Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What If. . .

Sometimes insight or a different way of seeing ourselves and the world is received when we lightly consider some of our semi-conscious assumptions. In "Prelude," at the beginning of the book The Dance, I use the phrase "what if" in an effort to invite contemplation of beliefs we may be taking for granted. Sometimes we need to consider our (conscious and semi-conscious) beliefs in the spirit of gentle inquiry, wondering "what if" they are not true.


What if it truly doesn’t matter what you do but how you do whatever you do?

How would this change what you choose to do with your life?

What if you could be more present with each person you met if you were working as a cashier in a corner store, or as a parking lot attendant, than you could if you were doing a job you think is more "important"?

How would this change how you want to spend your precious time on this earth?

What if your contribution to the world and the fulfillment of your own happiness is not dependent upon discovering a better method of prayer or technique of meditation, not dependent upon reading the right book or attending the right seminar, but upon really seeing and deeply appreciating yourself and the world as they are right now?

How would this affect your search for spiritual development?

What if there is no need to change, no need to try to transform yourself into someone who is more compassionate, more present, more loving or wise?

How would this affect all the places in your life where you are endlessly trying to be better?

What if the task is simply to unfold, to become who you already are in your essential nature- gentle, compassionate and capable of living fully and passionately present?

How would this affect how you feel when you wake up in the morning?

What if who you essentially are right now is all that you are ever going to be?

How would this affect how you feel about your future?

What if the essence of who you are and always have been is enough?

How would this affect how you see and feel about your past?

What if the question is not why am I so infrequently the person I really want to be, but why do I so infrequently want to be the person I really am?

How would this change what you think you have to learn?

What if becoming who and what we truly are happens not through striving and trying but by recognizing and receiving the people and places and practises that offer us the warmth of encouragement we need to unfold?

How would this shape the choices you have to make about how to spend today?

What if you knew that the impulse to move in a way that creates beauty in the world will arise from deep within and guide you every time you simply pay attention and wait?

How would this shape your stillness, your movement, your willingness to follow this impulse, to just let go and dance?

From the book, THE DANCE, by Oriah (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Committing to a Human Life

The following is a story from my book, The Call. It begins with an account of being interviewed by Paula Todd of TVO.

I tell Paula about the healing that occurred for me when I attended a martial arts course on the Mojave Desert many years after I was raped.

At the end of an intensive two weeks course the women who had been trained were tested by being attacked three times one-on-one by men committed to helping women empower themselves to walk safely in the world. The men wore protective gear, the women did not. We were told that the attacks would be no holes barred and would continue until the instructor, Dawn, a petite woman who worked as a bodyguard in Los Angeles, called out, “Cut!” We had to deliver one or two blows to the man attacking us that would have incapacitated him long enough for us to get away if he had not been wearing protective gear.

As we began the women who wanted to be tested stood along the edge of a large matted area. One at a time the men wandered around within the circle watching the women and seeking to attack someone when she least expected it. Shortly after we began one of the women broke her leg struggling with a man who’d grabbed her. We all heard it snap beneath her as she went down heavily. It shook us, but most of us stayed to be tested. Many of us had been raped or beaten. We needed to know we could defend ourselves.

The first time I was attacked I made a slow but steady response, finally delivering a blow to the man’s protected eyes that would have given me time to get away if this had been a real attack. But the second time, the man who attacked me had been wandering around the circle joking. I was laughing, unprepared, my guard down. When he grabbed me and threw me I arched through the air and landed flat on my back in a way that closely resembled how I had been thrown when I was raped. The man participating in the testing did not know this, but the women on the circle did. Earlier in the week we had re-enacted the rape scenes experienced by women in the group, looking for possible ways each woman could have protected herself if she had had the skills and knowledge she was now being given. The man attacking me heard the sharp intake of breath amongst many of the women around the circle when I hit the ground. He could see I’d had the wind knocked out of me and was badly shaken, but his instructions were to go for it until the instructor told him to stop. So he continued to come at me.

I struggled to fight, but I didn’t want to. I felt as if I had landed in a large tub of warm bath water. Suddenly I didn’t care what happened. It felt like it just didn’t matter. I heard Dawn calling to me as if from very far away. “Don’t do that Oriah,” she yelled. “You’ve been here before. Don’t check out! Fight! Fight for yourself!”

