Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Crack Between the Worlds

In the shamanic world we look for what we call the crack between the worlds, the times when our internal and external routines are most easily interrupted or suspended, when we can open to and access the dreamtine, the realm beyond natural laws where new realites are conceived and incubated.

This week, inbetween Christmas and New Year’s, the crack between the worlds always feels more easily accessible to me. After the holiday rush, but before the normal routine of daily life is re-established, a pause can arise if we allow it. It’s a time to open to the void of not-knowing, of suspending our conscious and unconscious stories about who we are and what we can do, to make space for something else- something we do not yet know about ourselves- to emerge.

I have a breathing exercise that I often do at the start of my meditation practise that gently opens me to the physical experience of the crack between the worlds. It’s very simple.

Right now, wherever you are, take a slow deliberate inhale through your nose. Allow your belly to inflate with your breath, and then allow the wave of breath to leave your body completely. Feel your belly sink and your shoulders drop as all the air is expelled. Let the chair you are sitting on and the earth far beneath you support you completely as the weight of your body drops down into the chair at the end of the exhale.

And then, at the end of the exhale. . . . pause for a moment. Do not immediately and automatically begin the next inhale. Wait for the impulse to take the next breath to come from deep within your body. Do not hold your breath or resist the impulse, but do not reach for it. Let it come. See what it is like just to lightly pause at the end of the exhale, relaxed and waiting for the next breath to find you. And then, ride the wave as it enters and leaves your body.

Explore the moment inbetween, the place where you are neither inhaling nor exhaling, the spacious stillness at the end of the exhale . . . . This is what the crack between the worlds is like. . . . a momentary pause in our daily routine and mental chatter that allows something else to enter . . . that invites new visioning and deeper listening.

Don’t work at it. Just explore it, play with it, with a little curiosity. What are we when we are neither inhaling nor exhaling but are here, fully conscious in this moment. Who are we if we do not automatically carry forward how we have been into the next moment, or the new year?

What are the possibilities that arise? What longing is awakened? What risks ask to be taken? What dreams call out to us to be birthed?

(c) Oriah 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Solstice Prayers

Here in the northern hemisphere, this is the shortest day of the year. Tonight is the longest time of darkness. We go into the darkness knowing our brothers and sisters in the southern hemisphere are holding the place of the longest day, the shortest night. Through present-moment communication with those on the other side of the world we deepen our awareness of a sacred wholeness, an interdependent balance, and the cycles of our earth-home.

On this side of the globe, celebrations are about the promise of the returning light- something that doesn’t happen all at once, but gradually, a little more light each day from this point on until the summer solstice. It’s a lesson in trust, patience and the natural ebb and flow of life cycles- challenging realities for a culture that often eagerly seeks permanent, instant, life-changing “enlightenment.”

Oh, sometimes things do become clear in an instant- but living full awareness is more about stretching into holding what we know at the deepest level of our being. Today, perhaps a small deepening of the perspective that allows for more kindness or patience than yesterday. Tomorrow, a little more letting go of the illusion of control, a modicum of increased clarity about what we can and cannot do in any given moment. Tonight, perhaps the spontaneous arising of new gratitude and the smallest expansion of compassion for even the ungrateful within and around us.

Today- and especially tonight- I remember and hold in my prayers those aspects of self and my fellow human beings who are experiencing a time of darkness that makes the promise of the returning light feel like an empty daydream. For all those who are feeling lost in the darkness, overwhelmed with loss, unsure of their ability or willingness to continue. . . . may those individuals or aspects of self lean a little into the faith of those who, in this moment, remember and experience the promise of the returning light. For all those sitting in the darkness of confusion and not-knowing, of grief or despair. . . may they feel tonight that someone sits with them, holding in their hearts the seemingly impossible promise of the growing light.

And may we all find in the darkness a place of deep rest and rejuvenation, time for clear dreaming for ourselves and our people that we may co-create a sustainable and soul-full way to live together on this tiny planet we call home.

Blessed be.

Oriah (c) 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Unpacking The Annual Angst

Well, time for my annual confession: I am not a big fan of the holiday season. It’s a bit of a mystery really, since I absent myself from those aspects I find unpleasant (staying away from stores and shopping malls,) limit my socializing to an amount happily tolerated by a dire-hard introvert, and only get together with people I love and enjoy. I have learned to produce the traditional festive meal with minimal labour, maximum flavour and lots of assistance from family and friends. And I love having leftovers that eliminate the need to cook for days.

