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Photo by Diana Polekhina
You wake up each morning and fill the blank page with characters and a plot supporting ideas of permanence and becoming.
How’s that working out for you? It must be disappointing, even exhausting when things don’t turn out the way you imagined.
What if you crumpled up the page, shredded it, recycled it, gently let it go to begin again? Inscriptions on the heart are not so easily forgotten.
You will forget, fill the blank page again with fixed views, and wonder how you keep picking up the same pen.
Look around you. Others experience this, too. Marinate in the warmth of self-compassion, and then remember those inscriptions on the heart of ease, beauty, loving connection, sacred freedom.
As you meditate, feel the support of the Earth, breath and silence giving space to all stories of suffering. Listen to the heart’s whispers and sense the flame of divinity within.
You are more capable than you know.
This is how you can mirror the divinity in all beings, and remind them of their birthright to begin again.
A Sky Full of Stars
Milky Way by Felix Mittermeier
Tired of blaming myself
I lay down the weapons
The lancinating judgments
The crooked perceptions
The claw-like control
Of the way things should be
Breathing in meditation
I feel this body
As a clump of matter
More porous than expected
A sky full of stars
Open to any and all
Sometimes I believe I have more agency over others or myself than I actually do. This leads to subtle aggression. What the f@c! is wrong with you? What’s wrong with me? The energy spent to shape and manipulate things to my satisfaction is EXHAUSTING!
Many of us want more peace in our lives. What do we say or do to align our lives with this intentional and heartfelt purpose?
I’m beginning to understand that equanimity is not just some fancy practice you read about, some place you hope to get to if you close your eyes tight enough and practice diligently for hours on end.
For me, it begins with the breath like a surveillance camera, sweeping through all parts of the body that feel tight and congested. It’s the wisdom of a benevolent ancestor (Yasodhara Ma) whispering words of forgiveness, “It’s not your fault. You are doing the best that you can.” It’s sensing how each moment forms from a painful and precious past, and dissolves into a sky full of stars, open to any and all possibilities.
Peace is possible when there is a gentle letting go of what was, a tender curiosity for what is, and trusting the unfolding mystery.
Why I Meditate
breathing into the heart
a door opens
like a gentle breeze
while the mind
this is who you are
On a walk at Calaveras Big Trees National Park, the park ranger paused to pay homage to two giant sequoias that shared the same trunk. The trunks were originally separate, and fused together after a fire for mutual benefit and survival.
I thought of my mother and daughter, how the umbilical connection was severed between us at birth, how the sacral, sacred burning in my body was a sign.
I reflected on all the beings I have pushed away on this camping trip and beyond, the yearning to share the same base, something tender beyond ideas of a separate self.
In meditation, the image of the conjoined sequoias arose, inspiring metta for my teachers, for me, for my mother and daughter, for all the beings at camp, and beyond. It wasn’t my body-heart-mind responsible for such vivid and vast imagination, but tapping into a larger, loving life force inherent in all things.
Listening to the bell resound at the end of the sit, I was clinging- to the bell, the sequoias, the feeling, fearful that I would walk back into a black and white world where beings scurried frantically around like mice to make meaning.
I will continue to disagree with others and feel the pain of separation. I will also persevere in tenderness, beauty, and Soulmaking.
It’s what I was born to ‘do’, and who i already am.
Framing Everything in Love
(Listen to audio version here)
(If you would like to listen to the audio version of this talk, click on the link above.)
The picture changes. Have you noticed this? People, places, things I’ve loved and wanted to hold on to are no longer the same. Family pictures that we took when my daughter was a baby are different now. She’s no longer a cute little cherub, but a tall, lanky teenager complete with acne and attitude.
The picture of who I wanted to be as a mother was so radically different than who I actually was. Instead of having my shit together and nursing my daughter lovingly, I looked like I hadn’t slept for days, felt irritable all the time, blamed anyone and anything in my way (especially myself), and couldn’t breastfeed beyond about 6 weeks.