Hearing her voice I struggled to come out of my lethargy as the man landed on top of me. It was like moving through molasses, but slowly and steadily I began to fight and finally, after five minutes of constant struggle, I managed to deliver one of the blows that we had been taught to incapacitate an attacker. Shaken at how I’d responded to the attack I hesitated to be tested again but I put myself back at the edge of the testing area. The third time a man grabbed me I flew into action without hesitation, landing repeated take-out blows almost immediately. Dawn had to yell, “Cut!” four times before I heard her.

When I finish telling this story to the TV interviewer, she asks me, “So you would tell a woman who was being attacked to fight?”

I respond calmly but without hesitation, “Absolutely. I would tell her to fight. Fight as if your life depends upon it, because it does.”

Watching the interview on tape I cringe and feel the gap between the self-acceptance I hope and sometimes pretend to have achieved and desire to be different than I am. I have answered her question without thinking, from my gut. I could not tell a woman or a man who is being physically attacked that they should not fight back, and I would physically oppose anyone who was actively trying to harm myself or another, in an effort to stop the aggression. But I struggle with this. There is a difference between using whatever minimum level of force is necessary to stop violence that is happening in the moment and dropping bombs on those we suspect might do us harm in the future. But I also know it can be a slippery slope from one to the other. I imagine that a more “spiritual” person would have across-the-board-rules about never using force against another. At the very least I want to be someone who, even if she is willing to physically defend herself and would advise others to do the same, would do so with an air of regret or hesitation, with less conviction and certainty.

But that’s not who I am. Self-acceptance is a practice, a willingness to slowly expand our ability to see ourselves as we are and simply be with what we see. I am a passionate, outspoken woman. I have a tendency to want rules but a mind and heart that simply will not let me settle into one-size-fits-all ethical absolutes. I think fast- which does not always mean clearly- and talk faster. I want to be wisely quiet, mysteriously silent, deeply contemplative. And sometimes I am all of these things. But when I am with the world I am more often directive, opinionated and passionately expressive. Sometimes this makes me discerning and effective. Occasionally it means I can be downright inspiring. But sometimes it just makes me relentlessly judgmental and annoyingly bossy. I realize that other personalities have their own challenges but I have on occasion convinced myself that I have been over-burdened with a personality that does not make it easy to live a Spiritual Life.

The truth is no life is inherently more “spiritual” than another, no personality or set of ego characteristics more readily available to an awareness of the still and sacred presence we are than another. All personalities have slightly different struggles on the road to waking up to who we are and why we are here. Some will have to sit with the urge to strike out when angry while others will have to struggle with their tendency to repress anger and the consequences that brings. Some may have to learn to be quiet more often, while others have to learn to speak out. Some may need to act more quickly or more often, while others need to more frequently sit still and wait. We all have patterns of behaviour and preferences that come from a combination of our inherent temperament and developmental learning, just like we have certain physical characteristics as a result of nature and nurture. Wanting to wake up tomorrow- or at the end of a vision quest- with a different personality, a transformed ego, is a little like hoping I will wake up in the morning five inches taller: a desire that continues my war with reality.

This does not mean we are doomed to unconsciously live out the patterns of our ego. It means that we have to know ourselves, have to bring to consciousness with deep honesty our tendencies and patterns, our strengths and weaknesses, our vulnerabilities and fears if we are to access real free will choices in how we live. When I told the TV interviewer that a woman’s life depended upon fighting someone who was trying to harm her I was not merely referring to the chance that she could be physically killed if she did not effectively defend herself. The biggest opponent I faced during that martial arts testing was not the man who was attacking me. My real struggle was with my own feeling that it did not matter if I was harmed, did not matter if I lived or died. On some profound level I had to make the choice we all have to make if we are to respond to the call at the center of our lives: I had to choose to be here, in a human life. Choosing my human life in that moment required that I physically defend myself.

