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.