Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Secret Christmas "Miracle"

When I was seven years old I was Mary in the Christmas pageant at the Presbyterian Church my family attended. Mary was the only girl-part in the tableau and, in an effort to make sure we were not confused by the Catholics my mother repeatedly told me, "Playing Mary is no big deal. All she did was have a baby- any woman can do that! The Catholics make Mary a big deal, and that's a sin."

(Yes anti-Catholic sentiment and misogyny were alive and well in the 1960's in Ontario, Canada. Sigh. But I digress.)

The best thing about being Mary was the veil I got to wear bobby-pinned to my hair. It was a sky blue square of what I now realize was probably polyester and not silk (as I like to remember it.) Along the edges that framed my face, someone had glued a line of silver sparkles.

Now, in those days, the right lens of my glasses was blocked out with tape in an effort to get me to use and strengthen my "lazy" left eye. I hated it, mostly because it left me with very little sight. Mrs. Russell, my Sunday school teacher, decided that the eye patch did not fit the nativity scene we were creating, and told me to take my glasses off. I was happy to comply. 

So, there I sat, a blue-eyed blonde Mary in my Sunday dress with my blue sparkly veil, holding one of my dolls wrapped in a sheet on my lap, surrounded by a group of boys all wearing bathrobes over their clothes. The shepherds wore t-towels on their heads held in place with their sisters' stretchy headbands applied horizontally across their foreheads. The bare-headed boy was my husband, Joseph. I don't even remember what he looked like.

Because I was holding baby Jesus, I sat under the single bright light that was dramatically flipped on once we were all in place. The minister read the biblical account of the story of the birth of Jesus. It was an evening service and, because of the bright light over me, I couldn't see the people in the pews in front of me. The sanctuary was a dark background to the light show suddenly spiralling out in my peripheral vision.

Perhaps because my vision was a little different- a bit blurry- without glasses, and certainly because the overhead light was refracting off the sparkles on the sides of my veil, I could see rainbows of colour framing my vision and shooting off into the darkness around me. If I moved my head slightly the lights moved and changed as if they were alive and spinning off my face.

It felt like magic- magic akin to but beyond the guy in the red suit who was going to put presents under the tree later that night. It felt as if something divine had touched our little tableau. The lights around my face seemed to be a visual representation of angels singing. It felt. . . . like being Mary might matter.

I was enthralled. . . so mesmerized that I did not hear the end of the reading and missed my cue to return to my seat, Finally, Mrs. Russell flipped off the light and changed her loudly whispered "Mary, Mary . . . " to call my name, rousing me from my revere. The congregation chuckled and I, usually the careful little rule-keeper, was surprisingly unembarrassed as I went back to sit with my family.

I felt like I had been privy to a small Christmas miracle. I wondered if my mother might have misunderstood Mary's- all women's- place in things. It felt like there just might be girl-roles worth having in the truly big picture.

I never told anyone about what happened, what I saw or felt, that night.

Until today.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Oriah House 
(c) 2013

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How The Light Returns

A single candle surrounded by darkness made deeper by the point of light; a circle of faces lit by the amber glow of a fire in a circle of stones in a clearing outside or in a dark cave, or a longhouse; someone walking alone through a bleak winter forest, seeing up ahead a small cabin lit from within- welcoming, waiting, promising warmth. How do you imagine it when someone talks about the promise of the returning light in this time of the longest darkness?

If we live long enough we will experience times of personal darkness. I'm not thinking here of the fertile darkness of deep rest and dreaming. I love the renewal and creative stirring of those periods. But I am thinking now of times when the way is lost and the heart is too weary to hope.

I am contemplating the ways in which light returns.

Sometimes it is gradual. Here in the northern hemisphere we will experience the longest night this coming Saturday the 21st and the next day- the very next day- dawn comes a bit earlier and dusk arrives an indiscernible moment later than it did the day before.

That's what coming up out of personal darkness is sometimes like: gradual, slow, an imperceptible movement back toward the fullness of life after we have experienced some kind of loss that has plunged us into what we fear is an eternal darkness. Food begins to have taste once more, and something unexpectedly makes us smile- if only for a moment- after weeks or months bereft of flavour or laughter.

In 2008 I had been predominantly housebound, often bed-bound, for more than two years with the chronic illness I'd mostly managed since I was thirty. The downward spiral had been slow but steady and showed no signs of stopping. And then, one morning alone in the country home I shared with my husband, I awoke from a night of terrifying dreaming to the sound of the Grandmothers speaking to me. The words followed me across the threshold from sleep and echoed in the room: GET OUT OF HERE NOW, ORIAH!

Sometimes, instead of a gradual return, the light comes back all at once- like the blaze of a match struck in the darkness- saying: "Live!" in a way we may not fully comprehend even as our vision is seared by the flame of awakening.

The Grandmothers of my dreams are rarely so explicitly directive.The urgency in their voices made me move that morning, even though I did not understand fully what they were telling me. I drove into Toronto and, although I returned home that night, changes began to unfold which gradually resulted in a move to the city alone a year later and, even more incrementally, the restoration of my daily energy and health.

Often for human beings the returning of the light after a long and difficult darkness happens in a strange mix of both the sudden flare of a call to action and a gradual integration of the growing light into our bones and our lives. Eventually, I realized that the Grandmothers directive had pointed to changes that were more all-encompassing than an excursion into the city or even a change in my residence. They had been urging me to remove myself from a situation where I was losing track of myself and my connection to Life and Spirit.

Light returns, because it is the nature of Life- of what we are- to cycle through periods of darkness and light. And the gifts of the darkness, those things we bring back from difficult times that allow us to live life more fully in an open-hearted way, are easier to retrieve if we can remember that the light will return. And when that seems like no more than a nice but unlikely idea, it helps to be with others who hold this knowing faithfully in that moment.

Even now, as we explore the longest night and reach for the promise of the return of the light here in the northern hemisphere, our sisters and brothers in the southern half of this planet are celebrating the time of the longest light and the fullness it brings.

And the Wheel turns, and Life continues, and the Sacred Wholeness holds us all.

Oriah House (c) 2013

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Exploring Underlying Uneasiness

An uneasiness arises within me as soon as December begins. My sleep is filled with darker dreams; migraines pop up with greater frequency; I feel a tightening in my body and I have had small but alarming “cardiac incidents” (as the doctors like to call them), around the end of December in some previous years.

I know I’m not alone. Friends and clients wonder out loud about uncomfortable and often unnameable emotions that are stirred around the holiday season. For me, it's not about the expectations or the busyness. I gave myself permission long ago to keep the season simple- dropped what did not fit; focus on time with family and close friends; let go of all the family and cultural expectations that can create a real Stressmas.

But something deeper arises annually, like a dark underground river that suddenly surges and puts me on shaky ground. Having noticed this in other years, I am particularly careful to do my daily practises of yoga, prayer and meditation during this time, but the feeling I have is far from settled.

This year I decided to just sit with the feeling in an open-ended way, not pretending (even with myself) that I have a clue what it is about. 

The irony is that my childhood Christmases were relatively pleasant family gatherings- which is to say that my mother was nice to me at Christmas because my grandparents came to stay.

Ahhhhh. . . . and there's the source of the uneasiness: My mother’s seasonal acceptance and affection were seductive illusions. I knew they wouldn’t last, but I wanted them to be real more than I have ever wanted anything else. And while I played my role- kept all the rules, worked hard to be helpful- and enjoyed being temporarily treated like a Good Daughter, I knew it was a dangerous game that could tempt me into believing and make the return to “normal” excruciating in January.

When we have repeated feelings of uneasiness for no apparent reason, there’s a good chance that some (usually unconscious) part of us has a foot on the gas and is shouting, "Yes!" while another, equally unconscious aspect (perhaps having learned from previous experience) is slamming on the brakes and yelling, "Don't go there!"

The annual uneasiness in my body is an echo of  the power and the danger of the seasonal seduction that played out in my childhood home. My nervous system goes on alert, anticipates the bait-and-switch of childhood.

There maybe more. I’ll continue the open-ended inquiry throughout the season if and when the feeling arises because even this small revelation feels like it has lifted some kind of burden, made the season much lighter for myself.

