breathing into the heart
a door opens
like a gentle breeze
while the mind
this is who you are
Why I Meditate
breathing into the heart
a door opens
like a gentle breeze
while the mind
this is who you are
"Spirit of Flight" by Josephine Wall
be gentle, be loving
patient and proud
of the wind and tears
that carved a goddess
Kwan Yin’s kindred spirit
is learning to listen
to the cries of the world
and stay till there is ease
as she listens to her own body
the dance of sensations
ok as she is
a caged heart
trusting her wingspan
to fly beyond the bounds
of fear and unmet expectations
she is still exploring
she is still unfinished
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.
Reflections on Equanimity
I. Establishing equanimity as ease and relaxation, orienting to pleasure, and lingering with experience
red maple leaf in close up by Atle Mo
blood red Japanese maple
shocks the heart
back to life
your delicate leaves
won't last forever
II. Equanimity as earth element, stability, or solidity
marble toy by Louis Maniquet
the Earth pulls
you close to her
why lean forward
or turn back
when her love
can hold you here
III. Equanimity as wind element, movement, change, letting go to let in.
Everywhere the wind carries me is my home. (Yu Xuanji)
white dandelion by Saad Chaudhry
the wind unravels
your perfect grooming
all your hidden secrets
it's best to come undone
shelter in breath and silence
IV. Equanimity as space or silence, widening the attention.
aurora northern sky by Luke Stackpoole
the birth of
space and silence
if you don't like
what you see
return to the womb
if you don't like
what you hear
return to the womb
and begin again
***Equanimity weekend retreat inspired by Robin Craig, led by Brian Lesage
Fear and Faith
“The path unfolds in two dimensions: horizontal and vertical. The horizontal path spreads forward and back across chronos, tic-toc, sequential time: minutes that flow like sand through our fingers. Here and then gone. The vertical path extends as kairos, deep time. The fullness of ripening moments swell and then narrow, like heartbeats, thumping out their fleshy rhythm. Horizontal time propels us. Deep time nourishes and sustains us.”
After reading these words by Pamela Weiss, something shifts inside me. It feels like the missing link, the connection I’ve been looking for to understand the relationship between fear and faith. Fear is a contracted state, a constant push-pull dynamic between what’s here, what’s missing from the past, and what’s needed for the future. Fear is judgmental, blaming anyone who cannot guarantee its safety. And, it is just one breath, one heartbeat away from faith waiting to surround it, to hold it in a steady, tender embrace.
One week ago, I had the joyful privilege of joining Jackie Long and circles of women for yoga on the beach in Half Moon Bay to raise funds in memory of loved ones who passed from cancer. Moving through sun salutations in praise of our star humbly hiding behind clouds, surrendering to sandy earth in child’s pose as vibrations of pounding surf were felt beneath us, it was an exhilarating experience.
Though I was aware of the sacroiliac joints and gluteal muscles previously re-injured by certain yoga poses, I believed it could be different this time. Sacred cause, sacred place, sacred instructor, sacred people, sacred body…there was no need to be scared. It would be different this time.
As the week and my body unfolded from the yoga experience, I began to feel twinges of discomfort. Prior experience, body wisdom, patience, compassion, and determination helped me tend to the pain lovingly with modalities that would promote healing.
Fear has not vanished. There are still whispers of judgment from time to time— the horizontal path conjuring flashbacks of past painful outcomes, predicting future catastrophes, each choice I make flowing like sand through my fingers. Where can I find true refuge? Where can I feel safe?
Today, the sensations are the loudest they have been throughout this week. What does it mean to lovingly embrace fear, to surround it with faith? Faith is expansive. It does not judge, but speaks with wisdom, sensitivity, patience, curiosity. I don’t know what will happen, and I’m with you every step of the way. Loving attention heals no matter what. Like a mighty grandmother oak, faith roots in vertical time, each moment while simultaneously reaching up and out for connection.
rooted in this moment
branches reaching out
cultivating a deeper faith
to surround fear and doubt
As I learn to take refuge in this abiding faith, may it serve as refuge for others. May I trust what I cannot see, yet feel growing deep within, reaching up and out for connection.
"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…
On Retreat at Home
Restlessness, Metta, and True Nature
There’s a restlessness inside me--
checking the phone, the weather
checking for missed emails, calls, texts.
Am I ok as I am?
Are others ok because of me?
When did the external funhouse
mirrors get so distorted?
When did abandonment
become the only story?
May I be patient with anxiety and restlessness,
and trust something precious beyond this.
