Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dreaming in The Dark

Tonight is the longest night of the year for those of us in the northern hemisphere. Some friends and I got together tonight and did a ceremony to honour the fertile darkness and celebrate the points of light within us and around us that are not always visible under the bright lights of the day. These friends and I have been celebrating this turning of the wheel together every year for over twenty years, Tonight as we shared stories, prayers, reflections, and intentions (not to mention some great food) I was struck by what an honour and a priviledge it is to journey with others over many years, to see and support each others unfolding.

For me it has been a year of some unexpected endings and beginnings. My marriage ended, and I had to leave my home, many dreams and most of my belongings behind. The disconnection was painful. But returning to live in Toronto I reconnected with many old friends and found new connections with others. A little over a year ago I started posting weekly blogs and this, along with starting to post on Facebook, blossomed into new online connections with people from all over the world. What an honour it has been to participate in thoughtful, inspiring, questioning and respectful conversations in both forums.

I see the time between the Winter Solstice and the new year, as a kind of crack between the worlds, a time for being still, for turning inward and for dreaming deeply. So, to honour this, I am going to step away from my computer for this time. I will resume posting regularly on FB and doing my weekly blogs in the first week of January.

I send out prayers of gratitude- for life and all that it offers, for the world and all that it asks, for friends and family and the broader community who have reached out and touched me with their support and presence during the past year. I send out prayers for peace- within myself in the places where I find myself resisting what is, for those of you who are struggling with personal challenges, for the world in all of it's sacred beauty and crazy chaos.

May we dream deeply in this time of darkness- a dream to replenish the personal and collective spirit of respect and peace and justice, of collaboration and cooperation and compassion. With deep gratitude for all the blessings of this life, Oriah

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How We Wake Up- Literally!

Years ago I heard Barbara Marx Hubbard say, “It used to be that when I woke up and jumped out of bed in the morning, I felt I was already behind.” It reminded me of periods in my life when I’ve felt driven to do more, move faster, try harder- years when I too felt like I woke up behind. People who lived with me said I “hit the ground running.” Some mornings, particularly after I developed CF/ME, I just plain hit the ground.

Barbara’s comment made me turn my attention to my experience of waking up in the morning. I began to notice my experience when I first opened my eyes. Don’t get me wrong- I wanted and hoped to wake up centred and grateful for the day, full of calm, clear energy. But what I wanted more was to see what was true: what I was actually experiencing upon waking each day.

Lately, as I lie in bed reviewing dreams and becoming aware of the feel of the smooth cotton sheets and warm duvet on my body, I am filled with an ecstatic sense of gratitude for my life- for my body-self, my home and friends and family, for all the changes and challenges in my life over the past year. . . for simply being where I am. I literally wake up smiling.

The thing that is startling to me about this is what has changed, what I am not experiencing that had been pretty much a constant for a very long time.

I heard Barbara’s comment about how she used to wake up over ten years ago. And, as I turned my attention to my experience upon waking, I became aware of a constant thread of tension beneath the surface of whatever else was happening. Whether I was feeling physical pain or energetic enthusiasm, whether I was looking forward to or dreading the day, there was beneath all of this, a strange and familiar tension that ran through my body. It was like a thin taut wire running down the centre of my arms and legs and looped once around my heart. For days I simply observed and wondered what this was. And then one day I realized: I was waking up every day with a sense of bracing for a blow. Beneath all of my other experiences of the start of the day there was a sense of anticipating and getting ready to absorb a potentially damaging blow of some kind. It wasn’t rational or literal. It wasn’t even a thought. It was a tensing against what felt like the high probability that sooner or later something was going to metaphorically “hit” me.

I don’t know when this began but I am guessing that it had been with me for a long time. I hadn’t noticed it until I deliberately looked because it was a constant, like a familiar background noise you don’t even hear anymore. I didn’t judge it or try to get rid of it, and it didn’t stop me from often feeling gratitude and joy. But, whenever I paid attention as I awoke, it was always there.

And now. . . . it’s gone. Really! I’ve watched for months. I’m not even sure how long it was gone before I realized it. But there it is- gone! I know this may not sound like much, but to me it’s like a small miracle. And as I lay in bed these mornings instead of “bracing for a blow” I’m filled with deep overwhelming gratitude for being alive. I’m not trying or remembering or cultivating gratitude- it is just there, by grace, filling me. And I cannot help but smile.

And, as I observe this open-hearted gratitude, I notice how relaxed I am in my mind-body-heart-self. I feel a deep sense of rest. Now, if you’ve read The Call you know that rest is not something that has come easily to me. Rest, for me, has often been elusive, partial and non-restorative. But in this place, every breath restores and the sense of rest is cellular.

So, here’s what I know: One of the many gifts of the gratitude that comes by grace is a deep restoration of body, mind, heart and spirit. Because, when we’re filled with and held by gratitude we can’t simultaneously try to pull away from what is, can’t brace for a blow- real or imagined, remembered or anticipated. I don’t know that we can make this all-encompassing gratitude arise, but we can cultivate our own willingness and awareness to receive it when it comes.

Did I find rest because I felt gratitude or was I filled with grateful appreciation for life because my habitual “bracing for a blow” was dissolved by a combination of changing inner and outer circumstances and again- more grace? I don’t know. But I do know that it is difficult to really completely receive anything- rest, another, life, joy, the moment- when you’re bracing for a blow. And these days, I awaken filled with gratitude, able to receive the moment, surprised to find my eyes filling with tears of inexpressible joy simply for the blessing of being alive.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How Do We Know?

When things don’t go the way we’d hoped in our lives we often wonder, “What was I thinking?!” It is both the curse and the blessing of being a writer that I can actually go back and find out exactly what I was thinking and feeling- because I wrote it down!

So I recently pulled out the journals I’d written during the first year of my relationship with my now ex-husband. Please understand me: I was not trying to determine if I could have avoided the pain of separation by not going into the marriage. Nor was I looking for a foolproof way to only make risk-free choices in the future. I am a human being, and I am old enough not to waste energy trying to be something else.

I did want to learn as much as I could- for myself and those I work with- about how we know what we (think/feel we) know and what determines whether or not we are true to or abandon our own deepest knowing. I wanted to know if I’d seen what was coming and ignored it, or if I hadn’t foreseen it at all. It was hard to know what to hope for- the former would mean that I’d gone unconscious and ignored what I knew, and the later could mean I just hadn’t been very aware, or that, as is always the case- a great deal is unknowable.

And, as these things can pretty much be predicted to go, it turned out it was a little of all three, although the thing that surprised me most was how much of what had been hard and ultimately made continuing together impossible, was there in those early journals. Alongside the record of the heady ecstasy of falling in love and my intermittent flashes that we might not share as many core values as I’d hoped, were my rationalizations for ignoring inner misgivings- arguments that dismissed my uneasiness as understandable nerves (I had been down this road before), that I was too picky and needed to learn to stretch emotionally, to trust more deeply, to accept the other as he was and let go of my attachment to things being a certain way. (Sadly, I did not extend the argument for acceptance to myself and what mattered most to me.)

Reading the journals raised a couple of important questions: How do we know what we think or feel we know? How do we know if the sense of a seemingly clear “Yes!” or “No!” is the voice of intuitive-instinctual wisdom or if it’s what Jungians would call one of our “complexes”- clusters of emotionally charged and emphatically clear aspects of our unconscious, usually clustered around old wounds. How can we tell when we are tapping into the trustworthy instinctual-intuitive wisdom of psyche (soul-heart knowing) and when we are being driven by the emotionally skewed perspective of unconscious and unhealed wounds?

I do not have any foolproof checklist, but I have found a few clues, indicators that might help us discern when we may be “off” about what we think/feel we know:

• Instinctual-intuitive knowing comes most clearly when we are aware of the body-self, because it is the wisdom of embodied soul. So, if in doubt: do something that pulls awareness into the body-self (go for a walk, lie down on the earth. do some yoga breathing and postures, dance.) And if you don’t know what brings you into your body-self awareness- experiment, find out. In contrast complex-ridden certainties tend to take us away from body-awareness, are heady- often presented as rational arguments in circumstances where logos it is not particularly useful (for example, when considering personal preferences and what has real feeling value for us.)

• Instinctual-intuitive knowing tends to be relatively simple, straightforward and instantaneous- a quiet and clear “yes” or “no.” Justifications for complex-ridden decisions tend to be convoluted and complicated (and often very entertaining!) only revealing the “right” choice at the end of lengthy argument (if only with ourselves.)

• Instinctual-intuitive knowing does not need to be justified. I know it because I know it. Questioned it does not become defensive or self-justifying. In contrast complex-driven decisions tend to become highly charged when challenged by inner or outer voices, and an air of self-righteous justification arises quickly and emphatically.

• Instinctual-intuitive knowing does not claim to know things it cannot know- like future outcomes or divine purpose. It is most often based on a sense of knowing the next step of the journey. Period. Complex-riddled decisions often claim to know what we cannot know: that our decision is being guided by if not dictated by a divine purpose or a “higher” power; that the outcome will be pain-free and wonderful on all levels for everyone involved. These kinds of claims ought to make our antennae tingle!

• Complex-driven decisions tend to push for speed to avoid imagined disaster. When this sense of I-must-choose-fast rises it’s a pretty safe bet that the choice being made is at least in part being driven by old fears and wounds. So, buy some time. Tell anyone else involved, or yourself, you’ll sleep on it, journal about it, dream with it. Take a beat. Give the quieter instinctual-intuitive wisdom a chance to find you.

