Posts Categorized: Confusion to Clarity

People-Watching at the Mandalay Bay (& Beyond)

A week ago yesterday I sat at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, immersed in my hobby of people-watching. It was the perfect, calm finale to a colorful week of nature and hiking with lifetime girlfriends in Utah’s brilliant landscape.  A couple of us had decided to soak up a few more hours of sun while waiting for our evening flights, and my friend suggested we have lunch and loiter at the resort across the way.

While we hung out, I got curious. I had no idea what brought all the fresh-faced young people there. They didn’t fit the image I’d always had of Las Vegas, which I’d only visited once before in my life.  I felt blessed by their happiness as they lined up with big inner tubes to float in the pool. I like to think I blessed them back with my eyes as I appreciated their humanity. To me this is the essence of people-watching. It’s like a blessing, a basking in the joy of sharing the planet together in a particular moment, because that’s all we have. Later Sunday I got proof of that.

As we returned to the airport after a couple hours, our Lyft driver Javier pointed to something that looked to me like a construction site.

“There’s a big country-music festival here this weekend, with big stars,” he said.

“My wife is so excited about this guy tonight with a deep voice . . . Jason somebody. She’s going to be in the front row, she says.”

I glanced back over my shoulder at a chain link fence with warning signs. It looked like your basic construction site. Apparently the venue was in a deep pit, I thought.

The next morning, in my bed in Oregon, I began to get texts checking on my safety. One of the first reports described a shooting “like fish in a barrel.” I thought back on the “construction site.” As tuned in as I like to believe I am, I’d had no warning that it could also be a “destruction site.” I wonder still about Javier’s wife.

Disbelief. Shock. And then a parade of the faces from the day before. More disbelief. Tears. A deepening grief. When I told someone about it, my refrain was, This is not about me.  My “thoughts and prayers” went into overdrive as I imagined each person I had seen there, now possibly dead or struggling for life.

Next day I saw a drawing of the shooter’s window. That was when I realized the courtyard where I had lunched was a direct shot. Twice as close as the amphitheater. Suddenly my world began to seem less predictable, less like something I would want to take for granted. There have been waves of grief, anger, and shock since then, mixed with tiny flashes of understanding. I’m guessing that insights and perspectives will continue to pop.

It’s too big, too close still for a landing place or a Tidy Take-away. I sit still in “thoughts and prayers” for the victims. I’m not done looking for the best way I can make a small difference when it comes to violence within our country and outside it. But I am committing not to forget or get so fogged in by all the stories and distractions swirling around me in the culture at large.

I truly have no idea why bad things happen. I’m just not in charge of that. But one of my life practices is to find some wiggle room in even the worst of circumstances.  It’s sometimes enormously challenging to find a slight break in layers of dark clouds. But I have lived long enough to understand that sometimes something good, some healing comes from tragedy. I put my faith in that. Because from that margin of wiggle room I am more likely to embrace my own life, to embody a loving presence in the dark face of ignorance and insanity. I’m by far more likely to take an action on behalf of wisdom and sanity. And, most important, I’m far more likely to have unclouded judgment about what that action will be.

Photo “Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas,” (c) Erin Khoo, used under CC by 2.0 license

“Perhaps”: the Power of the Long View

I just spent election week driving across the country, cutting a swath through red states to blue on my way. I was traveling with my daughter, with the plan to celebrate her birthday and the first woman president on the same day, Nov. 9th. You already know how that went.  Since that morning I’ve become painfully aware that my living in a blue bubble might have warped my vision a bit. But I spent most of the fall in the Midwest, and I’m just as aware of people there I care about who have their own reasons to be celebrating.

The oddest inner whisper has been haunting me all the way:  A simple word, perhaps, repeating in my head like a mantra.

An image of white smoke comes to mind, and a memory:  Sitting with my spiritual ama or mother, at a Benedictine monastery where I was studying interfaith spiritual mentoring. Before this I had never paid much attention to popes, having somehow concluded as a child that they were similar to the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.  Sister Antoinette was one of the most transparent, illuminated, and open-minded people I‘ve ever met. She was also a “cradle to grave” Democrat, by her own description, and a strong progressive by mine. In her mid-seventies at the time, she glowed with Life. When I was a pre-teen in a Southern Baptist camp, I had been warned of the Catholic plot to take over the world.  In the company of Sister Antoinette, I could see how this could happen.

