Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Time as Grace and Ally

I am fascinated with how time changes things. Because, when I really look at myself and others, I am not sure that much else does. Change things, I mean. Particularly, change people.

I recently got together with two women I’d met thirty years ago in a group for new mothers. The three of us had not been together for decades. As we sat around a table discussing our “children” (now in their late twenties and early thirties) I was struck by how little any of us had changed. (Well, if I am being completely truthful, I was amazed at how little they had changed- but I know what that has to mean re: me.) Our conversation followed a rhythm that I recognized from years before, and the positions and perspectives we each offered to the discussion was very much as I remember them being way back when.

My dear friend Joan Borysenko and I got together for tea recently, and after we caught up on each other’s lives, I raised the question: Do people really change? As we turned our inquiry inward we both felt that we had changed, albeit in relative ways. We could see how we were less judgemental, more relaxed, less likely to worry, less anxious (and more able to tolerate the anxiety that is part of a human life) than we were ten, twenty or thirty years ago. But, as Joan pointed out, these changes felt more like part of a natural maturing process- ie: consequences of the passage of time- than a result of conscious attempts to change.

Now it’s interesting that two women who some would see as being in the “business” of creating change would be having this conversation. After all, we each write, do public speaking and facilitate workshops that focus on living life more fully and deeply- which implies creating a change from living at least a little less fully and less deeply. Neither of is inclined to believe in or promise quick fixes. But, on the other hand, we have both had profound experiences of Spirit and life that we are inclined to think have changed us, and we are both insatiably curious about how we and others find our way to living from the centre of being- which, once again, implies a change from living in at least a slightly-less-than centred place at least some of the time.

Which brings me back to time.

Because Joan is probably right- some of the changes we see in ourselves are a result of aging, which requires time, years in fact. But time alone won’t do it. I’ve met a some very aware individuals in their twenties and thirties (and some astonishing three year olds), and we all know folks who are as unconscious (in denial about addicted, self-destructive, lashing out in pain etc.) at 40 or 50 or 60 as they were at 20. (Those other people- not us, right!? Hmm. . . . . . )

What Joan pointed to is a process of not simply getting older, but of maturing- growing and deepening in ways that help us live closer to the centre of who and what we are. Not all the time. Not perfectly. Not in huge leaps and bounds. Just imperceptibly more than we did yesterday, and hopefully noticeably more than ten years ago. This requires both grace and an active willingness to learn from others, from life and from our own experience and mistakes.

I think one of the many faces of grace that allows us to change, is the magic of time. Oh I know, some maintain there is no time except in our thinking, but I can’t agree. Time, like all the other elements of living a physical and conditioned life, does have a level of reality to it. If the best before date on my milk is long past, the concept of time is useful. And yes, we can alleviate suffering by not reviewing old hurts endlessly or anticipating real or imagined troubles to come. But, the truth is, some things are handled simply by the grace of time- things that happen with or without my effort, sometimes when I am not even paying attention and sometimes with just a little willingness, with a timid or desperate prayer asking for help. It was time that made clear to me that I needed to leave my marriage, and I can see (as if catching a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye) how time is healing my heart and allowing me to open to life once again.

It’s always worthwhile to ask what we can do to learn, to heal, to change patterns within ourselves that we can see are causing suffering for ourselves or others. But it’s also important to know that we are not alone in this, that there are forces on our side, mysteries working with and within us. And one of those mysteries, an ally in healing, is surely time. We are conditioned beings who change with time. There is silver in my hair where once there was only gold. I forget names and nouns more than I once did, but I remember more frequently what matters most.

We are always living in the present moment, whether we are remembering the past or dreaming the future or bringing our full attention to this what is in this moment- to the click of my fingers on the keyboard and the mechanical roar of a leaf blower outside my window. But every present moment gives way to the next present moment . . . and the next.

We are embodied souls, and so, beings in time. And time is one of the faces of grace that can, particularly when and where we are willing, offer us the miracle of small changes that accumulate and slow openings that let us gently but completely unfold to become more of who and what we are.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Befriending Moments of Loneliness

I was sitting with a friend who has recently separated from her husband of twenty-nine years. I’ll call her Bonnie. After six months of separation, Bonnie was telling me how difficult she is finding the loneliness.