Awareness, while not always easy, brings its own reward – greater freedom to be with and appreciate my life as it is now. And for this I am deeply grateful.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What Can & Can't Be Earned

There are things we can earn and things we can’t. When we confuse the two we suffer: we behave with entitlement where we need to take responsibility; we engage in exhausting, ineffective and endless trying that can lead to despair.

This may seem self-evident, but I can truthfully say that a great deal of the suffering I have experienced or contributed to in this life is rooted in confusion about this simple truth.

We can and often do earn money, respect and trust.

Money is easiest in the sense that it is quantifiable and amenable to mutual agreement. Of course there are questions of clarity and fairness and honouring agreements etc. But the fact remains that money (or other forms of concrete barter) is something that can and often is earned.

Respect is a little more complicated. We earn respect primarily by being respectful. No guarantees there, but on the whole those who feel respected by us will respond in kind. And where they don’t in a big and consistent way, it’s probably best to take ourselves out of the vicinity if we can at least in the short term. Earning another’s respect, of course, starts with living and seeing ourselves in a way that cultivates self-respect. Respect is one of those things that adheres to the adage- We often teach others how to treat us.

Trust is trickier than respect, because it tends to develop over time and be effected by previous experience. It can take a long time for someone who was abused to trust another. If we want someone’s trust we can, to some degree earn it by being honest and consistent (and honest about where and when we must be inconsistent.) I’ve noticed that in fact most people are consistent- even if their consistency is in being inconsistent and/or dishonest. Another adage with some truth- People usually show us who they are from the start. Pay attention and trust what they are showing you.

But then there are the things we can’t earn. We can’t earn love. And we all want to be loved.

To borrow from Martin Buber’s observation about the word God, love is an over-burdened word. It can show up in a variety of ways but always, on some level, to be loved includes a sense of being seen and accepted, cherished and valued just for being ourselves.

If we try to earn the un-earnable, we will suffer, because it is simply not possible. Oh someone may appreciate our generosity and caring, may admire our efforts and value our contributions. But love- being seen and cherished for being- is not earned.

I know this because I grew up in a household that taught me to believe otherwise. It’s a hard belief to break. Teaching a child that every expression or feeling of being loved must be earned anew each day is based on the notion that we are not- each of us- worthy of love just because we are and not because of how useful we could be to another, or how well we can adhere to someone else’s sense of who we should be.

The belief that we must (and can) earn love, is a lie that creates tremendous suffering.

We can’t earn love. We never could. Knowing this, keeping it in conscious awareness, we are blessed to freely love and be loved.

Oriah House (c) 2013 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Last week, I started to feel a little like an old dog that someone might think had to be put down. I couldn’t hear anything out of my right ear and a crown on one of my teeth came off. Since I didn’t swallow the crown, that glitch was easily remedied, but the blocked ear defied health care professionals' intervention for a few days (turns out my eustachian tube was blocked.) It has cleared now (thank you, thank you, thank you) but the seven days of impaired hearing was, in hindsight, a gift.

We all know the one about needing to walk a mile in another’s shoes if we want to understand them. But sometimes it’s impossible to imagine ourselves in another’s place, and it is easy forget that others are not having the same experience we're having.

So it is with humility that I apologize to those I know who have had hearing loss for any moments of irritation I have had with their struggle. Trying to function in a noisy world with partial hearing loss is. . . .exhausting. In crowded restaurants the din is overwhelming and requires enormous focus to hear what table companions are saying. And giving up- while a relief from the trying- feels incredibly isolating, like you’ve just stepped out of a certain kind and level of connection with others.

And I knew- or at least was hoping and guessing- that my situation was temporary, repairable. If your hearing loss is permanent or progressive, I cannot imagine how much fortitude it takes to hang in there and try to listen and participate.

I think of my father whose hearing declined with age, and how he withdrew from conversations, stopped going to church, was increasingly reluctant to go to large restaurants. Family members urged him not to give up, and truthfully, I was mystified at how much he disengaged.

Now I get it.

You know, as someone who was diagnosed over thirty years ago with a chronic illness (CFS/FM) that many do not acknowledge or understand, you’d think that I would “get” that I was not “getting” what it was like for my father and others I knew who were losing their hearing.

Which is all to say that I am grateful for last week’s hearing loss- almost as grateful as I am for its restoration. It has rooted a needed awareness in my body, reminded me that even though in some sense we are One, every other is also wholly other with their own history, inner and outer challenges and resources. Remembering this, each encounter becomes an opportunity to explore the Mystery of the other. And for this, I am deeply grateful.

Oriah © 2013 (You can subscribe to this weekly blog by putting your email in at the bottom of the green panel on the right hand side of this page.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What Makes Us Squirm

Last week, I was caught off guard by something that made me cringe just a little. 

I was making a sandwich in my kitchen while listening to a video conversation between Anne Lamott and Oprah Winfrey. I love Anne’s writing and humour, her spirit and her honesty. At one point Oprah read a line from Anne's book Help, Thanks, Wow:

"Prayer is a chance that against all odds and past history, we are all loved and chosen." 

Anne responded, "Yes, we are all loved and chosen."

Her words made me freeze, knife poised mid-air, mayonnaise jar in hand, suspended, not breathing for a few moments.

I knew right away what the problem was: it was my discomfort with the word “chosen.” I often experience feeling held in the love of something larger than myself. But chosen?

I sat with my reaction to the word, started to contemplate some questions: What would it mean to be chosen? By whom? For what? Suddenly I remember standing awkwardly at school dances, hoping and dreading both possibilities- of being chosen and of not being chosen.

In the context of spirituality, is everyone chosen, and if so, does that make being chosen meaningless? Is it like giving everyone in the class a blue ribbon for participating when they didn’t really have any choice? And is being chosen always a good thing? I learned early to do well (at school, household chores etc.) as a way of not getting singled out, not being "chosen" for special attention in my family.

If I’m chosen does that mean someone else was not chosen? And won’t they be upset, envious, angry? Does that mean those that are chosen will now have to take care of those who were not?

Yes, leave it to me to see the spectre of unlimited responsibility lurking beneath any potential blessing.

I am pretty sure that Anne Lamott would say we are all chosen, and we know this because we are here, alive, living life on this spectacular planet. If that’s what she means- and that's my guess- I would agree.

And yet, the word makes me uncomfortable. So I pay attention. Because I have discovered that what makes me squirm a little for no apparent reason often offers me insight into who I am, helps me bring to consciousness that which is unconscious. I’m not talking about things that create anguish. I’m talking about  ideas, words, people, and situations that stir a little anxiety, create a bearable discomfort. In these places I resist the urge to move away instantly, choosing to just hang out a little, wondering what might be revealed.

So, I invite you to stir the pot of contemplation by sharing your own responses to the word “chosen” here. Does it sit well with you? Does it have any meaning for you? Do feel chosen in any sense? Are others chosen?

For me, it's a word that asks me to stretch, to consider where my discomfort comes from, to play with the possibilities for a good, life-deepening understanding of being "chosen ".

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Freedom To Be The Worst

This blog only makes sense if you know that I was always at the top of my class. From kindergarten on I was a driven little over-achiever- straight A's, perfect test scores, homework complete, all assignments on time. Oh eventually there were less than perfect projects and tests, and I learned that life did not end and I would not annihilated if I made a mistake. Still, I preferred to do well at everything, just in case- which meant of course, that I wasn't too keen to try things at which I did not naturally excel.

So, I am thrilled to announce that I have joined a class where I am (and will no doubt remain for quite some time) the worst student. It's a Tai Chi sword class.

I've wanted to take this class for awhile, primarily because one of the characters in my novel is an expert swordswoman. I figured I should at least get a feel for moving with a sword if I am going to describe her experience. Oh, I admit, I have had some not-so-secret fantasies of moving like the women in the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (the only martial arts movie I've ever seen) but I have enough sense to know they are just that- fantasies.

