Renewal & Possibilities

Renewal: New Possibilities- Part 1

Spring is just beginning here in the northern hemisphere—the season of renewal and new possibilities. A small plot of land across from the complex where I live is blanketed with a floral violet-colored ground cover. It does so spot-on every year at this time, and it always takes my breath away. Daffodils and crocuses are beginning to blossom.

I know—the Covid-19 pandemic continues to linger and keep our lives in check. But we’ve come a long way through a very dark period of our lives—for many of us with great suffering and loss. Yet, there is hope for returning to some level of normalcy in the air, and the season of spring helps to fuel this.

“We grin and bear it ’cause the nights are long.
I hope that somethin’ better comes along.”

— The Muppets

What’s Next?

What will the coming months and year ahead really be like? When will we feel confident that we can see and hug our loved ones and friends freely again? When will life feel normal again—or will it ever? Most importantly – however things do unfold – what new possibilities are ahead for each of us?

There is a spiritual practice of Visioning developed by Rev. Dr. Michael Bernard Beckwith of the Agape International Spiritual Center that might just help with this. It’s designed to help us create a more expansive idea of our lives than what we currently have—going beyond our limited perspectives and experiences by opening us to a higher vision. This is not about catching a vision and setting out to make it happen with goals, actions, etc. Rather, this Visioning is a meditative practice to clear some space for deep listening to Divine Wisdom within. In this space we can pose a series of inquiring questions: What must I release? What must I embrace or embody? What must I become?

Release and let go

This first inquiry invites us to clear out what is not needed, has completed its’ purpose, or is limiting us in some way. Is it time to let go of a relationship? Perhaps there are old habits, attitudes or beliefs that are no longer life affirming. Anything that does not serve the fulfillment of the possibilities and a new vision deserves consideration. It can even be old stuff we have hanging around, or old clothes we no longer wear and may never wear again. Releasing creates a vacuum, or perhaps we could refer to it as a womb of potentiality.

The spring season of renewal is a natural time for doing spring cleaning, or organizing, such as the garage or basement. It’s also the time to clean up the garden to prepare it for new growth. Whether you sit in quite meditation, go for long walks in nature and or tend to your home and garden, allow this to be time of reflection, of sorting and clearing the soil of your consciousness. These are all mindful actions that can serve this process.

Watch for furthering this Visioning practice in future posts.

Loving kindness

Taking Pause

“It’s not so much knowing when to speak, but when to pause.”—Jack Benny, American comedian who died in 1974

What is a pause? Generally, it’s an interlude or gap between two things. Some pauses are long and others brief. Some may seem pregnant with meaning, especially when someone pauses while speaking. If you’re taking a class or attending a speech or presentation and the teacher or speaker stops talking, you probably become intensely aware of the sudden empty space waiting to be filled. Your mind may try to fill in the space with what you assume is coming next, or you may also relish the uncertainty—remaining open to something unanticipated. During that notable pause, you may feel a special connection with the speaker, as well as with everyone else in the room. Had your mind wandered prior to the pause, you may suddenly find yourself very much in the present moment.

In written works, periods, commas, dashes, and colons force the reader to pause and better grasp what he or she is reading. Pauses can help you transition from one activity to another, and even shift your mood. And, pauses can help you experience moments of deep presence—nothing lacking and everything just as it is. As the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said: “If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply.”

Beneath the surface

icebergHuman beings present themselves to the world much like the tip of an iceberg floating in the ocean. Beneath the surface of the myriad of distractions and busyness of life there is an enormous depth of being. Pauses can help you drop the facade and access this depth so you can listen to your own inner voice and connect with your true views and desires and even your intrinsic value system.

Author Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own: “…it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” Our body, brain, and spirit need periods of idleness, of non-doing. That’s how ancient hunters and gatherers lived. When they weren’t acquiring food for sustenance, they played, groomed, rested, and gazed at the heavens contemplating their existence in nature and the universe.