The news was full of updates on the process of selecting a new pope, which included white smoke from a chimney. This was the second day of a process that could last weeks. While I was sitting with Sister Antoinette, the silence was pierced by the chapel bells right outside our window. A phone down the hall rang, and Sister Dorothy, her slightly irreverent friend, tapped on the door.

I knew enough about the candidates to surmise that one of the cardinals, Ratzinger, was strictly literal and a bastion of conservative forces. I had already formed a strong bias against him. I had shortened his name for memory’s sake to “Rat.” I was fairly certain that my friends would have a similar feeling about him being selected Holy Father.

So when Antoinette opened the door to get the news from Dorothy, I watched carefully.

“It’s Ratzinger,” Dorothy said softly.

The Sisters looked into each others’ eyes.

“Perhaps….” They said at the same moment, as each nodded gently.

This moment has stayed embedded in my memory ever since.

They were like visitors from another planet. I saw that their minds were wide open and deeply accepting, at the same time I was pretty sure they wouldn’t change their political activism.

This past week I’ve begun to understand the depth of surrender this takes. My mind and heart haven’t been able to sort through all that is happening. So many parts of the process just haven’t made sense in my world. I’ve been working through my fears and my preconceived opinions about the elected president. At the same time, I’m finding my own way to take effective action to protect people who are bullied or threatened.  In the meantime, I’ll practice putting my ultimate trust in the power of the long view.

Cardinal Ratzinger, or Pope Benedict II, was a less than perfect church father who was politely retired for complicated and disturbing choices he had made in his past. The eventual result was the selection of Pope Francis, a much-revered bringer of reform and change.  Perhaps it took the house-clearing and honesty that was required to confront priestly child abuse to allow a new leadership to surface. These developments could have never been predicted ten years ago. Who knows how things will continue to evolve? Not me.

It’s now a week after the news, and I’m back home. My mind settles a bit. I make a list of the issues close to my heart and begin to think about how I will support them with action and money. I’m feeling a strongly renewed commitment to stay awake and alert on behalf of justice for my fellow beings and for the earth I love.

And always…I just keep thinking… Perhaps.

Fish, Fowl, and this Waiting Time

I’m not usually a political junkie, but this year seems more like a morality play than an election, and I’ve been hooked, finding my equanimity tossed around by the story line as well as the political implications. It’s a biting-your-nails kind of time for me and for so many others in the world.

Action usually helps, so the first thing I thought to do was to vote. So I did. And mailed it in. It’s something we do here in Oregon without polling sites, voting booths and lines. But I’m still not done with this democratic ritual we call an election. First, there’s more to do. And second, a guilty admission: I’m a little too hooked on the dopamine of the Barnum & Bailey sideshow that has characterized this year’s election.

There’s something familiar here, I think. I’ve always found the stories of ancient and universal human experience helpful in such times as these. So I wasn’t surprised when a couple of words pop through the fog: liminal time. These are the words I’ve often used to describe the state of being neither fish nor fowl, having left the old life behind but not yet having arrived at the new one. In anthropology it describes “a threshold during the middle stage of a ritual when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.” Neither fish nor fowl.

So I gave my Inner Researcher a job, and she turned up a gem. “Liminal time” is usually characterized by a quality of ambiguity or disorientation. During these times “continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.” Of course! We’re all in liminal time!

My researcher went on: “There’s a lack of the usual order of life during this in-between time. However, with a more fluid situation, new institutions and customs are able to emerge.”

Now I’m back to a turf I know for real. I’ve seen so many times how important a time of not-knowing seems to be for personal transformation. And so here we are as a culture, not knowing the future for a couple more weeks. Preparing for something new to emerge. I have seen this process again and again. Enough that I trust it completely. Now I know the territory.

When I work with clients, I remind them that this state of waiting can seem excruciatingly long. But again and again my peeps have found that the results are worth the waiting and the not-knowing.

This seems to be always the case. Patience and trust are not necessarily my strongest character traits, but I know I can do this.

We can all do this. Together. Not fish. Not Fowl. But some seaworthy and airborne combination of patience and determination worthy of what is to come.

The Rhythm of the Heart, as One

Our Hearts Beat As One says the T-shirt I pulled on this morning with pride. The logo and words come from a CD by my daughter. I’ve worn it before as I’ve sung the words along with her at various musical and spiritual events. But today was different. It was really true! During the last couple of years, as much as I wanted it, relaxed into it, imagined or envisioned it, my heart has not been beating as one. Not at all.