You see the pattern, the flavour difference between the two? We each have to find our way of discerning between these two. It may take a lifetime to sense with consistency and will no doubt never be one hundred percent clear. But the taste of the two is decidedly different because they each serve a different master: one serves the soul’s agenda of expansion into and offering the world more of who and what we are; the other serves the agenda of the often frightened smaller self, seeking safety and the perpetuation of an illusion of sovereignty and control.

If we want to make our choices from the place of the soul’s priorities we have to develop the ability to discern the difference between the knowing of psyche/soul and the knowing that arises from old survival strategies. It’s a work in progress. It’s why we are here. And we do this, not to avoid pain or challenges, but to weave the one bright thread that is ours- the one that mirrors essence in the particular shape of the man or woman we are- into the collective tapestry of this shared dream.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Beneath Denial

Let’s talk about the difficulty of accepting what is, the temptation to go into denial about some aspect of ourselves or the world that we desperately want to be different. Let’s start simple.

I can’t go out in the evening.

There it is: the reality of my physical limitations at this time. A truth I have been tinkering, bargaining, and arguing with for years. I’ve been pretending that maybe if I just understood this reality better, just negotiated a better “deal,” I could change and control (just a little) that which is getting in the way of something I want.

It is of course not that I really can’t go out in the evening. I can. I do, particularly when I am feeling like my underlying health is somewhat stable. And every time- every single time- no matter how much the gathering or event inspires or relaxes, no matter how much the content or people are close to my heart and deeply valued- I end up in bed for most of the next three days or more. And let me be clear- I am not talking about staying out past ten, or imbibing any substances that might take a toll on the body. I’m talking about going to a writing group, or a friend’s art opening, or a small quiet gathering to celebrate the solstice. Really.

I’ve had ME- Myalgic Encephalomyletis (or Chronic Fatigue as it is called in those parts of the English speaking work under the influenced of American health insurance companies) for twenty-seven years. There’ve been acute periods of severe disability and much longer times of chronic illness largely managed by accepting some limits. I can’t drink alcohol. I don’t eat food with any artificial chemical content. I can’t travel extensively. (When considering a trip to Turkey a few years ago my doctor casually asked how anxious I was to see the inside of the Turkish hospital system.) I’m okay with these and many other limitations. I accept them, allow that they may change, work around them, and have come to have deep faith that none of the limitations this illness brings stop me from being and living who and what I am completely.

But. . . I just want to be able to go to a friend’s for an evening meal and still get up and function the next day! Is that too much to ask?!

Hear my frustration? Hear my unwillingness to accept what is? Hear how I create suffering for myself by going out and then railing against the consequences of my choices?

Recently, a friend told me that New York psychiatrist Mark Epstein once told him that he saw people who were in denial about something as “caught in an old sorrow.” It took my breath away. Naming others as being “in denial” about something that seems oh-so-clear to us (and aren’t we all stunningly brilliant about another’s blindness?!) has become a bit of a bad habit in many spiritual and psychotherapeutic communities. It implies a deliberate ignorance. Epstein’s phrase- “caught in an old sorrow”- says so much more, speaks to the inner struggle, and allows us to see the other/ourselves with real compassion.

So, as I lay in bed berating myself for once again going into denial about my inability to go out in the evening, I wonder: where am I caught in an old sorrow and what might that sorrow be? And I get that funny sinking feeling that comes when we know we’re onto some essential and less-than-pleasant truth about ourselves. And I remember.

I remember in my body, the feeling of being desperately lonely as a teenager. I lived in a very small, conservative town in Northern Ontario, and I was always asking questions about faith, beliefs, ethics, and social justice. I read and wrote and loved to learn. I was decidedly out of sync with the majority of my peers. I wanted to be included, connected, to belong, but I just couldn’t stop trying to start discussions about why God seemed to answer some prayers and not others, or the merits of literature and art in creating change in the world. At sixteen, I was not what many would have called a fun date or a party asset!

When I came to Toronto I was delighted to find fellow travellers, and my work in studying and teaching shamanic practises connected me to a wonderful community of delightful people with similar interests and questions. People who primarily do their socializing and sharing in the evenings because they have jobs during the daytime.

And so, I revisit the old sorrow that fosters denial about my ability to go out in the evening. Knowing this, perhaps I can tend that old sorrow and be with what is in this moment- not anticipating or trying to avoid the loneliness that sometimes comes when we cannot join with others, whatever the reason.

Where do you find yourself fighting reality? Where would those who love you say you slip into denial? Perhaps there is an old sorrow that has you caught, that clouds your vision of what is, that needs a little attention so it can let you go and you can be with what is without suffering.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Taking the "Should" out of Giving Thanks

When I was a child being thankful was more about manners than real appreciation. When Aunt Lucy insisted that that my brother and I take the candies she’d dredged up from the bottom of her purse covered in lint and other unsavoury and unidentifiable bits, my mother prodded us with a hasty, “What do you say?”

We of course responded on cue, our small voices chanting, “Thank you,” with compliance if not enthusiasm. We were not expected to enjoy the candies. We were not permitted to refuse them. We were expected to express thanks.

The confusing messages about gratitude didn’t stop there. Growing up, if I tried to get up from the supper table without finishing the peas that had been put on my plate (you know the ones- pale green, from the can and simmered for twenty minutes to finish off any texture or taste that might have survived the canning process) my mother would call me back with an admonishment about starving children on other continents who would be grateful to eat the peas I did not want. Once- and only one- I suggested that the offending vegetables should be shipped to those who could fully appreciate them.

Then there was the general principle of gratitude that was presented as one of a long list of “shoulds" emphasized if we wanted or asked for something. We should be grateful for what we have. We should be grateful that we are not starving, that bombs are not falling on our houses, that we have a long list of freedoms that others in the world do not have.

Expressions of gratitude that are compelled by rules are often reduced to empty gestures devoid of real appreciation. And the “shoulds” around gratitude don’t stop with childhood. Just today I've read two blogs that, in preparation for the American Thankgiving, explicitly tell readers how and why they “should” be grateful. It’s not that I don’t think that cultivating gratitude can’t be done or that it isn’t a good idea. I just have doubts about our ability to experience the full joy of appreciation on demand.

Once, years ago, when I confessed to a therapist that I was disappointed- mostly with myself and some of what I had and had not done in my life- he cut me off before I could finish the sentence. “Well,” he said, “you know what the antidote for disappointment is, don’t you?” I waited. “Gratitude,” he said with a kind of fierce conviction. “Count your blessings. Be grateful, and you won’t be disappointed!” Feeling chastised I never brought my sense of disappointment to him again.

Counselling individuals who are often going through difficult times of confusion, ill health, financial crisis, divorce or other major losses, the statement I hear most often in initial sessions is: “I know I shouldn’t be feeling this sad (or angry or confused or scared.) I know I should feel grateful for what I do have. . . .” It’s not that people are unaware of those things of value in their lives. It’s not even that they aren’t grateful for caring family, or friends, or the job or home or health they may have. It’s that something else- some painful circumstance or choice or loss- is calling for their attention at the moment. And, if they feel they do not have the right to turn their attention to that pain because they “should” be grateful, they can neither fully appreciate what they do have nor take care of the painful inner or outer situation that needs tending.

Developing the habit of courteously acknowledging the things others do for us or offer to us is a good thing. It helps us live side by side. And, if I slow down and really see the other, I can put my heart into even simple words of common courtesy and convey real appreciation. Similarly, setting aside time on a regular basis- daily, weekly, and/or once a year- to do prayers or practices that acknowledge what is good in our lives can surely increase our ability to appreciate what life has provided. But, like all spiritual practises, if the intent has been lost in the rules, if we find ourselves having to deny the reality of the moment to try to feel something we think we “should” be feeling instead- it won’t work. Like most spiritual practises that bring us deeper into life this is not an "either/or." It’s an "and/but." It’s not- either I am grateful for my home or I am discouraged by my health. Some days it’s- I am discouraged about my health and I am deeply grateful to have a safe, comfortable place to live and rest.

Because the thing I am most grateful for, that aspect of life that I have learned to appreciate most deeply is that it is large enough to hold it all. We do not need to wait until everything is perfect in the world or our lives before we make room for deep gratitude for being alive today. But we also do not need to deny the pain or confusion or despair that may be present in this moment in order to be deeply grateful for the life we have been given. Life can hold it all, can hold us all. And for this I am deeply grateful.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Leaning into Faith

What does it take to listen to the voice of soul, to let it guide and shape our life choices?

I recently attended a workshop with Jungian analyst James Hollis whose work focuses on the the task of individuation. I see this as the work of making choices that enable us to offer the world the particular shape that the sacred mystery wants to take through our being.

One of the things that I appreciate about Jungians is that they don't demonize the ego- that necessary sense of the smaller self/identity in the world that is hopefully developed in the first half of life and can take care of the daily details. Without a well developed ego we become ungrounded, unable to cope with daily challenges, and susceptible to being tossed about or paralyzed by the inevitable anxiety that accompanies growing up and going into the world. This necessary sense of functional identity is largely shaped by the values and messages of our social, cultural, parental context. A strong ego container fortunate enough to have the resources (inner and outer) for some success in the world (and if you are reading this you have met the minimum requirement for “success” in terms of survival) begins to have delusions of grandeur, starts thinking of itself as being “in charge,” as having some kind of sovereignty. In fact, we start thinking that this small identity is all we are.