One can take pause in prayer, meditation, or simply a deep breath. Longer pauses might be spent in nature, on vacation, or on a sabbatical—from work or even a relationship. When a relationship grows sour, or an impasse ensues following an argument, it can be helpful for each partner to take a time out for inner inquiry and reflection. This creates space to examine beliefs and feelings related to the situation.

In his beloved classic The Prophet Kahil Gibran says this about marriage: “let there be spaces in your togetherness…” A healthy relationship needs spaces for separateness—space to grow individually as well as together. Knowing when to pause, as Jack Benny said, is at the heart of every person’s life. Gibran ends with: “And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” Like trees, we all need space in order to thrive.

walking pathWhen feeling stuck or blocked in trying to solve a problem or finish a project, shifting one’s attention to something else—taking a walk or breathing deeply—interrupts the brain circuits. You may recall times when you fail to remember a person’s name; the harder you try, the more it eludes you. But when you back away for a moment, it quickly pops into mind. I often take breaks when writing to move my body; I tend to have my most creative insights while walking or even driving. Not surprisingly yoga and meditation foster physical and spiritual opening up.

Practice pausing by noticing your feelings, thoughts, and actions in the moment. Don’t analyze, criticize, or try to fix anything. Simply ask questions like “What do I believe right now?” “Are these beliefs really true?” “How would my life change if I letgo of this belief?” Notice how such pauses foster shifts in your thinking and feeling when you are experiencing a challenge, impasse, or even fatigue.

Selah

Selah is a Hebrew word that is used extensively in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms, which is often interpreted as “stop and listen.” A national organization, Selah Freedom, is dedicated to ending sex trafficking and bring freedom to the exploited. They interpret Selah as to pause, rest, reflect. Psychologist Rollo May wrote, “Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response to throw our weight.”

Selah Freedom has a residential program for victims of trafficking that provides needed therapy and life coaching to help the young women overcome the damage of past trauma and find new life paths. The program offers personalized educational plans, job placement, trauma therapy (including equine therapy), education in life skills, medical and legal assistance, and holistic restorative care.

meditationI have the honor of facilitating iRest Yoga Nidra meditation programs at Selah Freedom’s Chicago residential facility. During iRest, the women, mostly in their late teens and twenties, set aside their dark past and whatever has gone on in their day. They lie down on blankets and pillows and slip into deep relaxation and even dreamless sleep as I guide them in mindfulness practices aimed at helping them feel safe. The practice teaches them to welcome emotions and self-limiting beliefs, which ultimately lose their potency. This clears the way to uncover their wholeness and worthiness.

Pausing: make it a habit

You may not have a staff of coaches and therapists focused on helping you achieve your life goals, but you can do much of this work on your own by finding your own way to pause.

Pausing provides space to discover your deepest desires. When you do this regularly and intentionally, those desires become a motivating force, like an inner compass reminding you to stay on your path and sort out what’s right for you and what’s not…not this, not that, YES this!

Lily padsGetting in the habit of taking regular pauses can help you recharge and become more connected to life. What you do for yourself, you do for others. What you do for others, you do for yourself.

Your most healing pauses may be simply resting and being. You might start by taking a deep breath, expanding the whole rib cage and belly, then resting and letting go. Use this simple acronym as a reminder: TAP RIBTake a Pause, Rest in Being.

I would like to leave you with a few words from a poem by William Stafford titled “You Reading This, Be Ready”:…carry into evening all that you want from this day. The interval you spent reading or hearing this, keep it for life.”

I hope you regularly take pause to note what you wish to carry forward in this day and in your life.

