Monday, December 28, 2015

Reflections on 2015 and the Power of Magic

"Magic in this case is power. Not power over others, but power 
beyond 'over others.' It is the power within oneself."
 - Chogyam Trungpa
Fairy wings and wands with the friends
who taught me to be proud of who you are.

A year ago I set two basic intentions. I wanted to write and I wanted to learn from the word that kept coming to me: "magic." 365 days later I am looking back at the multitude of adventures I could not have controlled or predicted. I feel thanks for the sense of inner strength that comes with age and practice. I feel more curious than afraid about what I don't yet know. I have deep appreciation for the pervading sense of ease I feel in how I move, commit, eat, speak, and behave. Truly, there is a richness to my life that I previously could only imagine.

When the word magic choose me, I didn't know what to do with it.  It turns out, magic isn't something you do. It is part of who we are. It is our ability to create beauty in even the difficult or mundane. It is the power to give unconditional love. It is needing less and having more. It is the awe that comes from seeing our intentions become our reality. It is the alchemy of bowing our hearts and heads to what is. It is play. It is joy. It is creativity and spontaneity and saying yes to life. It is the power to make someone's day. It is the power to love the life that is uniquely yours. It is nonaggression. It is grace.
Being brave while getting the word
"grace" tattooed on my foot somewhere in Brooklyn

Some highlights of 2015:
At Nan Seymour's writing studio
  • My resolution for the year was to write. I had no idea at the time, but writing is a way of making me get really, really honest. I left my teaching job which was making me miserable. I learned to use the phrase "what I really want to say" on a regular basis. I learned how to follow the outer expression of my inner life towards a more authentic reality. I learned that when we share who we are, we connect more deeply with others. I took 3 six-week River Writing classes and listened to other writers tell their stories. I have a renewed commitment to living a creative life and following the threads of truth, regardless of where they lead or how crazy they seem.
  • In June I had the honor of going on a remarkable 9 day trip to West Virginia and Virginia. I swam in the Atlantic Ocean. I made new friends. I hiked the Appalachian Trail. I explored old coal mining towns that were nearly abandoned. I learned about the three remarkable men who were my companions. I laughed until my stomach muscles ached.
Inside an abandoned school in Welch, West Virginia

  • I traveled to New York in August and I met a woman in Central Park who read my palm and told me, "whatever they put on your plate, Mami, you can always turn it around. Befriend your shadow. If you don't have a relationship with your own soul, you'll be fucked." I spent time with friends and family each navigating that relationship with their own souls. We encouraged each other towards authenticity.
  • In late September I received a letter from my friend Swan inviting me to meditate together for 100 days. Nothing has changed my life more. Through meditation I am learning to let things wash off instead of carrying them around. I feel a deep sense of stability being cultivated within. I am growing my capacity for presence, for freedom, for peace and equanimity. The less I hold onto, the more my heart expands.

  • At a point in my life where I felt my most autonomous, I reconnected with an flame. Our relationship has been entirely unexpected and deeply fulfilling. We have a deep respect for one another as organic beings. There is a felt sense of support in our interactions. There is honesty and kindness and trust. We are relating beyond imposed expectations with a real reverence and esteem for what is alive in each other in the moment. I call him my magical fava bean rose which is to say, "you are a precious and entirely unique individual. I love you with all my heart and as such, I won't try to mold you or force you or use shame or punishment. Absolutely all of your experience is welcome. You deserve to be adored exactly as you are." The abundant laughter and kindness and kisses and even the tears are food for my soul. Often I will be cracking up and will say,  "But, Pat! I hate to laugh!" to which my lover responds with, "but you're so good at it!" Surely this business of love is way too important to take seriously.

  • And now I am closing the year in sunny, peaceful Palm Springs with my aunt Martha and uncle Andy. I am rested and cared for and encouraged. If taking in this view doesn't give a sense of possibility, I'm not sure what will.

The more I pay attention, the more value I find in each moment. Surely, there are too many to capture and the best response seems to be gratitude.

