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Ease in the Difficulty: Finding Opportunity in Autumn’s Transition

Photo by Bruno Ramos Lara on Unsplash

It finally feels like autumn in Pennsylvania. The wind is caressing the edges of our home, making the warmth inside seem like a cozy little pod in which to hunker down. Our flannels and chunky socks are out, the coffee pot is warm, and our noses are filled with spicy scents of our last meal. The fall is coming to me with messages of rest. For some reason, the weeks leading out of summer were hectic, strained, and defined by busyness – all of which I will readily give up. In order to combat the anxious spirits, I made a decision to wake up each morning at 5:45 A.M. (!!!) and settle deeply into a morning yoga and meditation practice. When this thought first flashed through my brain, I will admit that I (internally) shouted to my inner voice, “Are you kidding me? This will never work! I am not disciplined enough.” To my surprise, after a few weeks, I find myself eager to take the time to welcome the sun each morning with movement, breath, and meditation.

Two thoughts came to me today:

Find a sense of ease in the difficulty.

and

Our purpose on this earth is to reduce the suffering.

The first was a statement by the yoga instructor as we held standing postures for long periods of time. Of course, she was speaking about the extended side angle we engaged in, but it entered into my spirit in a profound way. So often we fight against the flurry of activity around us, becoming victims (often self-inflicted) of the actions by others (often a result of something that has nothing to do with us, personally.) Take, for instance, anger. It is an ugly, ugly characteristic that can cause deep pain in both the holder of the anger and the person on the receiving end. That anger is rooted in a problem totally unrelated to the recipient of the jealous feelings. When I am in this situation, I will automatically take it to heart, imagining that it is something about me that is causing such anger in the other. I am not locating a sense of ease in the difficulty. My choices are: 1. respond, 2. do not respond. Having no response is not a hateful reaction, but in fact a very loving response to the other person. It requires understanding that the other is acting out of anger/jealousy/etc. because of a pain of which she is unable to let go.

Regardless of what the difficulty is, finding a sense of ease in it allows us to train ourselves to become unresponsive – nonreactive – in the absolute best way. Not only do we resist the development of pain in our own minds and spirits, but we discontinue the cycle of pain that transfers out of ourselves to others.

This leads me to the second statement… conjured out of thin air this morning. Let me give a little bit of background to its significance. I am coming to the end of my years in graduate school and, almost daily, I ask myself, “What should I do next?” Over the months, this evolved to, “What is my purpose?” While I do not think that my answer this morning is the specific one I was looking for, it hit me like a proverbial truck. Perhaps I heard this before? Perhaps. The point is that it was revealed to me after a period of serious introspection into the question. Regardless of occupation, of economic status, of age, gender, race, religion, or abilities, every person’s purpose is to reduce the suffering in the world. Try to argue me away from this one. You cannot do it. Any action that relies on a moral compass – regardless of the spiritual system that one utilizes – points back to this truth.

So what does this have to do with autumn?

While it is easy to make the statements like the ones above (or, maybe it is not so easy), it can be very difficult to live in a way that supports them. The transition into autumn is a metaphor and a reality, and it is not just for the trees. In contemporary society we want to live in a perpetual summer, avoiding at all costs the drying and falling of the leaves, cooler temperatures, and dark hours. We brighten our surroundings with celebratory decorations and twinkling lights. There is nothing wrong with wishing for light! But the summer must end. Autumn brings a necessary coolness that causes us to turn inward for rejuvenation. Sometimes this is masked by the visible signs of withering all around us and it is easy to forget that it is in service of new life to come in spring. We require periods of quiet and fading and drying up to pass through the seasons of our lives. It is necessary in order to take on the new eyes that come with spring after the deep cold of winter. This prepares us for a new summer.

My sister had serious health challenges this year that impacted her body in profound ways. As a result, the human body has a different meaning to me. My relationship with my husband underwent incredible changes as the result of having a beautiful little boy, but it has established in me the firm belief in the stability of our family core. I am about to transition out of the official role of student to a new professional identity, after a radical, life-changing experience (that I never, ever want to repeat.) It challenged my ideals, my character, and my sense of self. I come out of it a new person, confident in my abilities.

I write this to illustrate that, though one may view each difficulty as a test and a winter in itself, it is my belief that these require the acceptance of an inward turn – a cool autumn that leads to a quiescent winter. It will come regardless, but the key is to not resist it.

Find ease in the difficulty. Do not let the cold brittle your bones, but recognize the interior workings of growth.

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“Women, Food, and God” and Start of Real Transformation

Photo by Jairo Alzate on Unsplash

Months and months ago I placed a compelling little book in my Amazon shopping cart. It caught my eye after purchasing Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I was on an empowerment book-buying kick. Yet, this other text sat on my shelf for a very long time before I had a window of opportunity to pry it open to see why I felt so drawn to it. Titled, Women, Food, and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything (Scribner, 2011), I found myself trying to conceptually connect the three subjects as I leafed through its pages. I thought to myself, “I am a woman. I like food. I am interested in God…” I simultaneously felt pulled into this text and repelled. “Repelled” because of an aversion to diets and anything that resembles a diet. (I hoped so much that it was not a “diet book.”) I thought, the way I think about (obsess over, mourn over, stress over) food dictates my life and I want real change.
I also believe strongly that I am not the only one who feels this way.