Ego-awareness, an individuated sense of self that identifies with patterns of ever-changing thoughts, feelings, sensations and life situations, is necessary to make this choice. Essence-awareness, the consciousness of the eternal inherent being we are, is not particularly concerned with the details of the life I am living, knows that all thoughts, feelings and situations will pass and that what is eternal and infinite within us will remain. But essence-awareness alone does not make a human life. A human life is lived in our very particular and real daily choices. Essence-awareness can give us the perspective needed to ensure we do not drown in the minutiae of daily living or become so exclusively identified with our egos that the constantly changing reality and others’ ego-agendas feel life-threatening to our very existence. But ego-awareness is also needed if we are to fully inhabit the life we have, if we are to consciously make daily choices about what we do, where we go and how we live. Lack of attachment to having things work out the way we want them to is not the same thing as the indifference that comes from not fully committing to a human life. When I was lying on that mat during the martial arts test feeling like it did not matter whether or not I fought to protect myself, I was not connecting to the lack of attachment to outcome that can come with an awareness of my essential nature. I was, in that moment and more generally at that time in my life, unable to cherish and choose to occupy fully my human life.

Life without essence-awareness lacks meaning and connection. Life without ego-awareness lacks fire and direction.

from The Call by Oriah (c)2003 Published by HarperONE, San Francisco.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Notes of a Recovering Saviour

Want to hear something really disturbing? I was raised to be a saviour. Not The Saviour. Just a saviour- and that’s bad enough. I am realizing this on a deeper level because the Grandmothers in my dreams, the still small voice during my daily meditations, and the conversations I have with a more centred aspect of self on the pages of my journal keep offering me the same mantra: “You cannot save them Oriah.”

This makes me pause, makes me wonder who I am trying to “save.” I don’t have to look too far. As many of you know my father was recently hospitalized with advanced Alzheimer’s. He’s having a very difficult time as his confusion and frustration deepen, at times becoming aggressive and violent with caregivers (he has never been either in his life before.) He is at the cruellest stage of this disease- unable to function independently or communicate clearly but intermittently aware of all he has lost and plagued with obsessive-compulsive thoughts, transitory amnesia and occasional hallucinations. My mother, dealing with her own mental confusion, is understandably distraught and exhausted as we work with health-care providers to find the right setting, medications and care that will ease my father’s suffering.

And the Grandmothers tell me, “You cannot save them, Oriah.”

I know they do not mean that I should not, to the best of my ability, assist in the process of arranging the best care possible, and offer my support and love in any way I can. They do mean that no matter what I do, I cannot spare them the challenges and pain of old age and disease.

I know this, and I know that the Grandmothers know I know this. So, I wonder what else they are pointing to by repeating this phrase. It’s not the first time I have considered the source and consequences of a semi-conscious and mistaken belief in my own responsibility to “save” others. But here it is again. What part of me still believes I can and should “save” others? When I ask the question I get that funny sinking feeling you get when you know you are about to visit- again- one of core complexes in your psyche. And as I sit with this I can see how I was trained from an early age to believe that it was simply my “job” to save others.

Every child wants their parents to be happy. In fact, as children, our happiness is closely linked with that of our parents’. Without knowing anything about cultural norms for women in the ‘50’s I could see that my mother was not happy in the role of housewife and mother, no matter how much she espoused the value of this role. So, in an attempt to save my mother from her unhappiness, I sought to be “good,” to keep all the rules perfectly (and there were hundreds about behaviour, appearance, house-keeping etc.) The message was clear: women were responsible for the happiness of their families and this happiness was bought by sacrificing any of their own needs, wants or desires that were not in alignment with what they or their husbands or the broader culture said were requirements to fulfill this role. This dove-tailed nicely with my Sunday school lessons to be like Jesus- someone who’d sacrificed his life for others. Martyrdom was the ideal.

If it seems I am over-simplifying, I would argue that the simplicity and consistency of the message was what made it so powerful. My childhood fantasies were of being called upon to give my life for others- literally- and finding the heroic strength to rise to the occasion.