So what’s my problem? I don’t know. What I do know is that from about December 10th until January 2nd I find myself riding an emotional roller coaster- waking up some mornings filled with overwhelming gratitude for being alive and other mornings, with an uncharacteristic sense of dread, considering pulling the covers up over my head for a few weeks. Although I have my share of unpleasant childhood memories, none of them seem to be about Christmas. Don’t think there are any skeletons in that particular closet.

Last year, my first Christmas since my marriage ended the previous spring, I was stunned and relieved just to have survived the tumultuous separation. This year I’m like someone who’s lost an appendage and is feeling an ache in the finger or toe that is no longer there. I find myself remembering a decade of holidays with my now ex-husband- the good, the bad, the exhausting- and feeling a little bewildered. How is it possible to have shared so much, to have had a life so interwoven with another and now. . . . for it to it to be done, gone as if it never was?

Writing this, I realize there’s a clue to my annual general malaise to be found in this year’s particular experience. The seasonal traditions that remain the same for decades highlight the inexorable march of time and continuous change in my life. Hearing carols, a part of me wants to rush to the window to watch for my grandparents’ boat-sized Buick with a trunk full of mysterious and enticing gifts. Looking at coloured lights and tinsel on an indoor tree I see my sons- two small boys in flannel pyjamas- laughing as they throw tinsel onto the tree despite my half-hearted admonishments to place strands on the end of the branches. It all feels like it was just a moment ago. . . .as if I could catch the sound of their voices, or see them out of the corner of my eye if I turned quickly enough.

It’s not nostalgia for past conditions that unsettles me. I am happy with the present, filled with wonder at the men my sons have become, and loving the time I have now with family and friends. Some memories are lighter than others, some happily left behind. But the sights, sounds and scents of the season remind me of what is constant but easy to miss or ignore at other times: the movement, the passage of time. . . . awareness of how fast it all goes by. . . . how short our lives are. . . . how the changes are always happening, whether we notice them or not.

Acknowledging impermanence as an idea is not the same as the visceral experience of feeling life moving like a fast flowing river- sometimes moving through me, sometimes carrying me along. At moments I am overwhelmed with awareness of what has been lost and gained, of how little stays the same from year to year even as I hang the decorations my grandparents used sixty years ago. People pass in and out of our lives; family members age and die; babies are born, children grow up; our health and living situations change; the world changes. Much of it is good, some of it is chosen, and many aspects are beyond our control.

I hadn't been fully conscious of how this season plunges me into the experience of impermanence, into awareness of the relentless and irresistible inner and outer changes. Being with the full range of feelings that arise with this awareness- gratitude and anxiety, joy and sorrow, bewilderment and delight- opens me, softens me to our humanness.

And I recognize that even as there is nothing in this changing reality to hang onto, there is so very much in every moment to cherish.

Oriah (c) 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Embracing The Dark

When was the last time you sat in the dark without turning on a lamp or lighting a candle, savouring the darkness late at night or early in the morning?

I like the dark, I always have. As a child I used to complain to my mother that I couldn’t sleep with the light shining in beneath my bedroom door. One of the things I like most about my current bedroom is that I can block out all the light from the street lamps outside. When I go to bed there's no difference in the darkness whether my eyes are open or closed. Every night I spontaneously offer a prayer of gratitude for the restful darkness.

This may be one of the reasons why I was open to a shamanic path where spiritual practise involves sitting out in the wilderness at night (no fires) fasting and praying. And when you stay out for many nights in a place with no artificial lights you discover there are gradations of darkness, luminosity from clouds and stars reflected in the lake, and a pre-dawn shimmer in the sky that comes long before the birds begin to sing the sun up.

Here in the northern hemisphere of our beautiful planet, the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer. We are approaching the longest night of the year, December 21. Hence all the festivals of light in different traditions: celebrations and reassurances of the return of the light during periods of deepening darkness. But with decorative electric lights and the often frantic pace of holiday preparations and celebrations I wonder if we miss the gifts of the darkness.