The author of the book, Geneen Roth, uses remarkably personal stories to guide the reader through a process of realization and on to a path to healing. It is similar to the process she facilitates at her regular weekend retreats on the topic. Roth is a writer and speaker on the subject of compulsive eating, dieting, self realization, and wholeness. At the start, she declares that this book is for anyone who eats food – and I chuckled a bit. What author doesn’t want every person to read her book? After finishing it, I, too, can assert: everyone who eats food should read this book.

Here’s why:
The way you think about food is guided by your perceptions of self – not just self worth, but where you are in the great chain of being. How you treat food, and how you approach it, is guided by the values you hold of yourself. Your relationship with God/Divine Love, or simply just your spiritual centeredness, stems from the health of your relationship with food.

The stereotype is that American women are perpetually obsessed with food. One could argue that men are as well, but it takes a different form. The diet industry is strong, to say the least, and it offers many solutions. Lately, the trend is non-diet dieting, clean eating, and vitamin-packing meal plans, but all this is still a regulation of what goes in your body. Roth’s criticism is not with the methods, it is toward the mindset with which we approach these methods. “If you think that your job is to fix what is broken, you keep finding more broken places to mend,” she writes (73).

Roth is full of transformative statements that have the power to shock us awake from our stupor. She gently tells us to become aware of the dynamic power of our bodies. “When you ignore your belly,” she writes, “you become homeless. You spend your life trying to erase your own existence.” (113) The desire to whittle ourselves down to a body that takes up the least amount of space is not only strange (if you really think about it) but remarkably uncanny. In many traditions, the belly is the source of power (often, female specific.) It is where energy churns inside of us. To wish this area greater and great smallness is to subconsciously wish for erasure of power. Leading to this statement is a passage about meditation and breathing techniques used to calm the mind. She asks her students to “belly breathe” and pay attention to the up and down movement of the area. For most women – and maybe a lot of men – the act of extending one’s stomach is sacrilegious! At least for me, a lot of thought goes into the amount of space my torso consumes. It must be small here, but larger there… even the act of breathing can spur the mind to regret the previous day’s meal choices.

Roth helps us realize that the desire to change our bodies (whatever that means) often masks underlying issues and pain we wish to ignore. Summarizing many of her students she writes, “If I fix myself so that I am no longer myself, then everything will be fine. My feelings will be manageable.” (31) She points out that many of us are in a constant state of desiring change – as if that change will actually bring happiness.
____________________________________________________________________________________________

My internal compass led me to Roth’s guidance and I finally recognized that I needed to release myself from a thought process that became too burdensome.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Of course, she speaks most directly to those who having issues relating to obesity or eating disorders. Many of her students come from extreme health circumstances. To this, she tells them that it is absolutely important to make sure your the supports the life and happiness one strives for. In that case, a health plan that takes one to that goal is important. She also speaks to a different group, as well: those who carry the constant dialogue of negativity around the food they eat – how much, what kind, how often – settle into a half-formed life under a proverbial haze that clouds awareness.

My internal compass led me to Roth’s guidance and I finally recognized that I needed to release myself from a thought process that became too burdensome.

In order to tell you about this book, I must tell you why it impacted me in such a remarkable way. What I write is not a criticism of my parents. To hold on to blame is to hold on to burdensome negativity. It is worthless, just like that empty-calorie donut (keeping with the food theme.) It is simply what happened. It is what it is.

The revelation I had when reading Women, Food, and God is that I obsess over everything I eat (hours and hours afterward – lamenting the chips and salsa, the cheese stick, the five pieces of candy pumpkins) and rarely enjoy the process of eating food. I worry that I made the wrong decision. I hate the feeling of being full. I get discouraged if I have a “bad eating day,” to the point that it changes my mood and I become frustrated, lash out, and eventually get incredibly miserable. To tell you this takes a great amount of strength, because it is something I hid for years. Since it is not a direct eating disorder, or because I do not actually “struggle” with my weight, I never thought to question the constant inner chatter. Yet, it is exhausting. Here is the catch: I eat a very, very healthy diet. No matter how “healthy” it is, though, I find myself bemoaning nearly every bite after the meal.

Through Roth’s gentle guidance, I realized that I drew myself into a habit of criticism that permeates my current thought process. I taught myself to severely self-criticize as a child within the circumstances of a complicated family life. I thought: If I could only be “better,” maybe things will actually be better? Perhaps my real self is not good enough? Perhaps I should change…

This dialogue ran through my head so many times that it became habitual, fully and finally entering in to the way I approach food. It thus became a manner of self-regulation, self-criticism, and self-hate, when eating food should be an act of self-love. It should nourish the body, soul, and mind. I never gave myself permission to calm down and enjoy the process of being alive.
_______________________________________________________________________________________

I needed to give myself permission to expand,
fill my space, and be, without apologies.

______________________________________________________________________________________

Eating is arguably the most intimate act that you do for yourself and the wellbeing of your body. What you put into it directly affects your livelihood. Additionally, the narrative you tell yourself as you eat impacts your wellbeing. Roth explains this ever-present narration of life as The Voice – who is notoriously vicious and unstable – yet we listen as if it is a source of reason! Sometimes The Voice is helpful, but for those who struggle in their relationship to food, The Voice says things that we would never hear from any other human being. Roth explains that it “supposedly offers: clarity and intelligence and true discernment. Strength and value and joy. Compassion. Curiosity. Love. Nothing is wrong because there is no right with which to compare it. When you stop responding to the continual comments on your thighs, your value, your very existence, when you no longer believe that anyone, especially The Voice, knows what’s supposed to be happening, simple facts remain.” (136) And later in the chapter, “When you decide that you need to lose twenty pounds because you are disgusting at this weight or that you need to meditate every day or go to church on Sundays because you will go to hell if you don’t, you are making life decisions while you are being whipped with chains…[these decisions] do not last because they are based on fear of consequences instead of longing for truth.” (141)

The realization for my own life is this: it is O.K. to be who I am and it is O.K. to eat how I eat. There is no need to constantly question and assess in order to guarantee that all is well and good. I am not in need of repairs. I am complete, as is.

