Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Choosing A Wise Question

Here’s a question to consider: Is the story I am telling- in the beliefs I espouse and how I live my life- heart-opening or heart-closing? 

The question comes from Rami Shapiro- a lovely, wise (and very funny) rabbi I met years ago. This past Sunday I heard Rami being interviewed on CBC radio’s Tapestry with Mary Hynes. At one point, discussing his book about parenting, Rami's advice was summed up as, “Tell your children heart-opening stories instead of heart-closing stories.”

Heart-closing stories are stories that separate us, stories that split the world into “them” and “us” (or create an inner split from aspects of self we find unacceptable.) And, although children (and other adults) hear what we explicitly say, the implicit stories reflected in how we walk through the world each day ripple out from us continuously.

I’m not offering Rami’s suggestion to give us another way to beat ourselves up (that would be heart-closing to ourselves,) but as a way to bring some gentle curiosity to what is reflected in how we live our lives. There are lots of criteria we could use when evaluating our beliefs or actions: Do they help me cope with what is? Do they get me what I want? Do they make me comfortable or uncomfortable? Asking- Is the story reflected in my choices heart-opening or heart-closing?- and allowing the answer to arise in our bodies, plants our discernment in the ground of compassion.

Is the way I respond to the homeless man who often sits on the sidewalk near my home, heart-opening or heart-closing? Why is it that on some days I can look him in the eye and smile, but on other days I find myself making a wide circle around his spot on the pavement? Inquiring without judgement, I learn something about current conditions and become aware of a story I was taught as a child- that anyone and everyone who crosses my path with any need is my responsibility. When this story semi-consciously pops up on a day of low energy, I find it hard to simply acknowledge this man as a fellow human being with whom I share this neighbourhood.

So the story about being uber-responsible is heart-closing. On a day when I have more energy, this belief may prompt me to offer more. But if I shift- not just mentally but experientially- to the reality of what a blessing and a joy it can be to offer what I am able (sans the mandatory martyrdom or shame-inducing “should”) I can meet this other where I am- some days able to offer only a smile, other days able to sit and talk or share the bag of apples I just picked up at the store. Sharing a few groceries with a homeless man is not going to solve all the problems of homelessness, but my participation in co-creating solutions in my community is likely to be better informed and more effective if I am able to be with this man and myself with an open heart.

My father had a truly heart-opening story that he repeated often as I grew up. Despite having had a brutally abusive childhood he said, “People do they can with what they have to work with.” I have added to this, “And if my best is doing harm, I need to go get more to work with." (Which usually means asking for and receiving help.)

Rami’s question offers us the opportunity to discern where we are offering “more” or “less” of what is needed for the work of co-creation. For surely finding, cultivating and holding stories that open our hearts to ourselves and each other gives us all more to work with in any given moment.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Pitfalls of Spiritual Cheerleading

I’m not a fan of pithy capitalized slogans presented as complete and helpful truths instead of mere titles. It’s not that “Live Your BIG Dreams” is an unworthy goal, (although I suspect dreams qualified as BIG in a extroverted consumer culture may not be in alignment with my values) but I always want to ask: What does that mean- look like, feel like, taste like- in one particular human life?

When my sons were small I was ill for many months. Mostly I laid on the living room carpet with these two wonderful beings in my care so I wouldn’t have far to fall and couldn’t drop anyone when I was momentarily dizzy. I didn’t need to Dream BIG. I need a bath and a twelve hour nap. I was overflowing with and soaked in love (and breast milk and spit-up and baby pee.) I needed to find ways to get groceries, do a load of laundry and calm my fears that I’d be incapacitated by illness and exhaustion forever.

Because I’ve been writing a book about choice, I’m particularly aware of how often “Choice” features in many popular slogans: Happiness Is A Choice; Love Is A Choice; Forgiveness Is A Choice; Gratitude Is A Choice. . . . the list is endless. Most often I want to ask: Is it? Is it in this moment for everyone? Is it always?

Now, I get the point of these snappy declarations- they’re trying to encourage us to make choices that result in and come from love and forgiveness and other good stuff. But even that gives them too much credit. They don’t say: “Making Choices That Cultivate Happiness Is (Often) An Option”- they say, “Happiness Is A Choice”- as if you could just give yourself a smack on the forehead and remember that you forgot to turn on the happiness faucet this morning. This is at best misleading and at worst a potential cause for increased suffering as it tempts us to believe that our or another's unhappiness is actively and consciously "chosen" and therefore deserved.

In my work with individuals I often hear the “should” of inner and outer judgement planted by these sayings. People doing their best to deal with painful illnesses, trauma, and heart-breaking losses tell me again and again that they “should” be able to do better, be happier, to let go of fear, or sorrow and "get over" what is happening "faster." It makes my heart ache to hear the coals of suffering heaped on top of what is often real pain.