Now comes the good news/bad news and it’s the same news: sooner or later in our adult life, we encounter something we cannot control: loss. It may be loss of health or wealth or loved ones, loss of home or relationship or control over your own body.

I remember the first time I really got that I was not entirely in charge of everything that happened to me. I was twenty-two, and I was flying across the kitchen of the small apartment I shared with my large, (six foot five) strong, young husband. In a fit of rage, he threw me. The thing about physical violence is that it dissolves any illusions about being in control. You do not have to co-operate on any level to arch through the air and hit the floor. The left side of my face hit the floor first. I remember the sound of the impact more than the feel of it. And I remember thinking, mid-air, as if watching the whole thing from a distance: this is really going to hurt; I hope he doesn’t break my glasses- I don’t have enough money for a new pair. It was not the first time he’d hit me, but it was the last. And part of what made it possible for me to leave was that the aspect of self that thought she could and should make things right no matter how wrong they had gone by trying harder- my ego- finally saw the delusion in her assumption of control. That allowed a deeper, instinctual and soul-full sense of who I was to make another choice.

I wish I could say that from there on soul directed all my choices, but it is rarely such a linear process, and the smaller surface self (ego) relentlessly tries to re-establish its sense of sovereignty. Now the ego's strategies (whether distraction, distance and/or dancing as fast as it can) were developed for survival and safety at a time when, as children, we had little power to make independent choices. From a species perspective this makes some sense- it’s our version of “See tiger- run!” (when the tiger may be a disapproving parent.) What we are talking about here is changing this- learning to hear and obey a deeper voice that may be saying, “See tiger- stand still and face tiger.” That’s a tall order and, at least in the moment, completely counter-intuitive. So, it seems to me, that to do this we are going to need some faith, some sense that despite all the evidence in front of or within us, a different choice is called for and will lead to a fuller, deeper life.

What would it have looked like thirty-five years ago if I had been able to hear and heed this voice? I may have walked out the first time my husband was violent. Or, I might have seen it coming and never married him. But my faith that life was good and love was not violent was all tangled up with semi-conscious beliefs I’d been taught- that sex meant marriage (sooner or later) and marriage meant forever, no matter what. When it came to marriage my mother often warned: “You make your bed, you lie in it.” (I am sure my mother never meant to condone violence, only to reinforce the belief that you could, with enough effort, make any relationship work.)

So, I’ve been thinking about where we find the faith to listen to and base our choices on the life of the soul when this feels life-threatening to the smaller self, the ego. The soul’s desires and directives do not guarantee specific outcomes in areas that preoccupy the ego, and any particular choice may or may not work for different individuals. Someone may leave a relationship and find living alone difficult, while another may stay and find a different kind of loneliness. We may leave a job or community and find ourselves struggling to survive or thrive elsewhere. We may choose to stay in a challenging place, and the challenge may not get easier. No particular choice is right or wrong for everyone. But what Hollis contends is that what matters is which aspect of self the choice we are making seeks to serve- the desires of soul/psyche or the ego’s need for illusions of sovereignty and safety. Soul choices are pulled by the desire to live who and what we are at an essential level and offer that to the world by living it. And that may or may not be challenging or lonely or lucrative, but it is almost always, to some degree, unpredictable. The ego- the one who makes the doctor’s appointment, picks up the kids, and buys groceries so there’ll be something to eat- does not like unpredictable.

So where do we find the faith that allows us to live the soul’s desires? It comes by grace. We cannot earn it, although we can make ourselves available to it, recognize it and give thanks when it comes. Sometimes it comes in small ways when the world touches us with its beauty- in the taste of food that nourishes body and heart, sunlight after a storm, the cry of a newborn, the kindness of a stranger. Sometimes we lean on the faith of others, those who are put in our path when we need to borrow a little faith so we can keep listening, keep breathing, and keep allowing the soul’s life to guide us. In this sense we are all midwives to each other. When I was giving birth to my son and my husband told me I was “doing fine” I growled at him in disbelief. What did he know!? We both looked to the midwife whose faith was based on her experience and intuitive knowing. When she smiled and reassured us, we leaned into her faith, took the next breath, and faced the next contraction. Because believe me, when you’re giving birth to a twelve pound ten ounce baby at home without pain meds, somebody in the room better have faith that this can be done when the whole thing feels impossible. And that birthing was a walk in park compared to the on-going challenge of making choices to shape my life in service to the needs, values and desires of my soul.

That’s what we do for each other. And what grace it is that we do not all need to have complete faith in every moment in order to hear and heed the call of the soul, that we can lean a little on another’s faith today and allow another to lean on us tomorrow. We cannot hear the choice another’s soul wants to make but we can by our presence, though our companioning in faith, whisper, “Listen” and “Trust.” As I write this, I think of the overall title I gave these blogs, “The Green Bough,” and the accompanying proverb. To keep a green bough in our hearts is to cultivate faith, allowing it to grow and flourish. And with faith, we can hear and heed the voice of soul- the singing bird within that can guide our choices.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

From Dreams of Desire

Recently, several people requested that I post some of the poems I wrote more than fifteen years ago that were published in a small chapbook of poetry called Dreams of Desire (now out of print.) Prompted by these requests I went back and had a look. It’s a strange sensation reading old writing- like visiting a friend you haven’t seen for years but would still recognize anywhere. I’ve decided to share three of the poems here: “Twyla” (based on a conversation I had with Seneca elder Twyla Nitsch of the Wolf Clan), “Night Tears,” and “My Breasts.” These poems are about living intimately with ourselves- with our longing, our grief and the body-self that is inseparable from mind, heart and soul. When I read them now I hear, beneath the stories and the emotions, a great tenderness for the sometimes challenging, often confusing, but nevertheless sweetness of our human experience.


At her kitchen table
sharing tea
in the pale morning light
I ask the widow,
"How long were you married?"
And she replies,
“I am married.
Though my husband died twelve years ago
he is still
as he was for eighteen years
before that
my husband."

I can see in her eyes
and in the way her hand reaches
for the cream
that it is true.
And I know
last night,
alone in her bed
as she slipped across the borderland
she felt him curled around her
the soft hair of his chest
against her thin back
his strong thighs
along the curve of her aging buttocks
his wide fingers
gently cupping her softly sagging breast.

It is, as it has always been.
The separation
of years
or even worlds
dull their ache for each other.

her watery blue eyes
watch my face
as my fingers
trace the sun's patterns
on the plastic tablecloth.

I long for a great love.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer © 1995

Night Tears

There is a crying
that happens at night
that does not come
while the light is with us.
There are things that cannot
be evaded
once the sun goes down.
Small nocturnal creatures
with sharp white teeth
silently gnaw at the edges of
belly and heart
when the darkness descends
and the void inside
grows larger.

It can split you open.

And bone
in the centre of your chest
like the cracked wishing bone
from the turkey breast.

And if we are strong enough
to be weak enough
we are given a wound
that never heals.

It is the gift
that keeps the heart open.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer © 1995

My Breasts

My breasts
are my mother's breasts
sagging, stretched, flattened
large brown-pink nipples
flecked with small dots
like the tiny bumps on the uncooked turkey
where feather quills have been removed.
The areola is edged with thin blue veins
and sometimes sprouts wiry hairs
to be plucked.

At nine years old
I walk into the bathroom
filled with warm steam
and the scent of Chantilly Lace talcum powder
and look away quickly
when my eyes touch my mother's breasts
as she bends over to dry her feet.
But she catches me
and answers my look
with a slash of her voice.
"Yes, this is what you did to me-
you and your brother.
My breasts got smaller with each of you.
Good thing I didn't nurse or I'd have
nothing left."

Year later I’ll realize it’s not
the size that is mourned
but the smooth firmness
and the delicate shell pink
of unstretched nipples
reaching up to meet the world.

At nine, I look down at my blue sneakers
ashamed at the ugliness of life
and wonder what she feels she has left
for herself.

She tells me how she refused to nurse
repeating the story
of the woman next to her in the maternity ward.
The nurse yelled at the woman for
eating too much fruit,
said it had caused her nursing baby's bottom
to turn red and raw.
I have heard this story so often I can see it:
the nurse in starched white reliable efficiency
indignantly removing the offending fruit basket;
the woman in her pink bathrobe
indulgently lying in bed
her face stricken with shame at her gluttony;
the baby, its bottom like raw meat
wailing in agony.
There is a fierceness in my mother
as she tells the story and adds,
"Who needed that!
You had to watch everything you ate
couldn't go anywhere."

I wonder where she wanted to go.

I wonder how so many untruths
so much shame
could be sown and cultivated so quickly
and so strongly
that a whole generation of women
stopped the impulse of millennia
to suckle their babies.

Her doctor, she tells me, was old-fashioned
and angry at her decision.
Asked her what she thought those things were for,
anyway - putting under sweaters?
I see her in the red matching sweater set as she tells
me proudly how she held to her choice.
It must have taken great courage
at nineteen
alone in his office
to defy the absolute authority
of God the Father, the Doctor.

When two hard bumps appear on my chest
like traitors in our midst
I say nothing
until she accuses me
of stuffing the front pockets
of my peach-coloured blouse
with Kleenex.
Ignoring my denials
she rams a hand
into the offending pocket
and opens her eyes in surprise
as I wince in pain
and she finds
no tissue.

