Saturday, June 18, 2011

On Connecting With Love In Unexpected Places

Six years ago today, on a sunny and glorious Saturday, I married my ex-husband Chris in a ceremony surrounded by family, friends, and loved ones.  There was not a single cloud in the sky, and the ceremony took place in an outdoor tent overlooking a clear blue lake – I felt loved, connected, supported and full of love and gratitude for everyone around me.  It appeared to be a perfect start to a lifelong journey together for my ex-husband and me.

Six years later, on an equally sunny and glorious Saturday, I spent today in the company of mostly strangers on a daylong retreat given by Spring Washam up at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California entitled, “Free Your Heart: A Transformational Workshop for Exploring Love and Connection.”

When I first signed up for this retreat, I didn’t give much conscious thought to the fact that it was going to be held on the date of my old wedding anniversary.  I signed up for the retreat because I had heard Spring give a dharma talk in the past and really enjoyed it – and because as many of you know, I have really been working with the themes of love and connection in my life lately.  

Still, when I got up this morning to head out the retreat, I found myself wistfully pondering how much has changed in the past six years.  Six years ago, I would have never guessed that I’d be living alone in San Francisco, California in a studio apartment.  Six years ago, I would have never guessed that I’d be divorced and getting out of yet another relationship.  Six years ago, I would have never guessed that I would find the idea of getting up at 6:30 am and going to spend Saturday at a meditation retreat an appealing idea.  Yet, here I am – this is my life now – a lot can change in six years time – and this morning I was feeling both a sense of wonder and bitter sweetness about it.

Luckily, this workshop was the perfect place for me to be this morning – because the many interactive activities that we shared as a group together reminded me of the many connections that we as humans can have.   So many times, when we are asked to think of love or connection, our minds immediately go towards thinking of romantic partnership – i.e. whether we are single or in a committed relationship, getting into a relationship or  getting out of one, married, divorced, separated, etc.   Many of the people in the workshop expressed some variation of their romantic partnership status when asked why they chose to come to the workshop today. 

But, there are so many other connections available - and so many sources of love available to each one of us.  Connection to friends; connection to family; connection to co-workers; connection to pets; connection to community...

Most important of all, we can love and connect to ourselves – by being present with whatever sensations, thoughts, and feelings we are experiencing – and by honoring and accepting whatever comes for us in each moment.   We can treat ourselves with loving-kindness and compassion - the lovingkindness and compassion that is each of our birthright.

I've often heard that in order to truly love another, you must first love yourself - increasingly I am coming to see the truth in that statement.  Our teacher's insight this morning was that if you don't first love yourself, your love for the other person will always have an element of grasping to it - a desire for your affection to be returned, a desire for the other person to fulfill your need for love - a need that can feel like a bottomless well if you don't first fill up that well with love for yourself.  I have found her insight to be very true in my experience - and I am really working on practicing loving-kindness towards myself for that very reason.

Next, if we happen to be apart from our friends and family and loved ones, we can love and connect with those people who are around us – even if they are strangers to us.   We did an activity today where we broke into smaller groups, and each person in the group took turns sharing for four minutes…”If you really knew me, you’d know…” over and over again – saying whatever come forward in their mind each time.  After we got past the initial surface thoughts, deeper thoughts were revealed – and a strong sense of connection was forged once we each got below the surface and shared our vulnerability with each other.  I was comforted to discover that while I’d initially assumed that each of my counterparts had it all “together,” we each had our own combination of strengths and flaws – none of us were perfect, but we were all beautiful inside. 

You are unlikely to have the opportunity to do that activity with the woman you are sharing the bus stop with or the man you are standing next to in the grocery store – but the activity really got me thinking about the tenderness and goodness that lies within every one of us.  We also did a rather intense activity later in the day where we stared into the eyes of another person for 5-10 minutes and were asked to think various things about them in sequence such as the goodness and strength that lies inside them or the pain and suffering that they have been through.   As we did, I was amazed at how much my interaction with the person whom I was with was affected by the stories that I was creating in my mind about him. 

What if instead I was thinking about how evil his intentions were or how hard he was trying to make my life difficult? – as we often do about people who cut us off in traffic or grab the last order of something we were hoping to acquire   Instead of finding reasons to judge or ignore strangers whom you encounter; when possible, I encourage you to find momentary points of connection in your everyday interactions.

Another less commonly thought of connection is our connection to the cosmos – our connection to all beings – to the universe at large.   Meditating and learning about dharma teachings – about the suffering that all beings experience – helps me to feel more connected to the great fabric of human experience.  I also feel connected to the greater human fabric when I enjoy artistic works – like listening to music, watching a movie, or reading a good book – because many times those pieces speak to an element of my experience that is common to all – and I don’t feel so alone – because I’m not the only one who has experienced whatever I am currently experiencing.   