There is a power within each of us. It is limitless and is always available. We just have to be open. It is clear to me that this life is a privilege. That it is an honor to be part of something bigger than myself.  I am reminded of this quote from the poet Atticus, " 'Put your hand on your heart.' the old man said, 'Inside you there is a power. there are ideas and thoughts that no one has ever thought of, there is the strength to love, purely and intensely, and to have someone love you back, there is the power to make people happy, and to make people laugh, and to fall in love- to change lives and futures- don't forget that power, and don't ever give up on it.'"

May we move forward into 2016 with optimism and the courage to head in the direction of our dreams. May we trust what unfolds for us. May we stay connected to our power to create the conditions for love, to create the conditions for laughter, to make manifest the beautiful lives we can imagine. Sending blessings and good will for your hopes and deep appreciation for our connection to each other.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Life As It Is, or 'What the Hell Am I Doing Here'?

My friends and I at the San Francisco Airport

Sunday night I got home from an Embodied Life retreat where we practiced embodied meditation (similar to Zen), deep inner listening, and awareness through movement lessons (based on the work of Moshe Feldenkrais). The Embodied Life work is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. It is extremely countercultural. Everything is done very slowly with an emphasis on our bodily experience and acceptance of each moment. I deeply love it.

However, lest you think I spent the weekend blissed out, soaking in gratitude and rose water, I thought it might be helpful to share my honest experience with you. I also want to say that I am deeply thankful to my friends MaryBeth and Luann, without whom I would not have attended retreat. Our connection as embodied women is a gift which I cherish.

  • I arrive at Santa Sabina. It quickly becomes apparent that I am the youngest person in the room by 20 years. There is another group sharing the retreat center with us. The median age must be 70. I think they’re Christian, but I don’t know because they are silent. One woman has a tracheotomy, one woman is recovering from a stroke. I eat my oatmeal in silence and watch old people eat. One day I’ll be old.

  • We sit in silent meditation in the dark. After 30 minutes or so, we move into walking meditation. It’s also silent. And extremely slow. It takes us 30 minutes to move 20 feet. I can’t shake the thought, “what the fuck am I doing?” After walking, we sit again, this time facing the wall. Then we bow to the ground three times.

  • I get chastised by an expired hippie named Blue for talking outside on my cell phone. Apparently I should have walked all the way to the parking lot. “They’ll tell on you, it’s against the rules,” she says, as if I am 10 years old.

  • We listen to our teacher tell us about his recent trip to Auschwitz. He talks about the pile of hair and gold teeth, about the survivors and how they made meaning and forgave and thrived. There are chills throughout the room.

  • My lover calls to tell me about a party he went to the night before. “There were so many beautiful people, and good whiskey, and dancing,” he tells me. “Cool. I’m happy for you,” I say. Silently I think, “I’d better get back so I can sit in the dark with a bunch of old people I don’t know. What the hell?”

  • I notice a woman named Barbara across the circle. She has the sort of poise and presence I am after. I whisper to her, “Barbara, you are stunning.” She replies, “and you.” On the last day I tell her, “this Feldenkrais is so not sexy.” To which Barbara replies in her gorgeous, British accent, “the word that comes to mind is potent. This work has potency, and potency is sexy.” I smile and take note.

  • I go for a long walk each day. I meet a man named Tom who was born without an arm. He’s proud of his paddle boarding business. I visit him the next two days. On the last day I tell him that I hope he’s very successful with his business venture. It feels good to talk to a real, live person who is my same age. It feels good to move.

  • My lover calls me and I share the things I am learning about. We get really excited about our shared discoveries. “Come home soon so you can teach me,” he says. “Learn all you can.”

  • One night we do our sitting meditation in groups of three. I find huge support from a stranger named Gary. I look at his still, solid belly and I know I, too, can sit.

  • On my way out the door, I slip a $2 trinket in my pocket from the gift shop. I have no idea why I’m stealing something I don’t really want. Later I realize it is an act of rebellion after spending the weekend being told what to do. I have issues with being told what to do. I have issues with being part of a group.

  • I call my mom and say, “I’m having a really hard time being part of the group.” She laughs out loud and wonders how this is surprising news.

  • My generous friend Luann brings MaryBeth and I into the airport Crown Room. We drink wine and I confess all the judgmental thoughts I’ve been keeping to myself. Like good friends, they listen, laugh, and share. I feel saved by their presence.