A few Winecup clarkias stand out
amidst Pacific poison oak.
Beautiful growth is possible anywhere.
The trill of a red-winged blackbird
invites joyful sound meditation.
Magnetic Mama Earth guides footsteps
to avoid stepping on western
whiptails activated by amygdalas.
So I’m not the only one!
A summer breeze blows
the breath inside out.
Am I ok?
There is no one left to answer…
No Timeline for Love
I don’t need to fill my heart completely
before I can show you love.
I just need to see the thorn,
feel the sharp point against softness,
wrap the wound in tenderness
as scar tissue learns to love
in its own healing time.
These days of cutting okra and long
beans together will soon be over--
hearing knives slice through dark
green flesh at different rhythms,
watching the way your air pods
hang from your ears
as a slight smile crosses your lips,
wondering what you’re listening to
and if you’ll still like that song in college,
or who you will choose to love.
Or the way I turn to you
with partially cut vegetables
that you will chop into smaller pieces
the way your mother did back in India,
breaking down larger pieces of life,
seasoning with spices and cooking slowly
into food the family can easily digest
until arthritic hands can no longer chop
or vision fades into final darkness.
Soon all I will have are these words,
and memories of three generations
cutting okra and long beans
side by side by side.
What used to seem so mundane
now feels like sacred ground.
Please help me to be here!
Soon we will all be gone.
till she can let go
is a gift
by your perception
For years I've gone on retreat, escaping family and home to find freedom. Little did I realize that freedom can be found within my own home, that refuge in a Brahmavihara happens wherever, whenever the heart is willing to feel, and surround all experience in its embrace.
Deep gratitude to Brian Lesage and Sangha for this sacred, unique, configuration, to family and friends for being there with food, hugs, kisses, laughter, and conversation when needed, to colleagues for covering my time off from work, and patients for trusting this practice to widen/deepen my understanding of compassionate care.
The Guest Room
It’s hard to see the chips and stains on walls
where visitors are supposed to feel welcome,
at home in aesthetically pleasing surroundings.
Each time I walk in, the furniture is rearranged
into a configuration that tells me my in-laws
are staying longer than I anticipated.
The scratches, the dents, the torn bedsheet corner
is so unpleasant, just like the hard wooden slats
you are placing over the mattress so your father
feels more comfortable sleeping on the bed
than on the floor. Why does this bother me so much?
Is it because my in-laws are making their mark
in our home, or because they are burrowing into the room,
into my being in ways I do not yet understand?
What if the chips and stains, scratches and dents,
the torn bedsheet corner are all signs of life,
not a sterile room staged for a home
I was not meant to live in?
Maybe the guest room is their room,
the heart space their space to teach me
about inviting more vulnerability in.
The cozy configuration of our family nest during the pandemic is about to change. The news of my in laws coming soon to stay with us for a significant length of time rattles the bones, leaves the nervous system unsettled.
It’s tempting to spiritually bypass what’s here, to suppress thoughts, feelings and sensations that aren’t congruent with my partner or rebel against cultural tradition. It’s also easy to blame others for misunderstanding my need for space and silence.
The Practice is asking for ease, curiosity, patient benevolence, a reliance on certain support systems, and remembrance of beauty, joy, hidden gifts.
Sitting in meditation each day is like relaxing back into my favorite chair or cushion, leaning the weight of my body and worries against a giant redwood tree that knows how to root and endure. The breath makes its loyal sweep from head thoughts to heart feelings to gut sensations, gathering them all in its tender embrace, unifying the pieces into one collective, sacred experience.
From this grounded place, questions about perception are asked without expectation of an exact or perfect answer. What’s happening now? Who am I taking myself to be? How am I relating to others? To space? To time?
Once I have attended to my own authentic inner experience in an honest, compassionate way, I can begin to let others in, to get curious and ask about their experience, to sense the multidimensional aspect of relationships and vast space of the Brahmaviharas. Love is not a limited resource trapped inside my own heart. It can flow both ways...towards myself and others.
May I be happy, as well and safe as I can be, peaceful and at ease.
I care about my suffering.
May I know joy.
May I trust in the mysterious unfolding of my life.
May you be happy, as well and safe as you can be, peaceful and at ease.
May you care about your suffering.
May you know joy.
May you trust in the mysterious unfolding of your life.
May we be happy, as well and safe as we can be, peaceful and at ease.
May we care about our suffering.
May we know joy.
May we trust in the mysterious unfolding of our lives.
