this is how it happens

tim-gouw-165094Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

We can practice love as a deliberate strategy to dealing with the pain of loss. It requires practice to respond to anguish with love, but it works. Each time a wave of grief threatens to tear you apart, ask yourself, “What does love ask of me now?”  – from The Four Things That Matter Most by Ira Brock, M.D. 

I used to never consider traveling back to the same place unless of course it was to see family and friends. I thought, why spend the money on somewhere I have already been? But now, if I feel a connection to a place, I want to go back and experience it again and again. Maybe it has to do with being parent-less and getting ready to put my home away from home, the house my mom lived in since I was a junior in high school with all of our family portraits on the walls, memories, and reliable snacks in the cabinet, on the market. I want centering, grounding, comfort. I want to experience that some things never change.

I just finished reading, The Four Things That Matter Most by Ira Brock, M.D. According to Brock, they are: Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.

Today when my daughter was standing contemplatively at the sliding glass door in a sparkly princess dress too big for her and holding a stuffed Minnie Mouse, I could hear my mom sigh, “What a great picture.”

When I heard a bird singing but couldn’t identify what kind it was, I had to stop myself from picking up my phone and imitating the bird for her on her voice mail. She would get home from playing bridge, listen to it and laugh, call me back and say, “That’s very good, Linds.” I would then tell her that Will had been home from school the last two days to which she would respond, “Poor Will”. She would tell me she didn’t have a lot planned for the weekend and we would talk about her upcoming visit to Florida. I’d hang up but first, I would say, “I love you.” Even though, she would comment on occasion that she didn’t grow up saying this, and didn’t always find it necessary, I did it anyway and she did too. And I think she liked it, even though maybe it was awkward at first.

Yesterday, when I had lunch with a friend, a friend I adore and don’t see all that often, mostly because we are at different stages in life, but also because I don’t see anyone that often other than my kids and husband, she asked me with so much heart how I was doing.

That question again. A sigh, this time from me. I appreciate it. And if it doesn’t come, I am miffed, but when it does, I feel my answer is never quite complete, inadequate. Honest but not sufficient.

It feels as if I am dancing around the edges, as if my feelings are the lacy or sparkly border of a Valentine’s day card made out of pink construction paper. Getting to the center is where the meat is, the real message.

In so many ways, I am o.k. I feel at peace, mostly. And partially I feel this way, I think, because of all the I love you’s and thank you’s I said to my mom over the years.

Recently, during a meditation, I saw my mom’s death from a distance. And thought to myself, wow, it really was beautiful and surrounded by swaths of light and love. In fact, it was light and love. I also heard this message, this is how it happens.

With my son home sick from school, I looked at our fruit bowl and saw so many browning bananas. Like the little spots of discoloration popping up on my own skin. I thought of an easy recipe for banana bread, one that I had found on line last Spring when I was home visiting my mom. She loved it. And then another time when I was back, I asked her what she wanted for breakfast – meals being one of her few sources of pleasure and variety in her day – to which she replied, sweetly and enthusiastically, “I think I’ll have some of your banana bread.” I told her regrettably that I didn’t have any but that I would make some for her again. Anything to perk her up and see sunshine on her face.

So much has changed, so much so that it feels as if giant boulders have been shifting around inside of me trying to settle into their new places. I am letting the experience change me. I wouldn’t want to be the same person I was before. The experience of losing my mom has taught me to be more loving, more understanding, just plain…more.

And that it is never inappropriate, mushy, overly sentimental or too much to say in any way we are able to, I forgive you. Please forgive me. Thank you and I love you.

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Making Mindfulness Work for You

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Mindfulness is receiving a lot of media attention these days but you may be wondering what it means exactly.

The “mind” includes the brain but is not only the brain. It is alignment with the head, heart, and center of our soul. Mind is consciousness. Mind is being awake.

To be full of mind is being fully aware or fully available to whatever appears in the mind as well as the physical body.

Meditation and mindfulness are both considered contemplative practices. Contemplative practices are Eastern or Western disciplines that encourage people to reflect and get to know themselves better. In addition to the aforementioned options, contemplative practices could be some martial arts or reflective journal writing. For many of us, when we hear the word “meditation,” we think of people sitting in pretzel-like poses. Fortunately, there are many ways of approaching meditation that do not include sitting in a cross-legged position on the floor.

Since seated meditation may feel like another obligation to put on our “to do” list, the practice of mindfulness can be more accessible and less of a time commitment. (However, a consistent seated meditation will give you more time…not sure how this works exactly, but I think it makes us more efficient with our schedules and priorities). The truth is most of us need to do less, not more. This is about being not doing.