  • The truth is that the work of sitting and bowing and laughing and listening is really, really important. I want to dedicate my life to it. And it is not easy. Despite our best efforts, part of life is suffering. It is inescapable. I constantly find myself needing to forgive when I want to resent, needing more courage than I currently have, needing help from people who annoy me, needing to reconsider my fixed views, needing to be a little more vast, a little more loving, a little more brave, needing to try again. I am grateful for the opportunity to practice, regardless of how that opportunity shows up. Learning to embrace Life as it is, this, too, is our practice. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Intentionality, Unconditionality, and Letting Go

I only know that my need to listen more deeply has been answered with an undoing that has made me listen with my eyes, my heart, my skin. Now I wonder softly: Does a plant listen by breaking ground? Does sand listen by accepting the waves it can never escape? And how do stubborn souls like us listen? 

I feel like a painter who, after mastering certain brushes over the years, has come to the end of brushes; who in an effort to get closer to the light has thrown his brushes into the fire, to ignite more light. I am left finally to paint with my hands. I hope there is something helpful here. –Mark Nepo.

Roses sent to me by my friend Swan

I am sharing my experience because I believe the ways in which our lives unfold hold treasures for ourselves and others. For me, writing is a process of discovery and reflection and a way to continually come back to what feels truest and deepest. Writing and living in this way is the well from which I drink.

Six years ago my dearly beloved brother was killed in a car accident at this time of year. A couple of years later, the anniversary was marked by the mutual decision of my then-husband and I to divorce. Since then I have experienced two significant break ups, all occurring during the same transitional week from September to October. According to traditional Chinese medicine, autumn is the season associated with grief. For me, this is a truth that is repeatedly confirmed. As I sit to write this morning I watch the golden leaves of my neighbor’s maple prepare to make their descent to the earth below.

I share this history not to paint myself as a victim in anyway, but as a reminder that love and life are precious because they are impermanent. Everything shifts and moves and we are required to let go of both harmful and beautiful things. For me living creatively means that the process is far more important than achieving any particular outcome. In the end, life is the unfolding. I bow to that unfolding everyday and it cleanses me and teaches me to be present and patient and kind.

As I reflect on my most recent breakup, I feel sadness, but it is unadulterated. It is the pure emotion of grief and it is made sweet by the mutual respect, honesty, courage, warmth, and the ground of safety that was established in the interactions he and I had. Those things remain. There is a mutual understanding that has come from communication. From the very beginning of our interactions, I did not feel possessive of him. I was not in the relationship for my own gain. I felt warm and curious and supportive of his process and mine. In the last few years I have been living out a deep inquiry into nonviolence. Nonviolence to me means not forcing things. It means sitting very still and listening and making space for unconscious longings to emerge. This has helped me cultivate an attitude of neutrality and unconditional warmth towards what is. I feel deeply grateful to have been able to be a participant in this relationship where both beautiful and difficult things could show themselves and be received with equal warmth.

I am also grateful for the ways in which choosing to be nonviolent has made my intentions sharply clear. I am not interested in engaging with life at the surface levels of blame, drama, and protection. I am interested in kindness. I am interested in presence. I am interested in paying gentle attention. Perhaps I have become wise enough to know that what really needs to happen and what I think needs to happen are rarely the same thing. We are participants in a brilliant tale. This insight has resulted in a much greater capacity for allowing things to take their course. I am developing the patient abiding that creates space for things to soften, unwind, and dissolve. Part of presence is letting go of the need to change or fix or solve anything. This requires incredible trust and courage. It is also the best learning I have ever done.

I also want to say that life moves in a mysterious way. The most painful moments of my life are also the ones where I have been the recipient of real kindness and grace. As I look back over the last few years, I am brought to my knees by the people who have shown up for me in ways large and small to support me and feed me and give the necessary encouragement to take the next step in the most life-giving direction. The genuine goodness within the human heart is the sustenance on which our lives are built.