There were of course aspects of my personality and family history that reinforced my hope that I could fulfill my appointed task. I went to university for social work although I wanted to study English literature and creative writing, because doing good (saving others) was more important that following my own interests and desires. At eighteen it simply never occurred to me that following my own interests might develop skills that could offer something of value to the world- sacrifice was an assumed requirement. I married men (one at a time :-) who were not living up to their potential, at least in part because I hoped my support (emotional, financial, therapeutic, creative etc.) would help them heal old wounds so they could offer their gifts to the world.

It’s not that I haven’t made any progress in dismantling this saviour complex. Over the years I’ve become a better friend and counsellor in my personal and professional life because I have been able to see that we can only support and be companions to each other. When asked I can bring my own experience and insights to the other, I can provide a container for and hold the other in caring while they meet the challenges in their own life. But I cannot see what another needs to do let alone provide them with the inner means to do it.

This is how it goes in a human life: core issues in the psyche resurface again and again, and each time we have a chance to deepen the healing beneath an erroneous belief, to let go a little more into the truth of our own smallness and the largeness of the love that holds and is within us. I cannot save another from their own challenges, struggles and suffering because I do not have this power because. . . . I am a human being. . . . limited in my wisdom and perspective and power. Realizing this at a deeper level offers more relief than disappointment.

But there is something more here: maybe we cannot do this for each other because finding and following our own way, as inter-connected and inter-dependent as we are, is what we are here to do, is how we learn and unfold to become all that we are. How we do this is a choice that is given to each of us. Maybe, our inability to “save” each other is not a bug, but a feature! Although we can support and sometimes even truly help each other, it is not our place to rob another of their own choices and struggles when dealing with the challenges life brings.

One of the things we really can do for each other and for ourselves, is to deepen our self-knowledge, to sort through the many mixed and semi-conscious motivations for our actions. To the degree we are unconscious, to the degree I want to “save” another to fulfill the role I took up in an unconscious and misguided bid to buy my mother’s happiness and earn my right to be, I am likely to do good badly and cause more suffering. This is not about abandoning another when we have something to offer- presence, information, encouragement, resources- that really can help. It’s about not abandoning ourselves as we offer what we are able, grounded in an awareness of the limitations of being human and the infinite power of love to help even when nothing more can be done.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Journey

Last weekend I returned to the former matrimonial home I'd shared with my ex for eight years. He was away, and we had agreed that this was to be my last visit to the house. I took a few things, burned my wedding dress in a ceremonial bonfire and walked away from ninety-nine percent of the contents of the house- possessions I'd inherited or accumulated over my lifetime. Such a strange and freeing experience. I’ve been happily surprised by an increase in my energy since returning home to my apartment in the city.

The following piece was written for O Magazine South Africa at the request of an editor who had been following my blogs. She asked that I include excerpts from blogs I had written as the separation took place. The marriage ended one year ago- on April 5, 2010. On this, the anniversary of that separation, it seems fitting to share the article here.

The Year After

A year ago my marriage of ten years exploded. Stunned, I wrote: I am breathing through an ache in my chest that feels like it will split me open. The term “sucking wound” comes to mind as many breaths are gasping, struggling, wet with tears. It feels like there is a gaping hole in my chest.

I survived doing what had to done, sometimes ambushed by pain: Grief is as kind as it can be, coming in waves instead of all at once- surely a flood that would drown. It’s hard to predict when the next wave will hit. I miscalculate and have to abandon a shopping cart in the middle of the cereal aisle at the supermarket to dash for home and lay down on the cool white tiles of the bathroom floor.

Those first days of the ending felt impossible, disorienting. Slowly I recognized and accepted where I was: How is it that the world continues? The sun is coming up. A single ray breaks through the cloud cover and fills my room with liquid gold. Birds sing the light into being. Traffic starts to move over rain-soaked pavement. I always say I’m fine. It’s a habit, a way of reassuring others that I won’t need much, a way of reassuring myself that things are not that bad. But I’m not fine. It’s a relief to admit it. The sun is rising, the world goes on, but I’m not fine. And that’s okay.

I began to take in the loss, the need to make legal agreements with someone I suddenly felt I did not know and could not trust. Despite the shock, some survival instinct woke up: Jeff arrived at the mediators but refused to talk. Driving to the apartment I see it all before me- legal battles that could take months if not years. With the first real clarity I‘ve felt in days, I shout as I drive along the highway, “I do not want this be my life for the next year! I will not let it be what my life is about!"