The class has about twenty participants. Most have clearly done a lot of Tai Chi and Kung Fu. I took three Tai Chi classes twenty-five years ago. Some of the folks in the class know the sword form itself, which is good because I can watch and follow them, albeit without much finesse and often too slowly not to be a menace to the people around me. Happily the swords are wood and the others seem to have an excellent spatial sense so I have neither been hit by anyone else nor accidentally swiped anyone myself.

I didn't see the notice for the class until two of the seven sessions had taken place. It's probably just as well. Starting late dissolved all hopes I no doubt would have had about "keeping up." I did two private sessions with the instructor so I wouldn't be completely lost, and those further helped me accept my novice status.

I don't remember being particularly bad at physical or athletic activities when I was a child. Until I hit puberty. At thirteen I grew to my current height of five feet nine inches and became all uncoordinated knees and elbows, a source of a great deal of amusement for my family. It was a happy day when I could drop PhysEd.

The sword classes are a workout, mentally and physically. (I am discovering muscles I apparently do not use very often.) In the midst of going through the movements again and again, I occasionally feel like my head will explode as I try to focus on the present moment form and move smoothly into the next move which I may or may not remember.

The other night, as I was moving through the class, working hard to remember which leg should be forward, I thought, "Wow, I would not have been able to do this twenty years ago, would never have been willing to look this bad at something." And suddenly, I was grinning as I moved from "Dragon Touches the Water" to "Big Chief Star." And I thought, "I am the worst in the class, and I'm okay with that!"

Being willing to be bad at something, to struggle with learning something, gives us incredible freedom that we do not have if we must always do well and/or look like we are doing well. It is, I believe, what stopped me from learning a second language when I was younger- there's just no way to do it without stumbling and getting it wrong in ways that are apparent to others.

Of course, I have to be careful not to get too attached to being the worst in the class. If I keep going- and I plan to- at some point, someone newer will come along and I will be neither the worst nor the best, will be what we are most of the time- someone muddling along in the middle, having moments when it all comes together, and moments when it all falls apart (sometimes because we have stopped being present and are busy congratulating ourselves on the brilliance of that grace-given moment where it all flowed so well.)

Learning to use a sword is broadening my ability to love it all: the effort sometimes required to learn and the grace of moments when the flow carries us; times that are the worst, the best, and the overwhelming number of moments somewhere inbetween.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What We Need Is Here

As the days grow shorter here in the northern hemisphere, getting out of bed by five-thirty gets a little harder even as it allows me to bask in the dawn. At that hour it’s pitch dark outside- the sky is black, the street lights are shining. By the time I make tea and sit down to do my practise of prayer and meditation, the sky is just beginning to edge into indigo.

The balcony doors of my small apartment face east, so as I send my prayers out- calling on the visible and invisible faces of the Sacred Mystery, and holding the needs of myself, others and the world in my heart- I watch the gradual transformation of the sky. And every time- every single time- watching the growing light fills me with awareness of the gift of the day.

Often, if the sky is cloudless, I will pause and allow the sun to touch me and pierce me as it crests the horizon in front of me. For me, doing this- being present at dawn- cracks me open, fills me with awareness of the overwhelming beauty of being given a life here on this spectacular planet.

One morning, filled with gratitude for how the dawn had returned me to my centre and renewed my commitment to living the day with an open heart, I thought, “I wish I could be touched by the energy of dawn throughout the day.”

And immediately the thought arose: “It’s always dawn somewhere on the planet.”

I know this is a fairly obvious fact when we think about it: as the planet turns the horizon is continuously shifting and allowing sunlight to flood over a new area of the earth’s surface. But I hadn’t thought about it this way. It’s equally true that at any moment, somewhere on the planet it is dusk, noon, midnight.

And I thought of how the energy of these times- times when, according to the shamanic tradition with which I am familiar, the “crack between the worlds” is open so we can access a broader, deeper perception of reality- is truly available somewhere on the planet in every minute, day or night. And because we are always connected to, interwoven with all life on this planet, with a little focus and imagination we can feel our way into the renewal of dawn, the softening of dusk, the dreaming of midnight, or the clarity of noon anywhere at any time.

This is the magic of the Sacred Wholeness in which we participate and of which we are made. It is the gift of imagination combined with the reality of living as embodied souls/ensouled bodies.

Aware of just a fraction of this magnificence I am filled with gratitude.

Oriah © 2013

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Just Two Words

Had a moment this week that made me smile. I was on Facebook and noticed a post asking folks what they would say to their younger self if they could. Now, I’ve done this kind of thing before, as both an imaginative exercise and a bit more literally when I spoke to a graduating class at my old high school a few years ago. In the end I basically said something like- From this point on, you have the power and responsibility to shape your life, to make your own choices. If you can recognize this and step into that power, you will be free to create a life that lets you discover and live who you truly are.  

Of course, I was thinking about myself at eighteen, still fettered by other people’s ideas about who I was and what I “should” do. If I could do it over, I would wander more in the world, would let myself try things, quit things, try other things. . . .

So, it was a surprise this week when, seeing the latest iteration of this thought experiment asking people to offer only two words that they would say to a younger self, the words that came were, “You’re okay.”

Yes, if I could only say two words to the person I was at seven or seventeen or twenty-seven, they would be “You’re okay.” It made my heart ache a little to realize I had not known this truth at any of those ages. 

Those words have two meanings for me: I am - we each are- okay, just the way we are, and okay is good enough to contribute to the world and have a full, deep life. And, we will be okay- which is to say that although at times the body knows pain, the heart does ache, and the mind reels in confusion, who and what we are in an essential way remains and is okay. It is possible that if I had known that I was and in some essential way always would be okay, perhaps some of the suffering I unwittingly created for myself and others might have been avoided or mitigated.

If I was speaking to that group of students graduating from my old high school today that’s what I’d want to communicate: You’re okay. I'd want to say those two words in a way that would root them in the minds, hearts and bodies of those listening, infuse them with the power of deeply loving our human lives. Because all the rest of it- giving power over to others to decide what we do, where we go, how we live; getting stuck in the fears and limitations that have nothing to do with who we really are- all of this is based on the fact that we don’t really know that who and what we are is and will be in a profound and deep way, truly okay. Oh, if we’ve lived even seventeen years we have no doubt been wounded by the well-meaning (or the not-so-well-meaning,) picked up some bad habits, and developed our own conscious and unconscious fears. But none of that changes the truth of what we are.

It made me smile to see how my answer to this question has changed over the years, reflecting some of what I’ve learned, what I’ve been able to let go, and the changes in how I hold myself in my own heart.

So those are my two words, words I sometimes still need to remember to say to myself: You’re okay. 

What about you? If you could say only two words to your younger self- what would they be? 

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Finding Our Particular Way

Part of my work in the world includes the privilege of receiving others' stories. In the last four years three of those stories have involved cancer. Each individual chose a different course of physical treatment and viewed the cancer differently. Joe saw the cancer as his body offering him an opportunity to clear out what was toxic in his life and made big changes around work, home and relationships. Catherine met the cancer by listening for the voices of unexpressed fear and anger and sorrow that she felt were beneath the cancer. Lucy saw it as a call to step into her warrior-self and draw clear boundaries about what she did not want in her life, her heart, her body. All three are cancer-free today.

During their healing process, each person had someone tell them in no uncertain terms that the way they were approaching the cancer was “wrong,” was either a waste of precious time or energy or explicitly dangerous (ie- would result in continued illness and/or death.)

Humans- yes, that’s us!- have a tendency to think that our way- consciously or unconsciously chosen practices or ways of seeing or speaking or acting- should and will work for everyone. It’s understandable really- on some level we know we are in this together, affecting each other, having similar experiences, co-creating the world we share.

And it’s not that we can’t learn from each other. We can, we do, we will! BUT- and this is a Big But- no two people have identical histories or experiences. When we forget this we may inadvertently cause suffering: tell someone how they are feeling instead of asking and listening; make predictions for others based on beliefs/knowledge of how things have been for us; dismiss others’ suffering as “their choice,” because they refuse to do what we are sure we “know” will work.