It feels empowering to simply write these statements in a concrete form.

I needed to give myself permission to expand, fill my space, and be, without apologies.

One last word:
Through the book I wondered when she would start talking more about God, proper. She does not speak heavily on spirituality. Yet, I felt more and more drawn to the place of my spirit as I found space to move, getting rid of what is unnecessary. I remembered at the very beginning she writes:
And in the space of not-knowing that remains, perhaps you will discover what I have experienced directly: that understanding the relationship with food is a direct path to coming home after a lifetime of being exiled. Perhaps that home is what God is always meant to be. (26)
I also feel this is the place of God. It goes beyond religion and sacred acts. It is beyond language. The place where you can live as a free being is the place that God – in whatever form you believe it to be – intended you to rest.

The People’s Meditation, A Series: Ed On Running as Mindfulness

Photo by Jennifer Birdie Shawker on Unsplash

When I first sought volunteers for this series, my friend Ed came to me about his experience of running as mindfulness practice. And I said, “Hey! That is perfect!” I am so glad he offered his thoughts to this series. While I practice yoga as my entry into mindfulness, I want to stress in this series that there are numerous ways for one to find a meditative center. As I shared in the previous entry of this series, the Radiance Sutras propose 112 different practices! There are many modes of entry into a meditative state. All of the world religions – at least the ones with which I am familiar – utilize meditation as a way to clear the proverbial mental, spiritual, and emotional (even physical) road in order to experience truth. Simply through their cultural difference, variety in meditation emerged.

I  was thrilled when Ed said he wanted to talk about running! A lot of Americans might not realize that running is a wonderful entry point for mindfulness. As a reminder, mindfulness meditation is simply the practice of developing concentration: on the breath, physical sensations, sound, a mantra… in order to develop the skill of mindfulness during other parts of one’s life. Most seasoned meditators will tell you that they still have both difficult practice sessions right along with the moments that are easy and second nature. The reminder is always: meditation is a practice.

Running, or any repetitive activity, can absolutely get the mind into a meditative state. This might be the perfect solution for someone who has difficulty sitting still for long periods of time. Teachers of mindfulness meditation and Zen meditation utilize walking meditation as a way to quiet the mind, and this will be a topic for further discussion on Oak Tree Notebook. As a runner (though not as much these days), I can attest to Ed’s insights on movement meditation. The thump, thump, thump, thump of your feet on the ground, rhythmic breathing, and ability to soften the gaze to a point (what yogis call “drishti”) slight in front of you creates an environment that cultivates mindfulness.

Thanks to Ed for giving a unique perspective on mindfulness, and please see the list of resources at the end of this article for further reading on the subject.

 

How long have you practiced meditation?

On-and-off, since 1985. Began with TM [transcendental meditation]; later, in the 1990s, did more Zen meditation. I’ve changed much since then. In about 2000, I began working out and running. For me, running alone is my best meditation. It helps me to completely empty my mind and be conscious without thinking.

 

How often and for how long do you try to meditate?

I run about 3 times a week and do other aerobic and weight-lifting workouts another 3-4 times a week.

What inspired you to begin meditating? Ed, Meditation article

Originally, I was just seeking to clear my mind and read a book on TM. After I began working out and started to feel the peace that I sought by physically exerting myself, it seemed that these workouts helped me, not only physically, but mentally.


What does meditation mean to you?

Liberating the mind from thinking and focusing, instead, on being present.


What does your practice “look like?” What kind of meditation do you like best (e.g. following breath, walking meditation)?

Running and other kinds of physical exertion.


Do you have a special place you go to meditate? Describe it, please. If not, what are the most welcoming spaces for you to practice meditation?

Running different routes.


How does meditation impact your life?

Provides me with peace of mind; intellectually stimulating and physically relaxing (This is running/working out as meditation.)
What kind of struggles do you face in maintaining a meditation practice?

None.
What are the benefits you see in your life from meditation?

Calm and rejuvenated mind and spirit as well as physical benefits.
Are there particular teachers or books (or other resources) you found that help you?

No.
What would you say to someone who is interested in meditation but is nervous about starting a regular practice?

Find what works for what you seek. I would have never thought that physical exertion would be my route to finding the peace that I sought. TM and Zen meditation were definitely helpful. Running/lifting/other aerobic workouts took it to the next level for me.
Are there any other thoughts you would like to add about how meditation affects your life?

Again, physical health benefits.

