Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On Dealing with Setbacks and Frustration – The Path of the Warrior

This has been a tough week for me so far – and today has been a challenging day.  In just about every conceivable way, I have felt myself slipping back into old negative patterns and behaviors and losing ground in goals that I have set for myself.  

I haven’t been getting enough sleep – which has made me overtired, cranky, and more anxious than usual.  I haven’t written as much on this blog as I would like.  I haven’t meditated as much and managed to miss both my Mission Dharma meditation group and the Hip Hop class that I was aiming to try out this past Tuesday.  I’ve been stressed out and distracted at work – an inconvenient mind state to deal with when you are in the midst of a very busy time and have lots of tasks which need to get done right.   Today was one of those days where I was frantically running around like a crazy person trying to get ready for a big day of advising calls tomorrow and a flight out of town tomorrow night – and I am not fully done yet.

So, why am I taking the time to write about this in the midst of all this craziness?  Why am I writing about this when I’ve admittedly felt tons of anger and discouragement and aversion and doubt today?  Why am I sharing some of the very reasons why I am not an ideal model of enlightened behavior?

I’m writing about this right now because this is where the work comes inthis is the front line where the battle to awaken joy and foster peace in the world is fought.   If I am really sharing my journey of self-discovery with you, it is important that you not just see me when the view is breathtaking and I’ve reached the top of the next peak – it is important that you see the full range of the journey.   I make no promises to be perfect, but I promise you I will make every effort in this blog to be authentic – to be real.   Journeys and diets and any kind of “infomercial” type experience that you might see on TV – they all have ups and downs along the way. 

That previously 400-pound woman who is now 150 pounds and wearing a bikini on late night TV?  I guarantee you – somewhere along the way of her new workout regime and carefully crafted meal plan, there was at least one moment (and likely several) where she skipped exercise class and was sitting in Krispy Crème staring down at a half eaten box of donuts about to call it quits. 

It’s one thing to commit to a goal or try to live more healthfully or develop Zen habits when the sun is shining and you are observing forward progress in yourself.  It’s one thing to model positive behavior when people cheering you on surround you in spades. 

The real test comes when things don’t come so easily – when you’re overtired or you get a flat tire or you hit a stressful time at work or someone picks a bad moment to point out your flaws – or you observe yourself slipping back into dangerous ground. 

What do you do then?  Do you chuck it all to hell and give up the fight?  Do you blame the world or your partner or your boss or the guy who crashed into your car for making you give up your dreams?  Do you get angry and take out your bad feelings on someone else around you – ideally someone over whom you have power?

In her book When Things Fall Apart (Chapter 2 – When Things Fall Apart), Pema Chodron shares a story about taking on a new position as head teacher at an abbey and having to confront nasty truths about herself.   She says, “What happened to me when I got to the abbey was that everything fell apart.  All the ways I shield myself, all the ways I delude myself, all the ways I maintain my well-polished self image - all of it fell apart.” 

She says that around that time when she was really struggling with all of the negative feedback she was receiving about herself, her teacher visited and said, “When you have made good friends with yourself, your situation will be more friendly, too.”

Pema acknowledges that these moments…that I feel like I have been experiencing this week…these moments are “a kind of testing that spiritual warriors need in order to awaken their hearts.”  We can “shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality.” 

I was so tempted today to be angry at my co-workers today, get mad at the person at Office Depot who kept me on hold for 12 minutes, and blame the day and the conditions around me for my unhappiness today.  Hell – I did feel those feelings – I did feel anger and resentment and aversion today.   I still feel some of those feelings now.

But – there were little snippets where I awakened – even just for a moment – and saw what I was doing.  There were moments when I took a deep breath and counted to 10 and was gracious and open-minded.  There were moments when I focused on things for which I am grateful today – for instance, I had a wonderful phone conversation with an old friend today, my Office Depot order came out perfectly, and I had a tasty dinner.  There was a moment this evening when I was walking from work to Office Depot to run an errand and I realized suddenly that it was a beautiful night – that the sky was still blue and it was still light out and there was a pleasant breeze – and I was happy.   There were little moments in there were I was happy in the midst of all the aggravation and frustration and “bad luck.”