Connection in the Midst

Feeling Connection in the Midst of…

When we are confronted with difficult circumstances, such as enduring a hurricane, witnessing acts of terrorism, having relationship conflicts, or facing serious health concerns, it is common to react with anger, hurt, or feeling separate, isolated, or victimized. Or maybe we shut down and become numb. But we live in an interconnected world and we are wired to be connected—with the environment, other people, and various aspects of ourselves. Connectedness can also be with something larger than we are—a calling, the universe, God, or another higher power. It essentially is connectedness to a deep peace within.

connection in natureAnd we are not separate from nature. The sun, the air we breathe, plants, and animals all provide humans life-giving nourishment. As Alan Watts so eloquently put it: Each one of us, not only human beings but every leaf, every weed, exists in the way it does, only because everything else around it does. The individual and the universe are inseparable.” What’s most available to us at any moment is our connection to life and others through our senses—seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching.

Bodily connection

Most of us take our body for granted and are disconnected from it. We stretch it, strain it, and often abuse it. We don’t get enough sleep. We consume food and substances that compromise our health and well-being. The body is a web of interconnections and is continually seeking balance and wholeness via signals to and from the brain. But we often don’t pay attention to messages it may be sending in the form of pain or exhaustion. Our bodies can also speak to us through our feelings, emotions, and thoughts. We forget, or maybe never learned, that our bodies are constantly speaking to us. This is why we have been endowed with our senses and ability to perceive.

Social connection

We are making connections with others every moment of our lives—with every person we meet, every colleague we work with, every stranger who opens a door for us or sits down next to us on the subway. Let’s not forget the connections we have with all the people who plant, tend, transport, and sell us our food. Yet, we tend to be unaware of this multitude of connections.

social connectionResearch has shown that social connections strengthen our immune system, lower rates of anxiety and depression, heighten self-esteem, and increase empathy toward others. When we hear of a major disaster or tragedy and the suffering of many, most of us feel empathy and compassion. In fact, according to Brené Brown, best-selling author of The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, & Courage, “empathy fuels connection.”

How often do we make judgments about other people because they appear different from us? It might be their race, religion, nationality, politics, or maybe just how they are dressed. So much in our society tells us to distrust others. In his book, The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Living a Compassionate Life, Piero Ferrucci writes of two worldviews. One is pessimistic and the other is optimistic. We can distance ourselves by suspicion, or we can draw nearer to people knowing we are linked to one another. Kindness brings us closer to people.

Empathy connection

My friend Ann was taking her daily walk when she saw a man she’d never seen before walking several dogs and headed towards her. She noted that he was quite overweight and was wearing torn, disheveled-looking clothes. Not the kind of person she would want to connect with, she thought. She became aware of fear and anxiety rising within her. But then something shifted inside her, compelling her to make a connection. Ann said hello and commented about one of dogs, which was quite small, saying how cute it was. Tom, who introduced himself, responded that he’d only had him three days and had found him on the Internet. He was a rescue dog from Houston made homeless by Hurricane Harvey. He said he and his wife decided they had room for him in their home—and in their hearts. Ann found her own heart melting and opening wide.

Peace connection

I recently found the following simple yet poignant definition of peace from an anonymous source on the Internet: Peace: It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” Even though this calmness can be buried beneath the ruble of accumulated life experiences, it is there and it is free and accessible to us all.

Not long ago I helped lead a six-day iRest Yoga Nidra meditation teacher training. Participants came from all over the country and as far away as Hong Kong. Short for Integrative Restoration, iRest is highly experiential practice that helps one achieve, or restore, groundedness and deep calm. Regular practice helps one live a connected life as this place of peace becomes naturally integrated into one’s daily life. A participant in the training I assisted in last year, a psychiatrist, told me that iRest helped her feel more present in her body and less stuck in her thoughts.

iRest is a simple guided meditation practice of mindfulness and deep relaxation. It helps us systematically and somatically move through the boundaries of feeling separate from others, from life, and from ourselves. It invites us to embrace our best qualities, which are already present, though obscured by conditioning.