For those of you who have ever been first time parents, you know it’s challenging. Even if you haven’t been a parent, anything you take on that is new and unfamiliar can be difficult: adopting a pet, starting a new job or school, caring for an aging family member, losing a job, moving to a new place, a new medical or psychological diagnosis in you or a loved one, and so on.
But stress, discomfort, dis-ease, is not just about meeting moments of difficulty in life. We all face challenges. What makes certain ones more stressful than others?
2600 years ago, the Buddha had a word for stress. In Pali, the language spoken by the Buddha in India at the time, the word is dukkha. Just living this human life, we know that pain is inevitable. But the added stress is optional. There’s a saying that illustrates this point well: pain x resistance = stress. If pain is inevitable, then what adds to the stress?
It’s our resistance to what’s happening moment to moment. The desire to hold on to the way my body used to be in less discomfort and able to do certain yoga poses, the aversion to burning, searing, aching, throbbing sensations in my left gluteal muscles, sacroiliac joint and right shoulder, the delusion that none of this should be happening, that I should be able to fix it, that this experience of pain is unique to Moi and no one else has ever felt this way.
What are you currently holding on to in your life? What are you pushing away? How are you daydreaming or misunderstanding a current situation? It may help to place a hand on your heart or a part of the body that is hurting, breathing into any discomfort with as much tenderness and compassion as you can muster. If that feels awkward, then imagine a comforting presence here with you now, breathing with you, understanding you, loving you just as you are.
With our body’s, our circumstances, the people and things in our lives ‘forever’ rotating through like a slideshow, what can we come to rely on that is real, that will provide some measure of robust comfort when the picture is always changing? How can mindful awareness frame the experience in curiosity, kindness, and remain intimately connected regardless of whether we like, dislike, or believe what we are seeing?
There’s a song that I love from high school called ‘Pictures of You’ by an 80’s band called The Cure. The lyrics start out:
I've been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they're real
I've been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures
Are all I can feel
I realize now that expectations I had of myself as a new mother, as a person with this current body, even of my daughter as they are now, are all rooted in past or future stories of what could have been, what should have been.
This moment, right here, right now can be so exquisite, unburdened by past blame or future worry. For me, The Cure for stress is to identify more with the picture frame, and not the changing picture. Easier said than done, right? It’s hard to believe this when there are constant messages and advertising of the perfect picture, the perfect body, the perfect life on Facebook, Instagram, the media and beyond.
Mindfulness practice trains us to notice when we are lost in a story that isn’t true, when emotions feel like weather systems that will last forever and are actually changing all the time, when sensations define who we are and don’t need to be taken so personally.
Learning to identify more with the picture frame, the frame of mindful loving awareness rather than the picture of changing circumstances takes time. If you are fairly new to mindfulness practice, you may uncover thought patterns and old habits you haven’t seen before. Things can feel worse before they feel better.
Know that you aren’t crazy or doing anything wrong. This is completely normal. In firefighting, the term backdraft is used to describe the sudden introduction of air into a fire that has depleted most of the available oxygen in a room or building. Similarly, when you bring attention to patterns of desire, aversion, and delusion, they can initially feel more intense.
This is when it’s helpful to practice with the support of others- a trusted teacher or therapists, wise, loving spiritual community. I’ve also found it useful to bring a spirit of creativity, adventure, and play to these practices. Like learning to cook a dish, play an instrument, grasp a new language, ride a bike, or train yourself in any unfamiliar skill, it can feel so cumbersome if approached with rigidity or expectations of immediate results. Yuck! Who wants to do that?
And, it takes a certain amount of gentle discipline, curiosity, kindness, patience, trust, determination, care, compassion, joy, beauty, resilience, and forgivingness to keep practicing, at least in my recipe book. Your healing journey may need similar or different ingredients. You won’t know till you try, keep showing up, adding a little more of this, taking out a little bit of that.