Can we make choices that will cultivate fear or happiness?

Often, yes. And sometimes we're swept along by pain, or grief, or fear, or unconscious material (which by definition isn’t accessible to choice until it is brought to consciousness.) Of course sometimes we can make choices- to do inner work, to be with those who support us, to ask for help, to take good care of ourselves- that will expand our ability to cultivate happiness, forgiveness and gratitude, make us more available to love. But the assertion that it's just a matter of choosing to be a certain way can prompt us to shove experiences that don’t align with this assumption (our moments of feeling unhappy, unforgiving or ungrateful) into our unconscious where they shape and limit our choices without us even knowing it is happening.

It can be scary to simply sit with the fact that in any given moment real choices are shaped and sometimes limited by inner and outer conditions. Of course, conditions change- and we can actively choose to change or work toward changing many of them- and this can expand and deepen the real choices we have. 

But, in the meantime (which is to say- while we’re still human beings) perhaps we could step away from pretending to know more than we can possibly know about another’s real available choices, can give each other and ourselves a little credit for doing the best we can with what we have to work with in this moment. In the next moment we may offer or be offered or make a choice that will give us or someone else more to work with, and we’ll do the best we can with that.  

I’m just sayin’: 

Not Pretending We Are In Complete & Conscious Control Of Absolutely EVERYTHING- Is A Choice!

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lessons in Love Learned The Hard Way

I am not cynical about Valentine’s Day. Yes, yes- it is shamelessly exploited to boost retail revenue and often sullied with sentimentality and a rather narrow notion of love. But, having said that, if we use our heads surely we can use this day to celebrate and express our hearts. I mean- how could remembering and expressing love be a bad thing? What could possibly go wrong?

In the interest of full disclosure let me say- I have had a less than heart-warming history with V Day. And, as more than one wasband would be all too happy to testify, intimate relationships may not be my forte. So, this blog is less stellar insight than contemplative review highlighting a few lessons learned the hard way.

There were, of course, the early years- the years when my mother insisted that I give one of those cute animal-holding-a-heart cards to every other child in my class so no one would feel left out. Where was the meaning, the honesty, in sending Tommy Robinson- the dark-haired, wild-eyed, pint-sized hooligan who regularly mowed me over on the playground- a card declaring I wanted to make him “My Valentine?” First lesson: Coerced expressions of affection don’t mean much. (But of course coercion is not always so easy to spot, even in ourselves.)

Then came the complicated years- the years of young love- the years of waiting and hoping that the boy-man in my physics or math class (yes, I went for the nerds) would somehow intuit the passionate relationship we were having in my daydreams and declare his love for me. In later years- when there were actual dates, relationships and some awkward but surprisingly satisfying sexual encounters- I unconsciously adhered to the he-should-know-what-I-want folly. Somewhat understandably the “he” in question, no doubt terrified by the pressure to get-it-right without any hint from me, often ignored the day altogether. Second lesson: Don’t expect others to read your mind. If you’d like something, ask.

In my defence, I was never one of those women who thought V Day was a one-way street. I put considerable time, energy and thought into offering some tangible and poetic (yes, long poems were written) demonstration of my affection for the young man in question. It took a lot of years to figure out that I was giving what I wanted to receive and not necessarily what the other desired. Lesson three: Do not assume the other wants you to do for them what you would like them to do for you. When in doubt (again) -ask!

My worst Valentine’s Day came six weeks after my marriage to my sons’ father ended. In our decade together he had never given me flowers for any occasion, and I was okay with that. Hence my shock when I opened the door to a delivery of long-stemmed roses after we’d separated. I burst into tears. I think in that moment I recognized that we had underestimated the power of small symbolic gestures to keep the fires of intimacy alive (or at least remembered,) particularly during those exhausting years with small children. The roses carried the scent of too-little-too-late.  I was overwhelmed with grief for what had been lost. Lesson four: Never underestimate the power of small gestures to help bridge the times when life’s challenges may dampen passion's spontaneous combustion.

Fast forward fifteen years:  I was an older, wiser woman. I did not hope or hint or imagine that someone should just “know” my preferences. I spoke up, invited discussion, listened, expressed what mattered to me and what didn’t. My then-love now-ex was surprisingly enthused about Valentine’s Day- said he wanted to celebrate it, use it as a chance to do Something Big, wanted us both to surprise the other. So, what the heck, I agreed. I planned a weekend away at a hotel. I arranged a massage for him and bought him the noise-canceling headphones he’d been lusting after. And I wasn’t coy- while the gift was a surprise, I’d told him about the get-away plans. Mid-week, aware that planning was not his forte and not wanting to set either one of us up for disappointment, I gently reminded him that The Weekend was coming up. He smiled, nodded knowingly, and in his best conspiratorial voice said, “Oh, you just wait. I have a few very big surprises planned.”