Being an introvert with a chronic illness I don’t often have the energy or inclination to do a lot of socializing and I’ve assumed that this is why loneliness sometimes arises for me. But, Bonnie is one of the most extroverted people I know. She has a plethora of close friends, an extensive community, supportive family members and an extraordinary ability to reach out to connect with others. She runs her own successful business and is a generous, resourceful woman. I get tired just hearing about Bonnie’s week of social contacts, work with others and staying in touch with friends.

But, despite all this, I hear how genuinely lonely she is. As she told me about a business contract that had not work out as she’d hoped and her need to take this into consideration around future plans, I had an insight into the kind of ordinary loneliness that even extraordinary people experience. Because for many of us, the hardest loneliness is not a­­­­ lack of support around the Big Challenges- the sudden serious illnesses or death of a family member, the loss of home or livelihood. In moments of acute crisis many of us are lucky enough to be surrounded by friends, family, and sometimes even caring strangers offering concern and support.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we do not experience loneliness.

As Bonnie is discovering, if you live alone it’s often about the ordinary daily challenges- the adjustment of plans to logistical changes and cancelations; the nervousness about unexpected expenses; the minor illnesses that just make you feel crappy; the insignificant irritations like traffic jams, line-ups and bureaucracy. It’s about carrying the daily uncertainties alone­­­­­­.

When you live with someone you often share these small daily challenges. Someone is there to listen to your tiny tales of woe, calm you down, commiserate, make you to laugh, give you a hug or just let you rant. You’re not in it alone. Your fortunes, your health, your moods and your circumstances, your small joys, disappointments and fears are intimately shared with someone else. And theirs are shared with you. And this can make the burden feel a little lighter when the day feels a little too long and the world seems just a little too overflowing with crazy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been married. I know that just because you live with someone doesn’t mean they will always be there at the end of the day in the way you would like them to be- or in any way at all. Sometimes we can be acutely lonely when we are with someone. But for most of us, if we've stayed with someone for any length of time, it was because there was a some degree of comfort and comfortableness in the way we shared the tasks of daily living with a fellow human being. Even when we might have been in disagreement about The Big Things or the deeply intimate things, many of us continued to find companionship in sharing laundry and car repairs, good meals and bad television.

And it’s weird when no one else is there, when there is no companionship at the end of the day unless you arrange it- and even then, eventually you will be going home alone. Again, don’t get me wrong. It is often with great relief that I come back to my tiny apartment that fits like a nest around me, where everything is exactly as I left it and there is silence and blessed solitude. What I missed when I was married was often my own company.

But I also know what Bonnie is talking about when she speaks of the loneliness, of feeling a kind of ache, a sadness and weariness, at being on her own with the daily concerns and challenges of a human life.

I don’t have a solution. Certainly my experience of a sacred Presence that is greater than but also within me is a reminder that I am always participating in an inter-dependent wholeness. But I don’t think even an impossibly constant sense of the Mystery would shield us from moments of the loneliness.

So lately, when loneliness arises, I just sit with it. I ask myself, What is this thing I call loneliness? Where does it live in my body? What is its colour, its texture, its taste? I turn my attention to it and explore. I remind myself that this is bearable, this will not kill me so I do not need to run from it.

The loneliness does not instantly disappear but my fear of it dissipates, and it. . . softens. I can be with it, befriend it, know that it is part of being human particularly when we do not have companionship in the small things of daily life. As I stop trying to move away from it, it often slowly dissolves, the way mist on the lake in the early morning dissolves in sunlight. It becomes, after all, just a ripple of loneliness. Not death, not agony, not an indicator of sinister news about my being. Just a ripple of loneliness, a little discomfort. Observing and allowing it, the loneliness becomes just one more thing arising in awareness, like the feel of my beating heart, the temperature of the air on my skin, the sound of the city going to sleep around me, my inhale filling me and my exhale leaving my body.

