Sunday, October 30, 2011

What Inspires Me

Last week an interviewer asked me, “Don’t you find it depressing to be counselling people who are often going through difficult times- times of pain, illness or loss- in their lives? How do you protect yourself, make sure your energy is not depleted?”

I was surprised by the question. Although my work with individuals includes celebrations of healing and new ways of seeing, it's true that it is often challenging times that bring people to counselling. Many of the stories that are shared are hard stories- are about childhood abuse, the limitations of illness, family violence, or heart-rending and involuntary loss of occupation, or home, or spouse, or child or the very beliefs they had been relying upon.

And every time I hear someone’s story I find my heart opening further to our humanness.

Oh, it's not that I'm blind to the many ways we go into denial and self-deception, how we sometimes reach for unhealthy ways to lower our anxiety or can even cause the very thing we most fear with self-sabotage.

But mostly what I hear is great tenderness and courage. Every human life includes challenges, loss, struggles and difficulties that often create real pain and suffering. And sometimes the suffering is so great, I wonder how people continue. But most often they do. And not only do they continue, they often use the challenge that has taken them to their knees and made them wonder if they can continue, to find a way to live more deeply with themselves and others.

What can you say about a woman whose only child has committed suicide who goes on to discover her own love of painting spectacular images of transformation and working with teens at risk? That she is magnificent in her courage and willingness and ability to walk through the fire of living and keep her heart open. That she is fully human, as you and I are, which means that you and I have within us the same capacity for courage and for loving life so deeply that life can, if we allow it, draw us back into living fully and joyfully even in the face of heart-rending sorrow.

And sometimes, the challenges in front of us are not large dramatic losses, but the small day to day wear and tear of making our way in the world, caring for those who are dependent upon us, doing what needs to be done to feed the children without losing ourselves to a culture that can too easily keep us running on the outside and out of touch with our inner life, the life of soul.

Whether those I work with are facing small daily struggles or large life losses- over and over, I am inspired by their humanness. Many days I finish a session and simply sit in awe of them- of us- and wonder how a creature so tender, so vulnerable that we can feel devastated by a thoughtless comment, can survive the changing and unpredictable conditions of a human life, let alone thrive. But they do- we do- leaning a little on each other at times, opening our hearts a little further, healing from wounds, daring to dream and saying “yes” to life.

How do I protect myself from being depleted or depressed by my work with others? No need for protection. Others open my heart and deepen my faith in the way we are made. They inspire hope and renewed tenderness for myself and the world. And I am grateful.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

To Know Your True Value

On some level, many of us were taught that value was something we needed to acquire- something to be earned or in some way received. Those who taught us- parents, teachers, ministers, media- shared what they’d been taught: that value (our worth as human individuals) had to be achieved in certain ways (by working hard, looking good, making a contribution, by speaking up or being quiet, by being compassionate or aggressive or stoic or expressive. . . . )

We do, of course, create situations, communities, achievements and interactions of value with hard work, compassion, or any other attributes. But our inherent value, does not need to be earned. And the often implicit (and therefore somewhat slippery and hard-to-get-ahold-of) belief that we can or must acquire value to justify our existance is simply not true. And it causes a great deal of suffering.

Been dipping into a book I read years ago, Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself From the Judge Within, by Byron Brown. Brown examines how the belief that we must acquire or earn value makes us vulnerable to our inner Judge, the aspect of self that learned early in life to operate on the principle that we are not intrinsically valuable. The inner Judge pushes us to “measure up.” It doesn’t matter if we replace materialist values with spiritual ideals- striving to achieve value, however we define it, will only lead to suffering because it separates us from the truth of our own nature.

When we have a direct experience of ourselves as intrinsically valuable, the heart knows itself and a sense of homecoming arises. And, as Brown writes, in that moment you know “you have a right to be here because you are made of the same essential substance as everything else in the universe,” and “by its nature that substance is of value. . . .” We, like everyone and everything else in the universe, are Life. And Life has/is value.