We all see things through filters based on our own experience. Given the power-over goals of a dominator culture I tend to at least theoretically lean away from fighting as a way to solve anything. But Lucy- who had never said or felt like she had a right to say a clear “NO!” to anything in her life- found her healing in the image of the warrior, the one who says no to protect life, the one who uses the sword of discernment to say, “Not here!”

These three people consider themselves “cured.” But here’s the thing- even if that wasn’t true, even if a cure had not taken place, it would not necessarily mean that the approach any one of them had taken was “wrong,” because each has found a deep and profound healing in the way they have dealt with the disease. Healing does not always involve a cure. After all, none of us are getting out of here alive, but we may or may not create and receive the healing we need before we go.

It’s not just that we each have a right to decide how we will deal with big things that affect us in a primary way. It’s that we really are the only people who can discover what it is we need to do. That doesn’t make us infallible- we can and do make mistakes, misjudge what we need, take actions that cause suffering. . . . Maybe that’s why we start “telling” others what they need to do: we are launching an offensive against the scary knowledge that there is a great deal we do not know, even about things that affect us directly.

Working with these three wonderful humans I was reminded again and again of how much I do not know, of how each person is taking their own journey. We can support, assist, facilitate each other’s exploration, but ultimately we cannot “know” the path another needs to take. I've also been reminded that the wisdom to take our next step- whatever that may be- is within all of us.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Stitching Up Old Wounds With Words

When you’re a writer who says she is working on a new book, people understandably ask how the writing is going, particularly people like your agent and other writers. For over two years, I've been saying two seemingly contradictory things: I am working on a new book AND I’m not writing.

The truth is that it’s never really accurate to say that I’m not writing. I fill pages by hand before the sun comes up in the morning- recording dreams, mulling thoughts, wandering and wondering on the page. I post regularly on Facebook and I post a blog of fresh (as in new- I’m not making any claim of brilliant originality of thought) writing weekly. In between this, I write notes about books I'm reading and emails to friends and readers. And I have what may be a half-written first draft of a novel on my laptop and more than several chapters that may or may not end up aforementioned book I am “working on.”

If the Inuit, the First Nation people who live in the far north, have one hundred names for snow, it seems I should have at least a couple of dozen for the different types of writing I do. One of these would be for the writing I love best, the writing I do when I can say, “I am writing a new book.” Until a few weeks ago I was trying to write a new book, planning on writing a new book, working my way into writing a new book.

Now, I am writing a new book.

And my heart is glad in a way I can hardly hope to describe.

This is writing that takes me the way a passionate lover does. I interrupt postures in yoga class to scribble in a small notepad as ideas about the morning’s writing and what is next flood in; I walk around with a smile on my face simply because another three thousand words spilled from my fingers and onto the screen this morning; I forget to pay bills on time, miss appointments and decline social gatherings; I am obsessed, possessed, consumed and enthralled.

It has been a long time since I have felt that in every moment when I am not focused on the writing I am whispering a constant prayer for the writing, a mantra of-  “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Which is not to say I am not also, at moments (and particularly before I get started in the morning) terrified.

For those of you who have read my other books, it may be hard to believe me when I say that this one is different- this one is personal. After all, I've shared many personal stories. I've tried to paint with words the colour and shape of one woman’s inner world and shared stories of my interaction with the outer world.

But this book is. . . . a healing for me. It shatters denial that has kept the illusion of safety alive. It opens the door to new ways of being with myself and the world.

I am writing my way to the wholeness that I am, that you are, that we all are.

I am writing my way into the healing I took life for.

I am stitching up old wounds with words and images, and stories.

I am making meaning of what has happened, of what is happening with the truth of my own life.

And I am overwhelmingly grateful in every moment for the blessings of this writing.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Accused of Softness

Last week I received an email from someone who had learned and participated in shamanic ceremonies with me many years ago. She said she’d been reading my blog and Facebook page and wanted to know what had happened to me, wondered if I had gone a little “soft in the head” with all my writing about tenderness toward our struggles and opening inner doors with curiosity. She wanted to know what had happened to Oriah the Warrior Woman. She was not pleased.

I have to admit, my reaction was one of delight. Truly. And that reaction thrilled me because I thought it might reflect at least a smidgen of progress in the not-caring-what-others-think area of development. But I took her questions as genuine, as prompts to have a look at how and why I might have changed, may have softened (in the head or in the heart?)

As I sat with her questions, I realized that the truth is that almost everything in the world breaks my heart open these days. Someone on Facebook writes that she hates herself for not being stronger, and I write a response with tears blurring my vision of the screen, aching a little for her- for me- for the parts of us that meet our own struggles, losses and pain without mercy, with judgement and criticism heaping suffering on top of pain.

Someone tells me of a friend who is working to set up community gardens in a city, a man who starts conversations with neighbours with the observations that since vegetable gardens grow vegetables and flower gardens grow flowers, they need to decide together how they want their community garden to grow community (instead of just assuming that dividing the land into small private plots is the only way to go) and my heart breaks open with hope for the infinite ways we can create the world right where we are.

I do a telephone session with someone and she confesses that her daily practise has not been going well- that the meditation she is doing feels boring and painful, that she spends her time wanting to be anywhere else. And my heart breaks open to our human struggle to live up to some kind of ideal- spiritual or otherwise- and our genuine desire to live fully present. Together we explore ways to remain true to her intent to centre and listen deeply without hurling herself mercilessly against methods that are just not working for her.

It doesn’t take much to break my heart these days: the way the sun lights the sky as it crests the horizon at dawn, the promise of another day given to us; the way strangers stop to help a woman whose grocery bags have broken, men and women scurrying to gather runaway oranges, to scoop up foil-wrapped butter and packages of spaghetti where they have fallen on dark pavement; the thrill of slipping into the quiet of a university library to write for a few hours away from my seductive internet connection, and the way the words spill out of me like living things, telling stories I had not noticed before; the courage of human beings facing loss- of homes, of loved ones, of health, of partnerships- to take another breath, another step. . .  

The woman is right- I didn’t used to be so easily broken open. But some of the certainties I held when I was younger have crumbled in the face of life’s unpredictability. And other certainties- of the beauty of the human spirit and of the gift of having one small human life- have taken root.

I feel I cannot explain it all, so I just write one line back to her. My heart is very full as write: “Your wonderful questions have made me aware of changes that have happened so gradually I hardly noticed them- I am deeply grateful. Thank you.”

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Unnecessary Judgements

I don’t take photographs. I always feel a little guilty about this. On my recent trip to the wilderness I love I took my camera and dutifully carried it in my bag on drives and hikes. The leaves had just begun to change colour. Everywhere I looked amidst the dark evergreens and pink granite, leaves were turning to crimson and gold. Over and over I paused to take in a scene, occasionally thinking, “That would make a great photo.” But I didn’t take a single picture.

I’ve wondered about my resistance to taking pictures. My youngest son, several close friends, and the most recent wasband, Jeff, all have a great eye for seeing and taking good pictures, and I love looking at the pictures others take, particularly appreciating the ones of trips we have shared.

Jeff bought me a camera when we were together, hoping I think to cultivate a common interest. We took walks together through the conservation forest that surrounded our home. He almost always  took dozens of pictures, which often left me waiting on the trail, sometimes being eaten by pesky mosquitoes. Eventually, when he’d suggest we “take a walk,” I’d ask if we were going to walk or take pictures. He got defensive, reacting in part to the edge of judgement that had no doubt entered my tone. Instead of just sticking with how it can be somewhat understandably frustrating to spend more time waiting than walking on one of his suggested “walks,” I was semi-consciously building a case for why taking so many pictures was somehow not “as good as" simply taking a walk. When he urged me to take my camera I replied that I was more interested in “just being present” than in taking pictures.

Ah yes, the human ability to endlessly build a case of moral (in my case usually spiritual) superiority for what are simply our preferences. Sigh. I had a little aha moment about this on my recent trip north.

Toward the end of my time away I returned to a place I had visited twenty-eight years ago- a huge outcropping of white quartz granite, several hundred feet high. You can see for miles from the top. 

