Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Doing Our Best

When I was growing up my father often said: “Everyone does the best they can with what they have to work with.” What I want you to know about this is that he did not say this lightly, did not come to this from a life of ease or privilege. He had grown up poor with an abusive alcoholic father and an exhausted mother. As a child he and his mother were beaten almost every night by my grandfather who eventually (after my father was an adult) committed suicide- hung himself in the barn of the dirt farm where my father had grown up. And still, my father held that everyone does the best they can with what they have to work with. He would occasionally add, with a sadness that made my heart ache: “Some days people don’t have much to work with.”

Consider for just a moment- what if this is true? What if you and I and every person on the planet, in this moment are doing the best we can with the inner and outer resources we have?

Let me say what this does not mean: It does not mean that “It’s all good.” Some of it is not good. Some of what is happening right now in the world- the abuse of children, the destruction of the environment, the exploitation of people, all the ways in which human beings create suffering for themselves and others- is not good.

Nor does it mean that we have no responsibility for the suffering we create. It simply means that saying we “should” do better with the resources (awareness, information, perception, education etc.) we have is a set up for blame, shame and maintaining the current level of suffering. If we could do better with the resources we have, we would.

So, if everyone does the best they can with what they have to work with in this moment, AND we sometimes create suffering for ourselves and each other- what does it mean to want to create change and alleviate suffering?

It means we have to recognize we are doing the best we can with the resources we have, and (instead of beating each other or ourselves up for not doing better) find, invite and accept more resources.

What does this look like in one small human life? It looks like open inquiry into what is. It looks like an honest evaluation of our individual and collective resources. And honest evaluations pretty much have to be free of judgement and shame to be even close to accurate. Resources can be everything from how much sleep I had last night to collective beliefs about why many are poor while some are rich. But let's stick with the small stuff- if I find myself impatient with a sales clerk and I know I have not had enough sleep in days (for this particular body/mind/heart/soul-self), I have a responsibility to get myself to bed as soon as possible so I don’t spread suffering (however minor) with sharp comments tomorrow. This might entail cancelling other plans (and letting go of my attachment to these plans) and/or asking for help (seeking assistance with children in my care, asking my neighbour to turn down the noise etc.) so the sleep I need is available. But expecting myself to be more patient and kind tomorrow with the same exhaustion I had today is a set up when I have just experienced what my “best” looks like when I am this tired.

I’m using a very simple example, and when we start to move into global collective problems and the resources needed, (for example- awareness of inter-dependence and a willingness to share material resources so that all can flourish in meaningful ways) it gets admittedly more complicated. Not impossible, just more complicated.

But it’s not about getting it perfect. Nor is it about trying harder. It’s about recognizing we are doing the best we can with what we have to work with and, if our “best” is creating suffering, seeking, asking for and receiving the resources we need to alleviate that suffering.

What would we have to lose by seeing ourselves or others this way? Justification for putting out of our hearts those aspects of ourselves or others that are causing suffering; fear that keeps us from being willing to create real change by trying something different instead of insisting that we/they just have to do better with the same inner and outer resources. And what might we gain? A doorway into deeper compassion and necessary forgiveness.

So, try out this for one week: Every time you berate yourself for not doing “better” (being more disciplined, more compassionate, more giving, more present. . . the possibilities are endless!) remind yourself, “I am doing the best I can with the what I have right now.” And if the best you can do is causing suffering for yourself or someone else, ask yourself what might help you do something different. Do you need more sleep, a bit of solitude and quiet, community, access to another’s knowledge or wisdom or support, a shift in perspective or awareness? Ask for help whether you have an idea of what you need or not. Ask others who may have resources to share or know of resources you don’t. Ask in prayer addressing the sacred presence that is both what we are and that which is large than us, in whatever words allow you to send out a voice from your heart. And then, pay attention and receive what is needed when it is offered.

