Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Letting Yourself Go

A few months ago, in a somewhat mysterious response to a newsletter I sent out, a reader sent me an email admonishing me- “Whatever you do, don’t let yourself go!” It seemed unrelated to the subject of my newsletter (which was about not waiting for our proverbial ducks to be lined up before we do what feeds our hearts and souls.) I didn’t personally know the emailer but, for a moment, I wondered: had she seen me recently and observed something I should know about? I’m guessing that she wanted to encourage me to do what she believed was necessary to find a new mate since I am single once again.

Admonishments to avoid “letting yourself go” have always make me simultaneously cringe and wonder: What might it look like if we really did let ourselves go?

We’ve all heard the phrase, sadly too often from women referring to other women. Years ago, watching the taping of an interview with a well-known author, I was startled when another woman leaned over and with a conspiratorial lift of her eyebrows said, “Oh my. She has really let herself go, hasn’t she?”

To remain silent implied agreement. On the other hand, I didn’t want to verbally stomp on the woman who’d made the remark (well okay, part of me did- but I know that that kind of reaction is unlikely to do little more than elicit shame and defensiveness.)

I looked at the woman being interviewed. She’d been on a multi-city speaking tour and flown in from the west coast for the interview. She had gained weight since her last publicity photos had been taken, and there were dark circles under her eyes.

So, I just said, “She looks weary. It’s hard to take good care of yourself when you are travelling and giving so much to others.”

Women still tend to be judged largely (and sometimes exclusively) by their appearance. For my purposes here I’m not going to analyze why that is, or try to figure out how much of that has to do with species survival (appearance of healthy fertility) or the proclivities of a youth obsessed culture. At fifty-six, I have a whole new appreciation for trying to figure out what it means to “age gracefully” while wrestling with the contradictory temptations to embrace or resist “letting myself go.” What is reasonable self-care versus denial of reality? To colour grey hair or not? To slow down or try to reverse the slowing metabolism weight gain or accept a few extra pounds? (It took me thirty years to find the courage to have my ears pierced so the debate about plastic surgery is not even on my radar!)

Some of this is, of course, about health. But a lot of it isn’t. Every day millions (both die-hard materialists and those who see themselves as “spiritual”) are dieting, exercising, using creams and supplements and treatments with the not-so-secret agenda of preventing visible signs of aging.

But, what if we were to consider consciously “letting ourselves go?” What if learning to let ourselves go is about the freedom that comes when we stop considering, worrying about, anticipating or trying to guess how others might see, evaluate or judge us? About anything- our physical appearance, our spiritual “progress,” our relationships, our opinions, our work or how we spend our days. What if “letting ourselves go” is the gift of aging as we come to know and accept who we are in our strengths and weaknesses, as we give up hoping to wake up tomorrow as someone different- someone thinner or smarter or more “spiritual?” What if “letting ourselves go” is about letting go of the aspect of self that is preoccupied with looking “good” in the eyes of others or according to some internally held ideal?

This freedom grows in little ways. Some days I dress up. And some days I go out (as I would not have done a decade ago) with my hair hastily pulled back in an elastic band, face scrubbed bare, in a sweat suit and what my sons would call “old lady running shoes.” And I am delighted to find that the choice about how I present myself is increasingly determined simply by how I’m feeling, with no regard for what the clerk at the post office or the man at the juice bar might think of my appearance.

The phrase “letting yourself go” implies a kind of giving up, a stepping away from some effort deemed necessary to live fully. But what if the things we are stepping away from (worrying about what others think, crazy cultural standards for physical beauty, measuring our own or another’s worth by their possessions, or “success,” or impeccable meditation posture etc.) are things that in fact inhibit our ability to live fully, at peace with who and what we are? Such peace need not preclude change and growth, but it is not driven by a desperate desire to be other than we are.

So to the reader who emailed her well-meaning warning: It’s too late. I am, each and every day, learning to let myself go. And I like it. So much less trying, so much more joy. So much less fear, so much more love of self and life and others- just as we are in this moment.

Here’s to letting ourselves go!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


I am posting a day early this week to catch the energy of the Summer Solstice today in the northern hemisphere (with a nod of appreciation for those in the southern half of the globe who are at the Winter Solstice, adding the gifts of deep dreaming in the dark to the collective.) Here in the north, it is the day of the longest light, the season of blossoming. And how do we as human beings- one of the many expressions of the sacred life force- blossom? By living fully as creative- sensual-spiritual beings. To consider what this might look like in our lives I offer an excerpt from my book on creativity, What We Ache For:

”Consciously cultivating and refusing to separate our spirituality, sexuality and creativity is the way we tend the life of the soul, individually and collectively. It is the way we unfold.