Have you ever gotten into a “bad streak” and started to predict that the rest of your day was going to be awful?  I definitely have…I’ll notice it’s raining and miss the bus and walk in late to work and the next thing I know I’m predicting that the whole day is going to suck and the world has it in for me.  But – there’s no guarantee that that is the case – the next moment could be great. 

And – if you notice that you are getting angry or resentful or acting in a way that contradicts your values, don’t beat yourself up over it – rejoice in the fact that you noticed.  The very fact that you’ve noticed you are off track is a sign that you are awake.  Just like you send the distracting thought on its merry way and focus your attention back on the breath during meditation, in moments of struggle, you can send that negative behavior on its way and approach the next moment with compassion and understanding and vulnerability – with mindfulness of the present moment and the feelings that you are experiencing.  You can reconnect with your inner Buddha nature at any moment – it’s never too late.

Every moment is a new opportunity – a second chance to be peaceful and share your light with the world.  So we fell off the wagon and failed a little – so what?  What matters is what we are going to do in the next moment – are we going to give up horseback riding altogether or are we going to get back on the horse and keep going?

As Pema says (at the end of the earlier chapter 2):

“To stay with that shakiness-to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge – that is the path of true awakening.  Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic-that is the spiritual path.  Getting in the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior.   We catch ourselves one zillion times at once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation-harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.

Every day we could think about the aggression in the world, in New York, Los Angeles, Halifax, Taiwan, Beirut, Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq, everywhere.  All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy, and the pain escalates forever.  Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?’  Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?’”

That passage brings me a great deal of comfort and encouragement when I am struggling against the negative emotions in my head like I have been today – I hope it will bring you support as well.   I’m also including the link to a song that I discovered recently from an old Grey’s Anatomy episode – “Turn and Turn Again” by All Thieves – I listed to it several times today – and it has brought me much peace.  For those of you who don’t have access to audio right now, I’m including the lyrics below as well.  Enjoy!

“Turn and Turn Again” – All Thieves

Worn from walking this far
So worn from talking this much
And what we found and what we've seen
As the road curves down

And the lights come up to meet us
Silent for the evening
We enter this town
Like new born creatures

Those I know I see anew
And the space between us is reduced
For I am human
And you are human too

So turn and turn again
We are calling in all the ships
Every traveler, please come home
And tell us all that you have seen
Break every lock to every door
Return every gun to every drawer

So we can turn
And turn again

Only priests and clowns can save us now
Only a sign from God or a hurricane
Can bring about
The change we all want

And we've done it again
This trick we have
Of turning love to pain
And peace to war

We're just ash in a jar

So turn and turn again
We are calling in all the ships
Every traveler, please come home
And tell us all that you have seen

Break every lock to every door
Return every gun to every drawer
So we can turn and turn again (x2)

Friday, June 24, 2011

On Appreciating the Fragile Nature of Life


It is a glorious sunny day, and I am sitting on my favorite (okay only) chaise lounge by the window watching the sun is streaming in through the blinds and feeling a delicate breeze sweep across my arms as I type.  It is one of those beautiful days that makes grateful and happy to be alive.  Given all of that, I am going to write to you today about death.  Why?  Because once again, death is on my mind – and I figured it would be good to share some of my thoughts about it with you.

You see -- unlike some of my peers who blissfully go through life assuming that they are invincible and never let such a somber topic cross their mind, I think about death on average about once every day, sometimes more.  I’m not entirely sure why.

My Totaled Toyota Corolla
It could be because I’ve had one close colleague die suddenly of a brain aneurism and one close colleague die of a heart attack within the past three years.  It could be because I’ve had several near death experiences in the past 10 years – I’ve gotten hit by a car crossing the street, ran my car spinning in circles off the road, ended up in the ER due to an electrolyte imbalance, and most recently fell down a flight of stairs a few month’s ago.  It could be because I live in Earthquake country and the next big one could happen any second.  It could be because I love Grey’s Anatomy (which takes place in a hospital with people dying) or because I live in a culture that predicts the end of the work in 2012 and constantly emphasizes plane crashes and gas explosions and natural disasters on the news.  

I suspect it is due some combination of all the factors that I’ve mentioned…and probably other subtler factors of which I’m not even fully conscious.   Either way, it doesn’t really matter – the fact is, lately I think about death at least once very day – sometimes on the bus, sometimes walking home, often late at night on this very chaise lounge.  