The bumps grow,
never large
but round enough
to bring forth my Grandmother's
declaration that those of us
without bras
or girdles
or corsets
or stockings
are all "bouncing around like cows."
I never saw my grandmother's breasts
behind their cages
of linen and wire
and do not dare to
imagine them
even now.

Not too much later
on a warm summer night
parked by the lakeshore
in an old Dodge Dart
the boy whose kisses
were improving with
moves his fingers tentatively
across the soft cotton of my
halter top
lightly brushing my nipples.
Bolts of electric blue
flash through me
making my back arch
and my legs tense
and my mouth ravenous on his.
My response is so explosive
he jumps
and, with one sleeve caught
on the gear shift between us,
somehow gets the other
wrapped in the steering wheel
sending a loud long blast of the horn
out over the lake.
Angry cries erupt from
others parked in nearby cars.
And I laugh and laugh from the centre
of my soft belly
until my sides ache
at our awkward innocence
and at the discovery
of the delicious and frightening desire that
pours through my limbs
from these small breasts.

A year later I arrive,
a girl from the bush of the north
in the big dark city.
I walk from the bus terminal
to my small rented room
with my back pack
long hair loose down my back
dressed in my blue jeans
and a white T-shirt
over unfettered breasts.
A man passes
stares at my chest
and speaks loudly,
"What kind of girl are you to be walking
around like that?"
I cross my arm over my breasts and feel
the crimson heat of shame.

Years later
my breasts grow with milk
straining, filling
firm and dripping
for the hungry mouths of my sons
each in his turn
drawing his life
greedily from me
with small sighs
and moans
of exquisite contentment
at all hours of day and night.
At times I sleep for an hour
trying desperately to fill myself
and awake to his cry
of hunger
or loneliness
or fear
and offering my breast
watch as he
sucks that one hour of rest
from my body
leaving me empty
and struggling to stand again.
I never regretted it
though my body struggled
and fevers raged in aching limbs.
I wanted to offer the best of what I had
for their beginnings
unsure of what wisdom I had to give
in the on-going journey.
I smiled
even at 3 a.m.
when one of them
finally finished,
stretched, arching his back
and wrinkling his velvet brow
and lay his pink cheek
shiny wet from the sweet milk
against my breast
as we all do
to sleep and dream
connected to the source of peace
and contentment.

My mother
and saw
and left.

Years later,
my sons half grown
and my breasts half shrunk like
those I saw on my mother
in the bathroom years ago,
a would-be lover
at a workshop on spiritual sexuality
suggests a little plastic surgery
might move me
closer to the image of the Goddess
I want to learn to embody
in the sacredness of my female form.
Closer to the image of the Goddess he is seeking,
more likely.
I move away from him
but the idea is planted
and I roll it around
like a marble in the mouth.
I collect a little information:
the costs
the risks
the options.
But only one bit sticks:
there is a loss of sensation in the nipple with implants
and a touch
a kiss
or a well-placed tongue
can still send waves of light
through my limbs
though rarely so strongly
as in the Dodge Dart
and never so unanticipated.
I will not surrender this small pleasure.

I have no daughter
in whom to leave
these stories of the breast.
Perhaps it is just as well.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer © 1995

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Threads of Longing

This week's blog is going to be a little messy because it's about an on-going journey and well, journeys rarely go as planned. In the weeks to come I will be writing more about this- defining terms, sorting seeds, untangling threads- but for now, I'm going to let it all be a little messy and tangled- like life.

There’s a line in a Jann Arden song where she sings with her heart in her voice, “I. . . . never wanted anything so bad.” It always tugs on me. I trust the truthfulness of the feeling- the longing- behind the words. I know, I know- advertisers use our longing to sell us things (and no, my longing for peace and beauty will not be met by a shiny new vehicle even if the ad shows a lone car skimming silently along a coastal highway past lush evergreens to the strains of classical music), and we often mistakenly interpret our deepest longing as being for something less essential and more transitory. But I have faith in our longing. I have faith that if I connect with my longing and follow that thread deeper and deeper into the essence of what my soul aches for, it will take me home, it will guide me in my life, it will allow me to offer who I am to the world.

Over the last few years, whenever I’ve heard Jann Arden sing those words, what really bothered me was that, for the first time in my life, I didn’t know what I wanted “so bad.” I didn’t know what I longed for. I had lost the end of the thread, had disconnected from my soul’s longing.

Oh, I still wanted, but it was a smaller, tighter, grasping, not the heart-opening longing that is more like a prayer than a project. I wanted to have more fun and less fighting in my marriage. I wanted my husband to be happy. I wanted him to want me. I wanted us to deepen the intimacy and create a home where we could both do our creative work. I wanted to be physically well. But eventually, even these became more ideas than a heart-knowing. Mostly I started wanting for certain things to stop. I wanted the pain and exhaustion in my body and heart to leave. I wanted the anger and recrimination in the relationship to stop. I wanted the endless trying to cease.

When we lose touch with our soul’s longing, we lose our way. We stop dreaming. We start surviving and eventually we are ambivalent about even that. For the last few years, if someone had asked me what I really wanted I would have had to consider who I should ask.

Many spiritual paths talk about wanting as the root of suffering. Certainly, being attached to having things a particular way when we do not control a great deal in our lives or the world can lead to bitter disappointment and endless trying. But our everyday wants- to get to know someone we've just met, for a good night’s sleep, to have an object of particular beauty- can direct us deeper, can help us find what’s important to the soul. We have to peel away the layers. A seemingly superficial desire to be liked by someone may reveal the very real human need to feel connected to others, and beneath that a longing to feel at home and held by something larger that is both within and around us- to experience belonging to a sacred wholeness- whether or not we are being liked or approved of by others in this moment.

I am making my way back to my own longing. Rereading old journals from ten years ago when my ex-husband and I got together, I can see how I started dropping the threads that had previously led me back to the longing I could trust to help me stay true to my own course in life. In some of the writing I hear a voice I hardly recognize as my own talking myself out of knowing what I knew about myself. On some level, despite all I had learned and all I knew, I must have believed this was necessary to be in this relationship. And, given who my ex and I each were and are, the choice may well have been between being with him or being deeply with myself. As I read about my struggle to sidestep this choice I can see that I tried to stay connected to and guided by my own essential longing, but I missed all the cues, all the signs that something else was happening. I am not blaming my ex for this. But gradually, to be with him, I disconnected on some essential level from who I am.

Very humbling, a little frightening, and simply human.

One of contemplative prayers I do daily sets the intention to be aware of my needs, wants and desires. Having asked to be aware of these three I then ask to see how my needs (that which sustains life on all levels) may be met without doing harm, to know the deepest desires of my soul that they may guide me, and to come into right relationship with my wanting. Because wanting can be tricky. Right relationship with wanting is about being conscious of wants as they arise- wanting to lie down and rest; admiring a pair of new boots; being drawn to talk with someone- and being aware of how they point to deeper desires which may or may not be met by the person or situation or thing we want in this moment. I may decide to lie down and rest, talk to someone who attracts me, or buy those boots. But being conscious of my wants and being able to discern the difference between these and my deeper soul-longing means I will not suffer if there's no immediate opportunity to rest, if the person I am drawn to doesn’t want to talk to me, or if the boots are too expensive for my budget.

Being conscious of our wants means we are less likely to fall into being unconsciously driven by them. Right relationship with our wanting means remembering that what matters most is our conscious connection to the deeper longing of the soul that can guide us in being who we really are.

It’s good to be home.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Doing Our Best

When I was growing up my father often said: “Everyone does the best they can with what they have to work with.” What I want you to know about this is that he did not say this lightly, did not come to this from a life of ease or privilege. He had grown up poor with an abusive alcoholic father and an exhausted mother. As a child he and his mother were beaten almost every night by my grandfather who eventually (after my father was an adult) committed suicide- hung himself in the barn of the dirt farm where my father had grown up. And still, my father held that everyone does the best they can with what they have to work with. He would occasionally add, with a sadness that made my heart ache: “Some days people don’t have much to work with.”

Consider for just a moment- what if this is true? What if you and I and every person on the planet, in this moment are doing the best we can with the inner and outer resources we have?

Let me say what this does not mean: It does not mean that “It’s all good.” Some of it is not good. Some of what is happening right now in the world- the abuse of children, the destruction of the environment, the exploitation of people, all the ways in which human beings create suffering for themselves and others- is not good.

Nor does it mean that we have no responsibility for the suffering we create. It simply means that saying we “should” do better with the resources (awareness, information, perception, education etc.) we have is a set up for blame, shame and maintaining the current level of suffering. If we could do better with the resources we have, we would.

So, if everyone does the best they can with what they have to work with in this moment, AND we sometimes create suffering for ourselves and each other- what does it mean to want to create change and alleviate suffering?

It means we have to recognize we are doing the best we can with the resources we have, and (instead of beating each other or ourselves up for not doing better) find, invite and accept more resources.