Watch what happens if you try this. Where is there resistance? What hopes or fears are sparked? I will tell you the truth. When I do this, it makes my heart ache a little. To soften to ourselves and the world brings us to the knowledge of how former recrimination and hardness have perpetuated suffering. And I take another breath, reminding myself that I was doing the best I could then, and now- with the resources/awareness this insight brings- I can do something different.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Oriah's Newsletter Fall 2010: Trail Markers

How do we make our choices? When there is more than one option before us how do we discern what is the best choice, what is the next step? After some major changes in my life, I find myself needing to decide what is next. Lately, an image that came to me over a year ago during one of my meditations keeps coming to mind:

I am standing in the middle of a dark wood (yes, just like Dante whose Divine Comedy I am currently studying at the University of Toronto.) The trees are primarily evergreen- tall, dark and growing close together. A bit of sunlight filters through the branches to the forest floor where I can see fallen branches, tree roots and rocks. The ground beneath me is soft, layer upon layer of pine needles. The air is cool, moist and fragrant. There is no path.

I grew up in Northern Ontario where there are literally hundreds of miles of trackless wilderness. I was taught at a very young age that the first thing to do if you find yourself lost in the bush is- stand still. So, even in the unexpected forest of my imagination, I stand still for a few moments before I slowly turn, looking carefully at the area I can see in my mind’s. I notice something glistening a short distance away on the dark forest floor: a small stone, so white that it seems to glow in the pale sunlight. I pick up the stone and hold it in my hand, and look around again. And there, a little way off, I see another glimmer in the dim light: another small white stone.

This image has become a guiding one for moving forward in my life. I’ve stopped looking for The Ten Year Plan and started looking for and noticing the small round stones, beckoning markers that whisper, “This way. Over here.”

A few months ago, a couple of people emailed me asking for one-on-one counselling sessions. Now, I started with this kind of work (after studying psychology and graduating in social work from Ryerson here in Toronto) over thirty years ago, and continued to see individuals during the decades of teaching in Toronto, although I had not been doing it over the last few years. So, somewhat cautiously, I made a few appointments and did a few sessions both over the phone and in person. Then, I briefly mentioned that I was doing some individual counselling during a Facebook conversation. Three more people found me, and we started to work together regularly.

Somewhat to my surprise I discovered that, at this point in my life, working one-on-one fits, the way a small smooth stone fits in the palm of your hand. The sessions feed me at both a material level and, just as importantly, at a soul level. I find my energy undiminished and often increased by this work (an important consideration and good sign for someone with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.) Even when someone is dealing with something very difficult and painful, the sessions bring me the kind of joy that comes from the privilege of accompanying another on their journey.

Recently someone asked me how I would describe my counselling work. She asked whether it was spiritual or psychological, solution-oriented or focused on the inner life, cognitive or heart-centred. I replied, “Yes.”

The sessions are shaped by the person with whom I am working. Although I occasionally do a single session with someone, generally I work within a framework of six sessions over twelve weeks, finding that this offers a container for the work together. What happens is always, in some sense a sorting of what is really being asked at the deepest level of a person’s life. Sometimes people begin by saying they want to develop or deepen their spiritual practise, only to discover that they want help with a particular decision regarding work or relationship. Other times someone comes with a specific concern that unfolds into more general and fundamental questions about how they really want to live. Sometimes I share shamanic, meditative or writing practises; sometimes I make suggestions for the time between sessions; sometimes we work with dreams.

Whatever brings someone to the sessions, my role is to bring all of my heart’s attention and any wisdom and skills I have gleaned from living, teaching and counselling to the time we share. My role is to listen carefully for the burning questions beneath the obvious concerns, to watch for the small round stones dropped by the person’s soul.

Helping others unearth their own deep knowing and wisdom renews my faith in who and what we are as human beings – every single time. What a gift- this small white stone dropped in my own inner forest by psyche, the soul.

So, in faithfulness to my own soul, I am opening my practise up to include a few more people, although I will still keep the numbers limited so that I can continue to write. If you are interested, the details are outlined below.