The term ‘patient’ benevolence helps to remind me that there is no fixed timeline for this process, no need to get anywhere, become anyone too quickly if it doesn’t feel like an embodied experience. Rushing the process can cause more harm.
Reliance on Certain Support Systems
It’s so easy for me to let anxiety and aversion eclipse the whole truth of any given moment. Sometimes I miss sweet family connections, opportunities for beauty and joy.
When this happens, the skillful, compassionate, and wise move is to lovingly separate from others so I can connect back with myself to remember. (Sati, the Pali word for mindfulness means ‘to remember’). Through meditation, mindful movement, time in nature, reflection and writing, listening to music and singing, I hear that one clear voice calling out for me to listen. I can also reach out to wise ones who offer safe shelter for the nervous system to settle, the bones to rattle less.
I need to take things one breath, one step at a time, slowing down so the contraction of time does not scatter my attention in multiple directions to dissipate and waste energy.
Remembrance of Beauty, Joy, Hidden Gifts
When there is resistance to unpleasant perception, animal instincts of survival kick in. Can I fight? Can I run away? Can I play dead, sleep, and wake up when it’s safe, when it’s all over?
Is it ever truly all over???
Zen Master Setcho Juken said, “Here in the dragon’s jaws: many exquisite jewels.”
For me, the jewels of practice have shined in so many ways—the width of loving-kindness, the depth of compassion, the length of joy unmeasured by circumstance, the groundless ground of equanimity that does not crack in any mind-heart-body quake, seeing all parts of myself reflected in other beings, other animals, the Earth, and vice versa, everything mentioned and not mentioned in these words, the unborn, the unheard, the unseen.
I am ready to welcome my in-laws, welcome all that arises internally and externally with this shift. I am not the same person I was before. My partner, daughter, mother, and in laws are also not the same. I know it will not be perfect, that I may forget what I have learned, written, practiced and embodied over time.
When this happens, how blessed I feel to return to these words, this heart-mind, these intentions to embody The Practice as best as I can like Kali, Durga, Lakshmi, Kwan Yin, Tara, a Dakini, a redwood, willow, oak tree, all phases of the moon, a lotus (including muddy, tangled rhizome roots, long stem, and budding blossom), the uterine journey from menarche to menopause, the elemental forces of Nature...the Divine Feminine in all her many moods and manifestations!
Photo by Rick Lam
2020 has been a year of many things. I won’t pretend to know what it has been like for you. I have heard from many that they wish to have a different 2021. But what does this mean exactly? Less suffering with no COVID, police brutality, political division, physical, emotional, social, and economic stress? More joy in gathering with others to commemorate the beginning and ending of life (and everything in between), travel, return to school and work, seeing the smiles of others?
I also wish for a different 2021. And I’m paying attention to where I plant seeds of loving intentions- where I’m forcing something to grow/change, where I’m slowly letting go, patiently waiting for something to take root.
On December 24, I received my first COVID vaccine with a mixture of dread and hope. Dread that I’d be one of the few cases who developed a serious adverse reaction. Hope that this would be a positive step in the fight against COVID. I’m relieved that the only nuisance was a sore arm for a few days, and I’m still diligently tracking symptoms through Vsafe.
I realize that there is still so much uncertainty. Will I build immunity to COVID? How long will the antibodies last? Am I safe to be around patients? Are they safe with me? What does this vaccine mean for us all heading into 2021?
Recognizing the fear and doubt in these questions, I’m aware that these thoughts, emotions and the physical manifestations of uncertainty within are not alone. There is also awe at the timeline and sound scientific data supporting the vaccine’s efficacy, gratitude for meaningful work, incredible colleagues, loving family, health, abundant food, shelter, and so much more.
Most of all, there is a deep bow of reverence to the practices of mindfulness, lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity with meditation and writing carrying me through some of the darkest times of post-partum depression and anxiety, losing my aunt-mom to cancer, chronic sacro-iliac, gluteal muscle pain, and COVID-19. Though Western medicine and other modalities have been supportive, it is these practices that saved me from sacrificing this heart-mind-body to fear and doubt.
To this end, I’d like to support others in planting loving intentions for 2021. Will you join me here? However you choose to heal and support yourself in 2021, may you remember that love and wisdom are so much larger than fear and doubt. What you plant now affects everyone and everything around you for days, weeks, months, and years to come.
Nisargadatta Maharaj said, “Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. And between the two my life flows.”
May the idea of a separate self dissolve with the wisdom of shared journeys. May love connect you to all.
Photo by Jamie Street
Kaveri Patel, a woman who is always searching for the wisdom in waves.
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