For reasons too complex to describe here (stay tuned for the book,) the trip down from this peak was. . . . an ordeal- difficult, frightening and potentially very dangerous. When I finally got back to my car, I realized something: the way I had managed to stay calm and continue without injury was by “writing” a story in my head about what was happening. And doing this- puzzling over how to describe the lichen that was particularly slippery as a dark purpled brown, the colour of packaged dulse- brought me more fully into the moment, made me more present to the world around and within me, allowed me to see more clearly how to proceed.

And suddenly I got it: that’s what taking pictures does for Jeff- it makes him more present to the world around him, gives him a way in to see more clearly, a way to fame what he sees so that he is not just an observer but a participant.

Taking pictures does not do this for me. I marvel at how all visual artists seem to see and depict luminosity and colour, shading and shape with pigment or carved stone. That’s their way. Mine is to feel for the words that hold the arc of the story that is unfolding in the moment. Storytelling with words deepens my experiencet, helps me stay present when distracted thoughts could take me elsewhere. 

Just different ways of seeing, of being here. No need to judge someone else’s way, or my own, as better or less than.

Nothing like a little humility mixed with the pleasure of deepening self-awareness.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ensnared By Inner Noise

Last week I was away for a week of solitude in the wilderness. As I sat on the dock watching the reflection of the full moon on the still dark waters of the lake, I sat in the centre of a deep abiding quiet.

And then I came home. But it wasn't the noise of the city that took me by surprise. It was the inner noise that made me want to get back in the car and head north again. I was dismayed to feel my mental hamsters back in their caged wheels, racing away. While I read and replied to accumulated emails, my mind was simultaneously muttering about what else needed to be done- there were bills to be paid, appointments to be set, laundry to do, phone calls to be made. . .

It wasn’t that the list of things to do was particularly pressing- it was that my inner chatter was continually revving me up. I felt like I was getting further and further behind as the day proceeded.

Finally I asked, “What is going on?” Following my breath, I deliberately switched from cranky to curious. Yes, there were things to be done- when is that not true?- but how had I gotten so scattered so quickly? Just two days earlier I’d been writing and reading at the cabin, feeling productive but not driven, capable of making choices about what to do next.

This wasn’t simply a matter of inner noise matching the speed and volume of the outer world. I had not just lost the quiet- I had lost my sense of choice. The long and banal to-do list had somehow become the tail wagging the dog. How had that happened?

As I sat following my breath, I became aware of what almost felt like a physical hook embedded in the centre of my body, in my gut. When I softened around this hook with genuine curiosity, I discovered endless barbs of mental “shoulds.” I should read and answer every email request today; I should get all household admin stuff done before I returned to the writing I want to do; I should participate more on Facebook and check in with friends and family because I have been away. . . .

And beneath these small nattering shoulds were bigger lies about needing to earn or pay for the blessing of a week away in the wilderness, lies about unworthiness when the truth is that life is a gift to be received and appreciated not paid for, and we are all worthy be virtue of being.

The weight of semi-conscious shoulds can crush us, drive us, rob us of choice and joy. If we are feeling rushed, pushed, overwhelmed or driven- we can pretty much assume that the shoulds are leading the charge within. Just taking a moment to bring them to consciousness allowed me to say,”No thanks,” to turn the computer off and go for a slow walk around the neighbourhood before I headed to bed with a good book.

Free will choice is directly proportional to consciousness. We cannot have real choices unless we bring to awareness the unconscious beliefs and fears that often shape and colour our actions. If we can bring some gentle curiosity to those moment when we feel out of control, when we wonder how it got so noisy and busy in our inner world, we can deepen and broaden our ability to chose how to live this precious life we have been given.

Oriah © 2013

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Glimpses of Reality

(Deepest apologies dear blog friends. I was away on retreat last week but had set this blog up to post on Wed. but apparently my techno skills are lacking and it was not posted.)

 One day last week as I did my mediation practise something happened. Oh, it started off like every other morning. After my prayers, I do ten minute of alternate nostril breathing (a method that calms and resets the nervous system) and then move into twenty minutes of just following the breath, allowing thoughts to drift past. I do this twice a day, having discovered that that serves my particular body-mind-heart-spirit better than a longer once a day meditation.

Of course, no meditation is uneventful. Some days monkey mind runs rampant, reviewing the past and planning the future, list making, obsessing about old grievances or new worries, hoping, wishing, critiquing, questioning. . .  and I have to gently bring my attention back to my breath over and over.

And then there are days, moments, breaths that are soaked in grace when I live exclusively inside the sensation of being filled and emptied, when my attention is anchored in the breath. I think of this as dropping down into an inner silence, a deep well of stillness although I am aware of the movement of my body as it expands and lifts and then drops with each inhale and exhale. It is paradoxical that there is this movement at the centre of the stillness- or perhaps this stillness at the centre of the movement.

But this morning, sitting in the centre of the flow of the breath, I noticed something else. I noticed that there was another movement beneath the breath- the movement caused by the beating of my heart. Subtle but constant I could feel the soft pulsing of my heart gently moving my spine, reverberating throughout my entire body. And so there were two movements: of the breath and of the heartbeat.  Beneath this, I could sense smaller, gentler pulses- movements of fluid in the body, electromagnetic pulses of the nervous system. . .  And slowly all of these pulses, although separate, came into alignment with the powerful heart pulse.

And then. . . . there was something larger, deeper. . . . a pulse that was both within me and yet larger than myself, a pulse that was running through the earth beneath me, the trees outside my window, the air around me. I felt it more than heard it and slowly. . . . my heart beat came into alignment with this larger pulse that seemed to hold all that is. 

I sat there within the awareness of this great holy pulse without thought for what seemed simultaneously like forever and as if for a nanosecond. Time felt meaningless in this place. There were no thoughts, until I thought, “Wow, that was great!” and was once again aware of a particular inhale and exhale, of the cushion beneath me and the sound of dogs barking in the park.

There was a time when I would have berated myself for allowing thought to pull me out of this experience of the great pulse of Being, of Life. But this morning I threw back my head and laughed out loud. I have come to see the human life we are given- the one with physical limits and runaway thoughts and infinite sensations- as a gift to be embraced and not a trial to be endured. And I am filled with gratitude for both this life and for the glimpses into something I cannot name that creates all of what is in every instance, holding us, sustaining us and, by grace, giving us glimpses of another level of this reality we are.

Just as the strong pulse of my heart brings the other smaller pulses of my body into alignment, I sense (sometimes know or believe and, at moments, hope) that this larger pulse that is the heartbeat of the Sacred Wholeness that includes it all, can pull us into alignment with it if we are willing. And from that place of alignment perhaps we can find our way into living sustainably on this magnificent planet.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"Achieving" Dreams

Last week someone sent me an interview question that left me staring blankly at the computer screen. They asked: "What's the biggest, most personally fulfilling dream you've achieved to date?"

It's not that I've never wanted to achieve things- I have and I do. I want to finish writing a book in the next ten months, spend some time in the wilderness this fall, get to bed by nine tonight.

Do I dream of bigger things? Well, I hope my writing contributes to the world- but I am aware that that dream can be fulfilled by touching one person or offering something that thousands feel is useful. I can't make either happen and I'm not at all sure that one is "better" than the other except perhaps in its capacity to pay my rent. Not that rent paying is unimportant, just that I'm not sure it is an "achievement." Furthermore, I can't really know where or with whom my writing may be helpful. I write mostly for myself and for the love of writing.

The "achievement" is in getting words onto the page, enough to fill a book that hangs together in a kind of wholeness and points to something that is true. This was and continues to be my dream, and I want to do it again and again- deepening, opening, allowing more and more to come onto the page. I did not dream of having a best selling book, and although I am deeply grateful for the opportunities this has brought, I don't think of it as an achievement as much as a blessing, a gift. Let's face it- there are many truly good books that do not sell (and a few stinkers that do.)

Perhaps my problem with the question is that my "dreams" are more about process than product, and I associate achievement with the latter. To-do list in hand, I can be as goal-oriented as the next person, but mostly I am focused on learning. Wanting to learn, I taught- creative writing, shamanic ceremonies, meditation- so I would have company on the road of exploration. I'm a good teacher mostly because I am excited to be learning in the process.