May you find the small white stones your soul has dropped for you, those markers that guide each of us deeply into our own lives, our own joy and full engagement with the world. Many blessings, Oriah
Personal Counselling and Spiritual Guidance with Oriah

Oriah offers one-on-one counselling for those wanting guidance on developing and deepening their spiritual life or seeking help with personal issues. She has often worked with people who are dealing with major life changes, chronic illness and the challenges of working in any of the healing professions (healer, teacher, therapist, shaman, counsellor, workshop facilitator etc.)

Single sessions can be arranged, although generally Oriah works with people for six sessions over a twelve week period, with the commitment to five more sessions made after the initial appointment. Each session is ninety minutes long.

Appointments may be done in person or on the phone. If you are in North America Oriah can make calls to you at no additional costs. If you are outside North America you must place and pay for the calls.

Start times are flexible although appointment times for blocks of six sessions over twelve weeks most commonly begin in early September, January and April.

Within the context of the six session commitment the cost of each ninety minute session is $155.00 (plus 13% sales tax of $20.15) to be paid at least forty-eight hours before the session via Paypal. Single sessions (and the first session of six if the commitment for five more is not deemed appropriate) cost $225.00 (plus 13% tax of $29.25.)

For more information or to find out what appointment times are available please contact Oriah by email at

Read Oriah’s weekly blog at and join the community conversations with Oriah on Facebook at (you do not need Facebook account to view the page. Click the“Like” button to add your comments.) Oriah's website is at

If you would like to receive the newsletter (three to four times a year) please send your email address to

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Soul Breathing

This week I felt the impulse to share a very simple practise I use to lower fear and be with any anxiety that arises. First, a little background.

One of the things I appreciate about the writing of Jungian analyst James Hollis is how direct he is about the challenges of being human. In Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life (as well as in his other books) Hollis tells us that in order to find and fulfill our purpose in life, in order to really grow up, we have to expand our capacity to tolerate anxiety, ambivalence and ambiguity. Why? Because, given the unpredictable and every changing nature of life there is going to be anxiety, ambivalence and ambiguity. When we were children and relatively powerless we understandably developed strategies to lower or distance ourselves from the discomfort of anxiety: some of us tried to earn safety by attempting to do things perfectly (me!) while others sought to escape through fantasy or whatever numbing substance/activity was available, (food, television, computer games) while still others became combative and rebellious. The problem is the anxiety management strategies we developed as children don’t work well for us as adults if we really want to be present, live our lives fully and co-create meaning in the world.

On the surface, this can be a hard sell: read this book or do this work and you’ll be able to tolerate more anxiety? May not be the catchiest marketing method. But the truth is we cannot experience and be fully present with joy if we are armoured against or busy trying to outrun the anxiety that’s part of normal human experience.

And there are moments, even when we are fully committed to being present with whatever is, that can simply feel like more than we can hold, moments (or days, or weeks) when our anxiety goes through the roof. Our palms sweat, our hearts pound, we can’t articulate a complete thought and/or we are racing around doing a thousand things to avoid feeling the anxiety. In those moments, it’s helpful to have a way to ground and strengthen our capacity to be with what is. I want to share one such practise here.

This method for being with anxiety without letting it paralyze or send us running from the room is deceptively simple. It comes out of my experience participating in and leading sweat lodge ceremonies. Now, if there’s anything that can and sometimes does raise anxiety it’s going into a small, dark structure filled with hot steam and other people you may or may not know, to do a ceremony designed in part to help you send out prayers from the heart centre of your being. And in ceremony there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no distraction, no way to use old strategies. So, one of the things I have often done myself and have instructed others to do when anxiety arises is- breathe through the soles of your feet.

I know, it sounds crazy, but try it. Wherever you are reading this, put your feet flat on the floor and imagine the earth below you. It may be several stories below you, but wherever you are, it is there- same earth as the one that’s there when you’re sitting on a beach or hiking in the wilderness.