There is no need to fret about adding a seated meditation practice into your schedule unless you want to. And if you do, start with three to five minutes of meditation. Starting slow will help you attain your goal. And if it still sounds overwhelming to sit in silence for a spell, then perhaps after beginning with mindfulness, a seated practice will naturally sound more inviting. And if it doesn’t that is fine too!

So how does one practice being mindful? By simply noticing the breath; a gentle inhale and exhale anchors us to the present moment. Inhale deeply, exhale fully. Or you can inhale peace and exhale tension. Or just breathe.

There is no need to try not to think. One misconception regarding contemplative practices is that they require us to clear our minds and stop thinking altogether, but this is impossible. Although with more practice, the space between our thoughts gets more drawn out and opens us up to a sacred and restful place of silent stillness, the goal of mindfulness is not to rid oneself of thoughts. Instead it is about being more available to whatever comes up.

Mindfulness is about paying attention. Just noticing the thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Many meditation teachers instruct their students to watch thoughts pass like clouds in the sky or like waves cresting and breaking, cresting and breaking. Nothing including the breath needs to be fixed, changed, altered, or labeled as good or bad. It is about opening and being aware of the experience of living, recognizing thoughts and feelings, and then coming back to the breath, back to the moment, again and again, with gentle, loving focus.

Now some of you may wonder why we would want to stay in the present moment if in fact that moment is painful and scary? This is a question I think about often. And for me the answer looks something like this: Fear of something is often scarier than actually experiencing it.

Think about what it feels like in your body when you hear that hair lice or the stomach flu is going around, and the family you spent all day with yesterday are all on the toilet today. The fear of contracting the stomach virus is awful and can send us into the never-ending downward spiral of “what ifs?” But if you wake up and you are sick with the stomach bug, it certainly sucks, but most of us deal with it rather well because what choice do we have? As Mark Epstein writes in his new book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, If one can treat trauma as a fact and not as a failing, one has the chance to learn from the inevitable slings and arrows that come one’s way.” Essentially, we learn to move through life taking it step-by-step, breath-by-breath, and eventually day-by-day.

Mindfulness creates space. Writing these words and re-reading them is like slipping into something more comfortable. It provides a little wiggle room enabling us to release our shoulders from our ears and feel more alive in our bodies. It is strength and grace in space.

Mindfulness is pausing throughout the day. All is takes is a moment here and there to stop, center oneself, and locate the breath. Whether you are doing dishes, homework with your child, getting in or out of the car, having a difficult conversation, you can pause and breathe. The trick is if you are washing dishes, wash the dishes. Not wash the dishes, talk on the phone and plan tomorrow. This is a time to put multitasking to rest for awhile. This in turn will help bring to light what lies beneath the surface of the busy-ness, and reminds us that we can always connect to the deep abiding eternal essence at the core of our being no matter what is being stirred up around us.

Practicing mindfulness isn’t religious. But if you are religious, mindfulness may just bring you closer to your religion enabling you to experience it from a new, more embodied perspective.

Mindfulness is heartful-ness. When we feel chills, or when we cry, we are present with our feelings. We are operating from the heart. We are real, no pretensions, remembering that feelings are how our soul expresses itself. Feeling is helpful, feeling is healing!  It is a distinct very real way of knowing that helps us to understand others better as well.

So in the end, what is the point of mindfulness? For me, practicing mindfulness makes me less anxious, less prone to overreacting, more joyful, and more productive. “Researchers have found that people who regularly practice mindfulness tend to have more neural connections in the regions of the brain associated with self-awareness –making them less likely to react negatively to frustrating situations”, writes Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, and author of Hardwiring Happiness.

Personally, practicing mindfulness helps me to not only remember to flush but also helps me to savor the sweetness of the day as well as acknowledge the bitter parts. Being mindful feels like the afternoon sun burning through a coastal fog, unveiling beauty everywhere.

Give yourself permission to create a mindful or meditative practice that fits into your life. There is no time like the present and your options are as open as the vast blue sky our thoughts pass through.

Healing Pain

 

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When I was pregnant with my son, my husband and I decided to hire a doula. A doula is a supportive woman who helps take care of the laboring mother by providing her with emotional, physical, and spiritual support. One of the doulas I interviewed asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks. She asked, “Lindsay, how do you deal with pain?”

I, like anyone, had experienced a spectrum of different kinds of pain, but the question took me by surprise. I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer it. There were certainly many times when my head pounded, and without much thought, I reached for an Advil. She prompted me further asking if I turned inward when I was in discomfort or if I distracted myself with music or TV. Did I prefer to numb myself altogether?