At first I barely noticed, what with all the things to do and people to see. Sometimes I could feel it going kinda fast, and sometimes it felt like there were little fishes flopping around inside, but I was totally shocked a couple of years ago when a hospital admission screening turned up A-Fib. I asked the technician to give me some time to meditate and calm myself, thinking this was the shift I needed, the one I knew how to do. But the results were still the same. Twice.

This year I’ve been investigating this tricky heartbeat and putting together the pieces, looking backward.  I’d been feeling generally sluggish for more than five years. Then I started running out of breath when hiking (at first) or, say, climbing a flight of stairs (later). I had chalked it up to the need for new knees and the getting of them, which had meant that I’d lost (and not yet found) most of my conditioning. I set reasonable goals and began to get back in shape.

But still my heart was not finding its own rhythm. In a nutshell, lots of the little confused triggers throughout the heart were overworking, trying desperately to do their part in keeping things going. It turns out there are lots of undesirable long-term outcomes, over time, when this isn’t corrected.

My electrocardiologist stopped and restarted my heart (twice). The second time, there was a steady beat for a few days. It got lost, and my doctor said the next step would be an ablation, a procedure which uses electrical energy/heat to wipe out the troublemaking triggers. He also suggested I go to an internationally celebrated doctor and researcher in another state because these little buggers have been around a long time, which makes them harder to eradicate.

I know a good metaphor when I see one. I started noticing all the triggers in my life, the “gotta do this NOW!” trigger, a habitual reaction to the urgent “needs”  around me. Then there’s They need my help. Or I must have that….. (fill in the blank. Junk food, coffee, whatever…) so that I can keep going. Or This problem in my face must be solved right now. By me.

I’ve been looking closely at how each one of these impulses takes me away from my own flow, away from the regular pulse of living my own life in an integrated way.  So I flew to Texas a couple of weeks ago for a cardiac ablation, where the rock star surgeon who was recommended by my local doctor has a clinic. That story is for later, and I’m still full of gratitude for all I learned and how well I was treated.

Today I’m sitting on the other side of the adventure, and my heart (and body) are slowing me down to the speed of healing. Which seems to require me to move slowly, eat almost nothing (for now), in a word: to stop.

Last weekend I spent in silence as I joined a retreat led by one of my wisdom teachers, Byron Katie.  Sitting in some very deep questions for long periods of time requires incredible patience, deep listening, lots of curiosity. It requires staying, digesting, trusting that reality, without being forced or pushed, will find its way to Unity. It also requires not knowing how healing will happen. In other words, a new surrender to reality, letting it have its way with this body while my opinions get out of the way.

This is how I spent my birthday week. And it is this practice that will continue to lead the way during the next year. A year of unification and steadiness in the face of an unknown future. And here is my birthday wish: May all of our hearts beat as one, and may we not forget this shared heartbeat as we move forward into an ever-more uncertain world. And may we place our faith in this, the vast intelligence that soothes our grief and guides us forward.

Deep Conversations in Cool Pools

The medium-sized college town in the Northwest where I live could be described as homogenous. It’s a “cookie cutter” kind of place, which is to say there’s not a whole lot of racial diversity. A few years ago I was a part of a gospel choir led by an inspiring African American campus minister who had been raised in East St. Louis, where the cookies were a different color. It took him a year to teach us to sing, sway and clap at the same time. I called it a remedial choir for white folks like me.

I caught most of the news about last Friday’s fatal shootings in the airport as I was on my way to Austin, Texas, just an hour from Dallas. Like most of the people around me, I felt sad and powerless, confused, a little angry and deeply tired about all of it, from mass shootings to racial violence to hate crimes. It felt more poignant somehow as I landed in a community that seemed to have more racial spice than my own.

So on Sunday I started searching for a way to connect with a local Austin black church or a gospel choir the next day. I may have missed it, but nothing jumped out at me. I assumed I was out of luck, so I headed for the hotel pool. The only other people there were an African American couple. In my segregated childhood I wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to share a swimming pool with the black people in my community. It was a few years more before I learned to have conversations that transcend the racial divide.  This was several decades ago, and yet images contrasting the past and present popped up in my memory as I slipped into the water.

I asked my pool mates where they were from. Dallas. Much went unsaid as more disturbing images, from the north of our country to the south, crowded into my mind.

“Just a getaway,” they answered. I got it. They knew I had. We began to talk about many of the deep gaps in understanding and fissures of misinformation that lead to the violence of gangs, to fearful police, and to psychotic gun toters.

I told them about all I had learned in my remedial choir, and we all laughed at our fumbling attempts to understand each other.