What does this look like in one small human life? It looks like open inquiry into what is. It looks like an honest evaluation of our individual and collective resources. And honest evaluations pretty much have to be free of judgement and shame to be even close to accurate. Resources can be everything from how much sleep I had last night to collective beliefs about why many are poor while some are rich. But let's stick with the small stuff- if I find myself impatient with a sales clerk and I know I have not had enough sleep in days (for this particular body/mind/heart/soul-self), I have a responsibility to get myself to bed as soon as possible so I don’t spread suffering (however minor) with sharp comments tomorrow. This might entail cancelling other plans (and letting go of my attachment to these plans) and/or asking for help (seeking assistance with children in my care, asking my neighbour to turn down the noise etc.) so the sleep I need is available. But expecting myself to be more patient and kind tomorrow with the same exhaustion I had today is a set up when I have just experienced what my “best” looks like when I am this tired.

I’m using a very simple example, and when we start to move into global collective problems and the resources needed, (for example- awareness of inter-dependence and a willingness to share material resources so that all can flourish in meaningful ways) it gets admittedly more complicated. Not impossible, just more complicated.

But it’s not about getting it perfect. Nor is it about trying harder. It’s about recognizing we are doing the best we can with what we have to work with and, if our “best” is creating suffering, seeking, asking for and receiving the resources we need to alleviate that suffering.

What would we have to lose by seeing ourselves or others this way? Justification for putting out of our hearts those aspects of ourselves or others that are causing suffering; fear that keeps us from being willing to create real change by trying something different instead of insisting that we/they just have to do better with the same inner and outer resources. And what might we gain? A doorway into deeper compassion and necessary forgiveness.

So, try out this for one week: Every time you berate yourself for not doing “better” (being more disciplined, more compassionate, more giving, more present. . . the possibilities are endless!) remind yourself, “I am doing the best I can with the what I have right now.” And if the best you can do is causing suffering for yourself or someone else, ask yourself what might help you do something different. Do you need more sleep, a bit of solitude and quiet, community, access to another’s knowledge or wisdom or support, a shift in perspective or awareness? Ask for help whether you have an idea of what you need or not. Ask others who may have resources to share or know of resources you don’t. Ask in prayer addressing the sacred presence that is both what we are and that which is large than us, in whatever words allow you to send out a voice from your heart. And then, pay attention and receive what is needed when it is offered.

Watch what happens if you try this. Where is there resistance? What hopes or fears are sparked? I will tell you the truth. When I do this, it makes my heart ache a little. To soften to ourselves and the world brings us to the knowledge of how former recrimination and hardness have perpetuated suffering. And I take another breath, reminding myself that I was doing the best I could then, and now- with the resources/awareness this insight brings- I can do something different.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Oriah's Newsletter Fall 2010: Trail Markers

How do we make our choices? When there is more than one option before us how do we discern what is the best choice, what is the next step? After some major changes in my life, I find myself needing to decide what is next. Lately, an image that came to me over a year ago during one of my meditations keeps coming to mind:

I am standing in the middle of a dark wood (yes, just like Dante whose Divine Comedy I am currently studying at the University of Toronto.) The trees are primarily evergreen- tall, dark and growing close together. A bit of sunlight filters through the branches to the forest floor where I can see fallen branches, tree roots and rocks. The ground beneath me is soft, layer upon layer of pine needles. The air is cool, moist and fragrant. There is no path.

I grew up in Northern Ontario where there are literally hundreds of miles of trackless wilderness. I was taught at a very young age that the first thing to do if you find yourself lost in the bush is- stand still. So, even in the unexpected forest of my imagination, I stand still for a few moments before I slowly turn, looking carefully at the area I can see in my mind’s. I notice something glistening a short distance away on the dark forest floor: a small stone, so white that it seems to glow in the pale sunlight. I pick up the stone and hold it in my hand, and look around again. And there, a little way off, I see another glimmer in the dim light: another small white stone.

This image has become a guiding one for moving forward in my life. I’ve stopped looking for The Ten Year Plan and started looking for and noticing the small round stones, beckoning markers that whisper, “This way. Over here.”

A few months ago, a couple of people emailed me asking for one-on-one counselling sessions. Now, I started with this kind of work (after studying psychology and graduating in social work from Ryerson here in Toronto) over thirty years ago, and continued to see individuals during the decades of teaching in Toronto, although I had not been doing it over the last few years. So, somewhat cautiously, I made a few appointments and did a few sessions both over the phone and in person. Then, I briefly mentioned that I was doing some individual counselling during a Facebook conversation. Three more people found me, and we started to work together regularly.

Somewhat to my surprise I discovered that, at this point in my life, working one-on-one fits, the way a small smooth stone fits in the palm of your hand. The sessions feed me at both a material level and, just as importantly, at a soul level. I find my energy undiminished and often increased by this work (an important consideration and good sign for someone with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.) Even when someone is dealing with something very difficult and painful, the sessions bring me the kind of joy that comes from the privilege of accompanying another on their journey.

Recently someone asked me how I would describe my counselling work. She asked whether it was spiritual or psychological, solution-oriented or focused on the inner life, cognitive or heart-centred. I replied, “Yes.”

The sessions are shaped by the person with whom I am working. Although I occasionally do a single session with someone, generally I work within a framework of six sessions over twelve weeks, finding that this offers a container for the work together. What happens is always, in some sense a sorting of what is really being asked at the deepest level of a person’s life. Sometimes people begin by saying they want to develop or deepen their spiritual practise, only to discover that they want help with a particular decision regarding work or relationship. Other times someone comes with a specific concern that unfolds into more general and fundamental questions about how they really want to live. Sometimes I share shamanic, meditative or writing practises; sometimes I make suggestions for the time between sessions; sometimes we work with dreams.

Whatever brings someone to the sessions, my role is to bring all of my heart’s attention and any wisdom and skills I have gleaned from living, teaching and counselling to the time we share. My role is to listen carefully for the burning questions beneath the obvious concerns, to watch for the small round stones dropped by the person’s soul.

Helping others unearth their own deep knowing and wisdom renews my faith in who and what we are as human beings – every single time. What a gift- this small white stone dropped in my own inner forest by psyche, the soul.

So, in faithfulness to my own soul, I am opening my practise up to include a few more people, although I will still keep the numbers limited so that I can continue to write. If you are interested, the details are outlined below.

May you find the small white stones your soul has dropped for you, those markers that guide each of us deeply into our own lives, our own joy and full engagement with the world. Many blessings, Oriah
Personal Counselling and Spiritual Guidance with Oriah

Oriah offers one-on-one counselling for those wanting guidance on developing and deepening their spiritual life or seeking help with personal issues. She has often worked with people who are dealing with major life changes, chronic illness and the challenges of working in any of the healing professions (healer, teacher, therapist, shaman, counsellor, workshop facilitator etc.)

Single sessions can be arranged, although generally Oriah works with people for six sessions over a twelve week period, with the commitment to five more sessions made after the initial appointment. Each session is ninety minutes long.

Appointments may be done in person or on the phone. If you are in North America Oriah can make calls to you at no additional costs. If you are outside North America you must place and pay for the calls.

Start times are flexible although appointment times for blocks of six sessions over twelve weeks most commonly begin in early September, January and April.

Within the context of the six session commitment the cost of each ninety minute session is $155.00 (plus 13% sales tax of $20.15) to be paid at least forty-eight hours before the session via Paypal. Single sessions (and the first session of six if the commitment for five more is not deemed appropriate) cost $225.00 (plus 13% tax of $29.25.)

For more information or to find out what appointment times are available please contact Oriah by email at mail@oriah.org

Read Oriah’s weekly blog at http://www.oriahsinvitation.blogspot.com and join the community conversations with Oriah on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Oriah-Mountain-Dreamer/23576314116 (you do not need Facebook account to view the page. Click the“Like” button to add your comments.) Oriah's website is at http://oriah.org

If you would like to receive the newsletter (three to four times a year) please send your email address to mail@oriah.org

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Soul Breathing

This week I felt the impulse to share a very simple practise I use to lower fear and be with any anxiety that arises. First, a little background.

One of the things I appreciate about the writing of Jungian analyst James Hollis is how direct he is about the challenges of being human. In Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life (as well as in his other books) Hollis tells us that in order to find and fulfill our purpose in life, in order to really grow up, we have to expand our capacity to tolerate anxiety, ambivalence and ambiguity. Why? Because, given the unpredictable and every changing nature of life there is going to be anxiety, ambivalence and ambiguity. When we were children and relatively powerless we understandably developed strategies to lower or distance ourselves from the discomfort of anxiety: some of us tried to earn safety by attempting to do things perfectly (me!) while others sought to escape through fantasy or whatever numbing substance/activity was available, (food, television, computer games) while still others became combative and rebellious. The problem is the anxiety management strategies we developed as children don’t work well for us as adults if we really want to be present, live our lives fully and co-create meaning in the world.

On the surface, this can be a hard sell: read this book or do this work and you’ll be able to tolerate more anxiety? May not be the catchiest marketing method. But the truth is we cannot experience and be fully present with joy if we are armoured against or busy trying to outrun the anxiety that’s part of normal human experience.

And there are moments, even when we are fully committed to being present with whatever is, that can simply feel like more than we can hold, moments (or days, or weeks) when our anxiety goes through the roof. Our palms sweat, our hearts pound, we can’t articulate a complete thought and/or we are racing around doing a thousand things to avoid feeling the anxiety. In those moments, it’s helpful to have a way to ground and strengthen our capacity to be with what is. I want to share one such practise here.

