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