Then, imagine that you are breathing through the soles of your feet, inhaling up from the earth through the bottom of you feet into your body, and exhaling back down through your body and out the soles of your feet into the earth. The beauty of this method is that although it grounds and calms, it does not take us away from what is happening within or around us. It just helps us lower our fear enough to be with what is. And you can do it anywhere: in the middle of a business meeting or at the dinner table with relatives. The more you practise it the more you can develop what is called split attention where a small part of your awareness is imagining your breath flowing in and out of your body through soles of your feet, while you are clearly and calmly answering a question in a job interview or explaining to a relative why you don’t have a “real job.”

So take this along with you today. Give sole/soul-breathing a try, because the soul really can hold it all.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Time Travelling

So, a couple of days ago I did something I thought was. . . . unwise. I telephoned my ex. Earlier in the day I'd come upon a note in my date book. It said, “Six months since explosion,” referring to the night I received the news that ended my marriage. I'd written it in my calendar a week after that night, hoping that when I came upon it in October I would be able to say, “Wow, I haven’t thought about that in days.” Ha! Clearly, after ten years together, a six month time-line for moving completely out of the grief and pain of the separation was. . . .overly optimistic.

So, disappointed that I was not pain-free and pretty sure that contact was a bad idea, I dialed the phone number that used to be my own. I had not spoken to him in a month. I'm not sure what I expected. It felt like something I needed to do.

The conversation my ex and I had was almost identical to conversations we'd had six days and six weeks after the night we'd separated. I heard us both say the same things, express the same hurt, guilt, regret and bewilderment although admittedly our words lacked the fire they had once held.

After I hung up I just sat there for a few moments in my apartment, silent and unmoving as if I was waiting for something. And then, I got it: we were done.

I once read an article about how different forms of life live at different speeds. When you cut down a tree it does not die instantly and in fact may be alive- producing new leaves- a year later. It dies slowly. I think about this as I experience and observe both the spiral of grief and the slow healing in my own life. The truth is I’m not sure we really know how emotional healing happens, but I am watching carefully in the hope that along with feeling more whole and enthused about my own life, I may be able to glean some new insights that will help me in my work with others.

So, here’s today’s six month observation: it has taken me six months to really see- to know- the reality of what has happened. I mean, I felt the pain, but it has taken me six months to really get that the marriage is over, that the dream I shared with this other to co-create a life and a home, to spend the rest of our lives together is finished. Now, I may be a slow learner, and I am not saying I have gotten it “once and for all,” although there does seem to be some stability in the knowing that was not there over the initial months when I would spiral through and then away from this knowledge. Earlier, I simply could not fully take in the reality of what had happened.

Surely this is part of the healing: being able to see what is, to grasp what has been lost, what has been injured, what has died and what remains. Because we cannot heal what has not been grieved, and we cannot grieve the loss that has not been experienced. And we can’t experience something fully until we do. That’s probably the hardest part: the unpredictability of how long it will take to grasp loss and change at all levels of our being. It doesn’t happen all at once, but in bits and pieces: I see an art exhibit or eat at a restaurant I know Jeff would have enjoyed, and I feel the impulse to turn and share it with him, (and delight in his pleasure) and then I remember that I can’t; I have a hard day and my muscles anticipate curling up to be held in familiar arms, and then realize those arms are no longer available. And slowly, as the new reality is faced and felt, what is sinks in.

I’ve always loved the quote by Suzuki Roshi: “We don’t need to learn to let go. We need to recognize what is already gone.” But it takes time to recognize what is gone, to absorb loss, to see and feel the new normal and make our internal and external adjustments. Often we have to tell the story of our loss to others in order to recognize what is gone. That’s what memorial services and funerals are often about: sharing stories of the loss we share so we can support each other in recognizing what is gone.

Healing happens if we allow it to, and it starts at least in part with our willingness to see and experience our losses. And sooner or later, if we are willing to be touched by grace and guided by the impulse for healing that is in our very DNA, we will be able to see and experience the loss, to know the wound fully. We may wake up in tears or wail at the moon, but it will be bearable. And healing will happen. And we will know again both our own wholeness and the larger Mystery in which we participate.