. . . . Our spirituality is our direct experience of that which is paradoxically both the essence of what we are, the stuff of which everything is made, and that which is large than us. We can call it God, the Sacred Mystery, the Great mother, the divine life force, fertile emptiness, clear light awareness, love, beauty, truth. The possibilities are endless. Some experience it through the practices of a religious tradition. For many life‘s holiness touches them unexpectedly when they attend a birth or sit at the bedside of someone who is leaving this world. Sometimes a direct experience of the sacred comes when we simply bring our full attention to an ordinary moment. . . .

. . . . Our sexuality is our awareness of the inherent juiciness of life lived in physical form, the infinite variety and vividness of colour, taste, scent, sound and touch in which we participate and from which we draw life. . . .Our sexuality is the way we live and appreciate an embodied life, which includes physical ecstasy and agony. It is the orgasmic rush that runs through the limbs when you lie on the forest floor staring up through the towering pines swaying in the wind. It is why a soaring melody is appreciated not simply by the mind, why the opening it creates for touching and being touched by what is sacred and nameless is felt in the body, experienced as a sudden and surprising ache in the chest. It’s what makes us want to sit still in the centre of the sound of the waves crashing on the shore, move and arch our back in the warm sun after a long winter, savour the taste of food prepared with care and thanksgiving. . . . Our sexuality includes all the ways we physically experience and are intimate with another, the world, ourselves.

Our creativity is the soul-deep impulse in all human beings to go beyond the perceptions of the senses to the conception of something new. . . . Observations give birth to ideas: words become a poem; sounds become music, light and colour; pigment and canvas become a painting. It is an inherent part of creation itself to produce new forms and human beings are not separable from creation. . . .

. . . . Of course, in our culture, spirituality, sexuality and creativity are often separated. This separation results in a crippling distortion of all three and frustrates the desire of the essential and sacred life force to know and express its wholeness through a particular human life. . . .

. . . . Spirituality separated from sexuality- from an awareness of and appreciation for our physical life and material reality alive with sensual detail- loses its fire, the passion that is rooted in the celebration of the beauty and gift of physicality. Separated from creativity- from the deep impulse to take what is and make new connections, to weave together new forms from the strands of daily life- spirituality runs the risk of becoming empty, conditioned rituals that lose their meaning for those who participate in them.

Sexuality separated from spirituality- from an awareness of the essential sacred life force energy we are- loses its heart, its connection to meaning and the real intimacy of knowing the other as another manifestation of the same divine presence that lives within you. Sexuality that is separated from creativity becomes mechanical, ritualized, losing its capacity for the intimacy that comes from the mindfulness and spontaneity that creativity requires and provides.

. . .creativity that is separated from the other two faces of the soul loses its vitality, is diminished in its capacity to be a path for the unfolding of the soul. Creativity separated from spirituality is reduced to advertising aimed at manipulating the longings of the soul to sell a product. Creativity separated from sexuality loses its aliveness, the sensuality and passion of life rooted in the physical world. It becomes an intellectual exercise that does not touch the heart, stir the blood or feed the soul .”*

May you cultivate your awareness of your creativity, sexuality and spirituality in your daily life, refusing to separate these three and unfolding to be all of what and who you are.

May you welcome the light of the Summer Solstice and use it to blossom!

*(from What We Ache For: Creativity and the Unfolding of Your Soul by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. (c) 2005. Published by HarperONE, San Francisco. All rights reserved.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What I Learned

I love learning. Truly. There are times when I have only half-jokingly said that you can get me to willingly walk through pretty much any hell so long as I feel I am learning something in the process.

Every family develops a story, a way of ordering their small world in an attempt to ensure all essential roles are filled and some sense is made of the daily drama that inevitably ensues. In my birth family the story was that I was like my father, while my brother (who was a year younger than me) was like my mother. My father and I were fair-haired, supposedly even-tempered, and slow to anger, while my mother and brother were the hot-tempered, emotionally volatile brunettes. It made for a symmetrical if not necessarily accurate family portrait, and some very competitive broomball games after dinner on the rink in our backyard where, at forty below zero under a star-studded sky, my father and I played together to consistently out-score my mother and brother who were. . . well, not playing so well together.

Broomball victories aside there were many ways in which I was not like my father. But it did always seem to me that my father and I shared an endless curiosity about how things worked. He was the one who encouraged my dinner time musings and questions about faith, God, social justice and human responsibility. It was only as an adult that I realized how greatly our areas of interest differed with my father’s curiosity primarily and almost exclusively directed toward concrete problems while my own musings ran less exclusively but more generally to abstract, spiritual questions. Realizing this, I was all the more appreciative of how he had supported me in my esoteric and ethical explorations.