Usually I am alone – and I wonder if I’m going to make it until my next interaction with someone- or if this is it – right here.   I suppose in a way it’s a symptom of spending more time alone lately.   Usually we spend our whole frantically running from activity to activity trying to avoid the natural fragility of life – and I’ve made a point to stop doing that.  I’ve made a point to start focusing as much attention as possible on the present moment because it is all we really have.

To be clear, when I think about death each day, I am not thinking about wanting to die – I am not contemplating suicide or ways to kill myself.  No, quite the opposite – I want to liveI want to live very much.  I want to continue this great adventure for as long as I can.  I want to die at the ripe age of 97 or 102 – with grandkids and great-grandkids running around at my funeral.  I want to find and marry a life partner and ride the waves of a long-term committed relationship that lasts beyond the 7-year itch.  I want to wax poetic with new generations of students about the wee old days when there was no Internet and people looked up dry cleaners in the phone book and movie listings in the newspaper.   I want to learn new things, write a book, get pregnant, go on a silent retreat, take a cruise somewhere beautiful, and experience everything that this life has to offer. 

Yet – I’d be naïve to assume that I’m going to live forever.  I’d be deluding myself to keep missing the present in my quest to get to the future – as we all frequently do day after day.  Even if I were lucky enough to live another 60 years, I’d be kidding myself to assume that hundreds of loved ones aren’t going to die and leave me by the time I get there.  In time, every single person in my life – including me – is going to die.  We are human – it’s what we do.  We are born, we live, and we die.  

Beginnings and endings are the very fabric of life.  Every day, we’re surrounded of examples of them– my Biodanza teacher just got engaged (new beginning); an acquaintance of mine just had a new baby (new beginning); the Bombay Creamery ice cream store in town just closed (ending –and I never even got to try it); an acquaintance of mine just had a baby (new beginning); a colleague of mine is leaving USF (ending).

From what I’ve heard in dharma talks, Buddhists say that it’s not necessarily bad for us to form connections to things and have relationships – to enjoy living, to enjoy a favorite possession, etc.  It’s not bad that I want to live and have goals for things that I’d like to achieve in my life.   One famous Buddhist teacher has a favorite mug that he likes to drink tea out of – and someone asked him one time if liking that mug wasn’t really a form of attachment.  The teacher answered him that he loves that mug – but yet it doesn’t make him suffer because every time he looks at it, he pictures it falling to the ground and shattering to pieces – in other words, he knows it is precious because it is not going to be there forever – he loves and appreciates it – but he is not resisting the natural law of impermanence – he is not resisting the fact that someday it will not be with him.

I wouldn’t say I enjoy thinking about death on a daily basis – it is not an experience that I would call pleasant.  Still, it is an experience that wakes me up and encourages me to appreciate every moment; to appreciate every person – and to remember the utter preciousness of life.  It also seems to prepare me for some of the losses that I know I will experience – so that hopefully when they happen I can take them in with as much ease as possible, feeling grateful for the times that I have had with those people and those practices near and dear to my heart.

While there is so much more than I want to achieve and experience in my life, I am extremely grateful for everything that I have been able to see and do and learn so far.   Looking back over the years, it feels like I have lived several lifetimes over already – each phase of my life has brought out a different element of my essence, a different part of my personality.   I have so much wonder and amazement thinking about the places I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, and the ideas and practices that have been shared with me.  I feel lucky to live in one of the most picturesque cities on earth.  I don’t know where or how much longer the ride will take me – but I know one thing – it’s been an amazing ride so far.  :)

To close for tonight, I’m including below a link to a song which always makes me think of death when I listen to it – “Somewhere, a Clock Is Ticking” by Snow Patrol – it’s a bit haunting but very moving.  I’m also including a voiceover from the Season Six finale of Grey’s Anatomy that speaks to some of these ideas – it was from an episode where the husband of a deceased patient came into the hospital and started shooting doctors and bystanders at random to avenge the death of his wife (and you wonder why I think of death all the time…) 

Sheryl Barker
Finally, to balance out the “death” song, I’m also including a link to “Wish You Well” – a song by Kate Herzig that makes me think of my two dear colleagues who passed away in recent years – Sheryl Barker and Eugene Muscat.  Sheryl and Eugene – wherever your spirits live on, I wish you well – you both touched my life in so many positive ways.  

