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Learning to Swim

Between getting the cervical cancer diagnosis and my first surgery, I went a little crazy. Maybe no one is surprised by that given the circumstances, but I kind of have been in retrospect.

We take all of this time to train in meditation, to get to know our ups and downs, to bring more awareness to the ebb and flow of life as well as our feelings and reactivity. We think maybe… just maybe… we have some sort of handle on something. Then a big thing hits and BAM. We find ourselves spinning anyway. What was all that time even for?

Well… imagine if I hadn’t done all of that training already. I may have slipped straight off the side and into the deep end without knowing any swim techniques. As it was, I still had things to keep me afloat, even if the water was just about at head height and I was on my tippy toes. I may be mixing some water metaphors here, but hopefully you get what I’m saying.

All of that said, I really did surprise myself in the ways I did not go crazy. Facing a surgery of any kind, I tend to be a bit nervous and scared (as can be understood). Anesthesia is no joke and having anyone take a knife anywhere (especially into the most sensitive parts of your body) is not something you wake up hoping happens on just any random day.

But the surgery was not random. I waited six weeks between my first procedure/diagnosis and that first surgery. My body had to heal in between. As those six weeks came to a close, I started to feel a rather strange calm. I was working with my breath in some way every day. The day of the surgery, I didn’t cry or find myself worrying too much. I took a few quiet moments to myself as I changed from my clothes to the hospital gown. Any time my heartbeat started to go up on the monitor, I tuned into my breath and brought myself back to a more regular speed. I hadn’t lost it completely after all.

As I’ve gotten back around to my Regularly Scheduled Meditation Practice (and not just taking the bits and pieces the day gives me), it has also been good to feel the roots extending again. This week, I’ll find out more about the next surgery I’ll have (“the big one” as I like to call it) and I’m hoping I can do things a little differently this time. As in, maybe not lose my mind quite so much to begin with. There are still hard things to come, but what an experience to see how it all goes and find out in new ways how the tools and practices and little bits of magic fit in.

Exploring Compassion: Part One

In lots of different circles, we talk about compassion. A lot. Compassion for ourselves. Compassion for each other. But are we just… talking?

Personally, I like the Merriam-Webster definition of compassion: "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it."

Other words for distress? Suffering. Pain. Hardship. Problems. 

Other words for “desire to alleviate”? Wanting the best for someone. Helping. Kindness. Taking time to consider others.

When I teach loving-kindness meditation (also known as metta), we talk about the power of even speaking words for others with the desire to alleviate their suffering. May you be happy… May you be healthy… May you be safe… May you be loved… May you live with ease.  We talk about different people that you can do the practice for. Usually we start out with ourselves, move on to loved ones, neutral people, and then the “difficult” people in our lives. This practice can be really hard, but sometimes it’s still easier than some more active ways of showing compassion.

It’s become really clear to me that compassion is hard to come by. We could all probably say that it’s been missing for a long time, but the divisiveness we’ve seen really cement on a grand scale in America and around the world, the us vs them attitude, the disregard for others… There’s that picture of the couple in Trump shirts that say “fuck your feelings.” That about sums it all up, doesn’t it?

So how do we counter that? How do we try to bridge divides whether they be on that large scale of politics or in the more personal world of relationships and family? 

I might suggest compassion. 

The truth is that we are all suffering. I know that can sound like a depressing view of reality, but really it’s looking to embrace what’s really there. The Buddha taught that we all suffer and we do so many things to get rid of that suffering (maybe even wearing “fuck your feelings” t-shirts?) or to ignore it, stomp it down. Sometimes when we think of suffering, we think of underprivileged children in third world countries, but there are many types of suffering and varying degrees. Your suffering might not be like someone else’s, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real or doesn’t deserve compassion.

So how do we even find our ability to be compassionate?  It’s a big question. What does it look like in life and not just talking about or meditating on it? How do we steer tools we learn in meditation or mindfulness toward that purpose?

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m planning to share some examples — mostly from my own life — of searching for that ability. It’s easy to talk about compassion and empathy in the abstract, but in real life, it can be hard to even find the direction of the path towards those things. 

Let’s take some time to explore that together. Maybe you have examples that you’d like to share along the way too. 


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Hibernation

This past winter hit me hard. It was as if the disappearance of the sun had not only taken away any light after 5pm, but also any light in how I looked at life. Everything was heavy and nothing felt right. My motivation for most things barely existed. My practice was slowly disintegrating. I wasn’t focused on anything. I found myself taking things out on people close to me, all the while not telling anyone how I was feeling.