Jacqui facilitating iRest

Jacqui facilitating iRest

iRest offers a toolbox of practices that teaches how to notice whatever sensations, feelings, or thoughts arise as the body-mind’s way of sharing messages. A physical sensation such as pain may be calling for us to inquire into its source and, in some cases, seek medical assistance. Thoughts, feelings, and emotions are also explored in a way that allows us to learn from their messages. Thus we become more aware and conscious of whatever may be arising in any given moment. Rather than allowing a negative reaction to form, we can feel back into our inner resource of peace and well-being and choose a more favorable response.

Other body-mind practices such as yoga, tai chi, and types of meditation are ways to access and deepen our connectedness. The same is true with activities that foster a connection with nature.

Peace within the midst

A core teaching of Viktor Frankl (1905–1997), Austrian psychiatrist, neurologist, holocaust survivor, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, was that our power to choose our response is the source of our growth and freedom. He also said, “If you don’t go within, you simply go without.” In other words, we lose our sense of connectedness.

We all have the capacity to feel grounded in peace. We can learn to live that way in the midst of whatever circumstance we encounter. When we experience this profound peace in the midst of turmoil, our connection is infinite.

connection in nature

Being Aware: Live Joyously, Drunkenly, Divinely

“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” —Henry Miller

Are you aware of all the thoughts in your mind at this moment? One research study revealed that humans experience as many as 60,000 thoughts each day, one for every second of waking life. Thoughts are like corn kernels popping in our consciousness one after the other. Most of our thoughts are transient and many are recurring. But thoughts are only one thing that occupies our attention. Feelings, sensations, memories, and perceptions all intermingle with our thoughts. Behind all of this activity in the mind is an infinite stillness. Being aware of this stillness can have a profound effect on our lives.

Out to lunch

worm on leafEach part of nature knows what its job is, usually performs it to perfection, and amazingly, knows to do it. Take, for example, a worm patiently edging and nosing and fitting a fallen leaf into its hole for a later meal. It’s totally present to its experience and doesn’t dillydally. The worm ultimately may become lunch for a robin, or be consumed by lesser creatures after it dies naturally. Either way, it’s lived in simple awareness and purposely fulfilled itself. Worms, robins, and the rest of the animal kingdom live purposeful lives, are never absent-minded or “out to lunch.”

We humans are an exception to most of nature. We are born as fully present, curious creatures wholly absorbed in each moment. As we grow and adapt to our world, we learn to create boundaries and determine where to direct our attention while the outside world bombards us with way more than we can possibly focus on. At the same time, a continuous flow of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions floods our minds, keeping us separate from our present circumstances.

robin with wormWhile working on writing this article, I watched YouTube videos of a worm going about its business and then a robin snatching it up, and my imagination took flight. I wondered what it might feel like to be the bird and the worm in these circumstances. I was repulsed by the worm’s demise but immediately felt a pang of hunger and wondered what I would have for lunch, and then I thought about what I needed to prepare for a picnic/concert I was going to that evening. Then the phone rang. Confronted with something of more urgency, my writing project got pushed aside. At that point I realized that I’d been unfocused and “out to lunch” for a good part of the afternoon.

Being occupied

occupied with TextingWhen I was growing up we didn’t have many activities to engage in outside of school, though we had lots of free time to play with friends, be creative, and explore. By contrast, the lives of today’s children are often highly structured with many activities. For most kids, school is demanding and parents and society push them to achieve. Beyond school, they may play sports and take music and dance lessons, where the performance pressure can also be intense. In what little spare time they have, a large majority of youngsters are engrossed in social media, playing video games, texting, shopping online, or surfing on the web—oblivious to the presence of family and friends. Spending time just being, playing for enjoyment, or just thinking is virtually unheard of among youth today.

Of course, adults are not immune to this busyness obsession. We are conditioned to be constantly doing. Even practicing yoga can become just another form of doing rather than being a way to experience inner peace and awareness. The idea that our happiness and fulfillment are only achieved through engagement with the outside world has become the norm. We don’t know how to tap in to an internal sense of being, much less be aware. And why should we?