 

 

Further reading:

Running With the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training the Mind and Body by Sakyong Mipham

“Running as Meditation” by the Chopra Center

“Meditation in Action: How to Turn Running into a Mindfulness Practice” by Huffington Post

“The Zen of Running, and 10 Ways to Make it Work for You” by Leo Babauta

 

 

Locating Truth in a Time of Darkness: Rilke’s “Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower”

I have a lot of work to do before the start of the fall semester. I teach a new course this year: American art to Penn State juniors and seniors. I am thrilled at the opportunity, but I am also in deep contemplation this week as the nation discusses the relationship between patriotism, free speech, racism, and public images. It is the latter that is most on my mind as I prepare to spend the next four months talking with young adults about the meaning of images in American society. I argue images have incredible impact upon the way we function in our world.

So, my thoughts are on images. Most of us were not in Charlottesville this weekend, but we are affected by what happened there in very deep ways. We see film footage and photographs on social media. We hear the arguments and calls for justice on the news. We make personal cries of despair in our own homes as our heart breaks – a festering national wound has opened once again. The phrase that comes to mind is, “We cannot look away.” It is not “We cannot stop listening.” In fact, it is our eyes that see evidence of the hate and violence we dread.

I am concerned with this semester not because I am afraid to talk to my students. In fact, I have all confidence that they will have profound insights into current events. I feel the weight of this course bearing down on my shoulders because I want it to be what they need it to be: a place to learn the tools necessary to make sense of the world around them.

With this in mind, my heart keeps drifting to a poem that has always lingered with me, though I do not feel like I understood its meaning until now. I want to share it with you.

 

Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower
by Rainer Maria Rilke
(From Sonnets to Orpheus II, Translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows)

 Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself into wine. 

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there. 

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Follow this link to hear audio of this poem at OnBeing.

Who is the speaker?
Who is the friend? Is it you?
The most difficult line for me to work out is: be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses, the meaning discovered there. I believe the solution is not something to know/figure out with our minds, but with our spirit. To me, it suggests the meditative mind and finding the place beyond distraction to locate the answer to the problem posed to us. At its essence, the poem implores us to take the burden that weighs so heavily upon our shoulders and turn it into something constructive. We will determine what that is by locating the truth that lies at the core of our being. This truth will propel us to right action and will be the moral compass we need to confront the thing that has caused such pain. We, in fact, are the bell that rings beyond the view of the bell tower.

 

 

Reality vs. Radical Kindness: How to Get What You Really Want

Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

It is safe to assume that you, reader, try to be a good person. You may consider these actions as a part of your “do good list:”

– Eat healthy foods and exercise your body
– Read books to stimulate your mind
– Call your parents/grandparents on a regular basis
– Teach your children to be kind
– Maintain a job, pay taxes, and support the local economy
– Volunteer for local community organizations
– Go to church/synagogue/prayer and serve as an active member of a religious community
– Donate money
– Smile at others on the street
…and the list, of course, goes on.

What would you add to this list?
What sets the foundation to be a “good person?”

Lately, I do not feel like I meet my own standard of goodness that I set for myself. I find that I get pulled into the orbit of others who gossip or rip others apart, even with the most diaphanous of veils placed over the conversation with a quick, “I’m just sayin’” as the notice of innocence. In a similar vein, I hear a lot of people despair that the current political climate draws their internal dialogue to a dark place that they do not enjoy. One can feel like she is thrashed by emotional waves without control.

Chinwagging, nattering blabbermouth… That’s how I feel afterward, even if it is just an agreement to someone else’s story. I get pulled in, simply wanting to please my conversationalist. Afterward, I feel horrible. I feel like I placed my true nature to the side in lieu of a fleeting moment of comfortable acceptance. I do not doubt that there are others who feel the same.

I write this because we have all be there: the moment our bodies (read: mouths) defy our spirit. It makes me think about what criteria we place around ourselves to delineate the “good person” status. We all want to think of ourselves as being “good” in some way, but it is such an abstract idea that we – at least, I – can whiz right by it without noticing, until too late. Goodness, though sometimes disparaged, is actually sought after because it is just plain easier. Strangely, it takes a lot of work to be nasty – and it takes a toll on our mind, body, and spirit.

When we place standards that are entirely outward shows of goodness (like volunteering or civic duty) then it gives us the ability to ignore internal principles – also commonly known as character. While we eventually may accumulate an audience for such integrity, it is done strictly for personal accomplishment, thus, much harder than outward action. It is also the stuff that keeps one from feeling “icky” because the only person who actually feels the constant repercussions is you. Internal good is often showcased in the positive, letting others experience the outward affects of a sparkling spirit. While, on the flip side, the dank negative seeps deep into our core.

No, this is not a charge for character-bashing extremism. It is something unseen, something that can only be determined by the individual, but it will set the course for one’s entire life. This is not about being a “goody two shoes” or hypocrite. It is about realizing that every day brings a new opportunity to be a part of something good, whether everyone else knows it or not. It is about actually making a difference in the web of life around you.

Yes. You can still be edgy and have goodness in your heart.
Actually, this seems to be the most radical thing ever.

Once we realize that the benefactor(s) to a life of goodwill to others is actually ourselves, maybe we can get on board. But what do we do when we are caught in the lightning quick circumstances that start to draw us away from what we want for ourselves? It is certainly not the other person’s fault. We make choices for ourselves. I think the first place to begin is to direct kindness to ourselves, always knowing we have a fresh start waiting in the next moment.