This method for being with anxiety without letting it paralyze or send us running from the room is deceptively simple. It comes out of my experience participating in and leading sweat lodge ceremonies. Now, if there’s anything that can and sometimes does raise anxiety it’s going into a small, dark structure filled with hot steam and other people you may or may not know, to do a ceremony designed in part to help you send out prayers from the heart centre of your being. And in ceremony there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no distraction, no way to use old strategies. So, one of the things I have often done myself and have instructed others to do when anxiety arises is- breathe through the soles of your feet.

I know, it sounds crazy, but try it. Wherever you are reading this, put your feet flat on the floor and imagine the earth below you. It may be several stories below you, but wherever you are, it is there- same earth as the one that’s there when you’re sitting on a beach or hiking in the wilderness.

Then, imagine that you are breathing through the soles of your feet, inhaling up from the earth through the bottom of you feet into your body, and exhaling back down through your body and out the soles of your feet into the earth. The beauty of this method is that although it grounds and calms, it does not take us away from what is happening within or around us. It just helps us lower our fear enough to be with what is. And you can do it anywhere: in the middle of a business meeting or at the dinner table with relatives. The more you practise it the more you can develop what is called split attention where a small part of your awareness is imagining your breath flowing in and out of your body through soles of your feet, while you are clearly and calmly answering a question in a job interview or explaining to a relative why you don’t have a “real job.”

So take this along with you today. Give sole/soul-breathing a try, because the soul really can hold it all.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Time Travelling

So, a couple of days ago I did something I thought was. . . . unwise. I telephoned my ex. Earlier in the day I'd come upon a note in my date book. It said, “Six months since explosion,” referring to the night I received the news that ended my marriage. I'd written it in my calendar a week after that night, hoping that when I came upon it in October I would be able to say, “Wow, I haven’t thought about that in days.” Ha! Clearly, after ten years together, a six month time-line for moving completely out of the grief and pain of the separation was. . . .overly optimistic.

So, disappointed that I was not pain-free and pretty sure that contact was a bad idea, I dialed the phone number that used to be my own. I had not spoken to him in a month. I'm not sure what I expected. It felt like something I needed to do.

The conversation my ex and I had was almost identical to conversations we'd had six days and six weeks after the night we'd separated. I heard us both say the same things, express the same hurt, guilt, regret and bewilderment although admittedly our words lacked the fire they had once held.

After I hung up I just sat there for a few moments in my apartment, silent and unmoving as if I was waiting for something. And then, I got it: we were done.

I once read an article about how different forms of life live at different speeds. When you cut down a tree it does not die instantly and in fact may be alive- producing new leaves- a year later. It dies slowly. I think about this as I experience and observe both the spiral of grief and the slow healing in my own life. The truth is I’m not sure we really know how emotional healing happens, but I am watching carefully in the hope that along with feeling more whole and enthused about my own life, I may be able to glean some new insights that will help me in my work with others.

So, here’s today’s six month observation: it has taken me six months to really see- to know- the reality of what has happened. I mean, I felt the pain, but it has taken me six months to really get that the marriage is over, that the dream I shared with this other to co-create a life and a home, to spend the rest of our lives together is finished. Now, I may be a slow learner, and I am not saying I have gotten it “once and for all,” although there does seem to be some stability in the knowing that was not there over the initial months when I would spiral through and then away from this knowledge. Earlier, I simply could not fully take in the reality of what had happened.

Surely this is part of the healing: being able to see what is, to grasp what has been lost, what has been injured, what has died and what remains. Because we cannot heal what has not been grieved, and we cannot grieve the loss that has not been experienced. And we can’t experience something fully until we do. That’s probably the hardest part: the unpredictability of how long it will take to grasp loss and change at all levels of our being. It doesn’t happen all at once, but in bits and pieces: I see an art exhibit or eat at a restaurant I know Jeff would have enjoyed, and I feel the impulse to turn and share it with him, (and delight in his pleasure) and then I remember that I can’t; I have a hard day and my muscles anticipate curling up to be held in familiar arms, and then realize those arms are no longer available. And slowly, as the new reality is faced and felt, what is sinks in.

I’ve always loved the quote by Suzuki Roshi: “We don’t need to learn to let go. We need to recognize what is already gone.” But it takes time to recognize what is gone, to absorb loss, to see and feel the new normal and make our internal and external adjustments. Often we have to tell the story of our loss to others in order to recognize what is gone. That’s what memorial services and funerals are often about: sharing stories of the loss we share so we can support each other in recognizing what is gone.

Healing happens if we allow it to, and it starts at least in part with our willingness to see and experience our losses. And sooner or later, if we are willing to be touched by grace and guided by the impulse for healing that is in our very DNA, we will be able to see and experience the loss, to know the wound fully. We may wake up in tears or wail at the moon, but it will be bearable. And healing will happen. And we will know again both our own wholeness and the larger Mystery in which we participate.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hell's Vestibule

In our largely secular culture you don't hear words like heaven or hell or sin very often. For as long as I can remember I’ve thought of heaven and hell as inner states, not literal places. When I was seventeen I wrote in my diary that I thought sin was that which came between me and my sense of a living loving presence (God) that was larger than but always with(in) me. I could pretty much stand by this today. I didn't know then that the origin of the word sin meant "to miss the mark" but I think I was intuiting a meaning that was in alignment with this etymology.

I’m thinking a lot about hell these days because I am studying Dante’s 14th century epic poem The Divine Comedy. It begins, with Inferno which chronicles a pilgrim’s journey into hell (to be followed by Purgatory and Paradise.) Part of the fun (yes, I am taking the U of Toronto course for fun) is allowing this allegorical poem to stir the pot of reflection.

I studied this poem thirty-five years ago. Rereading it recently, I remembered that it started with the pilgrim in the proverbial “dark wood” midway through his life. Not sure what I thought the “dark woods” was when I was twenty but now, being mid-way through adult life, I am all too familiar with confusing times when “the way” seems lost. I also remembered Dante’s depiction of various circles of hell where each sin brought its own corresponding punishment.

But I had forgotten what the pilgrim encounters at the gates to hell. There, in hell’s vestibule, he sees a group of souls who are considered the most wretched. These are the souls of those who are barred from heaven and will not be admitted to hell- those “who had never truly lived,” those who have been “neither faithful nor unfaithful to their God.” These souls are doomed to forever be stung by wasps while running behind a banner that moves in circles.

Now Dante’s Inferno has no shortage of suffering, but what struck me is that the souls of those who never really committed to living life fully- are considered the "most wretched." Even in the world of 14th century Christianity (where all sins were listed and punishable with terrible suffering) the worst thing you could do was to stand for nothing, to refuse to commit to your own choices in life, to fail to live your life fully. It reminded me of Mary Oliver's poem “When Death Comes.” In the last stanza she writes:

When it’s over I don’t want to wonder if I have
made of my life
something particular and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened and full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

When I read Dante’s poem this time, my breath caught at his description of those in hell’s vestibule. I suspect that when I read it at twenty, failing to live fully was unthinkable. With the clarity and energy of youth I was full of hopes and dreams and resolve. I did not know how life can sometimes wear you out, how you can watch your dreams dissolve or be buried beneath practical considerations that seem imperative. My breath caught because I know now how hard it is to get up every day and commit to living fully present with whatever the day brings, because I live in a culture where spiritual materialism and ego idolytry, addictive consumerism and religious fundamentalism (including New Age fundamentalism) continually whisper, “Go back to sleep,” to a population running on too much caffeine and too little poetry.

Even in a time and from a perspective of strict religious rules, Dante was able to see that the larger crime would be to turn away from life, to refuse the gift and the challenge of human existence. So, knowing we will make mistakes, knowing we will at times make bad choices that cause suffering, knowing we will often “miss the mark” when aiming to live at the divine center, knowing all of this- we are urged to choose life anyway, to be as Mary Oliver writes in the same poem a “ bride married to amazement,” and a “ bridegroom taking the world into my arms.” Amen!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Body-Self Beautiful

Well, I had some time to lie around this week- literally. A week ago, I picked up my watch off the dresser next to my bed and threw my back out. Two chiropractic visits, one doctor’s appointment, a few muscle relaxants, and many epsom salt baths later, and I am no longer shuffling around as if I'm one hundred years old. All very humbling and more than a little enlightening.

As I laid on the living room floor (because I felt a little less pain lying on the floor than I did on the firm mattress of my bed) studying the plaster on the ceiling, I started thinking about all of the time, energy and money I put into taking care of my body and the precariousness of my health. Mostly this is because of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that moves in and out of remission, but sometimes it’s because of something as unpredictable as a muscle spasm. (In fairness, given the legal and emotional upheaval in my life over the last few months, it really is not that surprising that I would have a bit of tension stored in my back.)

So, I was feeling frustrated. After all, I know people (or people who say they know people) who never exercise, eat junk food, drink excessively, stay up late, never go to a doctor or chiropractor or massage therapist and they seem to be feeling no pain. I take care of my body, I practise self-care. So shouldn’t I be healthy, pain-free and strong?

Now there are lots of factors that go into creating illness or physical health and some (like genetics, exposure to pathenogens etc.) are out of our control. But the thing that stopped my internal tirade was the tiniest sliver of a question: Do I really CARE for my physcial self or do I take care of my body? Because there’s a difference.

I take care of my body. I exercise, eat well, take supplements, go to alternative and main stream health care practitioners. But, if I am honest about it, I do these things the way a conscientious car owner schedules regular maintenance appointments with the local mechanic- as a means to the end of keeping the vehicle tuned up and ready to go wherever the driver wants to take it.