Darkness- both a literal lack of light and those times when we are feeling loss or lost- asks us to slow down, to feel our way along, to wait patiently until our eyes (inner or outer) become accustomed to seeing the shadows (which can include hidden or rejected aspects of self.) In this slowing down there can be a deepening, a turning inward to sit quietly with what we don'know and with what has happened in the last year, asking for visioning for the year to come. Western cultures tend to associate the dark with what is negative or difficult, and fear of the dark can keep us frantically moving, trying to outrun our own inner places of ambivalence, anxiety and ambiguity. But our fear of what the darkness might hold can rob us of the rest and revelation it can offer.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the festivals of light. But both the literal ones coming up and the times of fullness and activity in our lives might be more fully savoured and celebrated if we could also receive some of the deep listening, personal insights and rejuvenating rest of the darkness. Ask any artist who paints how they make that which is light brighter- they paint what is dark close to the light making both more vivid and real. Perhaps we need to taste the darkness before we launch into celebrations of the returning light.

So, in the midst of all the activity and preparations, it’s worth remembering the darkness and finding ways to give yourself some time to sit and greet whatever it has to offer to you. Even in the midst of the city where there are always electric lights shining, there is something magical in sitting in the (relative) dark late at night or early in the morning when the city is quiet. There, in the dark, we may find some of the insight and vision we need to prepare for the upcoming year.

Oriah (c) 2011

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Opening Our Stories

I love stories. Stories are how we learn, how we make sense of our own lives and the world, how we co-create meaning and magic. Some people seem to think that living without any story is the way to create a more "spiritual" life. From my perspective, that's just one more story. Which is not to say that our stories can't create challenges in our lives. Sometimes we find ourselves unconsciously living out a story that isn't ours or an old story that no longer serves life. Sometimes our stories become too rigid to allow needed change. So, it's a good idea to shake up our stories now and then. How we can do this is something I wrote about in The Call:

"Who would you be if you did not do whatever it is you do every day? What if you experimented in ways that would do no harm to yourself or others- were soft where you are normally hard, tender where you feel you must draw a firm line, giving where you usually take, receiving where you have no expectation or habit of receiving?

What if you played with this solid sense of self you have built up, said what you were thinking where you make it a rule to remain silent, were quiet where you always felt you needed to add something?

How much of the story you have created do you mistake for who and what you really are? Do you believe it liberates you from daily decision-making to focus on other things? How much does it confine you, dictate which thoughts and feelings you follow into doing?

Create a gap in your story and sit within the gap, sit in the emptiness of not knowing who or what you are until an awareness of your essential nature fills you. We think the call, that which beckons us away from identifying exclusively with these stories we create, comes and goes. But the truth is, it is always there, it is the very ground of existence. What comes and goes is our ability to hear it, our willingness to let go of what we think we are so we can open ourselves to hearing that which calls us back to what we always have been. When we open to this constant call, we remember why we are here and allow this knowledge to create a new and fluid story coloured with that knowledge and never mistaken for all of who we are." From The Call by Oriah (c) 2003

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My Favourite Question

When I was young I wanted to know why. I wanted to know why good people sometimes do what they know is wrong, why innocent children sometimes suffer, why God allowed bad things to happen to good people. I had a thousand why-questions about social injustice, personal suffering and divine intervention. Some of those questions were addressed with an increased understanding of human nature, socio-economic and political systems, and free will.

But mostly, it became clear that there would rarely be a fully satisfying answer to “Why?” when it came to knowing all of the possible causes and deeper reasons for human suffering. As a young woman reading Man’s Search For Meaning by holocaust survivor Viktor Frank, I let go of my attachment to knowing “Why?” and moved toward asking “What?”

And I was filled with what-questions: What is the world and life asking of me? What do I really want? What does another need or want? What is my responsibility for and to others? What are the deepest desires of the soul?

Over the years, working with students and clients, I realized that we share a commonality in the essence of what we want and what life asks of us. Beyond survival needs, we all want to love and be loved, to belong, to contribute, to express who we are, to have inner and outer peace. And life asks all of us to show up fully each day, to keep our hearts open to ourselves and others, to consciously co-create and receive the world, the day, and each other.

Of course we each have to work out how we individually live these essential answers to what-questions, which is brings me to the quesiton I live: How?

If I want peace within, I have to ask myself- How would I know if I had it? How would peace look, or taste? How would it feel to wake up at peace, to go to bed at peace, to greet others in my day with peace? How is that different from what I sometimes experience now?

And these how-questions lead to others: How do we cultivate these qualities of inner and outer life? This is where the spiritual rubber hits the road. Not many would dispute the merits of peace or compassion or love- but how do we cultivate these qualities individually and collectively in our daily lives while also providing for ourselves and those who depend upon us? How can we cultivate peace where there may be pain, or poverty, or injustice within or around us?