But, despite this difference, what I shared with and learned from my father was a delight in and willingness to learn- to go to what Buddhists call beginner’s mind- the mind that knows it does not know and is willing to learn. Dad candidly confessed what he did not know, never pretended to know something he didn’t, and was willing and eager to learn from anyone and everyone- regardless of age or position- if they had something they were willing to share. Although he had always done physical labour as a Hydro lineman, when he retired at fifty-five he set about learning how to use a computer- something he doggedly pursued by asking questions of library workers, computer store clerks, the kid next door and pretty much anyone else who appeared to be the least bit computer literate.

There is one story that stands out for me when it comes to understanding what my father taught me about learning. One day, long after my brother and I had left our childhood home, while trying to figure out how to make a household repair my father found himself needing to know how to calculate the volume of a cylinder. Neither my brother nor I were available by phone (although honestly I am not sure I would have remembered how if he had reached me.) He was not yet on the internet, and there were no math text books in the house. So, after trying unsuccessfully to figure it out my father called the local high school and asked to speak to a math teacher. When the receptionist asked why, he explained his problem and told her that he assumed a math teacher would have the information he needed. He told her that he himself had not graduated from the eighth grade and, if he’d ever been taught how to do the calculation, certainly could not remember it now. She put him on hold and, after a few minutes, a bemused sounding teacher came on the line and told him the formula for calculating the volume of a cylinder.

My father taught me to enjoy the process of learning for its own sake- for the beauty of the questions, the fun of the investigation, and the satisfaction of figuring something out or at least trying to. One of the hardest things about watching him journey deeper into the mental confusion of advanced Alzheimer's is knowing that this joy has been taken from him.

This coming Sunday is Father’s Day, and I am grateful that my father taught me to love learning, take pleasure in puzzling and embrace beginner’s mind over and over. Thanks Dad. I love you. Happy Father’s Day.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Lost Joys Shared

Earlier this week, I went down to the shore of Lake Ontario and sat at the water’s edge. I sat on the sand breathing in the sunlight shining on the water, the gentle lapping of the waves, the feel of the warm breeze on my cheek. And I was flooded with memories: of camping trips every summer with my parents when my brother and I were children; of floating on air mattresses on northern lakes and flipping each other into the cool clear water in mock battles; of cooking hot dogs and marshmallows over an open fire and sleeping close to the ground surrounded by the scent of canvas. Mostly, I remembered how much my father loved being outside. As a lineman for Ontario Hydro he worked outside daily, and our weekends and holidays were spent out in the wilderness hiking, canoeing, swimming, camping and generally just enjoying the shared beauty.

As I remembered my throat tightened and my chest ached. Because these days, my father is confined to the indoors, unable to remember previous summers of outdoor adventures or even to understand our conversations about current outings. Alzheimer’s has made him aggressive so, for the time being, he is in a facility that unfortunately does not have a secure outdoor area where he could safely go out to soak in the sun. His caregivers and I have talked about the wisdom of taking him outside anyway, but it is unclear whether or not that would in fact cause him suffering (if trips outside resulted in him needing to be physically restrained from going where he might harm others or be harmed, or if they ignite expectations of regular outdoor expeditions that they may not be able to accommodate.) So, for the time being and until they find the right mix of medications that will lower his anxiety and agitation while leaving him lucid and able to enjoy where he is, he is not able to go outside.

Summer is short in this part of the world. Sitting by the lake and breathing in the scent of sun-warmed water my heart ached for the loss of this pleasure for my father. And then suddenly, spontaneously, I reached out for him, letting my heart-mind-spirit find and touch his. And I told him, “Feel the sun on my skin Dad, see the light on the water.” And I found a new practice: the practice of allowing the joy I experience in something I know my father has enjoyed but is not now able to access, be for the both of us. It’s kind of the flip side of the Buddhist practice of mudita: cultivating joy in the joy of others.

In her book How To Be Sick, Toni Bernhard does a great job of describing mudita. For those with chronic illness, one of the difficult aspects of life can be the envy and frustration that arise when others are enjoying activities or locations we are no longer able to access. The antidote to the poison of envy (and the pain and unhappiness it engenders) is mudita- focusing on cultivating joy in the joy of others. Like most practices it takes time to find real joy in the pleasure others are experiencing that is no longer directly available to us.