Loneliness becomes just one of the many experiences of being human. And I am grateful for even this.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Not Waiting for Life to Get "Better"

This morning the sun is blazing forth, trumpeting “Live!” in a clear blue sky. The buds on the trees are unfurling un-weathered green into the world. Spring: undeterred and irresistible life, newness from the decayed ruins of the old, fresh starts and impossible hope.

It has been a year of legal arrangements and new adjustments since my marriage ended in April of 2010. And just as I approached the final collection of a few belongings from the former matrimonial home, sure that I would then be able to focus fully on new writing, my parents (both of whom have Alzheimer’s- my father in an advanced state, my mother recently diagnosed in the early stages) need my on-going assistance with new living arrangements.

Because that’s life- a series of continuous and unpredictable changes that demand our attention, disrupt plans and require flexibility. My desire for tidy, uninterrupted time and space for writing is understandable, but not to be. So, I’m writing anyway- in bits and pieces, in between meetings with doctors and social workers, after daily conversations with my mother (who, at 76, is living alone for the first time in her life,) in the early morning quiet and during the noon-day rush at roadside diners.

Because if we postpone the soul’s agenda until life clears away all the distractions and concerns, if we wait until things have reached some kind of imagined inner or outer ideal state of expansive uninterrupted calm, well. . . we’ll still be waiting as we slip from this world into what lies beyond.

At the end of radio shows many interviewers ask, “Is there one last thing- a central message- you'd like to leave with our listeners?"

I’ve done enough interviews you’d think I would have some snappy, articulate answer prepared, a concise and profound or witty comment ready for the moment. But no matter how many times it comes, I never seem prepared. Maybe it's because I don't think of myself as having "A Message." As Wavy Gravy said, I'm just another bozo on the bus, albeit one that likes to reflect on and write about the journey.

So lately, at the end of interviews, with only moments remaining, this is the response that arises from the request to offer one last essential thing:

“Life is messy. Accept this. It's okay to have a plan, just don’t focus on it. Things aren't likely to go according to plan. Focus on what you need to do next, right now. Pay attention to what has real value for you at the level of your body-heart-self- the people, places, activities and practises that help you feel truly alive, that support your ability to be present and kind. If there’s something calling to you, turn toward it and start walking. It may not lead where you think it will, but make a place in all of the wonderful chaos of life to listen deeply to the voice at the center of your being and pay attention to what it tells you.

Life is short and messy. Don’t postpone living until life gets neater or easier or less frantic or more enlightened. There’s a “catch” to the popular admonishment to “live in the Now.” It’s that the only way to be in the Now is to be Here, in the life and the body you have, and in the world we share, right now (not with the body or the world we hope to someday have or imagine we used to have.) This is it. And it will change. Choose life in all the small ways you can, every day.”

On some level, it all sounds so obvious, and I realize I am saying what I need to hear over and over.

So, I am writing- mostly about what it really means to love the life and world and being that I am/you are right now. And I find I can’t approach this loving and care-taking, as I once did, from a place of principled and disciplined practises (as much as I value the practises I have and continue to use.) This new loving of self and life is. . . messier in the ways that organic things are messy- different aspects growing at different speeds, circuitous routes of growth following the instinctual need for light and warmth, some parts blossoming as others decay and feed the roots with what has died.

I’m still doing one-on-one counselling sessions on the phone (if you’d like an outline of how this works please email me at and I’m posting regularly on both the Oriah Mountain Dreamer Facebook page at (you do not need an account to see the page.) /The website is

Whether you are enjoying the cycle of new life in the spring of the northern hemisphere or the transition of autumn in the southern, may be you be blessed with the fullness of living- the life you have given and are co-creating with us all. Blessings, Oriah

(This is the Spring 2011 Newsletter. If you would like to receive the newsletter three or four times a year please email Oriah at

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What We Don't Want To Know

I’ve been cringing all week, but not for the reasons you might think. It’s true that the Canadian election is not in alignment with my personal preferences, and I felt great sadness watching the public celebrations of Osama bin Laden’s death. (I cannot celebrate another human being's death even when that human being has orchestrated violence and caused great suffering.) But my cringing was less about these events than it was about some of the reactions they provoked: some Canadians calling others “idiots” for how they voted; people expressing their disgust with those who were celebrating in the streets, calling them “the lowest common denominator” or worse.