When they left, the gentleman of the couple turned his head back and said, “Praise Austin. You can find it on the radio.” It seems this local cathedral offers a weekly gospel service called Love. With my limited vision, I hadn’t even known where to look.

My heart landed at home again, a little expanded from the exchange. And I realized I needed to share this experience, which I think has been happening throughout the country this week. None of us can truly get away from the suffering brought by misunderstanding and bigotry, but we CAN have deep, kind conversations in pools and lakes and rivers all around the country this summer. We can let the coolness wash over our fear and mistrust, heal our hearts and bring us clarity; as we continue the difficult work of learning to sing, sway and clap together. This is how the world changes.

Worry Beads, Worry Dolls, Worry Worry

What comes to you when you see this guy? A denial based on ignorance? A cultural symbol for the naïve? For stupidity?

An excuse for burying your head during an election year?

I’ve been wondering: Why is it that “worry” is such a universal?

I’m not against taking life and the big decisions seriously. Trust me. But sometimes Worry seems to be a force unto itself. Without noticing, in a nanosecond, a fearful thought becomes a clench in the jaw, a knotting of the brow. A tightening of the gut, of the world.

Sometimes it’s called Anxiety (or panic). Even without a real reason, the mind can become totally crazy when it has the playground of an imagined future to worry about, especially when it’s got proof from the past that bad things will happen.

At that point thoughts begin to cluster. The YouTube of the past offers movies, either real or imagined. Catastrophe. Once there, all the thoughts that scare you come out to have their way with you. This is what I call worry.

Some situations just bring it on. Accidents or illness can set off a worry cycle.  Today I’m reflecting on my time with my son at the Burn Center when the entire staff was surprised he survived. And on and on through the litany of family crises.

The last couple of years we’ve had more than our share of auto accidents, and the physical injuries seemed to land me right back into my worry-go-round.

Now I’m remembering those ubiquitous worry beads called kolikoi that I noticed every man fingering while backpacking through rural Greece forty years ago. They originated with monks, much like the mala beads of yoga.  I’ve discovered a half-mala is just about what it takes to manage the inner worry wart when I’m meditating. Why not some kolikoi to jazz things up?

Mala beads also bring to mind my daughter. She’s a yoga teacher and chant leader. After being hit head-on last December, she’s still struggling with post-concussive symptoms. She’s an adult and doesn’t live with me, but she’s needed a check point as she goes about her normal life, as well as her musical career, these last few months. This keeps me busy enough that I’m not so likely to worry.

Sometimes to keep from worrying about worry, I look at it with a magnifying glass to discover its true nature. And my initial theory gets confirmed again and again. Worry seems to be an act of imagination. In a perfectly lovely present, my mind races forward to the future and imagines a frightening outcome. If I don’t believe everything I think, I’Worry dollsm way ahead of the game.

But just in case, I have some little helpers. Did I mention Worry Dolls from Guatemala? These tiny figures listen to our worries, take them off our hands, and go under a pillow to work their magic and dissolve those worries while we sleep. There’s nothing like tucking my worries away like they’re ultimately that little. They usually are in the greater scheme of things.

Resting in the Grace of the World

It’s been an unsettling time. A time when unpredictable acts of violence make it hard to make any sense of things. The mind can’t comprehend, and I notice myself caught up in the detailed accounts, trying to figure it all out. Trying to find the kindness in the Universe that I have come to trust. There are times that Grace seems like a highly abstract concept. I turn to words of wisdom and poetry during times like this.

Today I came across one of my favorites, a poem by Wendell Berry that has always given me deep comfort when I was ready to settle into it, like a warm bath. And then these words emerged, like very irritating instructions: “Rest in the Grace of the World.” What? Impossible. Where’s this so-called Grace right now? My mind raged.

And then. Then. The day-blind stars reveal what I’ve been missing all along. Peace has once again become possible. From within, from that place where all wild things reside: inside. From the place that holds this poem.

The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Ending the curse of the “If Only’s”

In my determination to crack open the safe that holds my Real Self hostage, I keep noticing I still have beliefs about what could be different “if only…” This usually implies an argument with my current life because of something in the past: If only…I hadn’t been hit by that car, hadn’t broken my ankle and then proceeded to ignore it and push on for years. If only I’d lost that extra 20 pounds I’ve been carrying around for too long.

When do I Shrink to Fit?