I want more than anything to live a truly creative life, to be a writer, to let go of all unnecessary things and throw “my brushes into the fire, to ignite more light.” I hope that my words can point people towards the rich depth of life which is also the depth within them. It is a true privilege to love deeply and let go. May the beauty of autumn remind us this is so.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Beating Writers Block or Don't Trade Your Passion For Glory

He asked, "What makes a man a writer?" "Well," I said, "it's simple.  
You either get it down on paper, or jump off a bridge."
-Charles Bukowski
The New River Gorge Bride
in case you were looking for one to jump off

I have taken a break from this space for long enough.  It's not that I haven't thought of writing (and written!) in the last six weeks.  In fact, writing is the main tenant occupying my mind these days.  I just haven't mustered up the will to sit down and post something.  Instead I took a six week River Writing course from Nan Seymour (highly recommend), read some wondrously satisfying books (Blue Jelly, Wild Mind, Ruby to name a few), discovered the creative genius of Sy Safransky through his magazine The Sun, adventured through West Virginia, Virginia, and Utah, and had many soul stimulating conversations about writing and the creative life.  But sitting down and writing something that feels post-worthy, well, let's just say it's been a struggle.  I have essays, short stories, and perhaps a worthwhile novel in my head, but as long as I avoid sitting down and putting pen to paper, that's where they'll stay. 

I loved this post from Molly Wizenberg about procrastination.  Apparently it happens to the best of us. Yesterday my cousin Tom was in town from New York City.  He studied writing in college and is currently working on a screenplay.  As we hiked the trails in Millcreek Canyon, I told him how fired up I am about writing and then mentioned that I am not actually writing. He said simply, "well, it's work.  You have to show up.  You have to put in the time."  I could hear Nan's voice in my head inviting us to sit down and write really poorly, to be the most ordinary writer in the room.  

For the first time it dawned on me that the practice of writing is exactly like my other deeply held passion-cycling.  If you pick up cycling expecting greatness, there is no doubt you will be disappointed.  There is nothing noble about riding a bike.  It’s a lot of hard work.  It takes thousands of miles of effort to reach the effortless moments where you feel like you’re flying.  In other words, don’t trade your passion for glory.  You won’t get much.  Jock Boyer, the first American to ride in the Tour de France has often said that to ride a bike is to suffer.  Writing is the same.  It takes thousands of pages of shitty writing to distill a single nugget of wisdom.  It takes a commitment to experience every facet of your life from the mundane to the beautiful to the heart-wrenchingly painful.  Write anyway.

We write to discover what we didn’t know we knew.  We ride to discover frontiers beyond our everyday.  The acts themselves are a demonstration of faith in what we don’t know.  In the words of Slug, having to look for the path is a good problem to have.  Keep riding.

Writing well and riding well are both acts of grace.  Glory comes and goes.  Triumph is just a reminder that we were gifted momentary possession of a genius that never belonged to us in the first place.

The majority of training in both writing and riding is done alone.  That’s just the nature of the beast.  No one can do your work for you.  At the same time, community becomes necessary if you want to make real progress.  Riding with other people makes you faster.  Reading, writing, and listening with other thinkers adds richness to your words.  That is why so many great writers quote other people.

I could go on.  I could tell you how cycling and writing are pathways to paying attention to and connecting with a reality deeper and broader than the narrow, egoic ones we so often inhabit.  I could explain how sports and creative pursuits are both physical expressions of the human spirit.  I could tell you that commitment pays off, especially when you think it never will.  I can tell you this because despite there being an infinite number passions to choose from, Passion is always the same.  It is a driving commitment to a practice for the sake of practicing.  And it is worth it, always.  It’s good to be back.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Magic of 70 Percent Effort

All the images in this post were taken from this article
which I highly recommend.

Year ago I would work out with a personal trainer.  I admired her because she had attained a level of fitness I hadn't seen before.  She was a dedicated trainer and our sessions were intense- hours upon hours of plyometrics, heavy lifting, sled pulls, and sprints.  The group who trained with her would put in insane amounts of exercise.  They would arrive at the gym 30 minutes before our session to warm-up, put in a 90 minute training session, and then head off to ski or bike or run for the rest of the day.  It didn't take long for my body to become completely wrecked.  I would go in for the 90 minute training session and then go home to sit on the couch for the rest of the night.  My immune system was shot and every muscle in my body felt contracted and sore.  Eventually I quit training altogether.