I could not have dreamt of the two wonderful men who are my sons and all that they have taught me about life and love and healing. They are gifts of grace in my life. My parenting was less an achievement than a close call with my own unhealed, unconscious self. That they turned out to be magnificent human beings is more testament to their spirits than my parenting.

None of this is false modesty. Truly. It's just that my use of the word achievement would be applied to things I doubt the interviewer would consider dream-worthy. Like, this week I did my practise of prayer and mediation each day before I did anything else. This is an achievement, something that deepens my awareness and lets me take care of my own life and the world to the best of my ability. It's the piece I can do something about. It's a one-day-at-a-time kind of achievement, difficult to see from the outside and unlikely to garner standing ovations.

I do have bigger dreams. I dream of continuing to find and practice what heals us and helps us heal the world together. These dreams aren't achieved as much as they are stirred by flashes of insight, awakened by moments of compassion, supported by a mysterious and sacred Presence within and around us. It's not that work is not involved, but mostly it's about getting out of the way so grace has a chance to touch and work through me.

And maybe that is the core of my dreams for my life: to be able to step out of the way and allow the words to flow onto the page, to let the practice bring me to stillness, to willingly follow the guiding hand of grace. But truly, these aren't dreams that are achieved as much as they are welcomed when they visit and leave me filled with awe and gratitude.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Out Of Control

Since I was in my late twenties a circle of thirteen old women I call the Grandmothers have appeared in my night dreams. Sometimes, they enter my dreams through what I call "commercial breaks"- short breaks in the flow of an otherwise movie-like dream that momentarily interrupts the story to make a seemingly unrelated and often short, pithy statement.

One night the short repeated message was: "The desire to control is a natural human response to fear."

There are infinite ways to move into unhealthy controlling behaviour. Steering your car and regulating your speed to suit road conditions are healthy actions intended to keep your vehicle under control. Reworking your household budget daily, telling other adults what they should be doing in their personal lives (particularly when they have not asked for advice,) repeatedly saying you will do something and then not doing it in an effort to exert power over another are just three examples of the infinite unhealthy controlling behaviours we can come up with. (We humans are very creative.)

It's not too hard to see how fear could be the motive behind controlling behaviour. The tricky part is that there isn't always a direct or obvious relationship between what we are afraid of and what we are trying to control. Worried about my finances I may contribute too much "wisdom" to my friend's relationship situation. Fearing for a loved one's safety we may find ourselves organizing paper clips or monitoring our own or another's food meticulously. The anxiety felt can be channelled into relatively unrelated attempts to get some aspect of life under control in a usually unconscious effort to lower our anxiety. And really- sometimes, it's okay. Organizing paper clips is not likely to do any harm.

But the point of the Grandmothers statement is to help us release judgement when we notice that we or another is moving into controlling behaviour and remember that this is probably masking fear and anxiety. Knowing this, we can respond differently. Telling someone to" stop organizing the paper clips and sit down and relax" is not likely to be very effective or welcome. Inviting them to take a walk or sit down for tea might help.

Certainly when we notice our own controlling behaviour, it's time to ask ourselves: What am I afraid of? What is creating anxiety for me? Is there a way to be with that anxiety or fear, or a way to skilfully distract myself in this moment? (Because sometimes compulsively controlling behaviour just ratchets up the anxiety so putting the paper clips down really is a good idea.)

The Grandmothers are never judgemental. When they offer me something like this it is said in a truly compassionate tone. It's just one of the many facts of being human: when we are frightened we sometimes move into (largely ineffective, often unconscious and frequently annoying) controlling behaviour.

It doesn't mean that we have to always stick around when someone else is highly controlling (particularly if they do it habitually and are invasive) but it does mean that as we take ourselves out of range we can hold them in our hearts, knowing that they are most likely in the grip of unconscious fear.

It helps. It helps me to be more compassionate with myself and others, and that compassion often allows me or the other to see what is happening and make a choice to stop, to let the anxiety catch up with us so we can hold it tenderly and sooth the frantic voice of fear. And what a relief that can be, to stop frantically trying to get control of something, to accept there are things we cannot control and learn how to be with even this.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Choosing To Forget- Or Not

Recently I heard a radio ad for a documentary about a surgical technique that might someday be able to remove memories that are causing ptsd (post-traumatic stress disorder.) I wondered if my negative reaction to the idea was simply because, with two parents with Alzheimer's, I am all too aware of the painful process of involuntarily losing memories. When someone recently left a Facebook comment that, "In the end all we have are our memories," all I could think was- if we're lucky.

Putting aside the brain's complex structure which may make this procedure impossible, I started thinking about some of the things that have happened in my life that have been particularly difficult, wondering if I would want my memory of them purged.

When I was a young woman I was raped, and it took considerable amounts of healing work to alleviate the suffering that my memory of this incident created. But, if I think about removing my memory of the rape, my immediate gut response is a resounding, No. I am no longer traumatized by the memory and being able to recall what happened- how I felt, what helped (and what did not)- has been useful in my work with women who have been raped. I know something of the territory they are traversing and so hopefully, am more helpful than I might be if that memory was wiped clean.

Oh, I am not making virtue out of necessity. I would not wish rape on anyone, and I do not think that the learning I gleaned from being raped is the "reason" (cause of) why it happened. This would be to claim something I cannot know. I feel no ill will toward the man who raped me at this point and sincerely hope he has healed from whatever darkness led to him make the choice to rape. But I do not think he chose to rape to "teach" me what I needed to learned (as a New Age teacher once suggested to me,) or even that a higher power orchestrated the rape for these lessons. I do not experience any such harshness in the Presence within and around me

But, what if someone is unable or unwilling to do the healing work needed to remove the trauma held in their body/heart/mind?  My father, having lost awareness of much of his past and present (where he is, who he is, who others are etc.) due to dementia has, at times, found himself adrift in memories of childhood abuse, striking out at those around him in fear. Robbed of the ability to contain or work with the memories that shaped some of his values and choices in life, perhaps he would now be better off without them.

Of course, I wonder if erasing a memory- even if this was possible and desirable- would necessarily erase the wounding held in psyche and body. Some seek and find healing for wounds created by events they can't and may never fully recall because the trauma happened at a very early age or has been repressed deep into the unconscious. 

For myself, I suppose the bottom line is that each time I think about the benefits that might be accrued by erasing a memory of a traumatic event, the cost feels too high. I am unwilling to give up the learning, insight, and strength gained from moving beyond survival to using the challenges that have shaped me to offer what I can to the world and deepen my appreciation of the life I have.

We are shaped and informed by the things that happen in our lives and, perhaps more importantly, by what we do with what happens- how we live with it or bury it, how we let it open or close us to aspects of self and the world. Would that be equally so if we could not remember- however incompletely or inaccurately- what had happened?

Since I am writing about choice these days, I would love to hear from you here. What do you think? If you really could choose to erase the memory of a particular event, would you? What do you imagine you might gain or lose? How does contemplating the possibility effect how you see your life? 

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tangled Intentions

There’s an old joke about a man who prays daily asking to win the lottery to no avail. Finally, one day, in the midst of his prayers he hears the voice of God saying, “Buy a ticket!”

Whether it is a prayer or a desire, a clear intention or a wish, we need to act in accordance if we want to give ourselves and the universe a chance at manifestation. Honest self-examination bringing to consciousness our unconscious ambivalence can go a long way in helping us see where we get in our own way. It’s best if we can do this inner exploration lightly, with some honest curiosity and as little judgement as possible. Let me use a simple example from my all-too-human life.

If I want to be well-rested tomorrow but stay up late watching videos tonight, I have to ask myself- What is going on here? Is there an immediate anxiety or sorrow that I am trying to avoid, or perhaps some ambivalence about bringing the fullness of my energy to tomorrow’s commitments?

Lately, when this happens, one of the contributing factors is simply discouragement over the "non-restorative sleep" that is sometimes a feature of the chronic illness I live with. That's the medical term for diligently going to bed at a reasonable time, sleeping soundly for eight or nine hours and waking up as tired as when you went to bed. In a kind of adolescent shoot-myself-in-the-foot-way a week of this can inspire me to think, "What the heck- may as well have some fun since I am going to be exhausted anyway!" 