Realm of awareness

The truth is that true peace, happiness, and love can only be found internally. Searching outside always falls short and never offers long-lasting joy. Recall any situation that brought you happiness or exhilaration—a roller-coaster ride, first kiss, landing the ideal job. The feeling—real as it was at the time—eventually faded.

Take a moment to ask yourself, “Am I aware?” You may be mildly aware of your body, the flow of your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, and the sights and sounds around you. But what is the source of that awareness? Free yourself to be an observer.

Being aware, said philosopher and writer D.L. Harding, is “living from one’s space instead of from one’s face.” Living from one’s space means bringing attention and presence to everything we experience in life. The result is that we do a better job with whatever we engage in, and with more ease and joy. Fear, pain, and life challenges lose their intensity. We experience more peace and serenity and heighten our capacity to meet whatever life presents responsibly.

Becoming divinely aware

Let’s face it, it’s practically impossible for us humans to eliminate our thoughts, memories, and perceptions, which cloud our true awareness. In fact, we don’t need to get rid of anything. Instead, we can welcome whatever shows up in our awareness. At the same time, we can learn to move our attention beneath the veiled surface of the mind and body to a place where we find stillness that is changeless.

sensory-gardenThere are many ways to get to that stillness. Formal mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation help us align with this deepest core of our being. We can also practice by simply listening with all our senses. This can be done while walking or practicing pranayama (breathing techniques). Slipping into a warm bath helps to access awareness. I find that the Chicago Botanic Gardens is a good place to practice cultivating stillness and awareness, especially in the wonderful Sensory Garden. There you experience being fully aware while seeing, touching, and smelling everything you encounter—plants like soft furry lamb’s ear and fragrances of curry and dark-maroon chocolate cosmos! You experience how deeply rooted nature is in stillness.

Try this exercise: Look at an object in front of you. See it in its entirety—shape, color, texture, etc. Then soften your gaze and take in the whole landscape before you without paying attention to any one thing. Try this with your eyes closed, concentrating on hearing just one sound, and then allow the whole spectrum of sounds to permeate your awareness. When thoughts and feelings arise, set them free. As a witness, experience all that is present, and then allow deep stillness and peace to encompass you. See your core of awareness shining out as your true Self–God’s infinite being.

Broaden and deepen your awareness in all you do—work, play, experiencing solitude. Rupert Spira, spiritual teacher, author, and potter, has written, “When doing slows down, the thinking that is at its origin is exposed; when thinking dissolves, the feeling that is behind it is uncovered; when feeling subsides, the Being that is at its heart is revealed.”

Being aware is like inhabiting a home built for living and loving, which has no room for hurts, fears, or regrets. Inhabit this home and let yourself become joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware!

 

 

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handpring on back

Who’s Got Your Back?

I recently was a staff presenter at a four-day retreat in Chicago for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress. Each veteran brought a support person—partner, family member, or battle buddy. One afternoon an art therapist at the School of the Art Institute led the group through expressive art projects. To begin, they were given old button-down shirts to protect their clothing. Then they were asked to place one hand into a puddle of colored acrylic paint, plant their handprint on the back of their partner, and say, “I’ve got your back!” This experience was a powerful way for people to feel connected—and to experience things we all crave: feeling safe, supported, and cared for.

Basic need

I work with survivors of war and other traumatic experiences who continue to suffer long after the traumatic event. Vietnam was a highly controversial war. In addition to the traumas suffered abroad, those who returned home were not welcomed back. Many stuffed their memories and feelings just to get on with life. Those who have suffered childhood, domestic, or other forms of abuse or traumas generally harbor feelings of being unsafe, vulnerable, insecure, helpless, and alone.

Just as warriors need to protect one another in combat, we all need people in our lives who are there for us, have our best interests at heart, and will stand up for us. Yet, loneliness, isolation, and depression are now highly prevalent in our culture. A 2005 report published in the American Sociological Review found that one in four Americans felt they had no one they could talk to. According to Lynn Smith-Lovin Professor of Sociology at Duke University, that number has dropped to two. The proliferation of social networking over the last decade has changed the society in many ways but hasn’t offered a replacement for the kind of connectedness true friendship provides.