“How?” is the question I ask myself repeatedly throughout my day. When someone says, “It’s all about unity and love,” I ask myself (or them) “How do you live that, cultivate that awareness when someone threatens your child's well-being, or takes your job, or tells you you’re to blame for the illness you have?”

How do we live awake and aware when we are tired or overworked or distracted? Sometimes, the quest for “awareness” starts simply by asking, “How?” And sometimes the answer is as simple as, “Get a good night’s sleep.” (Because it is very hard to be present or at peace or compassionate when you are exhausted.)

Every day, we live in the details of the way in which we answer a thousand how-questions with our actions: how we eat, sleep, move, meet; how we spend our time, money, energy and hearts; how we treat ourselves and others; how we walk on the earth. Our answers to how-questions are the thousands of small and large choices we make every day, they are the means by which we move toward or away from what we long for in our deepest moments.

How we live shapes our inner lives and the world we co-create.

“How?” is my favourite question.

Oriah (c) 2011

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How We Change

Can we change? Do we change? How do we change? When considering personal changes I think I want to make I am reminded of a quote from Jungian analyst James Hillman who wrote, “That which we want to change, we want to get rid of.”

I think of the early sweat lodge ceremonies I led. I’d been taught to have people name their “giveaways,” the things they wished to be free of (fears, addictions, self-sabotaging habits etc.) But it didn’t work. People came back time after time to give away the same aspects of self. What it did do was create shame about the failure to change and, it seemed to me, that this shame would probably send the fears that drove self-destructive habits further into the unconscious, making them more inaccessible to the conscious desire for change.

So I stopped doing the giveaway round in sweat lodge ceremonies that way. Instead I asked participants to name some gift or strength or aspect of Beauty in their being that they offered to the world as their giveaway. Not surprisingly, many people found this much more difficult.

But I still wondered- how do we change? Was Hillman right- are we always trying to banish some aspect of self when we are seeking to change something about ourselves? Maybe sometimes we are just trying to find a healthy and healing way to address an old wound or live more fully who we are.

Reading Dan Siegel’s book Mindsight, I am encouraged to see that it is possible to actually develop new neural pathways in the brain throughout our lives. Novelty (learning something new or looking at something familiar in a new way,) attention (continued focus in a particular area) and aerobic exercise seem to be three key elements to making this happen. (Okay, so I only consistently go to the first two of these three- it’s a start!)

What strikes me as I read Siegel is that successful change is more about developing undeveloped aspects of self- brain, body, mind, awareness, personality, habits etc.- than it is about trying to get rid of already developed patterns. And I think that’s generally how change happens: by focusing on and enlarging what we want to build, where we want our energy to go.

We allay our fears not by trying to banish them, but by connecting with a deeper desire that can fuel our courage and shape new habits that serve those soul-deep desires. We develop habits that support creativity not by belittling or seeking to get rid of our left-brain ability to organize or analyze, but by doing activities that wake up neural networks on the right side of the brain and make new necessary connections between right and left hemispheres so we can actually do the creative work that calls to us.

We can change. We do change. It requires desire and knowledge, a willingness to see and accept where we are (instead of hoping we could start somewhere other than where we are) and move more deeply into our lives. It requires genuine curiosity about what we really value, what matters to us most and a willingness to consciously and repeatedly shape our inner and outer behaviour to be consistent with these values.

And these days, with all the challenges in the world, I cannot help but think that what we learn and put into practise about change on a personal level, will better prepare us to co-create necessary change on a global level.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Lost and Found

One of the ways I knew I was “lost” during my marriage was feeling how difficult it had become for me to do my daily practise of prayer and meditation. I had the time, I had the solitude and the quiet, and I had a wonderful spot to sit looking out into the forest around our country home. It was an ideal setting for prayer and meditation, but I felt like I was going through the motions.

It’s not that I’d never felt like this before. In the ebb and flow of life there had been times when I'd found it more difficult to connect with myself and a sense of Spirit, that Presence which is both within and larger than myself. But this wasn’t just a day or a week or a month of feeling disconnected. It started to add up to years. Still, I persisted, doing the shamanic prayers I'd been taught- a way of naming and seeking alignment with the many aspects and manifestations of the sacred that allows for personal present-momented expression within the guiding structure of the medicine wheel.