If we can bring a little tenderness to what seems (and may be) blatant self-sabotage, we may start to notice when and under what conditions we find it hard to act in accordance with what we are sure are our clear intentions. We begin to see what are the real choice points in acting on what we intend.

My odds of getting a restful night’s sleep go up if I stop staring at any kind of screen by eight in the evening. I am more likely to do this if I have a great juicy novel on hand, do not eat anything after seven, and listen to wonderful soothing music as I do the final household tasks for the day. When I don’t want or manage to do these things- when I lie in bed watching hours of old episodes of Law and Order while eating salted cashews and gluten-free macaroons glazed with dark chocolate- I know that something else is up. 

In this particular episode of why-am-I-not-exercising-good-self-care I find that the only way out is to soften to  my own  discouragement, to allow it to be there, to hold it tenderly and offer myself the kind of support that I would offer another. "Yes, I may wake up as tired as I am now. But I know, at some point this will change. There will be restorative rest again. Taking care of myself before bedtime is something I can change, even if the quality of sleep is something beyond my immediate control." And slowly, I coax myself into the self-care I know helps me enjoy the life I have been given.

Because the great thing is, as long as life and love endure, I get another chance to do it all tomorrow- to clarify my intentions, to send out my prayers, to ask for help and take action that is in alignment with Spirit (within and around me,) in accordance with what serves life in me and the world.

Even as I write this I am overwhelmed by how loved we are- how we are held in endless mercy, how the generosity of life keeps giving us the opportunity to learn and deepen our lives, to forgive ourselves for going unconscious over and over, to simply do the best we can. 

Oriah House (c) 2013

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Gift & Burden of Choice

Someone recently mentioned "the burden of choice" to me. Having two parents with Alzheimer's I am aware of the flip side- the burden of losing choice. When we're growing up there is a gradual progression- we get to make more and more of our own choices, we look forward to being increasingly "in charge" of our own lives (until we figure out that's not exactly how it works in every instance) and often, particularly in the teenage years, imagine we will do things "better," or at least very differently than the adults around us.

My father's disease has advanced to the point where it is clear that he cannot make most of his own choices, although his daily caregivers give him as much autonomy as possible. It may not seem like much to decide what you will eat or where you will walk, but I can see my father's spirit is fed by being able to make even these small choices.

My mother is still in-between where her ability to make choices changes continually and is not so clear. Just because someone is unable make some choices, doesn't mean they can't make any choices for themselves. It's tricky, in part because we do not want to cause suffering by either prematurely removing a choice or by allowing a choice (like driving) that might endanger others.

It occurs to me that this is an essential aspect of our experience as human beings: decisions/choices consciously and unconsciously being made. Not to decide is in itself a choice with its own consequences. Sometimes we feel there should be someone else- someone wiser, kinder, less neurotic and more balanced and compassionate than us- to make the really Big Choices, particularly the ones that potentially impact others.

Of course we can and sometimes do draw upon resources that are larger than our own small perspective- the resources of community, the knowledge and wisdom of those who have walked this way before, and the guidance of that sacred wholeness we may call God or the Mystery. But it all still gets filtered through and acted upon by us- small human beings with our prejudices and unconscious fears, our incomplete knowledge and intermittent intuition, with our instincts and feelings and our desire to do what it truly best for all.

It's messy. At times it can feel like a burden, something for which we are ill-equipped. But I cannot help but feel it is also a gift, the core of what being here is about: learnin to make the best choices we are able to make knowing we are human, knowing there will be unanticipated consequences and changing conditions (inner and outer- many beyond our control) that will necessitate making new choices again and again.

It's a strange dance, a movement born of the tension between what we do not control and the ever-changing abilities we have to respond (our response-ability) for those choices that are ours. Somehow, in this tension- perhaps because of it- we grown up, we learn to do the best we can, we develop the ability to hold with tenderness our shared fallibility and limitations. In the shamanic teachings with which I have worked, we describe this process of shifting from unconscious reactivity to making compassionate choices to the best of our ability as moving from being a "two-legged" to being fully human.

It's why we are here.

Oriah House (c) 2013

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Finding The Inner Wilderness

I love the wilderness of Northern Ontario: white birch trees, slender slivers of light amongst dark evergreens; the massive granite shoulders of the precambrian shield; the sound of the loons calling out from lake to lake; what those of us who grew up there call “the bush.” For many years I took people into the wilderness to do solo ceremonies of fasting and prayer- vision quests. I take myself there each summer for restoration of body and soul. For me, the bush hits the reset button on my nervous system, reminds me on a visceral level of how I belong in this world.

But some recent health blips mean I may not be able to go to the wilderness this summer. So, I started wondering about what the wilderness offers me, exploring ways to provide myself with what I need in the city. Of course, it won’t be the same. The quiet vastness of a natural area largely uninhabited and minimally impacted by humans cannot be duplicated in a city of 2.6 million. And yet, it feels like a worthwhile quest- this looking inward for the wilderness that feeds me.

In the wilderness my body lets go in places where I did not know I was holding on. I feel my smallness in a good way, a way that makes it clear to the embodied soul/en-souled body I am just how crazy trying to “hold on” is in a vast reality of constant change. Laying on a sun-warmed rock I become a molecule of an infinite universe and every cell in my body feels, “Home,” on this mother from which I come.

In the city it’s easy to forget that the earth that I touch in the wilderness is here beneath me amidst the asphalt and the concrete. But it is, and all we have built- the skyscrapers and underground garages and subways- is a mico-thin layer on the vastness of the earth beneath us. When I remember this, I pay attention to all the places where my body is touching a surface- feet on floor or in the grass, butt in chair or on the ground, muscle and bones supported by a bed or beach sand- and explore letting go a little more into gravity. With just this gentle prompt my body unwinds, sinks more into the knowledge that wherever I am is here, and here is always on the earth I love.

In the wilderness I expand my ability to be with and be enlivened by the creative chaos around me: new seedlings sprout and are nourished by the decaying bodies of what was alive and now is dead or dying; some seedlings fall where the sunlight is insufficient and shrivel, while others thrive; wind and water and birds and animals unwittingly carry seeds to new locations, creating new possibilities for life and death.

Writing here in the city, I feel how the past is compost for the seeds of new stories, new ways of seeing. Some seedlings will remain in the “Unused bits” file on my desktop while others find their way into published work. The wilderness teaches me to allow and embrace the chaos necessary for both creative work and new growth in an old forest. Remembering this, I let go of trying to “organize” material that is still forming, shy away from the temptation to pretend to know where the writing will take me, what the book will be. An oak cannot be foreseen by simply looking at the acorn.

And still there is something else. The “wild” in wilderness- like the knowledge of belonging and the power of creative chaos- lives in me. It is what is untamed and uncensored, what is free from considerations about how I might be seen or heard (or read by) others. In other years, when I spent weeks alone in the bush in the summer, I forgot about how I looked, was surprised to see my sun-browned skin and bright eyes in the rear-view mirror of my car when I drove out to get supplies. I slept when I was tired and rose when I awoke- sometimes to view the moon shining on still water

It’s not always easy to find our natural rhythm in the city. And yet, the animal-self that has not lost contact with body-wisdom speaks to me. When I rise early and drop down into the pre-dawn hour, I find the end of a thread that guides me to eat and sleep and move and be still according to an internal rhythm that is older than electric lights and the sounds of traffic.

I will go to the wilderness again, when I am able. But I will not abandon the wilderness within me, even here in the city. I set aside time- days, weeks- to follow no schedule but the one my body and the impulse to write set. I cover my walls with the images and stories that come to me from dreams and daylight, writing amidst the delightful debris as I would on the shore of a lake, without trying to “tidy” or “organize” growth around me.