Enjoy – and thank you for reading!

6.24 Death And All Of His Friends
Eugene Muscat

Derek: The human life is made up of choices.  Yes or no.  In or out.  Up or down.  And then there are the choices that matter.  Love or hate.  To be a hero or to be a coward.  To fight or to give in.  To live.  Or die.  Live or die.  That's the important choice. And it's not always in our hands.

Derek: Yes or no.  In or out.  Up or down.  Live or die.  Hero or coward.  Fight or give in.  I'll say it again to make sure you hear me.  The human life is made up of choices.  Live or die.  That's the important choice.  And it's not always in our hands.

Snow Patrol - "Somewhere, a Clock Is Ticking"


Kate Herzig - Wish You Well

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


Friday, June 17, 2011

On Embracing Uncertainty - and Resisting the Urge to Attach

As I’ve mentioned once or twice on this blog, I have decided to take a vow of celibacy – a vow of celibacy to last until I am comfortable and satisfied being by myself and no longer depend on partners or external attachments to make me happy.  Until I would like the enrichment of a partner in my life but do not feel a compelling need to have one in order to be “whole.” 

Unlike Jerry McGuire, I ideally would not like to tell my next partner, “You Complete Me.”  I want to get to a point where I feel in every fiber of my being that “I Complete Me” – and a partner would just be icing on the cake.  Once I know in my heart and my gut that I have reached that point - then I can open my heart to explore all of the wonders that the dating pool has to offer - then I can open up to the possibility of meeting my next life partner when the universe sees fit to bring us together.

When I first broke up with my ex-boyfriend a month ago, this seemed like a relatively easy vow to make – our lives were so wrapped up with each other during our relationship that the new space and freedom in my life seemed like a breathe of fresh air – I was eager to go out into the world and explore everything that it has to offer.  I believe this attitude of creatively and appreciate is one to try and maintain at all times as best you can – some like to call it a “Beginner’s Mind."

This week, some of the “work” of my celibacy vow has started to come in as the initial excitement has worn off, and I’ve begun to truly internalize the fact that I am alone for the time being in this journey of mine.  Sure, I have tons of friends and loved ones and people to interact with along this adventure, but in the end, I’m the only one on my particular itinerary – this is a solo trip - there is no one to depend upon but me (and God).

As the excitement has faded and the work of maintaining the commitment has set in, many questions have arisen in my mind.  What does a vow of celibacy really mean to me?  Should I go on dates with people?  Should I meet friends for tea?  Am I isolating myself too much?  Too little?  Am I still continuing to make the most of what life has to offer given that I could die any moment now?  Am I still giving and sharing enough love with the world?  How can I and should I meet my natural human desire for intimacy during this period of celibacy?  As you can see, lots of questions have arisen – and I don’t yet know all of the answers to those questions.  To some degree, I am going to have to play this one by ear – listening carefully to my gut along the way.

Other things have come up for me as well.  Desire and grasping have been a big theme in my world this past week – one of the five hindrances that we learn about in the dharma.  Rather than focusing on the present, I have found myself desiring for others’ company and frantically searching the Internet for training programs in every modality under the sun to join – basically just another way of searching for another person or another thing to define me and center my life around - old habits die hard.  As Howard Cohn likes to mention in his teachings at Mission Dharma, I have been falling into the delusion of thinking, If I have X…or if Y happens…or if I am with Z…THEN I’ll be happy, then Life Will Be Grand. 

Just like a impatient soul eagerly wanting to skip ahead to the end of a great book in order to see what happens…I find myself wanting to skip past this juicy and exciting period of exploration and attach myself to something once and for all – to become a life coach or a yoga teacher or a Biodanza instructor or a Reiki practitioner or a Hypnotherapist – or an ordained Buddhist minister – or better yet all of them – already – and be there tomorrow!  In my delusion and desire and discomfort with uncertainty, I am forgetting that this period of exploration - of trying things on for size - is the FUN PART!

