacher” as many know him, speak and teach, and I’ve stopped being surprised by his soft-spoken stillness, knowing that it will be nearly impossible to hear him even when he uses a microphone. It’s a lesson in quietness. Maybe a few words will drift down over the air and into my heart, perhaps piercing my consciousness, and I can leave satisfied. I have walked with him in silent meditation during the predawn hours without a destination, looking at myself, following my breath, inching forward into the recesses of my psyche. It is in such moments of quiet, if we allow ourselves, that we can begin to hear our true selves. I have had to fight past the thick mesh of voices, riddled with doubts and judgments, to sit with my authentic self and accept her, unconditionally. I can say from experience that it is a hard and scary process to turn off the external noises that keep us insolated from ourselves, which is what draws me to Thay, again and again. The Edissa I don’t know and don’t understand yearns for a deep spiritual connection. When I touch that peace, I feel a profound connection to everything around me. So those many years ago, I wanted to find meaning in my life and to let go of the dangerous anger that I only had the courage to turn on myself. So it was his message, “to be my own mother” that touched me. He invited me to hold my mother and myself in compassion and explained exactly how to do both. In that way, Thich Nhat Hanh has been a constant and influential presence in my life as my spiritual leader and mentor, pushing me to start again when I fall short of my goals.

If you are hungry for peace, give Buddhist monk, learned man, doctor of comparative religions, author of over a hundred books, community organizer, leader and healer, Thich Nhat Hanh some consideration. You don’t have to abandon your faith or become a Buddhist to learn mindfulness, because he teaches practical ways to get quiet, repair relationships and look deeply at our interior and exterior environments and do something to repair what needs our attention—gently. As a teacher I have introduced various books and essays of his to my students; they always love his work. In particular, True Love: A Practice of Awakening the Heart is a constant favorite. It’s the kind of book that sons pass to fathers and mothers share with sisters. It’s a treasure for its simplicity and clarity of language as well as the clear, concise explanations of love. My guess is that you might also find some value in his life’s work.

If you don’t know his work, I urge you to read one of his books today. Attend a retreat with him if possible. He has several communities where he practices regularly: Plum Village in France; Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California; and Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. All, with the exception of Green Mountain, have activities throughout the year that are open to the public. Reverend Hanh is aging, but you can still see his luminous spirit for yourself.