It may sound simple and self-evident. But the unconscious or semi-conscious belief that we must earn our right to be, prove our value to others and the world, drives many- I would say the vast majority in western cultures- for most of our lives.

What you are by virtue of being- regardless of how your life is going, regardless of what you are currently doing or identified with, or how you are presenting yourself to or being seen by others- is inherently of value.

That's the truth.

What if you knew this, really knew this?

What would you be free to be, to do, to question, to create if you fully realized that you do not have to acquire value, do not have to earn the right to be, to belong, to love and be loved?

How would you choose to spend your days, your life, your moments if you knew you were inherently of value simply be virtue of being?

(c) Oriah 2011

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How to Handle Growing Pains

When I was a child I had what my mother called “growing pains”- aches and pains in my legs that would not let me fall asleep at night. Who knows if they were in fact caused by growth (although I did reach my current height of five feet nine inches when I was twelve so there was some serious growing happening,) but they were excruciating. If I moved my legs around in bed they would feel a little better. Until I stopped, and then the pain would be much worse than it had been before I’d started tossing and turning.

What I figured out was that I had to hold still and bear the discomfort if I wanted it to go away. So, that’s what I did: I would lie very still, and pretend to send my breath down into my legs (divine grace must have prompted this idea), imagining I was breathing out the waves of pain that came. If I could keep this up for five minutes, resisting the overwhelming urge to move my legs, the pain would begin to dissipate. It was short term discomfort for long term relief from pain.

I think of this early experience when I or someone I know is trying to change an old habit we know is not serving us. Because the truth is, the habits we’ve developed, like moving my legs in bed, at some point seemed to serve us even if they simply offered a bit of distraction from or numbing of some discomfort.

For example, people often ask me how they can change the habit of people-pleasing, a pattern of always looking to meet the expectations, or adhere to the standards or preferences of others, a behaviour that often renders us unable to act on what has value for us, even if we somehow manage to stay in touch with what that is. Usually this change involves saying, “No,” where we have too often said, “Yes,” and “YES!” to a few places where we have not allowed ourselves to follow or act on what is truly of value for us

But here’s the catch: as soon as we change a habit, even one that is truly not serving us, our anxiety rises- sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Because whatever fear the habit was placating begins to stir. If we tend to be habitual people-pleasers, and we start saying “No,” fears or beliefs that others will think we are uncaring or cruel or worse will be stirred.

This is why it's often difficult to make changes we can see would be good for us. Change often raises anxiety that can present in a whole host of uncomfortable ways- worry; fear or dread; guilt; anger and self-righteousness; the physical discomfort of indigestion, headaches etc; general agitation and speeding up, or a sudden loss of energy and sluggishness.

Here’s where I go back to what I learned about growing pains when I was a child: growing often causes discomfort; if we try to avoid the discomfort, it gets worse; if we can hold still, recognize and be with the discomfort, breathe through it and not let it drive us into unconscious motion, the discomfort or anxiety will begin to dissipate (often much faster than we would have imagined.)

Jungian analyst James Hollis maintains that one of the tasks in the second half of life is to learn to tolerate anxiety. It’s a hard sell. Anxiety is uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and we are programmed to avoid pain for survival. But recognizing that the discomfort we are feeling can indicate real growth may help us stick with the choice to create change in our lives, feeling and acknowledging the anxiety as it arises but holding still (not reverting back to the old habit that does not serve us) so that a deeper level of freedom can be discovered.

(c) Oriah 2011

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Where We Separate Ourselves (more lessons in humility :-)

Last week someone who has ME/CFS* posted on Facebook that she found it comforting to be able to connect with “fellow sufferers.”

I recoiled at the term. I have ME/CFS, have had it for twenty-eight years, but I like to think it’s just one of many factors in my life, that I choose not to “suffer” about it, that I accept it and work with it. My compassion for someone who experiences themselves as a “sufferer” was tinged with just a faint hint of judgement and a desire to separate myself a little.