 

Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

 

 

The People’s Meditation, A Series: Sarah J. Reed, Lifestyle Coach

On this blog I write musings about meditation and mindfulness that are inspired by my personal practice. My goals are to connect with others who have similar experiences and also inspire those who do not have a regular practice. I completely understand, though, that adding one more thing to the growing list of to-do’s might be a daunting task for some. In fact, I felt this exact same way for years! One might feel that if she begins meditating on a regular basis she will need to confront difficult memories or give up certain aspects of her life that she enjoys. Possibly, the reader believes that he is not “cut out” to be a meditator, that it requires a particular personality or he believes that one must naturally have a calm mind. Perhaps there are, like in my community, those who associate meditation with eastern religion and do not see it merging with their own Judeo-Christian belief system.

These, my friends, are falsehoods. I wish desperately to share with you the truth of a regular meditation practice. But first, please let me share a few lines from The Radiance Sutras: 112 Gateways to the Yoga of Wonder and Delight (this particular passage translated by Dr. Lorin Roche.) These sutras formed out of ancient Hindu culture, but are at the core simply 112 ways to meditate, structured as a conversation between Shiva and Shakti (divine lovers who represent the balanced union between divine masculine and divine feminine). Regardless of religious belief or spiritual background, the sutras can provide guidance on how to calm and focus the mind in meditation.

Banter Verses 1-11
One day the Goddess sang to her lover, Bhairava…
I have been wondering…
I have been listening to the hymns of creation,
Enchanted by the verses,
Yet I am still curious.

What is this delight-filled universe
Into which we find ourselves born?
What is this mysterious awareness
Shimmering everywhere within it?

I have been listening to the love songs of
Form longing for formless.

What are these energies
Undulating through our bodies,
Pulsing us into action?

And this “matter” out of which our forms are made –

What are these dancing particles
Of condensed radiance?

What is this power we call Life,
Appearing as the play of flesh and breath?
How may I know this mystery and enter it more deeply?

My attention is enthralled by a myriad of forms,

Innumerable individual entities everywhere,
Flashing into existence and fading away again.
Lead me into the wholeness beyond all these parts.

Do me a favor, my love.
Let me rest in your embrace.
Refresh me with the elixir of your wisdom.
Ravish me with your truth.

Bhairava replies,

Beloved, your questions
Touch the heart of wonder,
The path of intimacy with all life –
Weaving together body and soul.
Sex and spirit, individuality and universality.

This is my Cave of Secrets.
Your inquiry has led you here.
I feel your fingers on my pulse.

Come with me.
Leave behind everything you know.
The teachings about me are
A light show put on by the celestial musicians,
As beautiful and insubstantial as clouds.

Elaborate rituals and garish images
May be useful in meditation when your mind is whirling with thoughts
Of sex, money, and power, wandering like and elephant in heat.
Go ahead and use these tools, yet know,
Beating drums and blaring trumpets
Cannot summon the One who is already present.

 

If you are familiar with Songs of Songs by Solomon you might see a remarkable similarity between these sutras and the passionate exchange between the lover and beloved in the Jewish text (who represent our spiritual relationship with Divine Wisdom, according to Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault.[1]) For centuries, people have been trying to figure out ways to rise above the anxiety and pain of this world. Many of all faiths, including Christianity (think: Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich, or Jesus, himself), found the answer in quieting the mind through meditation and prayer.

While meditation is at its core a spiritual practice because it taps into a state beyond our active minds, it is not tethered to a particular religious practice or any religion at all. Doctors across the spectrum are seeing real benefits to mindfulness meditation (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR ) and are recommending the practice in lieu of, or in conjunction with, prescription medication.

What I want to offer my readers (after this long introduction) is an opportunity to read the thoughts of other meditation practitioners. You will see how much personal experience can vary. Hopefully learning of their transformations will inspire you to try it out.

SARAH REED: LIFESTYLE and EMPOWERMENT COACH

Sarah Reed

Sarah J. Reed

While leading individuals to discover their best selves, Sarah realized she needed to apply meditation practices in her own life to counter daily stress. A business owner, interior designer, Pilates instructor, wife, creative, and one who is inspired by the world around her, Sarah jumps into life with enthusiasm. She wants to inspire others to do the same. On her website she writes:
Since 2003, I have worked 1:1 with clients to renew their bodies and personal spaces, rejuvenate their lives, and upgrade their lifestyles. In addition to in-person intensives, I’ve created a signature 1:1 coaching program which allows me to take these teachings online, along with a mastermind group for continued support and accountability. I teach concepts gleaned from my multi-passionate background to clients who are ready to take a leap, elevate their goals, and up-level their lifestyles.

 

How long have you practiced meditation?

About 6 months as meditation in the morning. Approximately 4 months ago I started back at church and also began implementing prayer throughout my day.

 

How often and for how long do you try to meditate?

Daily 10-20 minutes as part of my morning routine.

 

What inspired you to begin meditating?

I work way too much and got pretty sick in December 2016. I was looking for ways to reduce/manage stress.

 

What does meditation mean to you?

Silence, breathing. If I’m not using a guided app like Calm or a Deepak Chopra YouTube video, I use a mantra to repeat during the inhale/exhale cycle.

 

What does your practice “look like?” What kind of meditation do you like best (e.g. following breath, walking meditation)?

Seated in a quiet area. I don’t have kids, but I do have a dog, so if I get on the floor, I need to shut the door or else he thinks it’s play time. Depending on the whereabouts of my husband, I may be up in our bedroom or down in my basement gym. If weather permits, I’ll go out onto our deck. I do close my eyes to meditate. I count my breath in 4 counts and out 4 counts.