But my body is not vehicle. I'm not a car. I'm a human being, an embodied soul. Of course, I experience things that are not just physical sensations: intuitions, feelings, emotions, thoughts, dreams, visions etc. But I experience them as an embodied being. When I die, I don’t know what will happen. But I will cease to be an embodied soul, a human being. I may become something else- spirit, energy, a disembodied soul, something looking for a new life or blended with a sort of wholeness beyond my current imagination. I really don’t know, and to tell you the truth I don’t worry about it. I’m okay with not knowing.

But while I am alive, although I am not just a body, I am never not a body. So, my body is not just a vehicle I drive around, directed by some more essential part of me. It has a wisdom, and intelligence of its own. It teaches me. I experience through the body. We know from a vast array of experiments that body and mind (consciousness, emotions, thoughts etc.), although spoken of as two separate things, are indeed co-mingled, inter-dependent, or two aspects of one substance.

So, if this is true, perhaps I need to start caring for my physical self instead of just taking care of my body. It may be hard to tell the difference from the outside, but from the inside the difference it clear. Think of how a baby is cared for- how food that is offered lovingly is different than a child that is propped up with a bottle; how a gentle bath in warm water that includes blowing bubbles and playful splashing is something more than just getting clean; how lotion can be slapped on quickly to prevent dry skin or massaged in with full awareness of the skin texture, the shape of muscles beneath the skin, the intimacy of touch (and I mention these examples with full awareness that mothers often have more than one child and employment and many other responsibilities and so are not always able to provide all of these all of the time.)

Caring for a vehicle is a mechanistic job done from the outside. Real self-care is an inside job. While knowledge of which exercises or supplements most meet my physical needs can be helpful, I don’t think the right combination of activities and vitamins can replace real loving appreciation for my physical self, for embodiment as it is right now, in this body- not the one I had twenty years ago, not the one I imagine or hope I’ll have if I work out or drink the right herbal tea this year.

So, as I laid on the floor I started to do one of the Tibetan Buddhist somatic meditation practises- exploring, sensing and releasing all tension from each part of my body, starting with my toes and working my way up. I have been doing this every day since my back went out and I am continuing, even though my back is better. Each time I do it, I feel both a great sadness that moves me to apologize to my sweet natural body-self for forgetting to appreciate life in physical form as an end in itself filled with beauty. And I also feel a sense of release, a deep heart-relief at having arrived home.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Getting Here from There

I write from where I am, as truthfully as I can- although I don’t always share everything I write (that sound you hear is a collective sigh of relief from my sons and ex-husbands.) Today I tried several times to write and this is what came:

I feel like I have nothing to say. I can feel those of you who know me personally smiling. I know- must be two moons in the sky.

Ever have a day or a week where everything feels. . . . old, empty, meaningless? Where you want to snap the head off the waitress who tells you brightly that perhaps she brought you the noxious tasting immune boosting drink you didn’t order instead of the chocolate shake you did “because everything happens for a reason.”

Ever want to just behave badly without having to apologize or feel like you have failed to be the calm compassionate human being you claim (and some days know) is your essential nature?

Yes, I’m grumpy.

I know all the things that should, could and often do help: good nutritious food, exercise, my daily practise of meditation, prayer and writing. And I am doing them. Sort of. Most of the time.

Now, it occurs to me that if I post this as this week's blog and you are a new reader expecting or hoping for some deep wisdom or inspiration this little diatribe may send you running. Sorry, but this blog is written by a mere mortal. Some days I know life is good, but that’s not the experience I am having. I don't know how to get there from here. I am experiencing a restless, peevish (now there’s a good word,) impatient, disgruntlement.

That’s as far as I could get. Then something happened: I was scheduled to resume my one-on-one counselling work with people today. I did two ninety minute sessions with two different individuals on the phone. I’ve been working with each of them long distance for a couple of months. Although the sessions were for them- something happened for me.

I stopped feeling grumpy. My heart opened as I heard their honesty, their struggles and their hopes. I celebrated their growing self-awareness and self-care and gently challenged them to live more of who they are. I laughed with them at our shared human foibles. I mirrored some of their courage and beauty back to them. I asked questions and listened deeply to their answers. In fact, it was truly a privilege to be present with each of them for ninety minutes. I was inspired. Their lives are different than mine and yet, as so often happens when we are truly with another, we discover how connected we are. In extending myself to them and in receiving the gifts they offered to me, I reconnected to the goodness I know is life in each of us.

And where I was grumpy, now I am grateful.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Living Alone

For the first time in my life, I am living alone. Thirty-eight years ago, when I moved to Toronto to go to college, I shared a home with five other students. I lived alone for a brief time after finishing college, but quickly became involved with a man and moved in with him after only nine months of solo living. No regrets- I was, after all, twenty-three. Young love and hormones were influencing my choices. Eventually, we made two beautiful babies -my sons- together.

There have been times when I’ve spent a lot of time alone, particularly since I often worked out of my home, but there were always others (my sons who were at their father’s for a week or my husband who was at work all day and at evening events) who would be returning. At times I spent time alone in the wilderness- often weeks- but I knew I would be going home to others when my solo time was complete.

It’s different to live alone knowing no one is coming back to a shared abode later in the day or week or month. Once in a while- usually in the evening- I feel a little. . . antsy, experiencing a twinge of something that is not completely comfortable. When I sit with it and ask, “What is this feeling?” I occasionally think, “Oh, this is loneliness.” Although rare, when it does arise, I just notice it and am careful not to start telling myself a story about it. Like: “I will always be alone,” or “If I was loveable I wouldn’t be alone,” or "Loneliness is unbearable" or any of the other infinite number of stories the mind can conjur. In fact loneliness, like other feelings, comes and goes and is quite bearable if we can refrain from adding painful (and imaginary) stories to temporary discomfort. Sitting still I realize that what I call loneliness is most often a vague desire to have someone around to distract me from some deeper discomfort. Like the knowledge that I am resisting working on the new book or some anxiety or ambivalence I would rather ignore.

The truth is that most of the time, when I pay attention I become aware that I am truly enjoying being alone. Some of this enjoyment is pretty mundane: not having to pick up or clean up after anyone else; being able to eat when I want to or follow the thread of whatever I am doing (reading, writing, sleeping) as long as the impulse is there simply because there is no one else’s schedule to consider. But some of it is appreciation for the privilege of having the means and the time to simply be fully with myself.

Last week, I walked home at twilight after visiting a friend. I stopped at a market and bought yogurt and blueberries and a bunch of pale yellow roses for my apartment. And as I walked past the spectacular gardens of the homes in my neighbourhood I felt a deep sense of contentment. I walked slowly, savouring the scent of flowers on the warm night air, anticipating bringing the beauty of fresh roses into the two small rooms that are my home. I looked forward to reading in bed and listening to the sounds of the city slowly subside.

I am blessed to have friends and my two sons in the city where I live. So, when I want company there are those with whom I can connect. And the city itself is offered to me. When I have spent enough time alone at the computer, I can easily walk to a bookstore or the market or the community centre and be around others living their lives, feeling how my little tributary is part of a much bigger river, how we are all interconnected as we live our own lives.

And then, I can go home, alone. The gift of living alone, of having a space that is simply my home, is finding that I do not have to choose between being with myself or being with others. Of course, I never had to choose between these two- but when I live with others I often unconsciously turn too much of my face toward the other and away from my own life. Some of this happened with the inevitable requirements of raising children. But some of my inability to be with another and not abandon myself came from an unconscious strategy developed early in life- trying to earn my place to be by taking care of others’ needs. While I now know this to be unnecessary for belonging it is in living alone that I learn to truly enjoy being fully with myself. And I am grateful for the blessings and the challenges this solitude offers.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How Healing Happens

Well, as many of you know, I took a break from blogging and Facebook and most other forms of communication for the month of August. After my marriage ended unexpectedly in April (no, I did not see it coming) I spent a couple of months swinging between emotional agony and logistical details. With the legal separation signed in July, I decided a I needed some time of stillness. I leased a campsite in a wilderness reserve in northern Ontario and set up camp. I was planning on spending August there alone, fasting and praying, and resting in the landscape I love- the rocks and water of the Canadian Shield.

Today, I went through the emails that have accumulated in my Inbox. There were messages of encouragement and support (much appreciated) and quite a few from people anticipating some wisdom from my time of solitude and retreat. Many who have suffered similar losses expressed confidence that I would be able – after my month away- to tell them how I have healed, created a new life for myself and found joy once again.

So, as I sit down at my computer, the pressure is on. Have I healed, moved on, created a new life, crossed a threshold into wonder and wisdom? It’s tempting to try to reach for something profound. But I think I’d better stick to the truth.

When I told my sons (now twenty-seven and thirty) that I was going away for a month of solo camping and ceremony, they shook their heads and expressed their dismay. They pointed out that I have a tendency to set myself up for ordeal without consideration for my physical health or age (I protested: “I’m not that old!”) and often get ill or return exhausted. They questioned the wisdom of going to a place where there were physical challenges and risks without any way of summoning help at a time when I was clearly recovering from emotional and physical stress. Mostly they heard and objected to what Nathan called my “gung-ho attitude,” something with which they are all too familiar.

I was. . . offended. And defensive. And then. . . . I lay down on the floor of my apartment amidst piles of camping gear and reconsidered.