During my early years, 501 Levis were the only game in town. Shrink to Fit was their slogan then. It’s still their slogan. I was a roundish twenty-something, but I believed in their advertising. I desperately tried to see myself as a long, lean, hippie who could just slip into a random waist size and make it work around my thighs. Although the jeans didn’t fit me perfectly, the slogan did, in other ways. Having been raised in a large family, shrinking to fit has come easily. Too easily. It may work for denims (sometimes). But it’s not a great life plan.

The phrase has been running through my mind the last few weeks. During my daily self check-ins, planning my calendar, balancing my roles, working with clients, and talking with friends; it just keeps coming up. And as I’ve listened to my peeps during the last few years, I’ve discovered that this isn’t unique to me. It seems pretty ubiquitous. But my best point of reference is, as always, my own experience.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. If I’m not paying attention, there’s a tendency to make sure my plans fit others’ needs before my own. It’s so subtle it’s barely a whisper. And most of the time it works just fine. Because the reality is that I prefer peace and harmony to almost anything else. But I’ve often used my gift for blending in and making things fit as a short cut.

I’d be the last to dismiss compromise as a strategy. But I sometimes think I can read the mind of the other person and then simply fit into their thinking as I have imagined it. I’m not even stopping to ask me. But when I sit down to talk about a difference of opinion, having already compromised, I tend to take on more than is good for me, or I otherwise cut myself off at the knees.  And when I’m not able to take care of all of me, I end up hurting others, because eventually I get resentful. And let’s just say it’s not pleasant to be me or to be around me when that happens.

The cost of being out of my personal integrity isn’t always immediately obvious. But over a lifetime it’s had a cost. The last couple of weeks I’ve been taking part in a class offered by one of my teachers, Martha Beck. She calls it the Integrity Cleanse. Her approach has been helpful in recognizing some of the places (or relationships) where my jeans are still tight.

The Cleanse is an extreme version of clearing out places where you’ve been shrinking to fit, and you can look it up next time it comes around, but there’s nothing that works better for me than noticing moment-to-moment. When I bring the light of awareness into the pattern, it shifts. This is where the magic resides, ultimately. And this is my invitation to you.

Notice where you shrink to fit in your life. Just notice. Where do you say “yes” to get along, even as your gut gets tight and you hear a little voice saying “no?” Pay attention. In the moment, you might do what you’ve done before, which is fine. Or you could buy some time by saying, “I’ll get back to you.” With that time, you’ll be able to get clear about what fits and what doesn’t, and you can take the next step toward your own truth. No drama is necessary. Just the kindness of truth and a voice that can begin to say, “that doesn’t fit for me.” From this simple act of courage, everything can change over time. I trust this process as much as I trust the water in the stream near here to wear down the rock. Truth (and integrity) have a power of their own.

Bubbles of Freedom

This summer Byron Katie, a long-time teacher of mine, offered a worldwide 4-Day Silent Retreat. During the sessions, she posed her classic questions as a meditation. As I participated from my home; my answers, when I was able to ground them in stillness, were deep and wide and free.

During the Retreat, she reminded participants to take their time, to take one thought at a time: “It’s a practice.” This became a mantra for my own mind. I re-remembered the clarity that comes from regularly including inquiry in my daily spiritual practice.

It’s not like I haven’t been asking, “Is it true?” about my stressful beliefs for a very long time. It’s not like I’ve forgotten to question my mind in my mind as I go through the day. My respect for the professional practice of supporting others in inquiry has continued to grow as minds pop open, and open, and open.

It’s just that over time I’ve gradually moved away from regular investigation when something’s a little off in my world. Compared to the ways I used to suffer before I began to inquire into my thinking, I’m almost an Ascended Master (at least most days). Life has been so much more peaceful, kind, and rich as I’ve gradually experienced what it is to have a (stressful) story “drop me,” as Byron Katie says.

But this summer I’ve seen what’s left. Little thought bubbles have been drifting in and out of this water where I’ve been swimming. Little internal rants about the people around me. Thoughts like “They can’t be trusted (to do it my way) so I’ll just do it myself.” Even though these thoughts usually don’t disrupt my peace of mind in the moment, they tend to have a long-term effect.

And then there are the bubbles of self-doubt when I act out of integrity with myself in how I eat or treat my body.

So I’ve come back to Deep Practice. I’m investigating what happens when I actually write out my frustrations and investigate, on a daily basis. The early results are in: It DOES make a big difference to give time and attention, and trust in the process of inquiry. From the resulting clarity, I’m much more capable of listening to my body’s directions and acting on my own behalf.

If you want to explore this deep practice with a group this fall, click here. 

Loving the Bubbles of Freedom.