 

Do you have a special place you go to meditate? Describe it, please. If not, what are the most welcoming spaces for you to practice meditation?

I don’t have a dedicated spot. I like to feel comfortable meditating anywhere I can. I’ve done it at the airport even!

 

How does meditation impact your life? What are the benefits you see in your life from meditation?

Ask my husband for sure: I am not nearly as angry as I used to be (I’m a Taurus….). I also handle work “fires” with a lot more patience. My up/down mood roller coaster is much more gentle now….I’m just more mindful of other mental/emotional habits that shape my day. I’m much better at noticing self-limiting beliefs, negative thoughts about myself or judgement on others, and what thoughts truly serve me, and which do not. It is immeasurably easier to let shit go now that I know what I NEED to handle, and what just isn’t my problem.

 

What kind of struggles do you face in maintaining a meditation practice?

Sometimes I feel like I’m not “in” it which can be frustrating. Recently I’ve realized that it’s a practice and not a finite project, so I’ve been able to let go of that frustration. If I’m just too distracted, I’ll come out of the meditation and jot down my to-do list like a brain dump. If I have time to go back to my meditation, I will.

 

Are there particular teachers or books (or other resources) you found that help you?

Deepak Chopra, Gabby Bernstein, Jen Sincero, Calm and Tamara Levitt

 

What would you say to someone who is interested in meditation but is nervous about starting a regular practice?

Just breathe. Then examine what makes you nervous about breathing. Let’s handle what comes up one by one. Because really, it’s just breathing. The sky isn’t going to fall and the world isn’t going to stop spinning.

 

Are there any other thoughts you would like to add about how meditation affects your life?

My only regret is that I didn’t truly start meditating much earlier. I could have avoided a whole heap of BS if I had.

 

You can learn more about Sarah and her work on her website.

 

 

[1]Embracing the Diving Feminine: Finding God through the Ecstacy of Physical Love – The Song of Songs Annotated and Explained. Translation & Annotation by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Foreward by Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2014).

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Awake! Say ‘Goodbye’ to the Half-Developed Life

How does one claim power? She goes through the fire like it was meant for her, not to defeat her. She explores the routes to get out of that fire and she does not recoil. After finding her way, she does not look back at the fire like it was a disaster, though its real-life events may be emotionally draining and full of loss. She claims the fire as hers. It is now a source of strength.

One thing that is on my mind lately is the lip service we give to the concept of healing, without personally believing we are a part of the promise. I can only speak to western tradition, but I am sure that this self-denial of spiritual gains is common across the spectrum. In the Christian tradition, many talk about the healing power of Jesus, of the love that God bestows upon “his” children, and of the continual support and communion we have with the Holy Spirit. However, over and over again, and certainly in my own life, I see evidence of an outright rejection of the promise. No, I am not talking about the “Jesus saves” generic dialogue that many spout and have not truly thought about from what (though, I believe this is a symptom of the problem.) I mean the fact that we can believe whole-heartedly that God will sustain the wellbeing of our friends – even our “enemies” – but God will not provide for our own needs. Part of the problem is that we do not know what we actually need.

You might be reading this thinking, “Well she has no idea what I believe…” This is true. I will say that my own experience shows me that I was living a life of full on denial of the gift that was offered to me. How do I know? I can list a number of things: anxiety, dependency, doubt in my abilities, fear of being let down by others… Each of these point to a lack of awareness of my own truth, which comes from accepting the promised gift.

Without diving into some serious psychoanalysis (of which I am clueless), my assumption is that it is just easier for us to say, “no thank you” to the promise because it requires change in our lives.

Yes, of course, we are promised love. Yes, followers of Jesus also believe that “sin” has been eradicated by his death and resurrection (though, how this happens varies widely from person to person – and I think that is beautiful.) There is a certain level of acceptance in the change that we must take for ourselves. Otherwise, we continue to live in a half-developed life (no damage to the status of our “sins,” if that is a part of your belief system.) This half-developed life is not what Divine Love wishes for us, though it is by our own choice that we accept or reject fullness.

Here is the deal, though. To emerge out of a half-developed life, it requires more than a tepid endeavor into the life of the spirit. Personally, while I believe our relationships, careers, and life ventures are all things that are affected by this change, they are not the number one focus. Rather, the answer to a half-developed life is living an awake life.

How do we get there? This is the age-old “life is a journey” concept. One never simply arrives at an awake life because it is an every day choice to say, “hello” to your true self. It is the continual decision to confront your truth each morning when you wake up and when you go to bed. It is difficult. Sometimes it will require tough things like saying “no,” or – heaven forbid – saying “yes.” It will mean that you must say “goodbye” (sticking with the greetings refrain here a bit more) to the person you thought you were or to people who are not meant to continue on the journey with you. It will most certainly mean welcoming newness – new people, new situations, new personal roles, new ways of seeing the light in others who are close to you. But at the very center of everything is the gentleness you extend to yourself while simultaneously welcoming the fire. This is hard to balance. The fire will hold loss and difficulties that we feel we cannot bear. Finding the balance does not mean going alone. Rather, it means accepting the resources and love that surrounds us to help move us through the fire – to help us find the path.

One major question that might arise is: How do I know my truth? First, I absolutely love that phrase: “my truth.” There is nothing else like it.

Caution: This does not mean one can alter actual facts.
Truth is more like a mental/emotional state of being.