I should know better.

A few days later, a dear friend who lives three thousand miles away came for a long anticipated visit. I had been very careful in the week before her visit, doing all the things I know help my physical energy and strength. After a relaxed day together (that ended at 4 pm) I was bed-ridden with exhaustion, dizziness and the debilitating pain that is so often part of this illness. I had to modify plans for celebrating another friend’s birthday the next day, cancel Thanksgiving dinner with my sons, and tell a friend whose birthday is next weekend I will probably miss his celebration. I was deeply discouraged.

So much for not being a “fellow sufferer.”

We cannot control all the conditions of life, and expectations can lead to disappointment. But human beings can’t avoid having expectations. We would never see friends if we didn’t make plans, and plans raise expectations of something (hopefully pleasurable.) You can’t cook a meal to share without planning and going to get the ingredients, and that creates an expectation of something tasty. And yes, sometimes the plans are disrupted- people get sick, power outages make cooking impossible, or the dog eats the pie.

Disappointment comes from a combination of unavoidable expectations and the inability to control all conditions. But disappointment can be a momentary twinge and not real suffering if we can hold our expectations lightly, without deep attachment to having things work the way we would like.

Sounds good, and it’s not impossible much of the time. I know I have an unpredictable chronic illness. I’ve learned to keep my expectations realistic, to warn those with whom I make plans that I may need to cancel, to change planned activities based on present-moment physical limitations. And mostly I do not suffer- I feel a twinge of disappointment and let go, realigning to current conditions.

Except when I can’t.

Except when, for whatever reason, I have a moment or an hour or a day, of feeling something more than disappointment, of feeling . . . .crushed, angry, bewildered and discouraged. And then I suffer.

And then, (eventually) I surrender to what is, readjust my expectations, sooth my own suffering with gentle self-care and. . . . return to being able to embrace the present moment- whatever it holds- without suffering. This process does not happen faster if I chastise myself for not living up to the spiritual ideal of never suffering, is not enhanced by adding suffering over suffering to the mix.

So here’s the truth: we all have expectations. If we can hold them lightly, remaining flexible and able to shift our weight to stay in balance as conditions beyond our control change, we will not suffer over the small disappointments in life. And sometimes- because what is changed by conditions matters more than an anticipated dinner party or planned trip, because changing conditions may affect how we are living and will live for a long time and/or happen on many levels simultaneously, or simply because our inner our outer resources are depleted- we will suffer.

Yes, we are all “fellow sufferers,” some of the time.

If we cannot admit this, cannot accept that to be human means we do at times suffer, we will find it hard to respond to suffering- our own or someone else’s- with the compassion that alleviates suffering.

*Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) is categorized as a neurological disease by the World Health Organization and is misnamed in North America as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS.)

Oriah (c) 2011

Monday, October 3, 2011

When We Fear God is Gone

When I was a child I was aware of a Presence that was always with me. From my earliest vague pre-verbal memories- flashes of colour and sound coming to me through the bars of my crib- it was always there. In the daytime and at night, when I was in my bedroom or walking home from school, this Presence was with me. It was there when I prayed, but it was also there when I was reading a book or watching television. If I was engaged in something that demanded my full attention- like writing a test at school or learning how to swim- all I had to do was inwardly glance toward it to feel a sense of reassurance, the way you might turn your face to catch the eye of a someone you love who loves you at a large gathering.

But this description is misleading. It suggests this Presence was something that was localized and outside of me. And. . . . it was, but. . . . it also wasn’t. It was both within me and around me. At times it seemed to be particles of sparkling light that permeated everything, or an underlying hum that all things emitted, or a constant tingling that, while different in my body than in a rock I held in my hand or the cat I petted, ran through everything. And the light and the sound and the tingling were. . . .more than just physical sensations. . . . they had an intelligence, an awareness. . . . an abiding quality of love that was particular and real.