Moving forward around material agreements was relatively easy. I sacrificed fairness for freedom- this was my choice. But emotional disentanglement was harder. Jeff and I spiralled down into old arguments that left me depleted, despairing. Friends urged me to cut off communications. And then one friend said gently, “Well, you will stop having contact when you can stop having contact.” Her faith in my inner reasoning allowed me to realize I was seeking something Jeff did not have: an explanation that would take away the pain of betrayal. I stopped the conversations.

I paid attention to what called me back to life: Friends call. It is good to know I have not been forgotten. Private pain can make the world shrink. Some bring rice, spiced salmon and fruit-filled muffins. For the first time I understand why people bring food to the bereaved. The smell brings me back to my animal body, reminds me to eat. The taste says, “You are not alone. You are not done. You are alive!”

Zen teacher Susuki Roshi said, “We don’t need to learn how to let go. We need to recognize what’s already gone.” We tell stories so we can recognize what is gone. It takes time. My friends listen patiently.

Separation agreement signed, I went camping alone in the wilderness: I sit on the cliff looking out over the lake, staring. I’m like one of those wind-up toys, spring finally completely unfurled, making further movement impossible. I’ve come to an abrupt halt. I can go no further. The weeping begins. It’s as if I’ve sprung a leak. I’m full of unshed tears spilling from my eyes. Am I having some kind of breakdown? Perhaps it’s a sign of my survival ability that I’ve set up this opportunity for collapse, a place where nothing has to be taken care of, where I can weep and stare at the wind on the water for as long as it takes for movement to find me.

There are no short cuts. We cannot heal what has not been grieved, we cannot grieve the loss that has not been experienced, and we can’t experience something fully until we do. Slowly, something else begins: Healing happens when I’m not looking, and I’m pulled back into life. I notice the children running in the playground, the tree by my window in bloom. I’m surprised at how life works within me and on me. Like all organisms we are life choosing life. This is how we are made.

The healing was a reunion with aspects of self: I did not know I’d wandered so far from who and what I am. Far enough to have forgotten the fragrance of home- the warm cinnamon scent of the place where I can surrender to unguarded joy. I’d wandered so long I’d stopped missing or even looking for myself. Even my longing had become muted, an underwater echo, blue green and easy to miss. Each day now a little more of who I am is retrieved from the ocean floor. I am welcomed home by my own heart- the prodigal daughter- longed for, looked for, home at last.

I spiralled through layers of grief and healing: Bittersweet, it’s hard to separate the joy of returning to myself from the sadness of missing the one who is gone. What is lost and what is found are tangled together, like legs caught in the bed sheets after a restless night of love-making or loneliness. I tried to earn a shared dream, having forgotten there is no bargaining for faith or love. These are there by grace or not at all.

At fifty-five, my children grown, I explored being alone: What I call loneliness is most often a vague desire to have someone to distract me from some deeper discontent. The truth is that most of the time, I enjoy being alone. There are mundane joys: not having to pick up after anyone else; being able to follow the thread of reading, or writing ,or dreaming simply because there is no one else’s schedule to consider. I walk home at twilight after visiting a friend and stop at a market to buy yogurt, and blueberries, and pale yellow roses. Feeling a deep sense of contentment, I walk slowly, savouring the scent of the night air. I look forward to reading in bed and listening to the sounds of the city slowly subside. The gift of living alone is in learning to truly enjoy being fully with myself.

A new life takes shape within and around me. I’d lost touch with my longing- that inner compass that seeks to take us deeper into being who we are. Without that longing we lose our way, we stop dreaming, we start surviving, and eventually we are ambivalent about even that.

This is my healing: I am making my way back to my own longing. I’d dropped the threads that could lead me back to my centre. I’d talked myself out of knowing what I knew about myself. On some level I must have believed this was necessary to be in with Jeff. I lost myself. It’s good to be home.

This coming home to my self probably would not have happened within this marriage. No one is more surprised than I am to realize I am truly grateful. The pain of separation was searing, but the joy of reunion with my own heart is a priceless gift.