You can find your truth by spending time with yourself and getting to know who you are, aside from the people and things around you. Namely, through meditation or prayer, which can come in many different forms. By taking moments to sit in the midst of quiet, you start to hear the hum of your internal sound or vibration. Thoughts will come, but you learn to let them pass without judgment – whether they are good or bad thoughts. You learn that your mind will continue functioning without you to designate its trajectory, and that is O.K.! Sometimes that is terrifying, but remember that it will not harm you. You are not your thoughts. In fact, meditation is not maintaining a mind clear of thoughts. That is impossible. It is cultivating a mind that is aware. Here, you will find your truth.

I urge you, if you have ever thought of trying out meditation, please do so. It is transformative. Here are a few resources to start you on the path:

Meditation Oasis

Insight Timer (app)

The Chopra Center, “Learn to Meditate in 6 Easy Steps”

New York Times, Guides: Learn to Meditate

 

 

 

The Well: Cultivating Personal Strength and Creativity

How do you know if your internal well is full?

Many of us live perpetually empty lives and it is revealed in anxiety, poor eating and exercise habits, anger, or a foggy brain. Sometimes it is a more nuanced symptom specific to the individual, but she knows she runs on an empty emotional tank. This is so common in our modern lives that, for some, it is difficult to even imagine what it is like to have a full creative or emotional internal well. They do not know the well is even empty! Feelings of disconnection or constant striving are just always there. There is no one culprit, but a myriad of things that keep us from a full well: stress at work, family life, past traumas, and etcetera.

*Yes. I used the word “creative.” Before you stop reading here and start to whine “But I’m not creative! Only people with _______ (insert character trait) are creative,” please continue to read. I believe the definition of “creative” has been narrowed so much it has been rendered meaningless. It is actually broad and expansive – and it applies to you. These magical beings that you place on pedestals are only creative because they put the work into it, or they simply tap into their creative center. We can all do this.

Aside from these things the biggest barrier to obtaining a full well is – surprise! – our own mind. Constantly striving for a whole life becomes desperate flailing as energies are thrown about haphazardly. We do what makes others happy. We do what we think “good people” do. We do what our physical bodies need. We simply try to breathe above the proverbial water.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, there are many ways to fill that well. Certainly, spiritual experiences will fill the well. Absolutely. However, at a certain point, many of us ask, “Well, what now?” What do we do with the knowledge that we can live our lives in grace? In The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron insists the participant spend two hours a week filling her well. Meaning, she takes time away from family members or friends to focus on her personal, emotional, and spiritual needs (these are all related.) The participant could potentially fill this time with anything she wishes to do, but believes she has very little time in her life to do it. Some of my own “artist dates” included: a solo hike in the mountains, exploring a local bookstore, reading poetry by myself, taking a two-hour yoga class. The point is to do anything you want – as long as you are by yourself and it is fulfilling to your spirit.

Finding a measly two hours in a busy schedule is remarkably difficult to do – even for an introvert like me who loves spending time alone. Partners, children, and bosses ask much of us, a messy home calls our name, tending to work tasks takes time, dealing with an overgrown garden is a necessity, or committing to volunteer/charity work pull us in many directions. Our friends need us or we might feel like we miss out on something if we do not participate in a (perceived important) social event. We even fill our time with a commitment to others that makes us feel good about our lives – something that seems noble – without taking time to fill up our own well.

See, we cannot give to our loved ones or give our all to responsibilities if we do not function with a full emotional or creative well. Even if they are worthy tasks they are secondary to making sure we function as a whole person.

It goes without saying that “vegging out” in front of the television is not considered “filling the well.” We must be mindful of what we do with our brains and bodies during this time. We must jealously protect it.

Maybe we are afraid of what might arise if we let the other things fall away. What would happen if we stop helping others all the time? What if we made ourselves unavailable for two small hours a week? Nothing. Nothing would happen. Well, except maybe the emergence of potentially difficult emotions. A full well will push these to the surface and we get to “deal” with them. Divine Love will not let you falter, luckily, and is your partner in this creative experience. You were meant to be this way.

I cannot tell you what to do to fill your well. I will not write that one must participate in The Artist’s Way in order to find the space to expand. You know what is best for your spirit, but it is simply imperative to step away from others in order to fill your internal creative well.

Everyone is a creative being. This is where our humanity originates within us. Living as a creative person does not mean that you will immediately pick up a paintbrush and form a masterpiece, though some blocked creatives realize this is actually their outlet. When we take the word “creative” as a description for ourselves, it alters the way we think of our position in our communities, in our families, and it thoroughly permeates our livelihood. We walk with the confidence that we can be active participants in our lives and not function at the mercy of someone else’s personal motivation. We become creative in our workplaces, in the way we eat, in the way we move, and in our words. It influences our hand while we make food because we know what we make is inspired. Living as a creator impacts our speech: it is difficult to gossip or speak negatively about others when we see our words as a creative outlet. We are architects of relationships. As a creator, we take ownership of our lives.

Finding time to develop a full creative and emotional well is essential to living a full life.

You can purchase Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity here.

Spiritual Practice: SLEEP

“Sleep is a spiritual practice.” – Gabrielle Bernstein

I prayed as I shuffled the deck of cards in my hands that I would be guided through the day. Soft morning light streamed through the windows to my office as I sat in the first few moments at my desk. I pulled a card away from the others and read

Sleep is a spiritual practice.

Wait. What?