I encourage you to all think of a time in your life when you have fallen into the same patterns of delusion – when you’ve been job searching and have been eager to just quit the process and FIND A JOB already.   When you’ve been going on dates and exploring the dating pool and have been eager to just FIND A MATE already.  When you’ve been visiting grad schools and applying to programs and have been eager to just FIND A PROGRAM already.  We’ve all been there, right?

The problem is – when we get to that point in our lives…that delicious and precious time when the world truly is our oyster and we can follow just about any fork in the road – we miss the very beauty of it by hurrying along to GET TO THE END ALREADY.  We rush the process in order to avoid the uncertainty – rather than embracing the possibilities that it brings.   Life is full of opportunity costs, and we can’t have everything – that’s a basic lesson that my Economics degree taught me.  Every hour that I spend going to Biodanza class or writing this blog is an hour I can’t also spend getting some sleep or reading a favorite book – life is all about choices.  

But – right before you make that choice – there’s that beautiful, pregnant pause…where it really does seem like you can have it all – where the possibilities are endless and you can’t possibly dream how it’s going to turn out.   Don’t miss it – it’ll be pass by in a flash before you know it. 

Poof – your kids will be all grown up already.  Poof - you’ll become a Certified Yoga Instructor – and think wistfully about the time when you were seriously considering becoming a Biodanza teacher instead.  Poof - you’ll settle into the work of writing term papers and going to class, but think back to how nice it was when the schools were working hard to recruit you rather than grade you on the quality of your output.   Poof – someday (hopefully) I’ll be married with two kids, a dog, a picket fence, and a successful career as a Life Coach (or ???) – and I’ll think back wistfully to this time in my life when I had endless time and energy to do whatever I wanted – whatever compels me at each given moment – without any obligations or responsibilities.  

This time – right now – is a precious gift for me (and for you).  If I can stay present with it and embrace the uncertainty and opportunities that my life holds – and if I can continually ask myself, “What do I want to do right now?” this can be a magical time for me.   If I can resist the usual urge that emerges right at this time in a breakup – once the dust settles – to throw myself headfirst into a new relationship or commitment in order  avoid my discomfort with being alone and get off this shaky ground, I have a feeling that I’ll find riches beyond belief in this "define as I go, celibate path of self and life exploration" that I am on.  May you find joy in whatever path of exploration you are on as well – moment by moment, step by step.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

On Asking For What You Want

"A rejection is nothing more than a necessary step in the pursuit of success."
- Bo Bennett

Earlier this evening, I had the opportunity to ask a spiritual leader whom I follow for  assistance with some retreats that I will be helping our Young Adult Dharma Council organize during the upcoming year.  We are hoping he can introduce us to some younger teachers in the area to speak at retreats and possibly  help us host a few retreats at his new spiritual center.  

This was the first time that I’ve really reached out to this teacher outside of the more formal “lecture” environment (i.e. raising my hand and asking a question during the discussion portion of the evening), so I didn’t (and still don’t) really know the protocol for approaching him individually.  Still, my motives are good and I could swear that I’ve seen other people approach him before, so I went up to speak with him during our break.  

He seemed receptive to the idea of helping us but quickly interrupted me as I was describing what we were trying to do and said that now was not a good time or setting to discuss our request.  I gracefully said not a problem, I understand – and we exchanged numbers with the understanding that I will follow up with him later this week to discuss things in more detail.  All in all, a perfectly good outcome – and very reasonable considering that he appeared to be preparing for his upcoming talk.  He was in no obligation to give me his phone number which is not listed on our sangha group’s website – so you’d think I’d feel pretty pleased with myself and proud of myself for having the guts to approach him with our request.

Instead, as he shared with me that “this was not a good time to talk,” I felt myself fighting back tears and getting emotional.  I’m pretty sure that I hid it outwardly, but I had to make my way to the restroom shortly after I spoke with him to compose myself before rejoining the larger group.  

As my initial desire to cry started to ebb, I observed a second inclination to shut down and run away from him – basically aversion to the sadness that I was feeling.  A wave of thoughts ran through my head - thoughts about what a mean teacher he is (which he’s not)…how I’d show him by switching to a different group (which would be stupid)…how that’s the last time I’d try to organize a sangha event (which would be a real loss)…you get the idea.  Basically, I wanted to do anything I could to show that I was boss of the situation, and I was going "show him" and avoid feeling that sort of discomfort in the future.  