Suffering is a key aspect of life – that was one of the Buddha's main teachings.  It our very effort to try and avoid the basic suffering that comes with life experience that make us feel the most pain.  Spring Washam got her start with inner city communities and was amazed to discover during her teacher training at Spirit Rock that everyone experiences suffering – “rich” people and great spiritual leaders, too – no one is immune to loss and delusion and desire and suffering.  Take comfort in the fact that you are not alone in experiencing difficulty and troubles - there is nothing to be ashamed about - we are part of the same tribe.  

Spring told us about a tribe in Afrika where when tribe members commit a crime, the entire village stands around them for days and showers them with love and reminders of their most redeeming and precious qualities - rather than punishing them, they take the time and care to remind them of their natural goodness inside.  We then acted out a rendition of this idea - and hearing everyone's encouraging comments about me and sharing loving comments with each of of the other participants made me feel really warm and grateful inside.

All in all, it was a wonderful day – and a wonderful reminder of how much opportunity there is for connection in my life – even while I am in between relationships and on this celibate path.  When we finished the day today, I felt a great sense of fullness and joy – and I felt truly loved – basically the same way that I felt six years ago today when I stood under that tent surrounded by those near and dear to my heart.   I felt love in my heart for myself, for those in the room with me, for my friends and family and loved ones scattered throughout the country, and for all beings.  And I felt their love with me in return.

What a wonderful way to come full circle – to learn that it is possible to find that same fullness and joy in more than one setting – in fact, I am discovering that it is possible to find that fullness and joy in many settings – sitting by myself writing this blog knowing that those of you out there in CyberSpace are reading it (thank you!); sharing vivencias with my fellow Biodanza participants, revealing layers of myself in interactive retreat settings; and even sitting by myself doing lovingkindness meditation (although it is still a challenging practice for me!).  What a relief and sense of freedom to know that we are not limited to feeling fullness and joy in only one setting – love and connection are ready and available all around us – we just have to see and appreciate them and be ready to open ourselves up and take them in.

To close for this evening, I am going to share two favorites of mine. 

First, down way below is the link to a YouTube clip of one of my favorite songs by Maria Taylor – "A Good Start".  Whenever I listen to this song, I am reminded of how interconnected we all are – and how interconnected life is – the ups and the downs, friends and foes – they are all part of the same universe – and all each of us can do is try to be present and give our best in every moment.

Second, this is a set of quotes / dialogue from one of my favorite movies, Contact, with Jodie Foster and a bunch of other great actors.  The movie came out in the late 1990’s and is based on Carl Sagan’s work.  In it, Jodie Foster is a scientist who studies space to see if there are any signs of life out there beyond our planet (which science increasingly suggests there is).  She initially considers herself a scientist and therefore above faith and anything unable to be proven by fact.  This causes her conflict with “Palmer,” a minister referenced in the quote for whom she has a love interest (played by Matthew McConaughey). 

Jodie (Ms. Arroway) and the other earthlings are sent a communication from space which gives instructions for building an elaborate space travel machine to connect with their community – and in an elaborate dreamey like sequence, she does – even  though it looks to all bystanders like the spaceship crashed, the mission failed, and she is crazy.  She “returns to earth” to share her story for the world and is brought before a key panel to testify regarding what happened.  

As Jodie's character testifies below – she comes to realize that faith and science may not be so separate after all – and she does her best in her own way to reassure all of us that there is life out there and we are not alone in this universe (as she has previously felt all of our life).   This dialogue encapsulates my favorite part of the movie – and one of the main reasons that it is one of my favorite movies – I encourage you to see it if you haven’t yet had the opportunity – either way, enjoy this quote (courtesy of  I also found the actual clip on Youtube and attached if below for those of you who have access to video and sound.

 Panel member: Doctor Arroway, you come to us with no evidence, no record, no artifacts. Only a story that to put it mildly strains credibility. Over half a trillion dollars was spent, dozens of lives were lost. Are you really going to sit there and tell us we should just take this all... on faith?
[pause, Ellie looks at Palmer]

Michael Kitz: Please answer the question, doctor.

Ellie Arroway: Is it possible that it didn't happen? Yes. As a scientist, I must concede that, I must volunteer that.

Michael Kitz: Wait a minute, let me get this straight. You admit that you have absolutely no physical evidence to back up your story.

Michael Kitz: You admit that you very well may have hallucinated this whole thing.

Michael Kitz: You admit that if you were in our position, you would respond with exactly the same degree of incredulity and skepticism!

Michael Kitz: [standing, angrily] Then why don't you simply withdraw your testimony, and concede that this "journey to the center of the galaxy," in fact, never took place! 

Ellie Arroway: Because I can't. I... had an experience... I can't prove it, I can't even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever... A vision... of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how... rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater then ourselves, that we are *not*, that none of us are alone! I wish... I... could share that... I wish, that everyone, if only for one... moment, could feel... that awe, and humility, and hope. But... That continues to be my wish.

Contact - Video Clip

A Good Start - Maria Taylor


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