In an effort to heal from chronic illness, I dialed back my fitness to the point of just walking and doing yoga.  That's when the healing began.  When I quit pushing my body, it did what bodies do- found the balance point of health and harmony.  I couldn't believe it.  I began to feel so good that I started working out again, but I kept my training in the 70 percent zone, or the zone of maximum growth. As Tai Chi master, Bruce Frantzis, explains, "striving for 100 percent inherently produces tension and stress because as soon as you strain or go beyond your capacity, your body has a natural tendency to experience fear and to begin, even without your being aware of it, to tense or shut down in response."  I discovered that by only giving 70 percent of my effort to my workouts, I could really get strong.  I would still use effort and break a sweat, but I would have something left in the tank at the end.  Working out became enjoyable again.  Had I continued putting in the 100% effort workouts, I never would have attained the level of fitness I have now.  I was only able to run a full marathon after I switched to training in the 70 percent zone.  (More on that later.)

What surprises me is that even with my discovery about moderate workouts, I am still struggling to find a moderate, sustainable lifestyle.  This modern world feels so fast paced and I feel an almost constant pressure to produce, perform, and achieve.  Balance and moderation are not highly prized in our world.  How often have you heard someone say, "look at what moderate hours he keeps at work!" or "she sure has a reasonable body!"  No one says those things.  This is why when I feel my life move towards balance, I start to wonder if there is something wrong with me.  Does balance mean letting go of all the goals that society praises you for attaining?

I have noticed that even when it comes to relaxation our approach is extreme.  Interested in meditation?  Why not give it 30 minutes twice a day!  Like yoga?  Why not do 30 classes in 30 days! There was the local yoga salesgirl who tried for years to get me to sign up for a 1,000 hour $4,000 teacher training program.  Is it not enough that I carve out time to attend a class a couple of times per week?  What is our obsession with taking things to an extreme?  I wonder if we are afraid of the middle path.

I have even noticed in the "enlightened" self-help community this "go big or go home" mentality.  After consuming too many messages of "if you can dream it, you can do it" and "I am unstoppable," I begin to feel discontent with my very ordinary, and yet miraculous life.  Its as if all the abundance around me is not enough.  I don't want to feel that way anymore.

This made me laugh.  It is so true! (Especially the part in black)

I want a life that is sustainable. I need a life that is sustainable.  As the school year comes to a close I feel like a marathoner at mile 24.  I need to conserve enough energy to make it to the finish line without collapsing.  I wish for myself the courage to be more content with moderation,  I hope I can cultivate greater appreciation for a life of balance.  I know what the opposite of balance can lead to- illness, injury, depression, or worse.  Walking the middle path does not mean living an average life because the average person lives a stressful life that fluctuates chaotically between different extremes.  Walking the middle path means giving 70 percent effort in a world demanding 110.  It means listening to what each moment is asking for.  It means rest and play and effort and confidence in one's own well-being.  I hope you will join me in this revolutionary practice of moderation.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Faith in Loving Fiercely the One Who is Rightfully Yours

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness 
and what we feel we are 
worthy of in this world. 
-David Whyte

There is something that I don't want to admit- not because I am ashamed of it, but because I wish it were not true.  That something is the amount of admiration and respect that I receive for being a moderately attractive, younger than 40, physically fit woman.  I know that I get attention and respect from certain people who would not give me that same attention if I were less fit, less attractive, or heavier.  It gives my words more weight. It also makes me sad to live in a world where many people making extremely respectable contributions to the world receive very little actual respect.  Other people who are arguably making the world a worse place to live receive wealth, fame, and admiration.

I have found that being perceived by others as "fit" holds a lot of currency in our society.  I'm not totally sure why this is.  I think it has a lot to do with insecurities.  We see someone who appears toned and fit and we assume that they have exceptional will-power, are living a healthier lifestyle than we are, or are perhaps morally superior.  I have experienced this on both sides.  People say things to me all the time like, "you eat healthy" or "I wish I were skinny like you" or "I'm sure you don't eat sugar" or "you probably don't get sick." It makes me so mad because the people making the comments have just projected an entire lifestyle onto me that is not true.  They've given me that untouched, "other" quality that we give to people we see as different from ourselves.  I've struggled with my health for my entire life.  I eat sweet things daily basis.  I have body image issues just like literally every other person I have ever met.  I am a human being.  I am a human being having a human experience.