So, not a very good dynamic, right?  Where’s the learning – why am I sharing this story on this blog?  

Well...this evening, as I wrestled with all of these emotions, it occurred to me in a brief moment of wisdom to examine these feelings and sensations in my body with curiosity and mindfulness.  That was the first gem from the experience - and how I was able to remember so many details about these emotions that I experienced this evening.  The mindfulness that I cultivated also helped me to avoid taking actions as a result of my feelings that I would have later regretted – like storming out of the sangha group or something silly like that.  

Also, by taking the time to notice with curiosity what was going on in my mind and body, I connected feeling these same sensations and having these same instinctual reactions at other times in my life when I’ve asked for something that I have wanted and either been refused or had an awkward response to my request.  

Alright, so that's interesting…why do I have such marked reactions to these situations? 

For one thing, these feelings arise when I have made myself vulnerable – i.e. when I have put myself out there – and feel any sense of rejection or dismissal from the person to whom I have opened myself up.  

Second, these types of interactions cue up my inner child – who is hyper vigilant about wanting to meet others' expectations.  She desperately wants to be a good little girl and not break the rules or wander into places where I am not supposed to go.  Deep inside of me, my inner child experiences distress when I am even gently chastised for coloring outside the lines or doing something societally unacceptable – for not acting in a way that I “should” have.  

Finally, these types of situations are particularly hard for me if I sense even a hint of pity from the other person – particularly if I’ve made a request of them that they cannot meet, and I project that they are trying to let me down easily or feel uncomfortable having to respond to my request.  The people pleaser in me feels guilty for bothering them and regrets introducing awkwardness into their life.

While I am not proud of having these reactions and creating all of these story lines in my head, I am glad that I took the time to notice them this evening because it made me realize another skill that I ought to strengthen.    

Currently, I have been focusing much attention in my personal growth process on becoming more comfortable speaking up about my truth and letting other people down more directly – basically doing exactly what my spiritual teacher did in this situation – i.e. he took care of his needs directly while still approaching me with a spirit of loving-kindness and giving what he felt that he could in the moment. 

That is definitely an important skill for me to develop, but equally important is learning to break through these barriers that I have created that are holding me back from asking for what I want.  Because if I don’t ask for what I want, I am not very likely to get it!

On the career front, I do a slightly better job asking for what I want; still, there are definitely times that I hold back from asking for a raise, avoid requesting permission to attend a conference – or ask for only half of what I want rather than starting with what I really want  - all because I am trying to avoid the awkward feelings that I felt tonight when someone tells me “No.”

On the personal front, this hesitancy has played a significant role in my relationships over the years - and is a key area of opportunity for me.  Looking back over previous occasions that I had to ask a guy to a formal dance in high school and college, I always went with the “safe” choice rather than actually asking the guys whom I actually had crushes on – i.e. I asked the guys whom I was sure would say “Yes” just to avoid the awkwardness of hearing the dreaded “No.”  I neglected to ask the guys with whom I felt a spark of natural chemistry - for all I know, they could have had a thing for me as well and have been equally shy about it! 

As an adult, I’ve yet to really allow myself the luxury of considering who I want to be with and then going after guys who fit that profile or guys for whom I feel a real attraction.  A common thread among guys whom I have dated for a long amount of time (with one exception) is that they are persistent – i.e. they pursued me, and I felt enough initial attraction back to go along for the ride.  My lack of assertiveness and lack of discernment combined has so far made me a pretty passive participant in the dating pool.   

The only time in my life that I can recall feeling an attraction to someone and going after him, I had a wonderful experience – full of ups and downs and nights wondering if he would call – but also a great deal of excitement and passion.  And that was the result of only one shot - those are pretty good odds!  Who hasn’t heard stories of famous inventors or actors who experienced years of rejections and refusals and failures before finally attaining a great deal of success in their field?  

Who knows what would be possible – in career and in love – if I just asked for what I wanted – and kept on asking for what I wanted until I got it?  If wasn’t afraid to put myself out there every now and then – even if sometimes the response is no?  

I have a hunch that a LOT would be possible – and I intend to find out – no matter what feelings I have to experience along the way!