I sleep just fine these days, thank you very much. After perusing the affirmation/meditation cards I purchased a few months ago, this was the one that I thought I did not need. I have this sleep thing down and I am super proud of that accomplishment, since it was such a lonely struggle for a long time. Throughout graduate school, particularly when I took courses and taught undergraduates at the same time, I had a fraught relationship with sleep. This problem is now long gone and I am a sleep champ – I go to bed every night by 10:00 PM and wake up at 6:00 AM! Super healthy!

As I sat looking at the card in my hand, I mulled through my personal history with sleep. As a child I regularly woke reeling from nightmares and in adulthood I experienced a continuation of vivid dreams. I found myself, like others, amplifying my troubles in the dark for one or two hours, only to think back on their insignificance at 8:00 AM. Sometimes I used this time, embarrassingly, to attempt deep conversations with my husband. (What was I thinking?) There were nights that I felt very much alone, though my love was peacefully sleeping next to me. I firmly believe that a regular meditation and yoga practice alleviated these sleep troubles – so much that when I read the card this morning, I thought, “Shoot. I do not need this insight.”

Then it came to me – yes, I do! If sleep is a spiritual practice, then with my sleep past in mind, good sleep is a message that my body, mind, and spirit are growing in tune with each other. I prayed for a sign that the work that I do each day is productive. We can get frustrated if we do not see the fruits of our labor. This was my sign.

Sleep is a loaded concept for many. Sometimes sleep is an elusive foe, and there are those who make it a symbol of achievement. In twenty-first century American society, the concept of success is often tied with sleep deprivation – successful work life, successful education, or successful parenting. Rarely do we think of adequate sleep as a sign of successful health or spirituality, and thus a signifier of success in other parts of life. In my field, there is a running commentary about how academics and scholars keep an odd schedule and write in the wee hours of the morning, whether before or after their short bouts of sleep. I never held that belief and as a result, sometimes I feel that I am not pursuing an appropriate level of work to be prosperous.

This is bogus. I am here to affirm that sleep is a spiritual practice and one that should be in line with other health pursuits. It is fine to splurge occasionally, but the respect we give our bodies reflects the beliefs we have about ourselves: the way we eat, how we move, and our sleep habits. It is not fitting for me to give a set number of hours one should sleep, because – surprise! – I am not a sleep doctor. Each individual knows when her body is in balance. In fact, it may shift day by day or as the years pass.

Sleep is a spiritual practice because it is where our bodies find renewal. It is where we spend time in our dream landscape. It is even a place where we can meditate (Yoga Nidra.) Guard your sleep like it is a treasure that only you can protect. Of course, when we take care of children or have one of the other issues listed above, sleep is disrupted. We cannot just throw in the towel, though, and settle into ignoring this beautiful part of our lives. Know yourself. Find your balance and guard it.

You can find Gabby’s 62-card affirmations deck here.

How to Cultivate Gratitude Even When You Don’t Feel Like It

I recently came across the idea: “Gratitude is the greatest gift you can experience.”

Often these phrases pass like a bee whizzing by my ear, as I am sure they do with others. Though containing little grains of truth, clichés – or statements sounding very much like them – garner less attention than odd-sounding, infrequent bombshell quotes. However, the one above landed squarely on my heart and I continued to ponder it throughout my yoga practice this morning.

I suppose this is what they call “setting an intention,” though I did not ask for it.

What came to mind is that the statement does not make “gratitude” into a directive specifically to the “you” in the sentence. In other words, the end point for our gratitude can be outside of ourselves. Let me give an example. Gratitude journals are very popular right now. Personally, when I think of things for which I am thankful, I usually write: my family, my developing career, my house, my health… my… my… MY. Of course I am grateful for these things! I should be. But when I consider gratitude as the “greatest gift I can experience,” I realize it does not mean the “greatest gift I can experience for myself.” Gratitude does not need to exist in isolation.

Gratitude, is in fact, the greatest gift we can give others.
It is the greatest gift we can experience by giving to others.

Giving gratitude to others comes back to our hearts and spirit as elation because we realize our connectedness – our oneness – with those around us.

 

Try this:

  1. Take a moment to close your eyes and breath in deeply. Breathe out in a slow, gentle manner. Repeat this several times. Feel your body sitting in a chair or your feet standing on the ground. Feel yourself rooted to the earth. Go back to normal breathing, softly.
  2. Once you feel your body calm, begin thinking of all the things in your life you are thankful for: your home, your health, and your family… that new car you drive that won’t leave you stranded on the side of the road. All of that is fine. Consider all the things that make your life healthy and secure. Send gratitude to those people and things.
    3. Now think of the people who support you in your life. Think of those who care for you and help you to be the best person you can be. Send gratitude to those people.
  3. Consider the people you do not know who create or provide things from which you benefit: those who make the clothes you wear, grow the food you eat, who built your home, who repair the road you drive upon, or those who work in service to create a safe environment for you to live in. Send gratitude to these people.
  4. Once you widen your circle of gratitude to those you do not know, take time to dwell in the feeling of gratitude for a bit without offering it to anyone. Simply recognize the feeling. Enjoy it. Rest in it.

 

Once you are finished with the meditation (this should only take 5-10 minutes), take it with you throughout your day. You now know what it feels like without it being attached to a specific thing. Find opportunities to extend this cultivated gratitude to those you encounter. There need not be an instigator for the gratitude.
Not only will this send joy and love to them, you will also receive the benefit by standing witness.

This is the “greatest gift you can experience.”