I did go camping- alone some of the time and for a few days with a dear friend. I lay on the sun-warmed rocks, swam in the cool clear lake and listened to the loons call out to each other at dusk. I sat on the earth and did my practise of prayer and meditation. I ate when and what my body wanted to eat and made sure all food was stored where it would not tempt the family of black bears roaming the area.

And then, I went home to the city for a few days, for warm baths, a soft bed and meals that could be prepared without gathering kindling, sawing logs and lighting a fire. Then I returned to the campsite, going back and forth, letting my intuition guide me. I tried something new: I became. . . .flexible! I listened to my body, letting go of expectations about what I could or should or would do, giving up my attachment to The Amazing Story of My Time Alone in the Bush, (and oh, how I love a good story!) surrendering my secret belief that I could “earn” my healing by putting myself through ceremonial trials.

In the middle of August some friends gathered at my apartment in Toronto and did a healing ceremony for me. And where I had felt a vague sense of being frozen, things began to flow. From the minute the Sacred Pipe ceremony began tears coursed down my face. It did not feel like I was crying. “I” was not “doing” anything. Tears were flowing. Only later did we notice that the air conditioner in my small apartment had flooded the bedroom during the ceremony. That night both the kitchen and bathroom drains became mysteriously blocked. The next morning sinks overflowed, and then the drains were unplugged and water flowed freely again.

During the ceremony, when it came time for me to offer a prayer, between watery breaths I said, “I am so grateful for these women. Thank you." I paused and then said the only thing I felt I knew in that moment, "I am broken." Feeling lost and more than a little hopeless I added, "Forgive me for my lack of faith. Help me, please.”

And I was helped. I don’t know that I can say how. But more and more I find myself noticing that I am. . . . happy, enjoying my own company, returning to my writing, taking in the beauty around me. I packed up my campsite at the end of August and with prayers of gratitude returned to my small apartment renewed. Without ordeal. Without proving how tough I am or how much I can endure. And still the grace of healing flowed toward me, and the pain eased.

It is not, of course, a linear process. Grief still comes, although less frequently and with softer edges. When it comes I give it time and attention. And then I get up and do my yoga or go for a walk or write or meet a friend. Because life really does go on, and we really do have the capacity to move (or be moved) forward, to heal, to see beauty and feel gratitude even when the heart feels it has been broken. It’s a bit of a miracle really- this ability we have embedded in our very being, in the cells of our hearts and bodies, in the essence of our souls- to heal and expand and choose life again and again. I don’t know how healing happens, but it does. It is a kind of quiet, ever-present grace that can fill us with wonder and bring us great joy if we let it.

My heart is whole and very full.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Month Long Retreat

Dear friends,

I am taking August off for personal retreat. It has been an unexpectedly chaotic spring with the ending of my marriage. Now, with the legal separation details worked out and signed, and having been bought out of our shared home by my former husband, I turn my attention to recuperation, rest and renewal.

So, I will not be posting blogs in August. I will spend time in Northern Ontario camping alone and drawing on dreams from the water and rocks and wilderness I love. I may do some writing. I may stay there continuously or go back and forth to the city depending upon what my body and heart need each day for their healing.

I will resume posting on September 8. I have enjoyed doing the blog weekly- the commitment has kept me connected to my writing in a small but disciplined way and I always enjoy the comments and conversation that results here and on my FB page. I have also deeply appreciated all the prayers and support you have sent my way during this difficult time. I have felt held in the hearts of so many - and am deeply blessed by this gift of caring.

So, (and here you have to imagine me singing :-) "See you in September. . . " May your summer (or winter if you are in the southern hemisphere) unfold with joy, Oriah

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Coming Home To Myself

What is this strange reunion,
this homecoming to someone I did not know I had left?
Bittersweet, it’s hard to separate
the joy of returning to myself
from the sadness of missing the one who is gone.
What is lost and what is found are tangled together,
like legs caught in the bed sheets
after a restless night of love-making or loneliness.
The dream of shared desire was a wisp of smoke, a hope,
a mirage I sought to make substantive,
a reality I tried to earn,
having forgotten there is no bargaining for faith or love.
These are by grace or not at all.
Something I am
- some essence, or awareness, or presence-
is watching this woman I am, re-member herself.
Walking on the city street,
I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a store window:
Long hair, full-skirted dress and sandals-
all three white light mixed with silver, mercurial-
fabric and hair floating around me on
the dark heat rising from the black pavement.
And the thought comes: “I feel like myself again.”
I am surprised, and a little shocked.
I did not know I had wandered so far
from who and what I am.
Far enough to have forgotten the fragrance of home-
the warm cinnamon scent
of the place where the animal self
surrenders to unguarded joy,
the place where the heart feels free
to welcome the unfettered passion
for moving quickly or being very still.
I had wandered so long
I’d stopping missing or even looking for myself.
But I longed.
Although even that became muted,
an underwater echo, blue green, and easy to miss.
Each day now a little more of who I am
is retrieved from the ocean floor:
the pleasure of my own cooking-
fresh eggs scrambled
with rosemary, and mushrooms, and sharp cheese;
the feel of silk across the back of my neck,
a cool caress to tender skin,
reawakening the need for touch;
the strength in my legs,
the joy of taking long strides with nowhere to go;
the quiet of the morning,
as I sit facing east just before the sun appears,
and then, the moment when the sun crests the horizon,
my gaze behind closed eyes flaring crimson and gold.
No recrimination for my absence
I am welcomed as the prodigal daughter
Longed for,
Looked for,
Home at last.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Tuna Story

It’s Tuesday afternoon, and I have not written this week’s blog, so I am sitting in front of the computer screen staring at the flashing cursor, waiting, hoping for inspiration. I let my hands rest on my lap and take a deep breath. I’m aware of the chair beneath me, holding my weight. The door to the balcony is open and suddenly I hear a small child giggling in absolute delight. She is clearly having a wonderful time. I find myself smiling. In fact, it is practically impossible not to smile just hearing the peals of laughter. Walking to the balcony door I can see a little girl, about four years old, being pushed by an older child on the swings in the small park outside my apartment. With dark shining hair, dressed in a bright pink t-shirt and shorts she squeals and giggles each time the swing sends her high into the air, sticking her short brown legs and small white sneakers up toward the sky. I stand and watch for a few minutes, taking pleasure in her unbridled delight.

When was the last time you laughed, really laughed a long belly laugh that made your eyes water? Just thinking about it reminds me of my mother’s mother, Nana- how infrequently she laughed and how I loved it when she did.

Nana was a serious woman. Eldest of a large family with an abusive alcoholic father she’d had to leave school at fifteen to get a job and support her mother and siblings. She had four brothers who were always getting into trouble and one sister who was fifteen years younger than her- my Aunt Nonie. Nana had a reputation for being fierce and at times, downright harsh. She had very definite ideas about duty, obligation and what moral people did. She worked hard and didn’t appear to have very much fun. She was a formidable woman.

But she loved me. To me she was often soft and loving. I delighted in the rare occasions when I saw her laugh, really laugh. And nothing made her laugh harder than telling The Tuna Story.

Apparently, Aunt Nonie believed she had an allergy to tuna fish. Nana, as much as she doted on her younger sister, thought this was nonsense. She maintained that Nonie just didn't like tuna and so claimed to have an allergy. The bickering about tuna went on well into adulthood in the way that these things do in families. Nana married my grandfather and they had my mother. Nonie eventually married, moved away and had a family. And still the disagreement about tuna fish was maintained. Nana never really argued about things in so many words, but when someone said or did something she didn't like her disapproval was plain. She’d make a soft snorting noise, purse her thin lips and frown. Nana could frown with her whole body. You could feel that frown even if her back was toward you, could feel it in the set of her shoulders and the stiffness of her stocky, fully-corseted body. All four feet eleven inches of her was involved when disapproval was being communicated. As I said, Nana was a serious woman.

Aunt Nonie frequently visited Fort Erie, the town where they’d grown up and where my grandparents continued to live. On one of those visits she and my grandmother went grocery shopping. I don’t know what got into Nana (a woman not normally susceptible to spontaneous outbursts) but as they walked down the aisle of canned goods, she suddenly grabbed a tin of tuna and whirling around, shoved it under Nonie’s nose and yelled, “There! You think you’ll break out in a rash if you smell the tin?”

Except it wasn’t Nonie. Nana had not noticed that her sister had dropped back a little and another woman- some hapless shopper- had moved up the aisle only to have this tiny grey-haired figure shove a tin of tuna at her and scream something about a rash. The woman froze in terror, and Nana, shocked and sputtering, tried to explain. But she couldn’t, because she and Nonie started laughing. The harder she tried to explain the harder they both laughed until the two of them were doubled over in spasms, tears streaming down their faces while the woman made her escape.

When my grandmother told this story- often after my Aunt Nonie’s prompted her with, “Tell them all about how you threatened some poor woman with a tin of tuna,” we would all start laughing. And Nana would laugh that deep belly laugh as she told the story, her eyes filling with tears and her face getting dark pink. I laughed with her, for her, delighted to see that she could have a moments of real silliness- in the grocery store and in the retelling of the story.

There are a lot of stories about my grandmother that would not make anyone laugh. But this is how I like to remember her- sitting at her kitchen table telling the tuna story, laughing and wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron. Like the sound of the little girl’s giggling in the park, just thinking about it, makes me smile.