After 15 years of practice, I still identify with the picture, and sometimes forget about the picture frame. What’s changing is the capacity of this heart-mind to notice sooner, rather than later what’s needed to frame every experience in some aspect of love. It doesn’t matter how long it takes me. What matters most is my willingness to try. I’d like to share a poem that I think speaks to this "Cure for It All" by Julia Fehrenbacher.
This life isn’t what I expected. This practice isn’t what I expected. And it’s inspired such a radical honesty in me to try and see things as they are. Nothing more. Nothing less. Anything else just doesn’t make sense.
Never Give Up
sunrise reflection on lake water by Ashish Laturkar
Burning gluteal muscles, stabbing shoulders
hives when exposed to heat or stress.
Is it Long COVID or just a coincidence?
I never tested positive, had antibodies before the vaccine.
So easy to give into despair like bleak
landscape after a nuclear explosion,
waiting for something to grow,
to give meaning to this pain.
When the evening news, the internet, work emails
and patient messages all beg for better days,
I turn to gratitude practice for solace.
I’m grateful for physical and osteopathic therapy,
for medications that help ease the pain
when another pandemic surge feels overwhelming.
I’m grateful for family holding me
with humor and household help,
for colleagues and medical staff
as smiling crescent moons
in the darkness of a sobering reality.
I’m grateful for teachers, friends, a practice
inspiring the framing of all phenomena
in beauty, wholeness and healing love.
Covid-19: you think you’re so smart,
the best magic show around with variants
evading immune systems and vaccines.
You can invade, inflame, and injure,
but you cannot insist I believe you.
Let me be a source of healing
first internally then externally--
clear water mirroring a sunrise hope
in others clouded by doubt,
beginning again and again
till their last breath or my own.
with the soft cloth
of loving attention
the gems are emerging
Have you ever had one of those days where it feels like you got up on the wrong side of the bed, and you want to go back to sleep?
I recently had one of those days.
Words were hit like racquet balls in conversation with family members instead of catching them, holding them for a while, and then playfully tossing them back. My low back, sacroiliac joints, and gluteal muscles were starting to complain again, as if I wasn’t taking good care of them. I was hungry and nauseous from the Suprep Bowel Kit solution in preparation for a colonoscopy.
Instead of stringing undesirable events together on a continuous chain of aversion, I was surprised by the care that showed up between and around these events.
Bathing the body in compassionate breath, I also took a breath for others in similar situations. There was awareness of imperfection, impermanence, and the impersonal nature of it all. I noticed the way my partner and mom would check up on me periodically to see how I was doing. I pictured loved ones saying the exact metta words I needed to hear, wrapping me in a warm blanket of love and understanding.
May you polish these rocks of aversion with the soft cloth of loving attention.
May you stay in the present moment and notice the care around you.
Don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t like any of the confusion in conversations, the physical discomfort, or the unsettling gastrointestinal sensations. (I won’t even go into the bowel details!) If I had gone back to sleep, I would have missed out on the gems emerging with practice, with time.
Waiting in the pre-op room, I answer the nurse’s questions about my medical history, medications taken, and sign all the necessary consent forms. When it’s time to find a vein suitable for IV access, the nurse comments that I’m a ‘hard stick’ (venous access will be difficult due to small, less prominent veins and some degree of dehydration from the bowel prep).
The words pierce a hole in the bubble of equinimity I’ve created in preparation for this procedure. Or is it a bubble of resistance?
The nurse attempts to find IV access in my right arm, ‘threading’ the needle to reach a vein. When this is unsuccessful, she tries again with my right hand, again ‘threading’ the needle to contact a vein. After the second failed attempt, two more nurses are called in to try.
Each nurse takes an upper extremity searching for a suitable vein, a way to pop the bubble of resistance and access vulnerability. I feel like a pin cushion as tears begin to fall for the sharp, lancinating sensations felt in my right arm and hand.
I didn’t sign up for this. This wasn’t even on the consent form. This isn’t supposed to happen!!!