This summer, I rise before dawn while the city sleeps, greeting the pale light and birdsong that announce a new day. I stand on my small balcony and let the smoke of burning smudge- cedar, sage, sweet grass and lavender- remind me of ancient rituals that recognize the earth and call on the spirits of water, air, earth and fire. I put my hands to my heart and bow to the four directions here, amidst tall buildings, from the centre of the wilderness within.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer (c) 2013

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Power & Pitfalls of Wanting

My morning prayers contain a word or two about wanting. I ask to know what is needed in the situations that arise today and to follow my deepest soul-desires in choosing how to be with or meet those needs as I am able. That covers needs and desires. But I also say a prayer to come “into right relationship” with my wants- which is to say, to bring them to consciousness, to neither deny nor be led around by the nose by wanting.

I use the word wanting to point to the kind of must-have-this feeling that involves attachment to specific results. When I start wanting things to be a certain way (within myself, in the world or with another) I’m generally headed for some frantic trying (during which I can become a menace to myself and others) or painful disappointment, or both.

I try to avoid judging my wanting when it arises, knowing that this is likely to shove it down into my unconscious where it can wreck havoc in my life. Awareness at least gives me a shot at not allowing my wanting to create suffering for myself or others. And, knowing that wanting can be a powerful and persuasive force I’d like to enlist its mojo in doing those things that I know make my life healthy and balanced.

I'm currently doing a meditation program designed for folks who have been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (and ME or FM.) It has helped some restore their energy. I want this. A lot. But (and this is a Big But) I cannot do the meditations driven by and focused on understandably wanting health and vitality. It won’t work. I can’t try harder to unhook from inner neurological loops of hyper-vigilance around physical symptoms (that create an adrenaline cycle that deepens symptoms.) I can let the energy of my wanting fuel my willingness to go to this program every day, but then I must gently put aside the attachment to specific and speedy results.

So far, this use of the passion of wanting while letting go of the object of wanting seems to be helping me keep me on track, which is why my prayer is not to abolish wanting, (something I doubt is possible in human beings except for moments and by grace) but come into right relationship with this powerful energy.

Years ago, I remember hearing Jann Arden sing “Good Mother,” and belt out with deep longing, “I’ve never wanted anything so bad. . . .” At the time, the line made my eyes fill unexpectedly with tears because I had separated myself from my own needs, wants, and desires on every level to tolerate staying in my marriage.
I wanted to want something- anything- just to know I was still alive.

Maybe that’s why I don’t want to suppress or ignore the power of wanting, even though I know the pitfalls and suffering that can be created by being attached to having things a certain way. It’s a little like using the power of fire- you must be mindful or you risk getting burned, but there’s nothing like it for life-sustaining warmth on a cold dark night.

Oriah House (c) 2013

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Smoke Signals

Ah. . . the blessing of a cool morning and the humbling gifts of living as an embodied soul/ensouled body, effected by internal and external conditions that challenge us to keep our hearts open.

I have a small private pie-shaped balcony where I do my morning practise of prayer and meditation each day. I get up as early as my body will allow to catch the pre-dawn coolness and quiet time in the city. I live on the second floor and my balcony looks out on a small park. As I settle in for my practise I look up into the dense green of maples and hemlocks filled with black squirrels chasing each other and birds singing the sun up each morning.

And, as I take a long deep inhale to settle into my meditation on these summer mornings, I am greeted by the smell of cigarette smoke. The man who lives in the apartment above me is also an early riser. He sits out on his balcony each morning watching the sun rise, smoking and coughing in a way that makes my own chest ache to hear it.

I admit I was initially annoyed by both the acrid smell and loud coughing. But I quickly realized there was nothing I could do about it. This man had every right to be on his balcony in the morning and to smoke.

I have a kind of soft spot for smokers- even though I am allergic to cigarette smoke. Every adult human being I know has addictions or habits they know are not good for them.  Some, like over-work, are lauded and many are done in secret away from other’s eyes. Nicotine is incredibly addictive, and smoking is almost impossible to hide- others are going to see you do it, smell it, and hear the effects we all know about in your cough

So, I decided that when I smelled smoke or heard my neighbour's burning, hacking cough, I’d just say a small prayer for this man on the balcony above me, sending cool healing light to his lungs and wishing him well. That helped me let go of any annoyance that arose and return to my practise.

But over the last few weeks, what began as primarily a defensive move intended to maintain my cherished shot at (real or imaginary) equanimity has become. . . .  . something else. I do not know this neighbour personally, although we say hello in the lobby and on the stairs. But, hearing the painful cough every morning and smelling the smoke that is no doubt a contributing factor, I realize I do know him. He is another myself, another human being doing the best he can. We all do some things that cause suffering some of the time. Smelling the smoke, hearing the coughing, I feel my heart cracked open to our shared humanness a little further each day. I still offer a prayer for this man’s health and well-being, but the prayer has changed, has become more about “us” and how we struggle, and includes genuine gratitude for the reminder of our shared humanness. This is particularly valuable on a day when my practise is going “well” and I am tempted to separate myself, if only in my own mind and only for a moment, from those aspects of self or others that are having a moment that is not going so well (including myself, yesterday, when monkey mind had me by the throat and calmly meditating was impossible.)

The longer I live the more I am convinced that our humanness is a feature and not a bug of this life we are given. It is the very thing that teaches us about the magnificence and beauty that is revealed only under conditions that are not "perfect" by beings that, although capable of heart-breaking mistreatment of self and others, can and often do choose compassion instead.

Every moment offers us what we need to remember what we are, pulls us to open our heart a little more to ourselves, others and the world. And for this, I am deeply grateful.

Oriah House (c) 2013

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Talking to Myself

I’ve always known words have power- to belittle or lift up, to shame or encourage. Having said that, I’m always a little ambivalent about suggested affirmations. Sometimes they just feel like too much cheerleading or someone’s attempt to get me to talk myself out of feeling the way I am feeling. And, having said that, I know that how we talk to ourselves (often just below our most conscious thoughts where it’s hard to catch) has a profound effect on how we behave, feel, and respond to life.

I’ve been reading Eve Ensler’s new book, In The Body of the World, a profoundly personal and insightful account of her journey through cancer and the creative chaos of healing her life and contributing to the world. In the middle of the book, unexpectedly, I found something I am using as a kind of affirmation with which I could actively work. I wasn’t looking for one, I’ve had my doubts about them all, and I still feel a little odd looking at myself and speaking out loud to the reflection in my bathroom mirror first thing in the morning. But every time I do it I am moved to feel deep compassion for and empowerment within myself, so I offer it here in case it is of benefit to others.

Early on in Eve’s cancer treatment she meets a man she calls “the most handsome doctor in the world.” One of the first things Dr. Handsome says to her is, “Before we begin I want you to know how much I admire you and all you have done in this world for women and all you have written and all the ways you have made the world better. It is a privilege to care for you and I will do my very best.”

My throat is suddenly full of tears as I read this passage. To be offered real and concrete care from someone who is in a position to offer it, who genuinely feels it is a privilege to provide it, who sees and appreciates what you have done and try to do with your life. . . . what a gift! 

And then I wondered, “What if I could give this to myself?”

And so I walked into the bathroom and looked in the mirror and said out loud to the woman with the blue-grey eyes who looked back at me, “I want you to know that I appreciate all you do. . . . all the places where you do your best to love well and contribute to the world.” I swallowed hard and continued more slowly. “It. . . is. . . a privilege. . . to care for you, and I will do my very best to do so.”

I started doing this each morning, often starting the way Dr. Handsome did with Eve, saying, “Before we begin I want you to know. . . .” The specifics about what I appreciate about myself change. Some days it is my efforts to be a good mother to the two wonderful men who are my sons. Other days it’s my unwavering commitment to writing. One morning I expressed appreciation for how I had gotten up at all after a night of too little sleep and too much pain. Another day I appreciate that I do my daily practise even when I do not feel like it, holding the world in my prayers to the best of my ability.

Each time, after I have expressed some appreciation for the human woman I am, I repeat slowly: “It is my privilege to care for you. And I will do the very best I can today to do so.”

And every time I do this I get that it is indeed a privilege to care for this one small human life and how much I appreciate the life I have been given and the woman I am. And acknowledging my appreciation, I recommit to caring for myself today, that I may receive what I need, that I may offer what I am able to the world.

These are the words I need to hear right now, and I am the one I have been waiting to hear them from.

Oriah House (c) 2013