The question brought back memories of a dear friend, Phyllis, who taught me one of the most invaluable lessons I have learned about dealing with pain. While living in Santa Barbara, I volunteered with the local hospice agency as a patient-family volunteer and massage therapist. The first day I met Phyllis, the contrast of her white hair and blue eyes startled me. Her crystal clear eyes were as brilliant as the sky. I fell in love with her immediately.

I had the good fortune of being with her for over a year, and she became a good friend and a great spiritual teacher. There is so much I could say about how this dear soul changed my life. One day when I walked in to give her a massage she was laying in bed and appeared to be in great discomfort. She was in an advanced stage of her illness at that point.

The pain medication was hugely helpful, but sometimes it would make her more sleepy than she liked. What she shared with me then seemed other-worldly at the time, like I was not in the presence of a human being but in fact was sitting with an angel. She told me in moments such as these that she would often dedicate her pain to heal the suffering of others. She turned her pain into prayer.

Phyllis taught me that healing was different than curing. Though she would not live much longer, in many ways she was, in fact, healed.

Perhaps there are times when it is helpful to soften into our pain. And maybe then we too will birth something new, something miraculous, transformative, and healing.

Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying says this about pain:

“Recently one of my students came to me and said: “My friend is in pain, and dying of leukemia. He is already frighteningly bitter; I’m terrified that he’ll drown in bitterness. He keeps asking me: ‘What can I do with all this useless, horrible suffering?'” My heart went out to her and her friend. Perhaps nothing is as painful as believing that there is no use to the pain you are going through. I told my student that there was a way that her friend could transform his death even now, and even in the great pain he was enduring: to dedicate, with all his heart, the suffering of his dying, and his death itself, to the benefit and ultimate happiness of others. I told her to tell him: “Imagine all the others in the world who are in a pain like yours. Fill your heart with compassion for them. And pray to whomever you believe in and ask that your suffering should help alleviate theirs. Again and again dedicate your pain to the alleviation of their pain. And you will quickly discover in yourself a new source of strength, a compassion you’ll hardly be able now to imagine, and a certainty, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that your suffering is not only not being wasted, but has now a marvelous meaning.”

Fly, Birdie, Fly!

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“Clearing out all your misery gets you out of the way. You cease being an obstacle, not only to yourself but to anyone else. Only then are you free to serve and enjoy other people.”  Elizabeth Gilbert from Eat, Pray, Love

As a mother, I am amazed at the moments when my three-year-old daughter eagerly jumps out of my arms into a room full of little girls she has never met. I am shocked when my six-year-old son actually likes the teacher I find to be cold and distant.

In these glaringly obvious moments, I realize as silly as this may sound, that my children and I are different entities. Inherent in this fact is that we have unique emotions and reactions to the world around us. Although, I use the example of mother and child, it is true with any relationship.

How we perceive our world has to do with any number of factors; our cultural environments, how we were raised, innate personality traits, etc. When it comes to perceptions and our subsequent emotions, we must allow others to experience their unique emotions and maybe even harder, we must experience ours too.

Emotion is simply feeling in motion. I believe allowing our feelings the freedom to express themselves is as vital to our health as anything else we do. If we are always stopping our tears as they flow, not letting our anger do its angry dance or shunning our fear for peaking out from under the covers, we stop these creative expressions midstream, stunting a therapeutic release. (If you have ever urinated somewhere you maybe weren’t supposed to, and had to stop “midstream,” then you understand this feeling very well. It’s unnatural and it hurts!)

When we grant our emotions the freedom to be felt, we usually feel magically better. It is when we stop them “midstream” that we get stuck. Then our emotions get really pissed off because we didn’t allow them to do what they are here to do. These stuck emotions can turn into more complicated variations of themselves or worst-case scenario,  unfelt emotions can manifest as illness. It’s like Woody Allen said, “I don’t get mad, I grow a tumor.”

I am telling myself this because I am wondering if unsavory displays of emotion like tantrums (my own as well as others around me) are probably best dealt with by allowing them to just have their way with us and then leave our bodies. It’s like a trapped bird frantically caught in a house desperately seeking a window or door so it can escape to return to the openness and possibility of blue sky.

Whether its your own emotion or someone else’s, be like a bird watcher. Sit back and watch the bird spread its wings and fly.

Feeling is healing and by addressing our own individual boo-boos and the emotions swelling up around them, we will help ourselves and also in the most authentic way possible, help others heal as well.

Below is a poem that brings to mind the idea of taking care of our own internal wounds, allowing others to experience theirs and then letting them go. It’s from the very informative book, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christine Northrup, M.D. Whether you are a mother, or have a mother, we can all relate.