I think of what I am doing as a mirror image of mudita. I am bringing my attention to enjoying the moment my father cannot access, for the two of us. I dedicate bringing my full attention to the beauty of a summer day to him, to all the days he enjoyed, in the hope that my full enjoyment dedicated to him in gratitude and love may touch him in some way I cannot understand with a moment of unexpected and inexplicable joy. There is no way of knowing if this touches him in some way. I hope it does. I do know that it deepens my joy and my appreciation for the moments I am offered.

So, being here fully in the early morning sun and the shade of fresh green leaves- the joy of this moment, this breath, this summer day- is for you Dad. You are the one who taught me to love the wilderness and helped me to notice the great sigh of the sun as the wind moves over the water. For this and for so much more, I am deeply grateful.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Holding On to Impermanence

If you bring up the pervasiveness of impermanence for all life on the planet everyone nods in agreement. But do we really get it?

In the earth-based spirituality in which I trained and taught we talk about “making Death the Ally” -ie- allowing an awareness of impermanence and mortality to help us value life and live fully. But it’s hard to hold this awareness close when you're young or healthy or living in a culture with so much of everything. Seeing my parents’ struggle with what most would say was not an unpredictable development (my father has advanced Alzheimer's and has recently had to go into a secure care facility) I wonder why we find it so difficult to grasp the reality of impermanence even as we say we know that change is the only constant. When my mother (referring to my father’s need for care she cannot provide) said, “Who could have seen this coming?” I wanted to say (but didn’t) “Everyone! Anyone! All of us!”

It seems to be a species propensity, this ability to deny the probable if not inevitable unfolding reality. After all, who could have predicted that building nuclear reactors on fault lines would put life at risk of exposure to radioactivity? Everyone. Who could have foreseen that propping up despotic dictators would impede local democracy or result in civilian deaths when stirrings for justice and freedom arose? Anyone. Who could guess that dumping toxic chemicals into the earth and air and water would cause death and destruction for humans and other species? All of us.

I am stunned by our ability to ignore the truth when the truth is hard. Driving home from my parents, I really got it: old age and death is where we are all headed (if we are fortunate enough not to die young) no matter how we live. That’s right- whether or not we eat well, exercise diligently, are blatant materialists or focused on spiritual matters; whether or not we get everything on our to-do list done; whether or not we make or disparage to-do lists- it is where we are all going. Just let that sink in for a minute, let it shift your perspective on what you think you need to do or who you think you need to be.

I’m not saying that the quality of our lives is not shaped by how we live. To a large degree it is, although this remains in many ways unpredictable. Diseases like Alzheimer’s can strike anyone and profoundly shape the quality of life. But the ultimate destination- old age and death- is not a punishment for not getting it "right." It’s just the reality for all living things- including human beings- on this planet. And this is true whether or not you believe death is The End or a transition into a different state of being. Pretending that death is not the end of the human life we know reminds me of a woman in the birthing class I attended when I was pregnant with my second son (who was twelve pounds ten ounces at birth.) She suggested that if we called labour contractions “sensations” instead of "pains" they might not hurt as much. Ha!

In moments of clarity, when I accept Death as an Ally, I wonder at our timidity, our worry, our endless weighing of possibilities, our fears about and suffering over many of the choices we make. The denial of death paradoxically seems to lead to an almost casual disregard for the predictably dire environmental consequences of large decisions, but endless anxiety around smaller, unpredictable changes in our personal lives. We seem to perpetually sweat the (relatively) small stuff and sprinkle the big stuff with the fairy dust of denial.

And all of this makes me wonder where I’m not living fully who I am, where I am putting in time, waiting for something hoped for or unnameable, where I am allowing the small stuff to distract me from this moment, this breath, this life and all it asks of me. I shake my head at the wasted energy of holding onto hurt from past injustices, the missed opportunities to be kind to myself and others, the failure to greet each day as the gift it is.

Driving home from my parents’ I spoke out loud as I drove down the highway, addressing my soul and the Mystery that is larger than myself, saying, “Speak to me. Direct me.” And I recommited to listening and following what comes from that which is deeply sacred within me and around me, without hesitation or timidity or worries about where it might take me.

It’s not that I’ve never done this before. I have and continue to do this regularly. But with the changes in my parents’ lives the reality of our mortality has become vivid for me again, in a deeper way. And with Death as the Ally, the questions, the listening, the courage to follow the impulse when it comes from the soul becomes, if not easier to heed, harder to ignore. I don’t want to be surprised when death comes, not because I have any fantasy of control, but because I want to arrive in that moment having spent myself completely on living fully committed to Life, holding close the reality of how impermanent it all is and, as poet Mary Oliver writes- “When the time comes to let it go- to let it go.”