I know 2017 was a hard year for many of us. Personally, a lot of things happened for me. I left the yoga studio I had been a part of for many years. I lost a teacher when Michael Stone passed. I had new relationship hurdles to maneuver. I started into the second year of my acupuncture education. I was doing a lot of deep therapy work. I was still processing 2016. All of this as well as all the socio-political things happening outside of my little sphere.

So what did I do? I went inward and not in a good way. To start with, I let myself get so far deep into my own head that I was running on a loop. I didn’t want to do anything. I felt isolated and lonely. That constant loop of thoughts (something I talk about a lot) was a very deep rabbit hole that I fell down myself.

Sometimes when we think we know better is just the time when things come to remind us… Anything can happen to any of us. Even those who practice most can suffer from the pitfalls that beginners also face. There always seems to be a great equalizer at play somewhere.

Eventually, that awareness we cultivate in mindfulness practice finally started to break through. It became easier to catch myself when I was behaving against my own wellbeing. I was able to recognize the patterns, which I truly think is a first step. If you don’t know what’s happening, how can you break a cycle?

I’ve spent the better part of 2018 trying to break the cycles that 2017 left me staring at. Despite being aware of them, I’m still working through. It isn’t a one time and you’re done sort of thing. Just like in practice when we focus and then get distracted with a thought and have to come back, so is the work to break cycles in our outer lives. It’s the work of attention, fading off, and then coming back.  

The trick is to remember we can always come back, to not be hard on ourselves if we’ve gotten lost in hibernation and thought loops and cycles. It’s just a time to settle into our awareness and allow ourselves the time to do a little work.

 

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Greeting the New Year

The new year is upon us. As much as I like to consider the idea that years and days and hours are just human constructs, we do still have to live inside of those constructs to some degree. As a tumultuous (for many) 2016 flips itself to 2017, I wonder if we can't unravel some ways to transition a little more softly.

 

For the past couple of years, I have wanted to spend New Year's Eve quietly. Last year in particular, I was unable to attend a planned-on meditation retreat, so opted to create my own at home. I decided on a schedule of meditation (both seated and walking), of study, and of service (which amounted to me doing needed housework). I limited my time on screens, silenced the phone, and tried to spend the year's transitions in a quiet, open space. It was actually quite lovely. I missed seeing friends on NYE, but emerged the next day for a few hours to attend an annual friend-family brunch before going back into silence at home.

 

Having this little at-home "retreat" helped me to start 2016 feeling a bit more centered, a little more stable. It was a relief from that self-imposed pressure to do something on New Year's. I did "nothing" and that was fine. Perhaps you can't or don't want to do a full day of retreat, but maybe a little time in the next few days can assist in the year's transition.

 

While greeting the new year with silence might not be your thing, perhaps you might benefit from finding a quiet moment in the bustle of New Year's to remember that the next day will be that: another day. We often put great pressure on ourselves once the calendar turns to make resolutions and we go full force and we tire out quickly, feeling worse about things when we do not succeed. There is nothing inherently wrong with a resolution for the new year and they certainly don't always flop. I've had a successful few myself, but I think some of us may be better off with the reminder that we can resolve to do new things any time. In the middle of March, you can decide to train for that marathon or stop eating sugar or whathaveyou. You can resolve to do things every day. You actually do that regularly, in fact. So if the pressure of the new year and a "new you" feels like something more suffocating than invigorating: just remember that you can opt out of that business.

 

As we look upon this new year and inevitably take stock of the last, I know that I often think I should be here or there instead of wherever the end of the year finds me. I could have done this or I could have done that. Because I attached some sort of expectation to the year or to myself, I might feel disappointed instead of just in awe of how life continues to move. In looking at time as finite and the years as solid constructions, we can end up in that place of melancholy at not being where we thought we would be "by now" or at "this time." I am reminded of something Alan Watts has said: "you've got all the time in the world because you've got all the time there is, which is now. And you are this universe..." There are still an infinite number of possibilities, regardless of what the calendar or clock say.  Every moment, regardless of when, is now and you have infinite options for what now looks like.

 

However you decide to spend the last few hours of 2016 and first few of 2017, I hope that it is lovely. I hope that if you are with people, they are ones you love dearly. I hope that if you resolve for new things in the new year, that they are of great benefit to you. I hope that you embrace the times as they are and with openness. Be safe and be well.

 

 

A small reminder: January 2nd is the beginning of the next 30 Day Sit. I look forward to spending time with you in meditation soon.