Mothering the Mother by Nancy McBride Sheehan

In a society preoccupied with how best to raise a child
I’m finding a need to mesh what’s best for my children with what’s necessary for a well balanced mother.
I’m recognizing that ceaseless giving translates into giving yourself away.
And, when you give yourself away, you’re not a healthy mother and you’re not a healthy self.

So, now I’m learning to be a woman first and a mother second.
I’m learning to just experience my own emotions
Without robbing my children of their individual dignity by feeling their emotions too.
I’m learning that a healthy child will have his own set of emotions and characteristics that are his alone.
And, very different from mine.
I’m learning the importance of honest exchanges of feelings because pretenses don’t fool children,
They know their mother better than she knows herself.

I’m learning that no one overcomes her past unless she confronts it.
Otherwise, her children will absorb exactly what she’s attempting to overcome.
I’m learning that words of wisdom fall on deaf ears if my actions contradict my deeds.
Children tend to be better impersonators than listeners.
I’m learning that life is meant to be filled with as much sadness and pain as happiness and pleasure.
And allowing ourselves to feel everything life has to offer is an indicator of fulfillment.
I’m learning that fulfillment can’t be attained through giving myself away
But, through giving to myself and sharing with others,
I’m learning that the best way to teach my children to live a fulfilling life is not by sacrificing my life.
It’s through living a fulfilling life myself.
I’m trying to teach my children that I have a lot to learn
Because I’m learning that letting go of them
Is the best way of holding on.

Scary Joy

 

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“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” – Cicero

The uplifting, all-out feeling of joy in the body is almost indescribable. For me, joy feels like goose bumps, laughter, and happy tears all at the same time. It is hopeful and exciting, enthusiastic, and even heavenly.

However, something often happens in the throes of joy that can turn happiness into feelings of despair. A little sneaky thought surfaces and reminds us that joy can’t last forever. Sometimes, I feel this impending kill joy as a nagging anxiety in my heart and throat, grabbing me out of the moment I was just in love with.

Recently, when I brought a new puppy home from the Humane Society, I was overwhelmed with how much I instantaneously adored her. She was soft and sweet, loved to play, and had delicious smelling puppy breath. We named her Poppy.

Colliding with the emotion of joy, however, was an ugly blanket of fear trying to suffocate all the goodness I was wrapped up in. “What if something happens to Poppy?” I questioned. I had cause for concern after all. We didn’t know her early whereabouts and there was still a fresh wound after just having lost our last dog, Floyd. He had only lived with us for a year and a half and at the tender age of six, died in our bed of an auto-immune disease. I had to remind myself that this was an entirely different experience.

Upon contemplating this, I realized that no matter how normal or common the fear of loss is, allowing it to destroy joy is not acceptable to me. Consequently, I was relieved when I started reading, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, because she addresses this very issue. The book is brilliant, and Dr. Brown’s research on vulnerability is fascinating as well as helpful. Her definition of vulnerability, most simply put, is showing up and allowing ourselves to be seen. To be vulnerable takes truth and courage. I highly recommend both, the book and being vulnerable.

One of the most interesting sections of the book for me was the discussion of joy. Brown explains how we sabotage joy by trying to get to vulnerability before it gets us. Sometimes she says we even rehearse tragedy as a way to safeguard ourselves against being caught off guard. However, waiting for the other shoe to drop does not protect us, it just takes us away from the beauty of the moment.

Consequently, we have all experienced the ups and downs of life. When we are up, it is great, but it is a little frightening too, because we know deep down in our souls, we inevitably must come down. We just hope and pray with all our might that we don’t fall too hard, but, rather, slowly drift down to the soft ground only to bounce back up again soon.

The good news is, while we may not be able to stop this feeling of impending doom in the midst of our joy, we can do something to turn it around. And once again, the answer lies in the practice of gratitude. Brown learned in her research that participants view these moments of vulnerability as an invitation to practice gratitude. She found that people who kept a gratitude journal or practiced any kind of outward expression of gratitude built up resilience to being taken out of their joy.

Now the sadness I felt associated with bringing my new puppy home makes a lot more sense.  Loving openly and freely certainly makes us more susceptible to pain and suffering, but I believe it is also the only way to live life to the fullest.

Without allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, we build up walls attempting to keep out potential harm. The problem with this tactic is we then miss the luminous light seeking to break through and light us up from within.

I propose part of our purpose here on Earth is to feel joy to the fullest and then share it with the world. Although joy may be scary at times, more than anything, it is contagious and well worth the price of being vulnerable.