Words are truly inadequate to describe this kind of experience. When the people at church I attended as a child talked about God or Christ, I assumed these were the names for the Presence I experienced. Later I realized that there were many other names pointing toward this Presence- the Sacred Mystery, the Great Mother, Allah, Kwan-Yin, Buddha, Shiva, Shakti, the Grandmothers . . . .

The last year of my life- with my marriage ending and two parents descending into the confusion of Alzheimer's- has been one of logistical and emotional turmoil. But time is kind, and we are made for healing if we allow it to happen.

One morning about a month ago, as I watched the sun slowly slip above the horizon, I realized that my awareness of the Presence had, without my noticing exactly when, become as it was when I was a child: constant and omnipresent, around and within me without any effort on my part. It was there where the breeze touched the skin of my face, in the air I was breathing, in the hand that raised a cup of tea to my lips- in the china cup and the sweet hot tea and the lips that parted and the throat that swallowed- all around and within me. For a moment, I held my breath and sat very still, afraid I was imagining it or might break the spell if I moved. But the Presence- as strong and loving, as clear and constant as it had been when I was a small child- remained. And I wept.

It’s not that this Presence has not been with me since I was a child. As an adult I’d cultivated practises of meditation, prayer and shamanic ceremony that helped me turn my awareness toward this Presence. With a full and busy life I had to deliberately find ways to remember to turn my inner face toward this life-sustaining Presence. And it worked- when I reached out I could always feel the Presence there with me.

Until I couldn’t.

In the last few years of my marriage, no matter how I tried, or prayed I could not feel the Presence that had always been with me. It was like falling into an infinite darkness. I was lost, bereft. I became increasingly ill, unable to read or write. Seeking guidance from a therapist it took me months to confess my deepest grief. Finally I told her, “For the first time in my life, I cannot pray. I just go through the motions. I cannot find the Presence that’s always been there.” I choked on tears and terrror as I let the unspeakable come, my voice rising in an inconsolable wail: “I am afraid that God has abandoned me.”

The recent spontaneous return of a consistent awareness of this Presence feels like a return to life itself for me. That it returns with the fullness and effortlessness that I had as a child is grace beyond comprehension. I will no doubt write much more about this journey of loss and recovery but, for now, I will say what I know for sure:

The sacred Presence that holds us, the essential and sacred life-force of love that creates and sustains all that is, is always with us and within us. To be aware of this Presence we must be deeply connected within ourselves, to ourselves, to our hearts, to Life and Love as they are lived in the form of one particular embodied soul, one small human being.

God did not abandon me. I abandoned myself, separating myself from my own heart and spirit to keep the commitment I had made to stay in the marriage no matter what happened. I am so grateful for the painful events of the spring of 2010 that woke me up, freed me to leave and allowed me to find myself again, so I could feel once again the peace and aliveness that comes with awareness of the sacred Presence that holds and creates all that is.

Oriah’s Newsletter- Fall 2011

I am blessed to be doing so much of what I love, and hope we will connect where it feels appropriate for you. I am:

  • Doing individual counselling and mentoring sessions on the phone- if you’d like more information about this please email me at
  • Writing a new book that explores how we can expand our ability to consciously make choices (both the Big Life Changing decisions and the small daily choices) that support our deepest desire to live fully who and what we are.
  • Continuing to work on a novel (which, I have discovered, is a much longer process than non-fiction) about a group of lucid dreamers working together in the dream to co-create change in the everyday world.
  • Posting weekly on Wednesdays at You can subscribe to this weekly blog by scrolling down the green bar on the right-hand side and clicking on "Follow by Email."
  • Posting most days and participating in conversations on the Oriah Mountain Dreamer Facebook page where we share exploration and inspiration for living with open hearts and clear minds as embodied souls. Visit (You do not need a FB account to visit see the posts. )

It is a busy, creative life for which I am very grateful. Many Blessings, Oriah

(If you wish to receive the newsletters- 3 or 4 times a year- please send your email address to