ConnectionCare, support, and protection are fundamental needs of infants, children, and even teenagers. Most young people have the assurance that their parents will always have their back. It would be wonderful if we all had that sense of security. The fact is, we are social beings, and our need for connection continues throughout our lives; such connections give us the resiliency to live fulfilling lives.

Trust and support

“Problems carried alone are problems doubled, while problems shared are problems cut in half.” David A. Grant, Founder/Publisher TBI HOPE Magazine

Even if we haven’t experienced war or abuse, we all have suffered—the death of a loved one, loss of a job, disappointment in a relationship, severe illness. When times are tough, who is there for you? Is there someone you can turn to who will listen, comfort you, and help you resolve or cope with your situation? If not family, who else can you lean on? Who really listens to you with a compassionate ear?

Even though we want to be accepted and loved, sometimes the prospect of letting another see us our flaws, failings, and weaknesses can be scary and make us feel vulnerable, not knowing if we can truly trust that person. We need people who can make us feel good about ourselves, not those who are negative or judgmental. While opening the trust door may seem risky, the alternative—being alone, anxious, and powerless—will not alleviate our suffering.

SupportSome of us are most comfortable one-to-one with a friend, partner, or counselor when baring our inner soul. But support can also be found in groups. Support networks for people with health challenges and addictions have been shown to be highly effective in helping reduce anxiety and depression. They provide safe spaces in which individuals can voice their struggles, listen to the challenges of others, learn from them, and realize they are not alone. Groups can also provide healthy peer pressure, nudging others to take steps that will help them. Learning to trust helps people feel better, develop better coping skills, and ultimately live happier, healthier lives.

I have greatly valued the informal networks of support I’ve formed over the years, both professional and personal. I cherish my lifeline of intimate friends whom I know will have my back when I need them, as I will have theirs. When it comes to writing these articles, I know I can depend on people who will honestly critique and edit my musings and let me know when I’ve missed the mark. When I teach courses or make presentations, I’ve learned to approach them with the understanding that my audiences want me to succeed—they want me to inspire or enlighten them. Why else would they be there!

Being independent and self-reliant is highly touted in our culture. But we are never truly separate or independent; we all depend upon our interactions with other people. We are also responsible for our actions and their impact on others. Life is give and take. While our life journey is individual, we thrive on healthy relationships; quite simply, we need one another.

Cultivate your inner resource

“There is no real security except for whatever you build inside yourself.”
–Comedian Gilda Radner

flower and stonesOpening our inner selves to supportive friends and loved ones can provide a pathway to uncovering an inner strength. As an iRest Yoga Nidra meditation instructor, I help individuals cultivate feelings of security and ease. We spend time in each meditation experiencing what we refer to as our “inner resource.” Let me guide you through this experience.

Recall a place, or one you would imagine, creating it in your mind’s eye as though painting a canvas. It may be a place in nature—resting on a beach, in a forest or field. It may be a place you remember from childhood or on vacation. There may be other people here, an animal or spiritual figure—or you may simply be by yourself. Most importantly, there is a sense of being grounded, safe, and comfortable here. Visualize the colors, forms, and textures you would see here. Then begin to feel yourself in this place, seeing 360 degrees around you. Feel the touch of air upon your skin and any smells that may be present. Most importantly, become aware of the feeling of being fully supported and a sense of ease and well-being. Like a coming home to your true self.

Our inner resource helps us access deeper levels of our being that have never been hurt or broken and don’t need fixing. In iRest Yoga Nidra meditation, as in many forms of meditation, we must be open to Infinite Awareness, also known as Eternal Presence or God, which allows us to know peace, happiness, and love—and to rest assured that our back is always covered!