Allowing the tears to flow, the irritation at the first nurse for poking me twice and all the nurses for asking me repeatedly if I’m ok (do I look ok to you?), and the unpleasant physical sensations to be here just as they are, I’m asked to befriend another round of aversion.
Breathing in self-compassion, breathing out compassion for other patients who have felt like pincushions, I notice that there is a little compassion for the nurse as well. I have also asked colleagues for help when faced with certain challenging procedures in patient care.
Thank you asking for help when you did.
The nurse looks at me with genuine care.
Of course. I wasn’t going to stick you again. I usually don’t have trouble with IV access. You were a hard stick.
The words don’t feel as sharp as they did before. Rocks polished with the soft cloth of loving attention, the gems are emerging.
It doesn’t matter how many times aversion arises, because it will, again and again. It’s how I relate to it that matters most.
Self-Compassion for Comparing Mind
You keep judging thoughts and feelings
as if you could remotely control them
with a 20th century device called Perfection.
The heart’s radiance is beyond this-
more vast than the dramas
playing inside your head,
more understanding than
a stranger opening the door for you.
That stranger could be you
bathing thoughts, feelings, sensations
in wise, compassionate breath.
Instead of asking why me?
try asking yourself why not?
as the heart door slowly opens
and you learn to love what is real.
"Angels Whispering Among Us" by Christine Bell
The serene smile on his face softens the limp in his gait, the cane transformed from a resented crutch to welcome companion. Hiking with my own SI joints and gluteal muscles on fire, I’m curious how this fellow hiker (at least two to three decades older) can embody such joy and ease in the midst of an imperfect body.
As we approach one another, I pause to find out.
How do you make this look so easy?
His smile widens, his eyes beam against the backdrop of the sun’s radiance. Flanked on either side by guardian coast live oak and madrone trees, the scent of forest infusing the air between us, I sense that I am in the presence of a mysterious messenger.
I just keep walking till I can walk no more.
Do you have any meditation and writing classes going on? I’m really struggling with several things.
The tone of her email concerns me, as if she is barely hanging on by a thread, searching for a lifeline to strengthen her tenuous connection to what matters most.
As we begin the mindfulness consult, I can tell she is testing the waters. Will she drown in the revelation of her story, her tears, or will the exchange offer some insight to guide her back to safe harbors?
Nearing the end of our session, she is very clear about what would be helpful in a guided meditation.
In addition to recognizing, allowing, and investigating the uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations, I need to remember gratitude, joy, and trust my capacity to be with this.
I stopped the Ultram, doc. It just caused constipation, and didn’t do anything for my knee pain.
The patient proceeds to share what he is learning after a few sessions of physical therapy. And suddenly, there’s a clarity that could not have come any sooner till now, because the ignorance of separation was always clouding my perception.
Can I watch you walk from this chair to the door and back?
Like an infant curious to explore a new dimension of movement, he rises slowly from the chair without his cane. Placing the right foot forward, he leads with the trusted leg, and pauses. I sense the anticipatory anxiety, the concentration, the yearning to heal as he lifts the left leg and places the left heel on the ground, doing his best not to let the left knee buckle under him.
I feel like a proud parent watching her child take those precious, memorable first steps. As if the patient can read my mind, he grins and ambulates to the best of his ability.
Baby steps, doc. Baby steps.
The resistance and resentment I’ve carried for years against chronic pain is slowly starting to dissipate. From the hiker, I’m inspired to keep living, keep persevering till I can walk no more. From the mindfulness consult, I’m learning that this heart-mind-body can open to unpleasant circumstances with compassion, patience, and trust, balancing the scale weighed down by difficulties with appreciation and joy for what often gets overlooked. From the patient, I’m motivated to take bold baby steps in the midst of burning pain without needing to be a strenuous hiker or yoga practitioner who can perform all poses perfectly.
Be on the lookout for mysterious messengers in your life. They are what make this life worth living, and the learning never stops…
Kaveri Patel, a woman who is always searching for the wisdom in waves.
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