But, for the first time in my life, it felt futile. I remember thinking that I’d wandered so far from the centre of life and awareness that I couldn’t really pray. My expressions of gratitude (and I had lots to be grateful for) felt hollow, and my requests for help echoed off a sense of futile emptiness I’d never felt before. Eventually, knowing that prayers are often infused with heart when we pray in the particular, close to our everyday concerns, I gave myself permission to pray for anything- no matter how trivial or un-spiritual a desire it might seem to be. But, I was blank. There was nothing for which I could pray that felt alive or possible.

When the marriage ended a year and a half ago my daily practise was revitalized, initially by the strangely co-existing grief over the loss of a shared life and dreams and spontaneous gratitude for a return to a sense of aliveness. It was a little like thawing a frozen body part. (I grew up 400 miles north of Toronto where high winds at forty below zero taught me about frost bite.) It hurts, but you know that pain is a good sign, that it means the frozen tissue is still viable, still alive.

Eventually my prayers became more about being present to my new life. But I still felt something was missing- that I was not connecting with whatever the next step of my journey was, did not know what I ached for so I could fuel my prayers with the passion of my heart and soul.

Until last week. Last week I decided to do a refresher course in some of the skill training I’d done decades before in counselling. I attended a two day training on healing trauma- and it was as if something inside of me opened: a new level of compassion and hope for myself and others; an appreciation for how we are made for healing, always moving inexorably (if often unconscious) toward that which will heal us and allow us to live more fully and deeply.

After the first day of the training I lay in bed and did my evening prayers- and what I needed and wanted to pray for came instantly to my lips and overwhelmingly from my heart: to know my own wholeness restored so I could fully grasp the life I have been given and offer all of who I am to this time and place. I realize that could sound pretty heady or general, but it felt (and still feels) very specific to me and is fired by a deep knowing that this is not only where my intention is focused, but is something that is happening by grace even as I say the prayer. And I am deeply grateful to be able to find my way back to the centre of prayers spoken from the heart and fueled by the soul's desire.

(c) 2011 Oriah

Sunday, October 30, 2011

What Inspires Me

Last week an interviewer asked me, “Don’t you find it depressing to be counselling people who are often going through difficult times- times of pain, illness or loss- in their lives? How do you protect yourself, make sure your energy is not depleted?”

I was surprised by the question. Although my work with individuals includes celebrations of healing and new ways of seeing, it's true that it is often challenging times that bring people to counselling. Many of the stories that are shared are hard stories- are about childhood abuse, the limitations of illness, family violence, or heart-rending and involuntary loss of occupation, or home, or spouse, or child or the very beliefs they had been relying upon.

And every time I hear someone’s story I find my heart opening further to our humanness.

Oh, it's not that I'm blind to the many ways we go into denial and self-deception, how we sometimes reach for unhealthy ways to lower our anxiety or can even cause the very thing we most fear with self-sabotage.

But mostly what I hear is great tenderness and courage. Every human life includes challenges, loss, struggles and difficulties that often create real pain and suffering. And sometimes the suffering is so great, I wonder how people continue. But most often they do. And not only do they continue, they often use the challenge that has taken them to their knees and made them wonder if they can continue, to find a way to live more deeply with themselves and others.

What can you say about a woman whose only child has committed suicide who goes on to discover her own love of painting spectacular images of transformation and working with teens at risk? That she is magnificent in her courage and willingness and ability to walk through the fire of living and keep her heart open. That she is fully human, as you and I are, which means that you and I have within us the same capacity for courage and for loving life so deeply that life can, if we allow it, draw us back into living fully and joyfully even in the face of heart-rending sorrow.

And sometimes, the challenges in front of us are not large dramatic losses, but the small day to day wear and tear of making our way in the world, caring for those who are dependent upon us, doing what needs to be done to feed the children without losing ourselves to a culture that can too easily keep us running on the outside and out of touch with our inner life, the life of soul.

Whether those I work with are facing small daily struggles or large life losses- over and over, I am inspired by their humanness. Many days I finish a session and simply sit in awe of them- of us- and wonder how a creature so tender, so vulnerable that we can feel devastated by a thoughtless comment, can survive the changing and unpredictable conditions of a human life, let alone thrive. But they do- we do- leaning a little on each other at times, opening our hearts a little further, healing from wounds, daring to dream and saying “yes” to life.

How do I protect myself from being depleted or depressed by my work with others? No need for protection. Others open my heart and deepen my faith in the way we are made. They inspire hope and renewed tenderness for myself and the world. And I am grateful.