After 9/11 I wrote a piece about not dividing humanity, even in our own minds, into “us” and “them.” (It’s posted on my website at if you’d like to read it.) Separating ourselves from those who do what we find objectionable or abhorrent is easy, but it sets us up for inner and outer war and denies the shadow aspects of self we'd rather not know.

I’m as tempted as anyone to ask- what were “they” thinking when “they” voted for the Conservatives or danced in the streets chanting “USA, USA!” But, if I really want to know what my fellow human beings are thinking and feeling, I have to ask and listen. And then, if I really want to be the change I'd like to see in the world, I have to consider where a similar sentiment, motivation or perspective might live within myself.

My original article suggested starting simply with a change in language, saying (even in our minds) "some of us" instead of “they.” Some of us celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden by dancing in the streets. Immediately, my response is diverted from mind and heart-closing judgments to asking, “Why?” One of the women interviewed at the celebration at ground zero in New York said that her husband had died on 9/11 and she felt for the first time that she might be able to go on with her life now. I said a prayer for her, that she be able to do just that.

So. . . . . some of us have been so devastated by the losses of 9/11 that going on with life feels impossible without some form or revenge or justice, without the death of the person believed to be the cause of that loss.

I honestly don’t know if bin Laden's death will bring closure for some, but I find it useful to take my contemplation one step further: Where does part of me feel so devastated by a loss that I want revenge, or justice, or some form of loss to be felt by someone I believe/feel was instrumental in causing my loss? Last year my marriage ended. Can I deny that this feeling- however small, intermittent and misguided (I do not think my ex’s suffering would bring me fresh hope or a sense of celebration) lives within me in response to hurt, betrayal and loss? It’s not the only feeling I have, (as I'm guessing that hope for moving on was not the only feeling the woman who was interviewed was experiencing) and I choose not to act on it. But this choice is only possible in part because I am conscious of the feeling. If I deny this feeling and it goes into the unconscious, it is much more likely that I will seek revenge in unconscious ways.

I am not equating terrorist acts of violence with marital betrayal, and I do think it's useful to be able to discern between different degrees of doing harm to others. But, at the same time, if I am interested in self-awareness and deeper inter-personal communication, I need to look honestly at where the qualities I abhor in the other might live in me.

And I can use this same method of contemplation to understand why some voted differently than myself. When I ask my neighbour why she voted for Harper, she tells me that she is afraid of what would happen to her small pension if the economy falters, and she believes the stock market and other financial institutions will respond best to a Conservative government. She also says that she does not like the positions the Conservatives have on the environment or women’s issues but thinks this is just the price that has to be paid for economic survival.

I disagree with her assessment, but I listen and consider: What part of me, when afraid for (and rightly or wrongly assessing the chances of) my survival becomes willing to compromise other values I say I hold dear?

This is not about agreeing with others' actions. This is about not separating ourselves from our fellow human beings, not making them something less than human, not pretending that what we think we see in them, does not or could not live in us.

And I can use this method to reflect on the cringing I did at the derisive comments about Canadian voters or people celebrating Osama's death. The folks making these comments are no more “them”(vs. us/me) than those they were condemning. So, what part of me- when frightened by decisions others make that have potential unwanted consequences for my life- condemns, dismisses, derides and judges others in an attempt to separate myself from “them”?

You get the idea- it's not about failing to discern right action for ourselves, it's just about recognizing that there simply is no “them” and “us.” What lives in another, lives in me. And if I want to have real choice about how I act on all that lives within me- love, fear, generosity, courage, cowardice, judgement, acceptance- I have to be willing to be with as much of it as I can, to bring it to consciousness. The process is always enlightening and humbling, and in this task, others- particularly those with whom I do not identify, those from whom I want to separate myself- can be my greatest teachers facilitating self-knowledge and awareness. And for this, I am grateful.