I believe that all people deserve respect.  Our ideas deserve to be heard, our feelings deserve validation, our hard work deserves praise, our struggles deserve empathy.  In a society that respects extremes of youth and wealth and beauty while simultaneously condemning old age, under-funding and under-valuing public schools, shaming fat, and serving up a steady stream of media designed to make us feel inadequate, it is no wonder that we begin to question our worth.

I am not writing because I know what to do about this.  I am writing because it troubles me.  I think I'll start by doing the only thing I can think of to do which is show more respect to a wider variety of people.  I can keep the intention to see, honor, and remind those with whom I interact of their inherent value. I can continue to speak up from my own place of worth which is strengthened by the simple act of believing it is there.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Aging Well

This post is inspired by my first yoga teacher, D'ana Baptiste, who also owns Centered City Yoga.  She is powerful and graceful and has worked tirelessly to bring yoga to people who need it including public school teachers.  She is also a single mother of three boys.  In the last year or so I've noticed her being incredibly honest about what it means to be a woman aging or perhaps gaining weight in the public eye.  And then this photo showed up in my Facebook feed.

Beautiful, ageless Dana wearing scroungy clothes, sunglasses, and a hospital mask on her head, trying to cheer up her ex-girlfriend who was in a Mexican hospital recovering from pneumonia and knee surgery.  When I saw that photo I felt something shift inside of me.  There I was at work where I had already consumed an entire bag of chocolate at 9 am because being in a room full of needy kids everyday is jarring on the nerves,  And on top of the chocolate were the thoughts of guilt about my diet.  And how I am too tired to work out as much as I want to.  And wondering when will I lose the five pounds I've gained this year.  And while I'm thinking, I can feel my forehead furrowing and the wrinkles forming.  And all of that gets interrupted by this picture of someone showing up in the world in the best way they can, trying to do a little good and not let their ego get in the way of that.

It made me think of that beautiful Mary Oliver quote (which I first heard from D'ana) "you do not need to be good" (you could also insert skinny / ageless / perfect).  You do not need to be good, but whatever you do, do not stop showing up as yourself.  The world needs the gifts that only you can offer and those gifts have nothing to do with the size of your thighs or the smoothness of your face.
If you look at my forehead you will see the beginnings of my wrinkles.
Sometimes they show up more than others.
Please don't start telling me how to get rid of my them.
That will be a never-ending battle I'm not up for fighting.
I'd rather spend my life energy in other ways.

I am so grateful for those women who were born before me who continually redirect me to what matters.  It is easy to get confused.  It is easy to start believing the lies that we are not worthy of love and belonging because we are not perfect in some way.  It is tempting to start pouring our life energy into juice fasts or plastic surgery or hiding ourselves because we are embarrassed about how we look.  But the trouble with that is it becomes a struggle for belonging based entirely on control.  And what happens on the day that you can't keep up the diet or your stress gets the better of you?  You start to feel like you are less worthy of love and happiness.  You start to lose your confidence which is directly related to your empowerment.  True confidence comes from within and can go with us wherever we go.  It is our birthright as human beings.  And when we are truly confident we can begin the light we were born to share shine into this world.

Today is my mom's 64th birthday.  She is a woman who has truly spent every second of her life trying to make the world a better place and help as many people as she can.  (Those of you who know her can attest to this.)  When I was younger I used to wonder why my mom didn't get facials or have her nails done.  And I think the answer is this: life is short.  We have a limited amount of time and energy and every day we get to decide how we use it.  My mom decides to use her time building people up, empowering her fourth graders, helping give welfare to people in her church, creating happy memories for her grandchildren, planting flowers, making my father laugh.

Before my mom and I had lunch today, she said a quick word of grace.  "Thank you that Celeste came to visit me.  Thank you that I got to live 64 years.  I am so lucky."  Then her students came in and she played the Beatles' song "When I'm 64" while I had the kids make cards for her.  Their cards said it all.  "Thank you for teaching me."  "Your smile makes me want to learn and work hard."  "I love you because you are so fun and you are nice when I miss a problem on my homework."  Here is a glimpse of what really matters and what we leave behind when our time runs out.

Happy birthday, Mom!  Here's to growing older and bringing our whole selves- wrinkles, courage, cellulite, smiles, tears, kindness, acne, truth and authenticity to the party!