Three days later I found a card (he’d misplaced the envelop) on the hotel bed, signed sparingly, “Happy V Day.” That was it. As predicted I was indeed surprised- although baffled might be a more accurate word. When I later asked, “Ah. . . . was the card the Big Surprise?” he got angry and shouted, “Yes, and don’t you dare ruin this weekend by being disappointed!” So, I wasn't- or at least I tried very hard not to be.

If he had said from the beginning that he didn’t want to do anything for V Day, I’d have been okay with it. But, he’d done what he was about to do countless times during the decade we were together: he’d said what he thought I wanted to hear and then, angry that he'd agreed to something he didn't want (and, incidentally had never been asked) to do, set us both up by not doing what he had said he would. Lesson number five (which took me a decade to really get): When someone shows you who they are and how they live their life, believe them.

Is it any wonder that I feel no angst and some relief to be approaching Valentine’s Day single?

The truth is that being uncoupled has made me more able to express my appreciation for all the places in my life where love is given and received. Free from the mine-field (or is that mind-field?) of hopes or promises (mine or another’s) I am able to let those who love me know how much I appreciate and love them. No disappointment, just continual delight in what is. While I have not padlocked my door to romantic relationship, I think I will from this point on- whether single or coupled- see Valentine’s Day as a celebration of all forms of love and intimacy with self, others, and the world.

Final lesson: Love is precious and life-sustaining. Don’t quibble. Celebrate it wherever and whenever you can- even on Valentine’s Day.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Does God Use Social Media?

Yes. Because the divine- however we name it (God, Goddess, Great Mystery, Allah. . . )- that sacred life force that is both within and around all that is- can use anything to help us deepen and expand our awareness and our lives. Sometimes, it happens in Big Ways where the message is hard to ignore, and sometimes it happens in little ways- opportunities to bring some curiosity and gain some insight to the unfolding of daily life within and around us.

Here’s what happened: A week ago writer Vanessa Van Edwards sent me a link to her piece in The Huffington Post that included (with my permission) my poem, “The Invitation.” I hesitated to share the link. On the one hand I wanted to support Vanessa’s writing, but on the other hand I was afraid that calling attention to the article might look like I was tooting my own horn, saying, “Hey, look at me- isn’t my writing wonderful!” Yuck.

The desire to support Vanessa won out, and I put a link to the piece up on Facebook and Twitter. Two things happened immediately: I received an email from a woman I don’t know who told me she was embarassed for me because I'd allowed my writing to be presented in an “on-line tabloid.” She felt I had “sold out,” and wondered why I couldn’t be "faithful to higher spiritual values." She despaired at how I had “bragged” about such a thing by posting a link.

This wasn't the first time I’d received criticism for a piece of my writing finding its way into mainstream publication (although, as you can imagine, it doesn't happen that often when you use a name like Oriah Mountain Dreamer!) The accusation that made me wince had nothing to do with allowing my work to be published in mainstream media (I have no problem with that) but was the allegation that by sharing this news I was “bragging.”

And then the second thing happened: Feeling more than a little leery, I went onto Facebook. To my surprise a number of folks had shared, liked and commented on the link- congratulating me, directing friends to the page, talking about how much they’d loved the poem. I was. . . shocked. Truly. Criticism had been anticipated. Celebration of a small shared joy had not.

So I just sat with the feelings for a moment- the weary acceptance of judgement; the surprise at others being happy for me. And I flashed back to the hushed conversations that happened whenever I brought a report card home from school as a child. My mother would look at it quickly and then put it away whispering, “That’s good. But we can’t talk about it. It will make your brother feel badly because he’s not doing as well. I’ll tell your father about it after you’re both in bed.”  

Yep- there it was, the root of my uneasiness about sharing even small things that are going well: the learned belief that even my small successes would cause pain for someone else and so, should not be shared. I remembered feeling shame for wanting to have my report card acknowledged.

This freeing little aha-moment was brought to me by the combination of the angry, disappointed email and those who took joy in my work being shared. In noticing and being curious about my reactions to both, something shifted, softened, opened. An old fear was seen, shame was released, and something I knew lived in me in an less inhibited way: joy shared and celebrated- even joy about small daily things- is joy multiplied, and takes nothing away from anyone else

Does the divine use social media? Why not? The sacred speaks to us every day from within and around us, offering us the opportunity to learn, to grow, to heal and find new freedom from old beliefs we may not even be aware we are holding until they are highlighted by the day's unfolding.Yes, wisdom, insight, and a deepening of our life can and often does happen through exchanges- on social media or anywhere else. And I, for one, am deeply grateful.

Oriah (c) 2013

(And here's the link: