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

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Rumi & Leaf-Blowers

Every Monday morning in the summer, at eight o'clock, the caretakers of the property adjacent to my apartment fire up a gas-fuelled leaf blower, shattering the morning quiet with nerve-jangling noise. Often the blast of noise comes as I am doing my practise of meditation and prayer. It is a test of equanimity that I don’t always pass.

Living in a large city I’ve gotten pretty good at embracing the sounds that arise around me. When a siren wails I pause and say a prayer for both the first responders and for those who are awaiting their arrival, sending a breath of calmness and comfort and a prayer that all be well. When warm weather is accompanied by the sound of city workers jack-hammering up the pavement to replace water pipes, I greet the sound with gratitude for running water and indoor plumbing. Even on Sunday mornings, when the quiet is disturbed by the street-cleaning vehicle noisily sucking up gutter debris, I manage a small inner bow to those who keep our city clean.

But for some reason the Monday morning leaf-blower defies my attempts at garnering gratitude for all the sounds of life around me. Perhaps it is because I don’t really “get” the usefulness of leaf blowers that seem to shift grass clippings and fallen leaves from one property to another without actually removing them. Perhaps it is because it always starts at eight on the first day of the work week, reminding me ominously of the old adage, “As we begin, so shall we continue.” As I sit in the midst of the noise I acknowledge that the man wielding the offending power tool is no doubt doing so to provide for his family, but I can’t help but wish that he- that everyone- would find a way to do so without gas leaf blowers.

I’ve tried putting in earplugs before I begin my practise, although I don’t always remember to do so, and while they are not completely effective at blocking the snarl of the leaf blower, they do stop me from hearing the birdsong that accompanies the beginning of my practise.

So this week, when the low rumble that leads to a screaming whine indicated that the dreaded leaf-blower was being fired up, I decided not to pull away from either the sound or my own reaction to it. I felt my body tense and noted the tension; I heard my inward protest and let the wail go on as long as it wanted to; I acknowledged that I do not like this sound, and I do not control the source of this sound.

And then . . . . I started to wonder, what else might be here for me? And I remembered what I try to forget: that the pattern of sleep and waking that most suits my life, my body, my being and my choices includes rising around five in the morning. I know this, and yet – mysteriously- I fight it. I resist living according to the monastic pattern (at least in sleep and rising times) that appeals to my soul.

And here’s the thing: when I obey this deeper longing, when I arise at five, my practise of meditation, prayer, yoga and dream-writing is completed by eight when the leaf-blower is fired up. When the mechanical noise interrupts my practise it is because I have not followed my deeper impulse to rise before the sun and sit in the quiet of the dawning light. My irritation is laced with disappointment to have missed the time of day that sets my soul afire with possibilities.

Realizing this, I can’t help but smile. Suddenly beneath the roar of the leaf blower I can almost hear Rumi whisper:  “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.”

Sometimes, the sounds that call us home are not all melodious.

~Oriah 2013

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Release From the Paralysis of Perfectionism

(This week's offering is a day early and a bit briefer than usual because I am off with some friends to do some of the shamanic ceremonies we have shared for over twenty-five years and have some fun and relaxation together at a lakeside cottage for a few days. Will return next week- maybe with pictures if I can figure out how to post them here!) 

"I once heard Robert Bly talking about poet William Stafford. Stafford apparently made it a practice, a commitment, to write one poem a day. Once, when an interviewer asked him what he did when the poem he produced was no good, Stafford replied, 'I lower my standards.'" ~ Oriah Mountain Dreamer from "What We Ache For."

It feels counter-intuitive, but even as I tense a little at the idea of "lowering my standards," I am attracted to the possibilities it holds. When my desire to be fully present in each moment is derailed by distraction, what if I simply "lower my standards" to being present for this moment? What if, when I realize I have said or thought something unkind, betraying my resolution to be compassionate with all, I lowered my standards in this moment to being kind with my own failure to live true to my intentions in every moment? Surely that might increase my chances of being kind with others in the next moment.

Perfectionism makes us give up- No point in eating a healthy dinner because I didn't have my green smoothie this morning. Lowering our standards- letting go of our attachment to perfectionism- allows us to do our best in each moment, helps us begin fresh, again and again.

Oriah (c) 2013